Solving Problems With Software in the Tri-Co

Back for a third straight year, the Tri-Co Hackathon drew 11 teams of students to design computer programs in just 24 hours.

Over the course of roughly 12 hours, nearly 60 students from across the Tri-College Consortium convened on Swarthmore’s campus for a weekend of coding and collaboration. The 2019 Tri-Co Hackathon challenged participating students to learn new skills and form teams with the goal of producing entirely new software concepts to address specific problems. Out of 11 participating teams, one comprised entirely of Haverford students took home first prize for the second straight year.

The camaraderie of the event, with participants making new connections and friends, was a big takeaway noted by a number of students,” said Shayna Nickel, program manager of the Haverford Innovations Program (HIP), which co-sponsored the event. “It’s quite a challenge to go from nothing to a having something working in such a short time. The level of effort and thoughtfulness Tri-Co students put into their concepts, work, and presentations is always impressive and inspiring.”

The first Tri-Co Hackathon took place in 2014. After a short hiatus, the Hackathon returned in 2017 and was the first to involve HIP, which had just been established to support student-led strategic thinking around a problem or issue. From year to year, the event switches locations across the three campuses. After last year’s Hackathon took place in the newly opened Visual Culture, Arts, and Media building (VCAM), the event traveled this year to Swarthmore’s Science Center.

The immersive weekend began on a Friday evening, where complete newcomers to coding joined seasoned computer whizzes in a series of workshops to share and learn new skills. Students then split into teams, some of which had students from only one college, but several of which had students from multiple colleges. The winning group consisted of five Haverford students—Iryna Khovryak ’22, Blien Habtu ’21, Jason Ngo ’21, Isabella Muno ’21, and Ziyao Wang ’22—who designed a prototype of a website, called Gradual, that students could use to track their progress towards major requirements.

“We had so much fun over the weekend that we went into the presentation happy with the experience of developing our website,” said Muno. “The competition was secondary to this experience… I was actually shocked when we won because it was not something that I thought about throughout the experience.”

Winning team Gradual (from top left: Bella Muno ’21, Ziyao (Claire) Wang ’20, Blien Habtu ’21, Jason Ngo ’21, and Iryna Khovryak ’22) made a website that students can use to map their major requirements and ensure that they are on track to graduate.

Most of the event on Saturday saw teams develop their ideas into prototypes, and in the evening, each team presented their idea and what problem it addressed. An awards ceremony and celebration concluded the event. Each team’s project took more than just a talented team of coders. Every stage of the weekend, from brainstorming to code writing to presentation development required chemistry and quick thinking from all participants.

“I learned that you need many different skill sets on a team,” said Muno. “You need programmers but you also need people who can visualize the solution and make it more accessible to users. You need someone who can delegate and assign tasks. In other words, there are many different ways in which a person can contribute in a Hackathon.”

Besides HIP, the Hackathon received support from Haverford’s Instructional and Information Technology Services, Haverford Libraries and Digital Scholarship, Swarthmore Libraries, Swarthmore’s Center for Innovations and Leadership, and Bryn Mawr’s Library and Information Services. All these initiatives intended to provide a space for networking across the three campuses and for idea genesis that students could continue to build on.

Many of the ideas presented at the end of the weekend weren’t completely user-ready, but many teams, like Muno’s, hope to build on the creative energy of the weekend and flesh out their initial products into usable tools.

Said Muno: “We are hoping to work this summer to further develop the idea so that students may use this tool in the future.”