Students unleash creativity at computer hack.

Jaewon “Amy” Ryu ’16 (left) passes her hand over a motion-sensor device to send a web page to sophomore Yue Yang’s computer. Photo by John Martins

By Emily Harrison Weir

More than 200 computer science enthusiasts—more than half of them women—gathered at Mount Holyoke College last weekend to see what their minds and hands could create in under 24 hours.

Students from all over Massachusetts, and from as far away as Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, poured onto campus for the overnight innovation blitz “Hack Holyoke.”

In classrooms and corners all over Kendade Hall, teams of three and four students hunched over laptops, tangles of wire, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), sensors, soldering equipment, and other hardware provided for the hackathon. With breaks for coffee, naps, and food, they stayed up all night trying to make a new idea reality.

  • View a video showing the hackathon in progress, and several students' overnight inventions.

Among the hackers were Yue Yang ’17, Jaewon “Amy” Ryu ’16, and Yuzhi Xiao ’17. Their team’s goal was to send a web page on one laptop to several other computer screens just by waving one hand over a motion-sensor. It was Yang’s first hackathon, and she admitted being nervous at the start. Ryu wondered if she knew enough about coding to be useful, but figured the hackathon was a good opportunity to try something new and cool.

Hacking began at 7 pm Friday, but it wasn’t until 7 Saturday morning that their team’s dedication finally paid off.

“When the basic model worked, I was too tired to cheer after pulling an all-nighter,” Ryu recalls. “I mumbled, ‘Thank God it’s working,’ called my team members, and then we all continued to code with smiles on our faces.”

Ryu said the hack made her much more confident in her coding abilities and made her realize “how a piece of technology can impact the world, and the potential that exists for implementing anything that I can imagine.” A much-enhanced version of their idea, Ryu believes, could one day allow drivers to transfer maps to a dashboard hologram with a single hand gesture.

Yang, a math and computer science double major, said the hackathon got her interested in coding. She was inspired to take three computer science courses next semester.

“At the beginning, I thought our goal was too ambitious, but when we finished, I felt super proud of our team,” Yang said.

Xiao, too, said “the whole experience was amazing.”

Other teams’ projects included an alarm clock that’s purposely hard to turn off; an ankle wrap that sends an arthritis sufferer a text when swelling levels change; a glove that makes noise when it gets too hot or cold; and a virtual archery game.

Co-organizers Eva Snyder ’17 and Katie Ho ’16 were thrilled with the turnout, especially from those relatively new to computer science. Some 100 students took part in beginners’ workshops Friday evening, at which participants learned to make a simple light-up card and explored coding using an Arduino electronics platform.

“The beginners were so excited they were taking selfies when they made LEDs light up,” Snyder recalled.

About half of those who stayed for the hackathon said it was their first time participating in an exercise like it.

“We checked in with teams throughout the night and we saw multiple team hugs and teams squealing ‘It’s working!’ It was great to see everyone so excited, especially the beginners,” Ho said. More advanced computer science students used the local hack as practice for future competitive hackathons on other campuses.

Audrey St. John, associate professor of computer science and advisor to the Computer Science Society that organized the event, said the students “did an amazing job” planning and executing the event.

“There was great participation and a wonderful gender diversity,” she said.

The organizers had hoped for a 50-50 gender balance, and exceeded that goal.

“At past hackathons, you might be the only woman in the room,” said Snyder. “The team dynamics here were perfect. It’s rewarding to see the smiles on people’s faces, and have them encouraging one another—men and women alike—to keep working in a truly collaborative group effort.”