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MHacks hackathon

Friday, February 8, 2013 10:07 a.m.

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More than 500 students from the US and Canada descended on the University of Michigan campus for the largest student-run hackathon ever.

More than 500 students from the US and Canada descended on the University of Michigan campus for the largest student-run hackathon ever.

Research shows that getting less than six hours of sleep per night can lead to a significant decline in cognitive abilities and reaction times. For students at the MHacks hackathon, a lack of sleep only seemed to fuel their creativity and inventiveness.

On the night of Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, more than 550 students from across the United States and Canada descended upon the University of Michigan (U-M) for 36-hours of non-stop hacking, defined as playful, exploratory computer programming. Organized by U-M student groups Michigan Hackers and MPowered Entrepreneurship, MHacks is now believed to be the largest student-run college hackathon in the country.

“I woke up on Friday morning from a nightmare that the buses arrived empty,” recalled David Fontenot, MHacks director and Michigan Engineering sophomore. “By 8 p.m. there were 400 people in the auditorium. I never thought the inaugural MHacks would be the largest ever. We had a great team behind the event.”

While some of the students arrived with an idea for a hack, many concepts and teams were formed on the spot. The majority of hacks took the form of web and mobile applications. Through hacking, students experimented with new programming languages, met fellow computer science enthusiasts from different universities, and created products with the potential to disrupt markets and improve people’s lives.

Danyaal Rangwala, a U-M junior studying informatics and computer science, said the hackathon gave him the chance to work with hardware. He programmed an arduino, a small, simple, single-board microcontroller used to create interactive electronic objects, to boil water in response to a Twitter hashtag, and hopes to continue to find similar ways to use the mini circuit boards to automate daily life.

For Kaitlin Flynn, a U-M doctoral student in microbiology and immunology, the hackathon allowed her to enjoy a different kind of programming.  “I program in the lab all the time. I make mutants or tell things to turn on at certain times. Scientists are used to delving into things and pulling things apart, but engineering is all about building things which is really satisfying.”

She teamed up with three Michigan Engineering computer science undergraduates to create Vaccinate Me, an app that encourages college students to get vaccinated by telling them what vaccinations they need and where they can get them. The hack won the Best Michigan Team prize, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship, for designing an impactful solution to a real-world problem.

“Imagine what would happen if experts from fields like public health, foreign language, or mechanical engineering paired up with computer scientists. You could build something so incredible for any discipline,” said Flynn.

In addition to hacking, participants attended meet-and-greets with sponsoring companies and talks by computer science engineers and professors. The event took place at U-M’s Palmer Commons. By the end of the weekend, tables and floors were strewn with empty Mountain Dew bottles, Red Bull cans, pizza boxes, and wrappers from caffeinated baked goods. “I slept for, like, 1.5 hours last night,” was a common refrain amongst participants. Though communal nap rooms were available to hackers, teams worked almost ceaselessly to finish their projects before the final showcase late Sunday morning.

A record-breaking 127 hacks were on display at the science-fair style expo, including:

  • RapPad, an intelligent song editor that helps rap enthusiasts write lyrics
  • Reroute, an app that provides safe walking routes to pedestrians
  • Nowcation, a website that aggregates cheap flight options for spontaneous travelers

Hacks were evaluated based on commercial viability, user interface design, uniqueness, execution, complexity, and overall cool factor. A total of 11 branded prizes were awarded by sponsors, such as Facebook, Pearson, and a16z.The top ten teams, selected by industry experts and audience members, demoed their hacks to a packed 500-person lecture hall in the U-M Chemistry building.

First-, second-, and third-place prizes were awarded to:

  • First-place: SpeakEasy (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): an app that enables real-time communication between people of different languages
  • Second-place: Chaos Pad (University of Michigan): a multi-touch, wireless effects processor for guitar
  • Third-place: SnowCode (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): a collaborative text editor for coders

The first-place winner will compete at the Facebook Global Hackathon Finals at the end of November. Both the first and second-place winners won trips to the Bay Area for the ReadyForce Innovate weekend.

Event organizers said they believe they accomplished their goals of inspiring entrepreneurship in tech students and giving them the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to something they’re passionate about. The group is planning to make MHacks a bi-annual event and to collaborate with students from other schools to help them hold hackathons on their own campuses.

“I think that because of MHacks a lot more people will become hackers, people will become better hackers, and hackers will start companies from their projects,” said Fontenot. “It was an awesome swirl of energy.”

Participants work on their projects for 36-hours of non-stop hacking

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On the night of Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, more than 550 students from across the United States and Canada descended upon the University of Michigan (U-M) for 36-hours of non-stop hacking, defined as playful, exploratory computer programming. Organized by U-M student groups Michigan Hackers and MPowered Entrepreneurship, MHacks is now believed to be the largest student-run college hackathon in the country.

Everyone involved received bags from MHacks

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All participants and volunteers received bags from MHacks, with goodies to help them as the 36 hours began.

Hosts pouring snacks for participants

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Michigan engineering student pours snacks for participants.

Participants get working in Palmer Commons

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Students from various universities across the United States and Canada attend the 36-hour hackathon, creating various applications for various awards given out by sponsors.

Students find ways to pass the time

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Participants found a way to better carry all of their necessities over the 36 hours.

A group of University of Michigan students work together.

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Students from various universities across the United States and Canada attend the 36-hour hackathon, creating various applications for various awards given out by sponsors.

Purdue student shares his digital eye piece to the public

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Chris Cole, Purdue University student, demonstrates his group's hack: a digital eye piece that translates text that is seen/read at eye-level.

Students talk to Moses Lee for inspiration and ideas during the Hackathon

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Moses Lee, CEO and Founder of Seelio, promotes the Seelio brand to students during the hackathon.

Waterloo University students work through the hackathon

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(From L-R) Michaela Farova works with Adam Wootton and Valentine Tsatskin, all Waterloo University students, during the hackathon.

Michigan team shares their hack, the Chaos Board

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Joe Constantakis, First-Year UMich CoE Undergrad, demonstrates his team's hack: Chaos Board. Chaos Pad is a hack allowing individuals to make music via an iphone app attached to an instrument.

Participants find time to nap and brush their teeth

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Scott Opell, Purdue University student, brushes his teeth after waking up from a quick nap during the hackathon.

Student groups present their hacks during the top 10 judging portion of the hackathon in the Chemistry Building on Central Campus.

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MHacks, an organization consisting of university organizations Michigan Hackers and MPowered, hosts the largest hackathon in the Midwest on February 3, 2013 in the Palmer Commons on Central Campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI.

Students give their final presentations in the Chemistry Building

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Chris O'Neil, UMich Computer Science BSE student, presents his group's hack, Chaos Pad, during the top 10 judging portion of the hackathon in the Chemistry Building on Central Campus.

University of Illinois students celebrate their first place win with their app SpeakEasy

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Ali and Ehsan Razfar, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign students, win first place in the 36-hour MHacks Hackathon for their hack: SpeakEasy. SpeakEasy is an application enabling the voice to text translation of different languages between individuals with language barriers.

Article topics: Hackathons


About Michigan Engineering: The University of Michigan College of Engineering is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Eight academic departments are ranked in the nation's top 10 -- some twice for different programs. Its research budget is one of the largest of any public university. Its faculty and students are making a difference at the frontiers of fields as diverse as nanotechnology, sustainability, healthcare, national security and robotics. They are involved in spacecraft missions across the solar system, and have developed partnerships with automotive industry leaders to transform transportation. Its entrepreneurial culture encourages faculty and students alike to move their innovations beyond the laboratory and into the real world to benefit society. Its alumni base of nearly 70,000 spans the globe.

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