Not-A-Hackathon @ CarnegieMellon

A 2-hour workshop for students from a variety of academic disciplines to get to know each other and develop new ideas together.


Carnegie Mellon University has an incredible community of scholars — scientists and artists, builders and theorists, historians and futurists, and many more in-between — who push boundaries of knowledge in a variety of academic fields. This multidisciplinary landscape creates unique opportunities for collaboration, which is manifested in the broad range of inter-departmental faculty appointments and research centers.

While interdisciplinary is a highlighted feature of CMU, there exist many barriers for students in the beginning of their academic journey to pursue intellectual curiosity across different schools and departments. For undergraduates who are absorbed by their demanding major requirements, it is not always easy to cross paths with students in other disciplines and have meaningful collaborations with them. For those who do venture into interdisciplinary majors, there is often a sense of in-betweenness — being stuck between academic silos, not feeling supported and comfortable in any individual community.

The Interdisciplinary Initiative, or Int-Init, was formed in the spring of 2019 to address these issues. Our goal is to strengthen the sense of community among students who wish to pursue intellectual curiosity in multiple disciplines, regardless of what their major is on paper. We hope to help students feel less alone as they explore outside their comfort zone and engage in new intellectual territories as a beginner.

One of our methods to achieve this goal is gathering. We see the gathering of students as the first step to building a support network. In addition to simply bringing students together, we also want to encourage them to get to know each other in deeper ways. What’s a better way to become familiar with someone than working with them? This idea led to the formation of Not-A-Hackathon.

Not-A-Hackathon flips the script on a traditional hackathon, as it should focus not on building something to show, but rather on the process: developing dialogues between students of different academic background, sparking new interdisciplinary ideas, and facilitating reflections upon how each of us think, learn, and create.

The idea of Not-A-Hackathon was directly inspired by Antidisciplinaraton, an event organized by Katherine Ye, who is a current PhD student in the Computer Science Department at CMU. Katherine gathered “thirty-five strangers with deep expertise in disciplines ranging from Classical Chinese literature to biophysics, [gave] them ninety minutes to make something strange, bold, and new, and [asked] them to present the results.” Not-A-Hackathon adapts this format but has a slightly different objective: instead of asking experts to challenge the boundaries of their disciplines, it gathers students who have just started their academic journey and provides a space for them to explore together. (Thanks Katherine for letting us borrow your idea!)

Not-A-Hackathon 1.0

On a sunny Saturday in October 2020, Int-Init organized the first iteration of Not-A-Hackathon.

NAH 1.0 was a 90-minute workshop. We asked students from different majors and departments to form groups of three or four, and come up with a blueprint for a project they can create together.

Each group has full freedom to choose whatever they want to make — e.g., a game, poem, an app, a movie pitch, a research question, etc. — as long as it draws from the group members’ existing skill-set, knowledge, and interests. The feasibility of the idea does not matter as much as engaging in a creative, collaborative, messy process. In the end, we ask each group to present this blueprint, how they came up with it, and what they have learned about each other and themselves.

Since this was the first run, we wanted to start simple. NAH 1.0 had a very straight-forward structure of framing → making → sharing, which would be discussed in detail in the next few sections. We also kept it at a small scale — 90 minutes, about 20 participants in addition to 7 facilitators— because we wanted to make sure that we would be able to work closely with each participant.

In the planning stage, we applied for a BXA small grant which covered all our costs; booked a room for 30 people, with tables for sketching ideas and white boards for presenting them; purchased supplies for rapid prototyping; bought a bunch of snacks; extending invitations to students; and sending out surveys to get to know the students who sign up.

To recruit participants, we started with inviting people in our immediate spheres of influence (friend groups, academic programs, etc.). As a result, we welcomed many familiar faces to the workshop. While the long-term goal is to expand the network, we are happy with starting with a smaller group of students who know us and are already invested in interdisciplinary learning and community-building.

At 1:30pm, October 19 2020, Not-A-Hackathon 1.0 officially began!

The first 20 minutes focused on framing, and was spent as a big group. Here we introduced Int-Init and ourselves individually, described our roles as facilitators, set expectations, and established some common ground. To start off a workshop where people generally don’t know each other, it is crucial to establish a sense of trust. It can be intimidating to work with someone you have never met and comes from a completely different field. Therefore, we listed a few reminders to help everyone feel more safe and comfortable in this new environment.

  • This is a place where we can be authentic, learn, and ask honest questions.
  • It is okay if we don’t know anything about each other’s field, and it is okay if other people don’t know anything about ours.
  • There is no pressure to produce something “good.” It is totally okay you don’t end up with something finished or presentable in the end. The process is more important.
  • Let’s try to embrace the unknown, and approach it with a learning attitude.

To help make the workshop more tangible, we also introduced a few examples ideas as inspirations for what these “blueprints for ideas” could potentially be. We sourced these inspirations from the documentation of Antidisciplinarathon, e.g., a theme park for science — thrill rides to illustrate physics, human-sized surfaces and optimization landscapes to clamber on for math, a West World clone for the intersection of biology and computer science.

