Largest beginner-focused hackathon encourages hackers to make an impact

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

StarterHacks participants getting help from mentors

The fourth annual StarterHacks welcomes students new to hacking to work on a team project for 24 hours

“I wanted to help…”

This was a common statement at StarterHacks 2020, an equity-based hackathon at the University of Waterloo, January 18-19. Judges heard it in the 128 pitches, and it was the catalyst for the closing speaker William Zhou (BMath ’15) to start his company Chalk. Zhou wanted to help teachers because of the many great educators who made a difference in his life. For the high school and undergraduate students pitching for prizes, they wanted to help caregivers of dementia patients, community members make connections, students stay fit, banks find new innovative apps … and the list went on.

Almost 1,000 hackers gathered for the opening ceremonies, kicking off the largest 24-hour, beginner-focussed hackathon on Saturday morning at 10:00 am. Talks by Mel Sariffodeen, the co-founder of Canada Learning Code, Director of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer science Mark Giesbrecht and Toronto Police Services Deputy Shawna Coxon, gave words of encouragement to the hackers and reinforced the impact they could all have.

"Each year, we now consciously take the effort to build a space that welcomes people of all genders and backgrounds through the addition of areas such as a gender-neutral sleeping room or ensuring access to prayer rooms for hackers. Beyond that, we also encourage students to interact with individuals and experiences from different perspectives and improve their empathy,” said William Nippard (BCS ’18). “For this, we partner with various non-profits and service organizations such as the Toronto Police Service and KidsAbility, providing students with Impact Spaces — prompts and problems to encourage hackers to solve real problems. We want our hackers to not only solve their own problems but encourage them to tackle bigger social issues as well."

Many of the hackers are first-timers. StarterHacks ensures that no one feels like they can’t succeed by offering introduction sessions before the hacking begins: Web development 101, UX basics and wireframing, and Fundamentals of business: planning, creating and pitching. This approach gives everyone a baseline in the stream they have chosen. This is based on co-founder Marium Kirmani’s (BSc ’17) experience.

“In high school, I never experimented with coding; I had always envisioned going to medical school. But while I was studying at the University of Waterloo, I began developing an interest in coding through various peers and projects on campus. As I am an experiential learner, a friend suggested trying a hackathon to build my first project, but unfortunately, the experience was not a good one,” recalled Kirmani. “It was intimidating to be surrounded by students who had been coding for years and not feel supported as I debugged my project (still barely knowing what debugging really meant!). We built StarterHacks to be the antithesis of that experience — a fun, welcoming space providing the tools and mentorship for first-time hackers to be successful."

A partnership with the Faculty of Mathematics was the perfect fit. In a changing world, there’s a great need than ever to build an inclusive and diverse workforce, encourage lifelong learning and collaborate across subject areas to solve difficult problems. Researchers across the Faculty build solutions using code to help with problems such as building AI software to help dementia patients, building mathematical models to predict the contamination of water supplies, optimize travel routes and build predictive financial models.

University of Waterloo support went beyond the Faculty of Mathematics. Student and alumni volunteers from Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Arts were involved as organizers, speakers, mentors and judges. In addition, the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business sponsored the event and offered pitching support.

Moving forward, StarterHacks is expanding beyond the annual hackathon at Waterloo. Hackathons with the Toronto Police are in the works, as well as after-school programs in Toronto to help students to solve real-world problems, no matter what their coding skill level, in an equity-based environment.

See the CTV Kitchener news clip: