By Leah Jones, Features Editor

 

Students build their careers and write their own stories at college. Most of the time, constructing their lives requires trial and error and can take several attempts though. Mohamed Langi, senior, information systems, and president of the Information System Programming Club (ISPC), did not know what he wanted to do when he left high school; he changed his major three times before settling on information systems. While Langi learned to write and construct his own way through college, he has now also learned how to write coding software to construct computer and web applications. Now he is helping to build the first ever co-gender UMSL Hack-A-Thon at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

The 48-hour Hack-A-Thon will begin on March 3 and continue over the weekend to March 5. The event is free to all UMSL and LaunchCode students and will be held in Express Scripts Hall and the Social Science and Business Administration Building (SSB). Langi said that these 48 hours will offer these students opportunities beyond what the classroom has to offer them. “In my opinion, you would gain more skills and experience than in a semester of college,” Langi said.

During a Hack-A-Thon, teams of four to six people collaborate to create web, phone, and desktop applications. Langi said that these teams usually include programmers, project managers, designers, and analysts. Most Hack-A-Thons aim to solve a real-world social problem as well. “Today, you usually have to use technology to solve the problems,” said Dr. Dinesh Mirchandani, professor of information systems, and chair of the department.

Mirchandani, one of the co-organizers of the event, explained, “A Hack-A-Thon is like a maker’s space, so to speak, where groups come together and build technologies, solutions, and applications that help solve different problems. So for example, at UMSL, problems that we have include parking, or whether there are enough computers available at a lab during finals week. So if we had an app that could tell a student that there is a parking spot available in this garage or there is a computer available in this lab, that would solve a real problem for students. So the students who participate get to create something that will help UMSL.”

Tucked away in his office in Express Scripts Hall, Mirchandani sits surrounded by books, technology, and books about technology as construction workers complete their own building projects on the new Business Administration Building just outside of his window. Mirchandani speaks softly but exudes enthusiasm about what the students will build and the possibilities for both what will be built at the Hack-A-Thon, as well as the opportunities that he hopes it will offer students.

“It’s [my hope that the event is] not only going to be a learning experience [for students], but that they’ll get to know each other, that they’ll learn team spirit, [and that] they’ll learn just how to get things done because you have deadlines to meet. So, I want them to have that experience, that even if they fail, they tried and failed, rather than [having] not tried,” he said.

While students can try to solve common problems which plague students, such as lack of parking and computers, they can also choose to try to solve other problems which they see around UMSL as well. “Because we know those problems, who better than us to try to solve them?” Mirchandani asked. However, Mirchandani said that they hoped that the solutions can be generalized and spread beyond UMSL’s campus.

Mirchandani said that they expect 60 to 70 participants at the Hack-A-Thon. At that size, he said that it will be a small enough event that students can bond and not be intimidated, but that it will be big enough for students to generate many ideas.

The Hack-A-Thon will also welcome LaunchCode students. LaunchCode operates in St. Louis, South Florida, Kansas City, Rhode Island, Seattle, and Portland to offer free computer programming education to aspiring computer developers with talent, aptitude and drive. LaunchCode then connects these students with apprenticeships at one of their more than 300 partner companies, which range in size from Fortune 500 companies to small startup companies.  Like the Hack-A-Thon, LaunchCode seeks to solve a real-world problem, social inequity, through technology. Dean Charles Hoffman of the College of Business Administration helped to create a partnership between UMSL and LaunchCode to provide LaunchCode students a space in which to hold their classes. Mirchandani said that he hopes that the first UMSL Hack-A-Thon will be welcoming to these students and their ideas as well.

Some of these ideas will hopefully develop into startup companies and businesses. The winning team of the Hack-A-Thon will receive $10,000 in startup funding as well as resources to further build their business and bring their app to a larger market, with UMSL as their first customer. UMSL Accelerate will help the team by providing them with a business incubation phase in which they can grow their company by determining leadership structure and other important business features. The second place team will receive $3,500, while the third place team and the team with the most “popular” product will receive $1,000 and $500 respectively.

