What is a hacker? If you pose this question to a group of people, chances are that you’ll get a variety of answers.

Some will think of life hackers—individuals who find quick and easy ways to make our everyday lives a little less stressful. Others may think of those pesky ski mask–wearing criminals who gain unauthorized access to confidential data, or perform other malicious acts through the use of computers.

To the growing Mathematical and Computational Sciences Society here at UTM and to those deeply involved in the computing world, a hacker is simply a quick-thinking, creative, and brilliant dream weaver.

With this innovative spirit in mind, MCSS was looking to make their mark in the global Major League Hacking—specifically, the league’s annual Local Hack Day on October 10.

Major League Hacking is a collegiate hackathon league that organizes, sponsors, and promotes student hackathons around the world. The hackathon event has now been brought back to life at UTM, after two years of being silent and sorely missed.

On the morning of the hackathon, 116 likeminded students, mentors, faculty members, and industry professionals dispersed into the nooks and crannies of Deerfield Hall for 12 straight action-packed hours.

Teams were formed around a unique or modified idea, which was brought to life by collaboratively coding it from scratch. Students had free rein to create whatever they saw fit, but projects generally took shape in the form of websites, mobile apps, gadgets and—my personal favourite—video games.

Groups of people across the globe hosted their own Local Hack Days on their campuses.

At first glance, it may seem like these kinds of events are exclusive to computer programmers. However, the truth is that no boundaries were placed on who could get involved with the event. Students from a variety of different backgrounds were needed, and all participants became integral parts in the building of fully immersive projects.

Austin Wells, a second-year computer science specialist and member of the Green Weasel team, outlined what makes this event so unique for him. “It’s an opportunity to be creative and come up with our own ideas and not be so defined by guidelines for an assignment or a project. We get to do our own thing,” he says. “It’s not so rigid. It’s nice to be offered some cool and expensive hardware to play around with.”

Hackathons are becoming a trend all over the world. Ground-breaking discoveries and the foundational ideas of some of the world’s most powerful corporations have been brainstormed during such sessions.

For UTM students, hackathons present an opportunity to gain exposure, diversify their networks, and get their hands on some awesome hardware while simultaneously gaining a meaningful learning experience.

“You’d think it’d be easy but you have to come up with a creative idea, and you only have 12 hours,” says Usaim Bhayat, a first-year computer science student. “It’s a learning experience, and I’ve [also gotten the chance] to meet new people who have had similar interests and experiences as I have.”

The event is equally fruitful for faculty. Faculty members understand that these types of events are ideal spaces for up-and-coming hack aficionados to hone their skills and receive constructive criticism about their work and habits.

When this many bright students flock under one roof, something revolutionary is bound to happen. It’s not a matter of how, but when. One such project, led by second-year computer science specialist Nicholas DiRisio, is aiming to aid children with mental and physical disabilities.

“Over the summer, I worked with children with disabilities including autism and other motor disabilities,” says DiRisio. “So I was thinking, why not develop a platform, or some kind of game, to help them improve their cognitive abilities and also help them to learn, and give them a fun way of doing it?”

Hackers were given until 8 p.m. to finalize and polish their product to near perfection. Their final product was then presented to a panel of qualified judges. The judges included Peggy Cao (president of the MCSS), Arnold Rosenbloom (an associate professor for the MCS department),  and the following industry members: Aria Fa, Cyrus Bakhityari, Farhang Farid, Micheal Krec, and Tapan Shah.

The judges awarded the winning team, Taskifier, with Raspberry Pis. No, not the delicious pastry dessert. A Raspberry Pi is an affordable and capable credit card–sized computer that is designed to help people become versed in computer programming software. The Taskifier team created a timing app for both iOS and Android that integrates calendar, notifications, and gaming elements to create an overall interactive experience.

The panel of judges included Peggy Cao, two professors, and members of the industry.
The panel of judges included Peggy Cao, two professors, and members of the industry.

The creative prize winners, selected by Ray Khan, president of the ICCIT Council, were team Mieson. This team produced a Myo Armband, which can be used to play all your music straight from a phone hands free.

The panel of judges selected Arash Gholami’s app as an honorable mention. Gholami created a mobile and desktop-based app that acts as both a matrix calculator and a quizzing system.

The event was organized by the MCSS alongside professors Larry Zhang and Arnold Rosenbloom.

“I was truly surprised by the quality, the creativity, and the diversity shown in the students’ projects—what they were able to accomplish in one day, how much fun they were having, and how passionate they were about very different things,” commented Zhang.

“I can really see future heroes in computer science among these students. The judges’ conversations with the students were amazingly insightful and inspiring. The students not only had fun hacking, but also learned a lot from the alumni who are now professional software developers and entrepreneurs.”

Arthur C. Clarke, a British science fiction writer, claims, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” After witnessing the hackathon, sitting in during team discussions, and seeing their outlandish dreams become a reality, I couldn’t agree more. It was simply mystifying.

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