Wellesley College’s semi-annual hackathon (WHACK), a 36-hour invention competition, took place this past weekend and brought together 300 collegiate participants from across the Northeast. The Computer Science Club hosted the event in collaboration with Major League Hacking, a company that assists student hackathons. In addition to offering participants the opportunity to develop a programming project with a team, WHACK also allowed students to acquire new skills, engage in meaningful collaboration and establish connections with mentors and peers.
The event began on Friday, Nov. 10 with keynote speeches from Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab and founder of Code4Rights, and Dr. Robbin Chapman, Wellesley’s associate provost and academic director of diversity and inclusion.
Following the opening ceremony, participants formed teams of two to four individuals and brainstormed ideas for projects they would program from scratch. The remainder of the weekend consisted of project development interspersed with workshops, talks, fireside chats and social activities. WHACK concluded on Sunday with a project expo in the format of a science fair, as well as closing ceremonies in which participants received prizes and awards.
Katy Ma ’18, co-director of WHACK with Jesslyn Tannady ’18, explained that although Wellesley has held hackathons in the past, the event has significantly expanded over the past two years. Past iterations of WHACK have consisted of 120 to 150 participants, and this fall’s iteration included approximately 300 students.
“We wanted it to feel intimate but still really bustling and exciting, so you can meet a lot of people from different schools,” said Ma. “We have representation from over 50 schools, and we sent buses to schools throughout the Northeast to pick up students.”
Participants come from cities and towns across Massachusetts and beyond, including Pennsylvania and New York.
Students can create their own teams to work on projects, allowing them to meet students from other schools and form groups based on project ideas.
Many of the projects students build in WHACK relate to positive social impacts. Examples of projects created in the past include an application designed to assist women in preparing for salary negotiations or a Chrome extension that offers content warnings for posts on social media.
“Not only do we hope that [participants] build a project that they’re proud of, we want this to be something they can show off in their portfolio or talk about in an interview and just be part of their technical experience,” said Ma.
Throughout the hackathon, participants not only have the opportunity to expand their technical skills through work on their projects, but are also allowed to attend workshops to learn more about the field of technology.
“We tried to concentrate a lot of workshops at the beginning of the hackathon to make sure people are getting all the resources they need and that they have plenty of time to follow up with mentors if they have questions about specific technologies,” explained Ma. “Later on, as people are getting more comfortable with their projects and making solid progress, we do more talks and fireside chats just exposing them to new areas of technology or maybe potential career paths in technology.”
In addition to encouraging participants to acquire new skills, WHACK also offers a space for students to collaborate with individuals from their own schools as well as other institutions.
“For anyone working in tech, collaboration is really essential. There’s a lot of paired programming and teamwork that happens,” said Ma. “When you’re under stress, and you have to work with other people and communicate with them, you learn a lot about not only the technology, but how you work with others and you develop those interpersonal skills.”
One of WHACK’s main objectives is to allow participants to connect with others. Sponsors such as Google and Dropbox not only help fund the event, but they also offer opportunities for mentorship. Members of these companies set up tables at WHACK, allowing participants to learn more about their organizations and ask questions. Mentors also offer workshops and participate in fireside chats, further establishing connections with hackathon participants.
Andrea Jackson ’18, the current president of the Computer Science Club, explained why she would encourage students to attend WHACK.
“WHACK is such an inclusive and open environment for people to work in. WHACK really tries to provide a space where everyone is comfortable to code and build whatever they want. It’s very beginner friendly, but they also create an environment for people who are more advanced,” she said.
One of the ways WHACK fostered inclusivity was through the closing ceremony, where the prizes and awards celebrated diverse aspects about the participants’ projects. Awards ranged from Best Food-Related Hack to Best Rookie Hack for teams consisting of first years, sophomores or first time hackers. The prizes offered to award recipients were also creative and included gift cards, T-Rex costumes and large supplies of mac and cheese.
Many of the participants, volunteers and organizers offered positive feedback about the event. Trisha Atluri ’20, who has attended previous hackathons at Wellesley and helped organize this past iteration, explained the impact that WHACK has had on her experience as a student exploring the field of technology.
“WHACK was an amazing opportunity to learn more about tech and experience first-hand the stages of a project [to] be completed from start to finish,” she said. Being surrounded by other women who share the same passion about tech was incredibly inspiring, and I learned so much about how to work productively with others collectively towards a goal.”
Jackson also added that WHACK offers students the resources to transform a single idea into a real project, a unique experience incomparable to other opportunities.
“[WHACK] really provides a welcoming environment and space for people to create something that they won’t usually have the time or resources to do in the classroom,” she said.
As one of the main organizers of the hackathon, Ma explained that it is incredibly rewarding to hear students say that WHACK built their confidence in developing a project from scratch or that they established a meaningful relationship with one of their mentors. This impact on students and their experiences in the field of tech, she said, is what makes this event so valuable.
“We want to see the technical community on campus grow, and we want to see more people who are passionate about technology and using it to solve problems,” she said.