The Hackathon Experience

How to hack your world

Opening Ceremony for HackPrinceton 2016. Credit: Major Hacking League Facebook.

On April 1st, 2016, I walk across the campus of Princeton University with my sleeping bag and laptop in hand towards HackPrinceton.

Now, why would I — an anthropology major (the study of humans, past and present), who has no experience in coding — want to participate in a 36 hour hackathon?

My answer is — why not?

A few months ago, I was very hesitant to attend a hackathon. I was worried that I would have nothing to offer. Although I was interested in graphic design, I questioned if I was “good enough”, and could contribute to a team. I pushed through these doubts and decided to attend my first hackathon.

Five hackathons later, I am energized, excited, and proud to present a hardware hack with my team at HackPrinceton.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

You don’t have to be a computer science major or have any level of expertise in coding to attend a hackathon.

Anyone can benefit from attending a hackathon. You just have to have motivation, and be open to learning something new!

Now let me put on my anthropologist hat.

I was amazed by the community and support that is built around the scope of hackathons. But a question that comes to my mind is — what defines a person’s hackathon experience?

In observing and participating in hackathons, I have identified that there are different layers to the “hackathon experience” that are defined by one’s external, internal, and subconscious gains.

My goal in describing these different layers is to show how you can benefit from attending a hackathon, despite your major.


On the first layer, you could attend a hackathon and win a prize! These tangible and material items can define your hackathon experience if your team has their “eyes on the prize.”

Don’t get me wrong, who wouldn’t want to win? Your hard work has paid off and you have something to show for it. But don’t feel intimated if there are teams who have an attitude only focused on wining.

But I believe that material items shouldn’t define one’s motives to participate. In contrast, only staying on this first level is where you get the least out of a hackathon experience.

Prizes at HackPrinceton 2016. Credit: Major Hacking League Facebook.

Let’s dive deeper now. So what if you didn’t win a shiny prize? Why do people still go home with smiles on their faces? It’s because they got something more out of the hackathon experience.

At this level, people looked up from their laptop screens and talked to people around them.

Credit: Giphy.com

The social environment of hackathons encourages people to make new friends, connections, and networks. Memories of great conversations, funny stories, and breakthrough moments are what you can walk away with.

There will be people who can teach you the skills you need, and work with you to create amazing projects in just a few days.


But wait, what else could there be to the hackathon experience than prizes and new friends?

Well, I believe that there is another layer — you learn how to think differently.

During a hackathon, you push yourself to think of ideas for projects to work on.

After a hackathon, I find myself doing the exact same thing unconsciously. I think more critically— through questioning and observing problems around me and asking how I could solve it.

While walking down the street, in class, or at home — I try to think of app ideas that would make my life easier or improve the lives of other. This is thinking critical because it requires making an objective analysis in order to make a judgment towards finding a solution. This is applicable in any environment, and I believe that it is the most valuable skill you can get out of a hackathon experience.

I watched how, in 36 hours, people are able to create apps and hardware that can save lives, solve problems, and change daily life — and I feel inspired to do the same.


Bottom line, just do it.

If you are considering attending a hackathon, don’t second guess it and just go for it. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

If you are interested in learning what hacking is all about, and you are motivated to learn — you will enjoy and benefit from your hackathon experience.

People are united through coding, and come together for to transform an idea into something amazing .What fascinates me about hackathons is how it brings people together from different schools, states, and countries.

Credit: Giphy.com

So far, I have met great people and made some of the best memories in my college career. Hackathons have given me the opportunity to travel across states and explore universities outside the boundaries of Maryland. I have pushed my limits physically, mentally and emotionally. And on top of it all, I have collected some pretty cool shirts and stickers.

I have attempted to analyze the hackathon experience from my perspective. But the only way to truly understand what the experience is all about, you must go out and find out for yourself.

Your major isn’t what defines attending a hackathon, it’s you.


If you are interested in learning more about future hackathons, events on campus, or just meet some cool people — then join the Terrapin Hackers!

Check out below two hacks by Terrapin Hackers (including my team) from HackPrinceton 2016.

1. SlothSure — Sabbir Ahmed, Edward Nusinovich, Jaime Orellana, Ana Ortez-Rivera

My team demoing SlothSure. Credit: Major Hacking League Facebook.

SlothSure is an Arduino project that detects changes in orientation (at the shoulders) to determine if the back of the user is slouching. The user is alerted with vibrations to fix their posture when slouching is detected. It also keeps track of the number of times the user slouches in a predetermined duration of time.

This project was inspired by the observation that people typically slouch while sitting at a desk/table. This bad habit can be detrimental for long term health effects, and constant back pain. Good posture is linked with better health, and having confidence.

SlothSure wants to provide the user an experience that creates awareness of their current posture habits, and encourages them to improve it.

Tools used: C++, HTML, Javascript, Arduino, Python, Processing


2. GestureLead — Andrew Wang , Chetan Velivela, Jeff Alvarex, Dominic Reid

Demo of GestureLead. Credit: Devepost.com/GesutureLead

Those that work in the line of action when working with others must often use gestures to communicate. By using gestures to communicate, their hands are free so that engagement in case an unexpected situation arises (e.g. if an unexpected enemy soldier suddenly appears). By creating a gesture to sound program, this communication is made more efficient as it is not necessary to be able to see the gestures (can be long distance away or behind physical obstructions) and it is not necessary to focus on the hands of the gesturer so that those listening can be more aware of their surroundings.

GestureLead uses the capabilities of the myo armbands to read any gestures that are made, and then a python program utilizes a text to speech library to convert each gesture to a command sound that is stored in a text file.

Tools used: JavaScript, Myo, Python


Photos taken from Major Hacking League Facebook. Gifs taken from Giphy.com.