Hack to the Future

By: Diana Riggs
Date: March 12, 2018

RevolutionUC 2018 offered “code, community and self-improvement” for all participants.

five students are at a table that is covered in laptops, cords, and other electronics. One student on the far left side is standing at the table looking at one laptop, while three others sit and look at their own laptops. One student is looking at a smart phone.

Hackers have 24 hours to compose a functional product.

A record number of students participated in RevolutionUC, the 24-hour hackathon hosted by the University of Cincinnati (UC) chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Over 300 participants gathered on campus March 3-4 for the seventh annual tech event.

To the uninitiated, the term “hackathon” might suggest a cyber-security breach. This is no covert operation; it is a marathon coding event designed to teach students more creative approaches to problem-solving.

What happens when you ask 300 eager minds to design and build a new tech idea within 24 hours? Endless possibilities. 

Three students gather at a table. Two are sitting; One is looking at a laptop and the other is wearing a VR headset. The third is standing and smiling at the camera.

Students test a virtual reality headset.

Winning projects this year provided delivered inventive responses to wicked problems:

  1. First place was awarded to OpenLab, a chemical reaction simulator designed to provide a safe test environment for chemistry students. The app could allow students to practice concepts in live time, without exposing them to potentially dangerous chemical reactions. OpenLab could also reduce science program costs for low-income schools.
  2. ApperceptionVR, a virtual reality based personality test, earned second place. Created as a response to the multitude of scientifically unfounded personality tests, ApperceptionVR guides users through a series of curated VR situations aimed at measuring their gut reactions to difficult and ethical situations. 
  3. Digital Forensic Linguistics, a toolkit that analyzes programming languages, took third place. The tool could be used to help identify anonymous cyber criminals by analyzing digital language patterns to predict likely demographic information for the alleged offenders (e.g., gender, approximate age, and location).

These projects sound like they were engineered by top experts, but most of these student developers are intentionally working outside of their element. Many have never even used the development tools before. 

It just goes to show what a difference 24 hours can make.

Three students work on a project. One is standing and looking at information on a computer screen projected on the wall. One is sitting and looking at a laptop. The third is standing, leaning over the table and working on a small electronic device on the table.

All students are challenged to learn new skills.

The event focuses on three goals: "Build. Learn. Grow." Participants teams can choose any project topic, and must “hack” together within a functional product within 24 hours run. No prior experience is needed, and mentors from UC and tech industries are available for consultation and guidance. “The only thing you do need is the willingness to sit down and learn how. There is no better environment for doing that,” said Lewis.

Every participant is encouraged to step out outside the comfort zone. Many learn new programming language, or choose a project in an unfamiliar field. Kurt Lewis, fourth year computer science student and director of RevolutionUC, feels the hackathon encourages flexibility, creativity and resiliency. One indispensable hacking skill is “pivoting, taking what you have and making it work for something else when you find out the thing you’ve been doing isn’t going to work,” said Lewis.

Three students are sitting at a table working on laptops. One is looking up at a drawing on the whiteboard wall next to them

Students hack clever solutions to wicked problems.

Hackathons advance the computing community by inspiring innovation and encouraging collaboration. Working with industry colleagues outside of typical development parameters drives students to take risks and push the limits of their skills. Hackers also learn about ethical coding protocol. RevolutionUC requires participants to follow the code of conduct created by Major League Hacking (MLH), the official student hackathon league.

Maddie Eckhart, a second year computer science student on the RevolutionUC planning team, felt embraced by the collaborative spirit of the hackathon. She joined ACM to immerse herself in engineering culture after transferring to the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) from the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Eckhart says to anyone considering RevolutionUC, “You don’t need to know anything coming in. It’s a really welcoming environment because everyone is there for the same purpose."

RevolutionUC is free and open to students of all skill levels (including high school students with a guardian’s permission). Participants do not have to be enrolled at the University of Cincinnati or any computer science or engineering program. Individuals can register and join a team according to mutual project interest. Participants are rated on creativity and how much they learned as well as technical skill.

Students interested in joining RevolutionUC 2019 should check the event website in late fall 2018 for a registration announcement. For more information on the UC hackathon, please visit the RevolutionUC website or follow the group on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.