Hackathons have grown to become a global student movement. By fast-tracking the software and hardware development process, hackathons provide students with valuable technical skills they will need in their future careers. Students learn by doing and finish with a final project that has the potential to turn into a real business. Collaborating in a high-stakes environment, students learn how to work effectively on a team. Students meet like-minded peers from around the world and also have a chance to interact with professional engineers and recruiters. Their new motivation and creativity remains after the hackathon, as hacker culture grows and a more diverse array of students travel to other collegiate hackathons to make new friends and win prizes.
A hackathon is an invention marathon. Programmers, designers, builders and more come together to learn, build, and share their creations over the course of a few days. Hackathons are not limited to computer science majors — anyone who has an interest in technology and is eager to learn can participate in a hackathon.
Not to be confused with illegal and unauthorized programming, "hacking" in this context means quickly and intelligently creating a real application that others can use. Although the term “hacking” has previously been associated with gaining access to a computer system with a malicious intent, “hacking” has started to transition into a positive term describing the actions of innovators who are creating prototypes of their ideas. Programmers have rallied around the term “hacking”, as a term to describe their love of learning and their efforts to build the future.
Teams of two to six students work together over a weekend to develop a product, learning about new technologies and making friends along the way. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of students gather on the weekend to learn new technical skills and soft skills. At hackathons, students can augment skills learned in the classroom by teaching themselves how to independently research new technologies and fix problems they encounter. Hackathons allow students’ intrinsic interests to drive their education. Every time a student encounters a new challenge at a hackathon, they must learn how to fix the problem through independent study. By giving students an opportunity to individually build a project from start to finish, students develop increased critical thinking skills and have a chance to become better prepared to enter the workforce.
Students enter a hackathon with a blank slate — they cannot bring in a school project. Once a student has found a team to spend the weekend with, they enter the brainstorming phase. After collectively deciding on an idea to work on, students on the team spend a majority of the event transforming this idea from concept into reality. Whether the idea is a hoverboard or an app to teach you to drive, hackathon teams bring a project from epiphany to completion all within a single weekend. Expert mentors from professional development backgrounds work through the night to help students with their projects. Many mentors wish they had this level of support in their youth and strive to help the future generation of programmers.
Undoubtedly, all learners are responsive to some degree during instruction; however, students who display initiative, intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility achieve particular academic success (Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1988). These self-regulated students are distinguished by their systematic use of metacognative, motivational, and behavioral strategies; by their responsiveness to feedback regarding the effectiveness of their learning; and by their self-perceptions of academic accomplishment.
The overnight aspect of a hackathon is integral to allow students the time they need to complete their projects. Most hackathons conclude with a science-fair-style exposition of projects that includes celebrity judges directly conversing with students about their projects. Winners are chosen, prizes are dealt, and the top teams give a live demo of their project on stage.
I wish I could have attended hackathons as a student. As a mentor, I'm glad I can help the next generation of programmers discover their passions, learn new skills, try out concepts they have learned in class, and build real applications that real people can interact with.
Students have been tinkering with technology since Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their first machine in their garage. However, the availability of cheap and accessible technology and learning resources have allowed for an explosion of “hacker” culture, opening up a new generation of students to this type of practical and hands-on education. From the very first student-run collegiate hackathon in 2009, the number of student-run hackathons has exploded to over 150 throughout the world in 2015. With over 50,000 annual participants, demand has been nearly doubling every semester. Ranging from 50-person gatherings to 1,500-person, 36-hour coding marathons, these events come in all shapes and sizes. Large hackathons like those run by the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, or Stanford University fly in students from around the world for a weekend of fun competition. Many other colleges such as Rutgers University, Princeton University, or the University of Illinois keep a local and close-knit atmosphere by limiting the size and encouraging beginners to attend. Major League Hacking also organizes Local Hack Day hackathons, or local “mini-hackathons.” They are great for students wanting a taste of the hackathon experience, and they have grown to become a worldwide event.
The hackathon movement has been growing exponentially, with more schools around the world joining the mix every season.
