Freshman in CS

TreeHacks: Is it worth it for Freshmen?

By: Chloe Barreau

I had marked TreeHacks on my calendar months in advance, yet leading up to the event, I was hesitant on whether it would be a worthwhile experience. My freshman friends were equality uncertain, given many of us were recovering from midterms, lack of sleep, and we were only halfway through CS106B.

Friday night, at 12am, I decided that although the event had already started at 8pm, I would pop by to get a glimpse. I figured workshops, like those on React, would be beneficial for future use, even if I did not create a project. Upon arriving, I found familiar faces and started engaging with a project idea that I was excited about, although I was technically unfamiliar with. It involved C sharp, hardware and areas of knowledge that were new to me. Very quickly, as I picked up new skills with my team, I was glad to have trekked to the Huang Engineering Center.

Hackathons aren’t just for computer science students to show off what they already know

While many develop project ideas that are already in their realm of interest and familiarity, my experience demonstrated to me that hackathons are a great way to dive into new concepts. Previously, I had the impression that companies encouraged students to adopt their new tools and technologies purely for advertising purposes. That does happen, but sponsored prizes and resources also make it possible for newcomers to compete on a more level playing field: Everyone is familiarising themselves at the same time with the sponsored tools. Some may be more comfortable navigating the information online, but ultimately there is a basis of of unfamiliarity that has to be overcome. Many of the really cool projects applied existing tools and capabilities in a novel way (new context, format etc), rather than reinventing the wheel for say a social media or payment platform.

Resources are abundant!

Sponsor booths are almost always open, with technical staff available to help. Companies can tell you about their products, help debug your code, and provide food and swag. The mentors are incredibly patient and enthusiastic about explaining new concepts. There is also Room 36 in Huang, a prototyping space with a variety of materials from sewing machines to foam and laser cutters. Even if you were not to present a final project, spending time to search and immerse yourself in the event and the school’s resources is incredibly rewarding.

Not to mention, the building is full of older students — those who are more familiar with Stanford and hackathon resources and have worked around constraints before. When grabbing meals, you can check out their projects and ask all sorts of questions. They are especially open and receptive, because they themselves are in the process of solving problems and building understanding.

Learning outside the classroom structure

One of the difficulties for students taking CS106A and B is creating personal projects outside of class. While there isn’t a shortage of ideas, it is difficult to know how to start — where and how to navigate free online resources. Hackathons force you to spend the time combing through the internet efficiently. Working with a team also helps you realise that information that lacks clarity for you, is likely also confusing for them. This makes it easier to feel comfortable asking questions to other teammates and boosts motivation for finding an answer.