Mirchandani explained that many of the students who will be competing will be information systems students who will have well-developed foundations in both technology and business. “The idea could actually become the basis of a company, so we also want them to think entrepreneurially, that the application that they make could potentially be used at other universities and other organizations. So, then it could be the basis for a startup company, and UMSL will help provide resources and mentorship to guide the teams that have the best applications to form companies. They [will] need some guidance to create a company.”

UMSL will help students fund their project after the Hack-A-Thon, but they will also provide support during the Hack-A-Thon through mentors and a helpdesk, from whom students will be able to elicit help and support. The Hack-A-Thon will also feature a training session during the week leading up to the event and on the first day of the event. Mirchandani explained that these training sessions are meant to engage students and help them emerge from the event knowing a little bit more than what they did when they started the event. “At the end of the day, it is about having a block of time where you can focus on learning and observing how other people are working, and you become more aware of the skills and the tools and the possibilities. So it could, for somebody who is a newcomer, be that spark that fires them to come out of this and want to keep learning and keep participating in future events and keep building on their skills”

While UMSL has held a 24-hour Women’s Hack-A-Thon since 2014, the co-gender 48-hour Hack-A-Thon was inspired by Langi and other students’ recent participation in the GlobalHack in St. Louis. One thousand participants competed and sought to solve homelessness in St. Louis in the GlobalHack on October 21–23, 2016 in the Chaifetz Arena for a $1 million prize.

Langi said that Brian Lawton, a part-time lecturer in the business information technology department, encouraged him to participate in the GlobalHack, despite the fact that he felt intimidated by the range of high school students, college students, and professionals who attended the event. Though his team did not place, Langi said, “After Global Hack I felt more comfortable in my programming, working in a rapid, fast-paced environment and also working as a part of team to achieve our goal. I also learned were I need improvement on.”

While the app that the team built did not win any prizes, the connections that Langi built at the GlobalHack proved to be invaluable. At the event, he met UMSL alumnus Stuart Ashby. “A couple months after Global Hack I was approached by Stuart Ashby if I would like to help organize a Hack-A-Thon here at UMSL, and I said ‘YEA!’ I believe Hack-a-thon is a win-win situation for everyone, from the participants to UMSL,” Langi explained.

Ashby, who founded the STL Core Project in early 2016, said that after he met Langi and several other UMSL students at the GlobalHack, including Kat Mierek, Kerrine Nelson and Tim Caton, he approached Langi and Mirchandani in January of this year about organizing a Hack-A-Thon at UMSL. The organizing committee has grown to nearly two dozen members since then, according to Ashby. “The vision for UMSL|Hack grew from seeds planted during my experiences competing with Team STLCore in major Hack-A-Thons such as the AngelHack National Circuit and GlobalHack,” Ashby said.

“I have seen firsthand the power of Hack-A-Thons to bring creative builders together to solve real problems with great ideas and powerful, accessible technology – all in the midst of the innate challenges that come with a time and resource constrained format. I’ve only had amazingly positive experiences with Hack-A-Thons, and most technologists that I know share this sentiment,” Ashby explained.”It is very heartening to see my alma mater embracing Hack-A-Thons with such enthusiasm. It has strengthened my bond with the school”

“The students came back and they said that they learned so much [during] that intense experience, that you learn more in that than you would in a course, so this is something that we now have the capacity to do,” Mirchandani explained. So the group built their own Hack-A-Thon at UMSL.

“They [Langi and the organizing group] become leaders in their own right,” Mirchandani said. “I just want to see them succeed and develop their leadership, help the campus, and make and inspire other students.”

UMSL’s Hack-A-Thon has a crowdfund page to which people can make donations, at https://crowdfund.umsl.edu/.

To register for the UMSL Hack-A-Thon, visit https://umslhack.devpost.com/.