Students have worked on truly innovative and cutting-edge projects. Some of these projects have even gone on to turn into real companies:
In Nottingham, supporting hackathons was originally about supporting the enthusiasm and potential of our students —they were making, building, and innovating in their own time, and so we simply facilitated this student culture with budget and space. Since then, we've moved towards officially recognising independent work that demonstrates strong computer science skills, by producing a module to give credits for strong portfolios. Together, these have energised our student culture, encouraged independent study, taken our students around the world, and led them into great job opportunities. But first, all we did was say "Yes — let's do this."
Hackathons help students build up their resumes and learn the latest and most popular programming technologies. In a weekend, these students get to network with popular technology companies ranging from industry leaders like Dell to up-and-coming startups like Twilio and gain new connections to help them find internships and jobs in the future. They also have a brand-new project to bolster their resume and new technical knowledge to improve their skill set and broaden their horizons. In addition, many hackathon sponsors attend and send recruiters to hackathons with the sole intent of finding and mentoring new talent. According to our Winter 2015 Hacker Survey, 63% of attendees have included projects made at hackathons on their resume. In addition, 56% over attendees believe that their projects improved their position with their employer. Hackathon attendees not only learn new skills and meet friends, they also improve their future career options.
I constantly see students leave MHacks with a newfound passion to learn and create. After spending an uninterrupted weekend working on teams to build their ideas, learning communities are formed and students are left motivated to work on projects with their friends, host lectures for their peers on new technologies, and attend more programming-related events.
The academic study quoted above came to the conclusion that making sure students from underrepresented demographics feel like part of a community is an extremely effective method of both retaining and gaining participants from minority communities. Hackathons foster these important student-to-student relationships, as mentioned in the study, and are a powerful tool to help diversify the technology industry. That is, because of the strong community present at hackathons, they serve as a great way of welcoming all students, without regard to their background.
...the recruitment and retention of women in engineering-related fields can be increased by providing opportunities to develop student-to-student relationships.
Most MLH Member Events in the Major League Hacking (MLH) season are run by student groups on campus. Students are tuned in to the needs of their peers and have the motivation to spend the time needed to plan an incredible event. Student organizers also have the ability to learn a lot about fundraising, management, logistics, and marketing through the process of planning a hackathon. However, students are not alone in their hackathon planning endeavors. All MLH member events receive continual oversight and help. In other words, if MLH approves a hackathon as a member, we will aid the organizers by helping with everything from fundraising to fixing emergencies during the event. Organizers also work closely with school administrators and faculty members to ensure the success of their hackathon. Frequent communication between the student-organizers and a school’s administration is critical.
Major League Hacking is the official student hackathon league. We organize the official hackathon seasons in North America and Europe and support the 50,000 student hackers who compete annually in student hackathons. Backed by corporate sponsors such as Dell, we provide resources for hackathon organizers such as 1-on-1 mentorship sessions, promotion of the event, and on-site support from an officially trained MLH representative. Run almost completely by individuals with prior experience organizing hackathons and attending hackathons as developer evangelists for sponsoring companies, MLH ensures that student organizers are given expert help to guarantee the success of their event. Coming from backgrounds of organizing, participating, and sponsoring hackathons, MLH representatives are well-equipped to handle any challenges that they may face. By facilitating a link between the technology industry and collegiate education, MLH is able to help students reach companies and individuals that would not normally be corporate partners of on-campus events.
Hackathons have changed the lives of every employee at Major League Hacking. Thousands of students have left hackathons with a new motivation to learn and create. Our very own Jon Gottfried wrote an article on his first hackathon and his experience there.
Hosting a hackathon requires minimal effort from a school. There are three main necessities required for every hackathon: food, WiFi, and power. Without enough food, hackers will be hungry; without WiFi, hackers can’t build their projects; and without power hackers’ devices will die. Organizers should also set aside time to verify their venue layout with a fire marshall to ensure no problems will arise. It takes time to plan the other aspects of a hackathon, and ensure that the three main necessities are accounted for. Most hackathons take around 4—6 months to plan, but it is highly recommended to start planning as early as possible. A large amount of time will be spent fundraising, but as hackathons become more prevalent, this process will become easier. Major League Hacking has put together an extensive guide to hosting a hackathon which is available at guide.mlh.io.
While hackathon schedules vary by event, most hackathons are run using a similar structure. A typical student’s experience is illustrated below: