StuyHacks Holds 10th Biannual Hackathon Virtually

Stuyvesant hosted its biannual hackathon, StuyHacks, in a virtual format for the first time.

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By Hellen Luo

StuyHacks X, Stuyvesant’s biannual hackathon, was held virtually for the first time from January 9 to 10. During the event, participants had the opportunity to attend coding workshops, cooperate in teams to create software projects, and win prizes.

During a hackathon, participants work in teams to build a project within a short period of time. Hackathons also feature workshops, panels, and other activities and culminate in the judging of submitted projects. In addition to the top three places and the Best Game title, other awards included Best Beginner’s Hack and Most Innovative. StuyHacks X used Zoom to host workshops and Slack to coordinate team communication between the hackers and organizers. Though the organizers changed StuyHacks to accommodate the online format, participant turnout was similar to that of previous years. In total, over 150 people signed up this year, a number comparable to the 160 participants of last year’s in-person event.

This year’s hackathon scheduling and organization were modified to accommodate the virtual format. In previous years, StuyHack’s January 12-hour hackathon runs from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on one day; they also host a 24-hour event in June. This year’s January hackathon ran over two days from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day. The hackathon started with a team-building event, followed by workshops and award ceremonies. “Because StuyHacks was held virtually over Zoom, we decided to have a team-building activity for 30 minutes at the start of our first day of hacking. This enabled participants to converse with each other and see if they had enough common interests to work together to create a fantastic project,” junior and Junior Director of StuyHacks Carol Chen said. “To make our event simple for the hackers, we created one Zoom meeting for all the workshops and ceremonies. Participants were allowed to enter and go as they pleased, similar to how they would do so during our in-person hackathons.”

Mentors hosted eight workshops, which were designed as introductory lessons to expose beginners to different concepts in computer science, such as “Making Backends with Node.js,” “Introduction to Terminal,” “Introduction to Java,” and “Basics of Arduino.” “When reaching out to mentors, we asked if they were interested in hosting a workshop and then we picked out the coolest sounding ones and added workshops that were attendee favorites in the past,” senior and Executive Director of StuyHacks Madelyn Mao said in an e-mail interview.

Bill Ni (’19) was one of the mentors for StuyHacks and taught the Terminal and Java workshops. He has been mentoring StuyHacks the past two years and continued this year as a way of giving back to the community. “I was a StuyHacks participant when I was still in high school, and I mentored the last two years. I find it to be a very helpful way to give back to the CS community at Stuy,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Freshman and first-time hackathon participant Rebecca Bao felt that the hackathon allowed her to experiment with her interests. “I have always been super interested in STEM, and I thought that this opportunity in the weekend could serve as a challenge for me to pursue more of what I like to do,” Bao said in an e-mail interview. “I wasn’t the most sure what to expect and how the hackathon would be structured, especially in this virtual competition […] though it was only two days, my team and I accomplished a lot and created an interactive website [on which] one can draw on their screen using an utensil by color detection through their webcam.” Bao’s team was awarded second place overall.

For junior Alyssa Choi, the hackathon served as a new opportunity to explore her computer science interests. “I thought it would be a cool experience because I enjoy creating CS projects. It was also the first time I participated in a hackathon, so I was curious [as] to how competitive programming would differ from real-life programming,” Choi said in an e-mail interview.

Her teammate, junior Xiaoshen Ma, was also a first-time participant and was able to develop both her teamwork and computer science skills. After applying these skills, Ma and her group were able to make their project more appealing and won the Best Game award. “We spent a long time on this game, and we really wanted to make it look nice visually,” she said. “So when it was all starting to come together, the project was turning out as we expected.”

Their video game, Stardust Mania, is a dungeon crawl game, in which a star is controlled by a player to navigate a labyrinth environment or dungeon. “Our team spent most of the weekend building our project, but we weren’t able to finish everything we planned because of how ambitious our game idea was,” Choi said. “Regardless, it was all worth it in the end when we placed the title of Best Game. In addition, we learned what we could’ve done better, in terms of planning, organization, improving code, and more.”

While winning an award at the hackathon was a memorable experience, Ma noticed that in a remote setting, other participants were unable to see the projects that others accomplished. Like other groups in the hackathon, Ma and her group submitted their project through Devpost and even made a YouTube video as a demonstration on how to play the game. When it came to award presentations however, the audience wasn’t able to view the projects made by other participants. “It would be cool, at the award ceremony, a little presentation of the winners’ projects, because we were all interested in what the people did,” she said. “At most, we just got the name and a summary, but it would’ve been nice to have them screen-shared.”

Additionally, Ni noted that the lack of in-person interaction may have made it more difficult for participants to ask for help. “It's hard to muster up the courage or find a reason to message the mentors privately, being that we don't eat meals together, and we can't foster a connection as friend and friend rather than student and teacher,” he said. “The lack of face to face contact dehumanizes situations that normally participants would be able to talk us up or ask us for help.”

Though Ni would have preferred an in-person hackathon setting, he acknowledged that it wouldn’t have been feasible. “The event being virtual definitely impacted [my] experience. I would definitely prefer it to be in person, but given the circumstances, it would be impossible without being possibly risky, dangerous, or downright irresponsible,” he said.

Despite the lack of connective opportunities an online format presents, the virtual setting of the hackathon did make it more accessible to students. “Because StuyHacks X was now virtual, we were able to gather attendees from different states and countries,” Chen said.

Moving forward, StuyHacks organizers will take into consideration external factors, such as the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, when deciding whether to continue remote hackathons or host in-person events. “If we still have to take COVID-19 into consideration, then we will continue to have completely remote hackathons. If schools open, and it is safe to hold large events of 100 people or more, then we would like to make our hackathons a mix of in-person and virtual,” Chen said. “This way, we will be able to welcome and include students all over the world to expand our support of budding hackers.