We also provided a simple template for the final presentation. Participants are not required to use it. It is just there to help them feel more grounded and serve as a reminder that the process is just as important as the idea itself.

Presentation template.

The next 15 minutes was spent on small group introductions. The group assignment was determined by me personally at the beginning of the workshop. The day before the workshop, we decided on a group assignment based on the results of the questionnaires. However, not everybody filled it out (even after multiple reminders), and some new people showed up at the event without signing up. Therefore, we re-wrote the group assignment to accommodate these changes.

18 people came to the event, and 3 had to leave in the middle. Therefore, we had 5 groups, with each group consisting 2–4 participants and 1–2 facilitators. During the 15 minutes of framing, aside from the basic name-year-major question, we introduced two activities. The first one was called connecting-the-dots: each participant is a dot, and we draw a line if we find something in common between two individuals (e.g., they both home-make yogurt, listen to the same podcast, have relatives in Colorado, etc.). The second activity was to answer one of 3 questions: 1) Tell us about your hometown, 2) What’s the story of your current phone background, and 3) What was your dream job was a child. These questions prompted the participants to share personal stories and establish trust and familiarity with each other.

Participants finding commonalities between each other in the connecting-the-dots activity.

After the participants got to know each other a bit better, we spent the next 30 minutes making! During this time, each table was provided with large sheets of paper, sharpies, pens and pencils, glue, scissors, construction paper, and a few other tools. While they brainstorm, the facilitators played the role of listeners, while occasionally pitching in to push the conversations forward if the group gets stuck. A few facilitators noticed that their group continued with this making session was a natural continuation of the introduction questions, because they led to discussions about the participants’ passions and new ideas.

In the last 20 minutes of the workshop, each group presented their ideas and the process of coming up with it.

Group presentations

One group came up with a group therapy idea that revolved around using physical exercise and expression as a way to feel more comfortable being in your own body. They envisioned a once-a-month class or time when the gym would be cleared out and the space could be used for anybody to do any sort of physical activity they wanted. There would be different group activities going on around the space and just a free area open for people who want to use it.

Another group developed an idea called Hitch-A-Truck. They drew inspiration from our common desire to find a cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly way to go home across long distance. Considerations of quantum physics, economics, and the history of American infrastructure culminated in ‘Hitch-A-Truck’. The idea is to use the already prevalent cargo transport system to make cheaper and more environmentally friendly travel options for people. Thereby, rather than building new roads, train tracks, or planes, we can use the already existing infrastructure to provide opportunities for people to travel long distances, simply by allowing people to sit inside part of a commercial truck.

Group therapy (left) and Hitch-a-Truck (right)

Overall, the Int-Init team was happy with the outcome of the workshop — our participants seemed to have a lot of fun and indicated interests to stay connected to our network — and we also gained a lot of insights through the process.

Here are a few lessons we learned.

  1. Since the groups are small and collaboration is key, it is important for each participant to attend the workshop for its entirety, from introductions to ideation to presentation. A few participants left early because they thought it was a pop-in-pop-out type of event and weren’t aware that they would be working in one small group for the whole workshop. Therefore, two groups had only two people at the end of the workshop, while other groups had four or five. In the next iterations, we will emphasize the importance of staying present for the entire duration.
  2. Providing example ideas in the framing stage had its pros and cons. Some participants found that those ideas were interesting and got them thinking, while many others thought they were confusing and limiting. In future workshops, instead of showing these ideas to the whole group in the beginning, we would use them only when participants get stuck and ask for examples.
  3. 90 minutes was just enough for an event of 15 participants / 5 groups. More time might make it harder for people to commit, while less time would not be enough for all the groups to present.
  4. Facilitation was vital in every stage of the workshop. Since collaborating with strangers who are very different from you can be a challenging task, a facilitator can come in to provide inspirations, and also reminds people to not stress about the result or the presentation, but to focus on listening to each other and enjoying the process of synthesizing our thought processes.

Not-A-Hackathon 2.0

We organized the second iteration of NAH on February 22nd, 2020. We followed the same framing-making-sharing format, and made a few changes.

  • Instead of 90 minutes, we expanded the workshop to 2 full hours, with the expectation of more participants, more groups, and thus more time needed for presentations.
  • We expanded our scope of publicity. A few days before the event, we put up posters in all the residence halls and academic buildings, and asked academic advisors across campus to publicize the event for us.

This time, we had 19 students signing up, but eight of them did not show up to the actual event. We had 4 groups. Like last time, each group consisted of 2–4 participants and 1–2 facilitators. Every participant stayed for the presentations.

Even though we had fewer groups this time and an additional 30 minutes, the entire 2-hour was filled completely. Group presentations and Q&A’s took up the second hour, and everyone seemed engaged.

Very unfortunately, Joyce lost a bunch of documentation materials when she moved out of her dorm room in a haste before going into quarantine, so we don’t have a good record of who-made-what… however, here are some photos from the event.

If you are interested in learning more about Int-Init and Not-A-Hackathon, feel free to contact Joyce at joycexinyiwang @ cmu dot edu !

haello. 胆小社畜.