Hack@Brown 2017: A Recap

This year, we celebrated our 4th birthday with Hack@Brown 2017! We’ve learned a lot over the past three hackathons and have tried to integrate what we’ve learned into the event this year. We introduced some changes to the hackathon, while continuing our mission to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment focused on learning.

Some things change…

After identifying some key areas that could be improved, we tweaked the hacker experience, particularly with hardware and the closing ceremony format.

Hardware

We invested in purchasing and maintaining our own hardware for this year and future years. This gave us control over what hardware we provided to the hackers and let us focus on the quality of the devices we gave away. Through this, we were also able to hone our expertise within our team to help support students who used the hardware.

In particular, we prioritized the building blocks to create hardware over simply using already established platforms, for economic as well as educational reasons. We felt this meshed well with our mission of learning, and provided students with hands-on experiences they wouldn’t be able to get in classes or even at other hackathons. Of course, we made sure to still offer students the opportunity to hack on more established platforms like the Leap Motion, Myo, and Oculus Rift (generously provided by Facebook, one of our amazing sponsors).

A hacker demos her project on the Oculus Rift

Students created hacks out of sensors and breadboards, creating awesome projects like this device that alerted those with low/no sight when approaching staircases or major changes in depth. Many commented on the sense of pride they felt in making something from the ground up. Furthermore, from a hackathon organizer perspective, we could ensure the quality of everything we gave out and accept the liability for it.

The Hardware team gives a workshop on the Internet of Things

Closing Ceremony

For the first time, we removed the closing ceremony and replaced it with a Demo Fair. In past years, we found that after a weekend of excitement, the closing ceremony could feel like a long, low-energy conclusion. We also felt that the main content of the closing ceremony, which was to highlight only certain projects for demos, went against our philosophy that all projects have worth and should be highlighted.

Hackers share their project during the demo fair

Instead, we devoted the time that would otherwise have gone to the closing ceremony to a longer-form demo fair and encouraged students to circulate and check out each others’ projects, in addition to demoing their project for judges. To make this as feasible as possible for students, we attempted to divide up judging times such that students could know when they should expect to be judged and thus when they should be at their table. We felt like this worked well but could continue to improve logistically to better allow hackers to circulate and mingle.

A team demos their project for a mentor during the demo fair

Some things stay the same

Every year we continue traditions that work, and help build the Hack@Brown brand we have today.

Hack Week

In a build up to the hackathon, we held a series of workshops to give students the skills to hit the ground running when the hackathon starts. With great turnout from hackathon participants and the greater Brown community, this space offered a week long opportunity for students of all backgrounds to learn a bit and get started on a variety of topics like Sketch, Internet of Things, and Chrome Extensions.

Students at our Data Analytics with Python workshop

Mentorship

We invited teaching assistants from Brown’s Computer Science Department and engineers from our sponsor companies to mentor teams. Feedback from participants always highlights the important role mentors play in supporting and encouraging teams:

“[Our mentor] really cared about our project and was a HUGE help in teaching & encouraging us (and explaining tricky issues)!”
Mentors help out a hacker with their project

Healthy environment

We provided lots of yummy and healthy food, individually brought water to the hackers, and encouraged everyone to sleep. As much as we can, we try to build a collaborative and fun learning environment by removing any emphasis on prizes and competition as well as crafting a fun game room of VR demos, ping pong, and a Lego wall.

Yum!

Diversity and inclusiveness

With a focus on first-time hackers and students underrepresented in Computer Science, we pride ourselves on having a diverse group of hackers, creating a hackathon that reflects the future we want to see in the tech industry. To support this, we admitted students based on a weighted random lottery, which gave us insight into the diversity of the attendees, in terms of race/ethnicity, gender identity, school year, major, and school location. Our algorithm also accounted for the intersectionality of these categories, to make space in our event for those that are most likely to be disadvantaged in computer science.

Of course, all of this would be for nothing if we didn’t have a wide pool of people applying to come to Hack@Brown. For this, we have our own dedicated Media team, which handles advertising and promotion on social media, and Outreach team, which handles specific outreach to different student groups at Brown and beyond. These teams did a great job spreading the word about Hack@Brown during registration, to get thousands of student to register for our event. This gave us a great pool of applicants, to ensure that we had the diversity of attendees that we wanted for Hack@Brown.

In addition to the actual hackers at the event, we tried as much as possible to foster a welcoming environment at the hackathon that everyone would feel comfortable in. Of course this is a constantly evolving effort, so if you have any thoughts about what we could do better to make our hackathon more inclusive, we’re always listening!

Celebrating all of our first-time hackers at the opening ceremony

Looking forward

All in all, our team was very happy with Hack@Brown 2017, both in terms of the best qualities from previous years that we maintained and improved upon, as well as the new changes we tried out this year. We hope everyone who attended the hackathon, either as a hacker, mentor, sponsor, or organizer, had a great time and will come back next year! Whether you attended this year or not, whether you liked it or not, we would love to hear your thoughts! If you want to hear more about our process for organizing this event, reach out! Please feel free to drop us a line at hello@hackatbrown.org.

Katie Hsia and Max Luzuriaga, co-directors.