For students. By students. Engaging students in developing the Student Portal through Hackathons

35 students. 13 projects. 6 hours of hacking.

On Saturday, March 21, students from Computer Science, Software Engineering, and other departments gathered in Carl A. Pollock Hall with a common goal – to make the Student Portal better. For the first time, Information Systems and Technology (IST) offered students the opportunity to put their web development skills to work on a University web application. Fuelled with pizza and pop, students were given the green light to build any new feature or functionality they wanted to see in the Student Portal. 

students working at computer

The structure of hackathons is loose to allow for maximum creativity. After introductions, Pavol Chvala, Lead developer of the Portal team, gave a brief overview of the Student Portal Software Development Kit (SDK)—a platform specially built to allow the creation of widgets for the Student Portal. The students then wrote their ideas on the white board and self-assigned themselves to projects they wanted to work on.

white board of widget ideas

Some of the projects students chose to work on included:

  • Clubs Widget – Sign up for and manage your clubs, with club events integrated into the calendar.
  • Exam Trip Planner – Have an exam in 15 minutes? This widget uses the Portal’s routing widget to show you the fastest way to get there.
  • Campus Fast Food – Using the Portal’s food data, this project sought to display the daily specials and schedules of fast food locations on campus.
  • Empty Room Finder – Specify the building you’re in along with the time and this project sought to display a list of empty rooms available that students could study in.
  • Survey/Evaluation Widget – This group integrated survey functionality into the portal to be able to gather quick feedback.
  • Career Action – For those in co-op, this widget provided a way to track your favourite employers’ info sessions and notify you when they were coming up, with integration into the calendar.
  • Classroom Finder – Another take on the Empty Rooms project, this widget allowed users to input a room number and it would then display that room’s schedule for the day, so you knew what was happening in it, and when it was available.
  • Appointment Booker – These students built a widget to book appointments at Health, Counselling, and other services on campus, which is currently an in-person process.
  • Wolfram Alpha – integration of the Wolfram Alpha—the computational knowledge search engine—into Portal.
  • CSE Widget –For Engineering students, this widget helps students find which Complementary Studies Electives (CSEs) are available and how they fit into your schedule.
  • Course Catalog – Another project to ease the process of picking your courses, this widget provide course descriptions of a given course code so student can quickly and easily browse course selections.
  • Campus Playlist – A student integrated the Spotify music service provider into Portal so users could select and play music within the app, and share it with other users. 
  • Goose Watch – Integration of goose-watch.uwaterloo.ca/ into Portal.

Most of the apps used data from IST's Open Data service.

The winning widgets

Teams competed for prizes, which included a yearlong Silver plan to GitHub valued at $600, University of Waterloo and Velocity swag, as well as an opportunity for their work to be prioritized for inclusion in the Student Portal with recognition of the creators. Each team had five minutes to make their pitch and demo their widget, and anonymous voting took place by their peers in the spirit of People’s Choice Awards.  

First place went to Engineering students Ursula Huang, Yu Chen, and Deon Hua for their Appointment Booking widget. Their idea to more efficiently book appointments with various services at the University clearly resonated with students.

first place winners

Second place went to Rebecca Santos, Anagha Rajeev, and Sharon Lee, who developed the Clubs widget. Their widget was very comprehensive and streamlined the management of clubs and club-related events, both for student and club administrators, with many features including a ‘club of the day’ feature.

second place winners

An honourable mention went to Meyyappan Nachinppan for his Campus Playlist Widget, which was a fun and innovative way of communally adding music to the Portal through Spotify.

spotify widget

Overall, the entire Portal team was impressed with how much the hackathon participants were able to accomplish in a single day. There is an incredible amount of talent amongst the student developer community at the University of Waterloo, and we were able to engage that community on the Student Portal through this event. Students that participated in the hackathon will retain their access to the SDK so they can keep developing their projects. And for anyone who wasn't able to participate this time round, we'll be scheduling more hackathons in the future to keep the momentum going!

More information on the Student Portal Hackathon can be found on the SSO Blog.

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