PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — This weekend, about 500 students from across the country and beyond will invade the Brown campus for a 24-hour marathon of brainstorming, computer coding and app developing. The event is Hack@Brown, the University’s student-run hackathon.
Student hackers will assemble on Saturday morning at Sayles Hall, split into small teams and start formulating ideas for new software, smartphone apps or other projects. Then they start hacking — working through the night if necessary — to have a finished product ready to show off on Sunday afternoon. The event is a crash course in creativity, coding and collaboration.
Hackathons have become popular over the past few years on college campuses, and Hack@Brown’s national profile has grown quickly since its first installment three years ago. The inaugural event in 2014 drew around 300 students who were selected from some 500 applications. The 500 students scheduled to attend this year were chosen from more than 2,500 applicants. Hackers will come from 119 universities and high schools, with some students traveling to Brown from as far away South Korea.
Part of the reason for Hack@Brown’s popularity, according to year’s student co-directors, Katie Hsia and Max Luzuriaga, is that the event has carved out a niche for itself as a different kind of hackathon. While other hackathons tend to be hypercompetitive, not particularly diverse in terms of attendees and extremely intimidating for first-time hackers, Hack@Brown aims to emphasize learning over competition and takes steps to be more inclusive and friendly to first-timers.
“We want to give people a sense that hackathons don’t need to be scary,” Luzuriaga said. “By encouraging first-time hackers and underrepresented groups to attend, we’re hoping that we can open a door for them to consider careers in technology.”
That ethos starts with the way Hack@Brown chooses its attendees, Hsia and Luzuriaga say. While other hackathons accept applicants based on their coding experience, Hack@Brown accepts students through a weighted random lottery. Preference is given to applicants who are from underrepresented groups in computer science, as well as first-time hackers.
And the Hack@Brown organizers have tried to organize the event experience accordingly.
“We’ve really focused on making the experience for a hacker a great one,” Hsia said. “We looked at this particularly through the lens of someone who’s never been to a hackathon, to make things welcoming.”
Many hackathons, Hsia says, accept hackers in already-formed groups with ideas already somewhat formed. But Hack@Brown accepts only individuals — no group applicants are allowed. And the event features an “idea fair,” a team-building and brainstorming session to help hackers get rolling. In that way, Hack@Brown encourages participants to explore new ideas with new people.
“The idea fair gives people a chance to see what ideas they’re draw to and form their team around that,” Luzuriaga said. And as the hacking unfolds, experienced mentors — many of whom are Brown graduates and industry professionals — are on call to help teams overcome technical problems they may encounter. Among the mentors are students from the Brown computer science department’s undergraduate teaching assistant program.
“A lot of the Brown’s undergraduate TAs have years of experience helping fellow students,” Luzuriaga said. “We wanted to leverage that to help students coming to the event.”
And while most hackathons put their focus on the glittering prizes handed out at the close of the event, Hack@Brown emphasizes the learning experience along the way. There are indeed prizes to be won at Hack@Brown in a variety of categories, but there’s also time set aside time for everyone to walk around the hall and learn from what their fellow hackers have created.
“What sets Hack@Brown apart from many other hackathons is that we have a really strong focus on education as a primary goal,” Luzuraiga said. “It’s not just about prizes. They come here to learn things and meet people. We think that’s really why people choose to travel all this way.”
The event is sponsored by the Brown’s Department of Computer Science, along with corporate sponsors including Microsoft, Google, Bracket, pMD, Polymer, a16z, Two Sigma, Facebook, Oculus, Adobe, Qualtrics and Cimpress.