Students, companies win at annual hackathon
When mechanical engineering major Baker Poling participated in his first hackathon last November, his only goal was to have fun and learn something new. So it was a complete surprise when Poling and his teammates—computer and science engineering majors Noah Charlton, Craig Fouts and Noah LaPolt—earned first place and Microsoft Surface Pro laptops at HackOHI/O with their webcam-based mouse software that makes 3D-modeling programs easier and more accessible to control with just your hand.
“We were all in a state of shock,” said Poling. “We felt very fortunate that the judges liked our project so much because everyone there did incredible work.”
The winning foursome was among the 512 students who participated in Ohio State’s student-led HackOHI/O 2021, the state’s largest hackathon. Though most participants are Buckeye engineering students, the event welcomes students from all universities and majors to work in teams to build something meaningful or solve an industry-sponsored challenge in just 25 hours.
A mashup of ‘to hack’—meaning to cobble together—and marathon, hackathons enable students to gain hands-on experience applying the skills they learn in class, said OHI/O Director Julia Armstrong ’14 who leads the effort to foster a tech culture at Ohio State. As the program’s oldest and premier event, HackOHI/O has grown from 100 students coding in the basement of Thompson Library in 2013 to more than 800 students who filled the Ohio Union Grand Ballroom prior to the pandemic.
“This is an easier way for students to try experiential learning. They don't have to commit to a team or a semester, they can just come for a weekend and try it out,” Armstrong explained. “It is a unique experience where students can apply what they learn in school to produce something they want to share, perhaps with a future employer or on grad school applications.”
Fifty projects were submitted for judging and the chance to earn $15,000 in prizes in the 2021 hybrid event, which enabled participation both in-person at the Ohio Union and through an online portal. A team of 17 students helped bring the event to fruition.
“I'm so proud of our team for managing a truly hybrid event,” Armstrong said. “It completely blended the two modes of participation for the students, mentors and sponsors. Even the judges were a mix of in-person and online.”
No experience required
Armed solely with the idea of replicating a spacemouse—a tool that allows users to use natural hand movements to manipulate 3D objects on a screen—Poling and the rest of the Angry Pixies team built their proof-of-concept software in one day.
“It was a big task, but we all split into three separate groups so it was easily manageable within the 25-hour period,” Charlton said. “Craig did the basic hand-tracking stuff, Noah LaPolt analyzed the different shapes the hand makes and I worked on the application of how to work that into a CAD program.”
As the only non-coder in the group, Poling handled project management, helped with debugging, refined algorithms and presented their project to the judges.
Having a multidisciplinary team was crucial not to just their team’s success, it was key for many of the winning teams.
“A lot of the teams that did well had not only a computer science portion, they also had a physical component that connects between the software and the real world,” Charlton explained.
Other winning projects included an electrobiological interface that contracts and extends a prosthetic hand in response to detected muscle movement, a contactless facial recognition door that enhances safety during COVID-19 for people with disabilities and a visualization resource that enables doctors to monitor prescription drug sales.
Industry-sponsored challenges provide an even more tangible connection to the types of problems students will tackle after graduation and are an effective recruiting tool for companies. HackOHI/O 2021 was fully funded by 18 sponsors, including Microsoft, Honda, American Electric Power, Veeva, Root, ENGIE and Capital One.
More than 44 alumni also participated in the event as mentors, judges and industry representatives.
“A lot of our alumni engage as mentors and interact with our current students to help them get over hurdles,” Armstrong said. “The involvement of alumni and industry partners is crucial to HackOHI/O’s success.”
Following the popularity of its signature hackathon, the OHI/O program introduced spin-off events in 2014, including Ohio State’s first hardware-focused makethon in 2015, as well as a hackathon for high schoolers and a showcase of entrepreneurial ventures by faculty, students and alumni in 2017. OHI/O also partners with student organizations and others to offer hackathons focused on medical devices, social entrepreneurship, big data, computer security and more.
A unique recruiting tool
Bitten by the OHI/O bug as a student when he helped plan the university’s first two makeathons, Honda Data Scientist Eric Bauer ’16, ’19 has stayed involved since graduation as a mentor, judge and sponsor representative. This year he was a judge for Honda’s challenge, which invited students to create a driver safety solution to augment awareness in safety-critical situations or coach drivers to bridge experience gaps.
Bauer and his fellow judges were delighted by the top two challenge entries. The winning project utilized sensors and weather data to assess road conditions and provide a recommended safe speed to drivers. It was created by Ohio State students Colin Aldrich (business), Sylvia Cressman (mechanical engineering), Avi Rez (engineering physics) and Isaac Zachmann (electrical and computer engineering graduate student).
“They had a 3D-printed car built like a little scale model that had some hardware in it and linked up to software that did some analysis,” Bauer said. “It was fantastic. It blew us out of the water.”
Events like HackOHI/O are also a valuable recruiting tool, explained Bauer, who was hired directly from a makeathon he attended as a student.
“The classes and formal training at Ohio State are fantastic,” Bauer said. “But the informal learning gives students two opportunities, one is to showcase their passion. It also shows us they have the ability to work on more unbounded questions where there are different ways to approach it and different answers. That's an important skill in industry so we love to see that and promote it.”
Ohio State alumni are invited to see students’ problem-solving skills in action at the 10th annual HackOHI/O on October 8-9, 2022, to celebrate a decade of hacking, making and student success, and can view the Angry Pixies’ winning project and others at ShowOHI/O 2022 on April 8.
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org