Hacking the Real World: Donor support gives students hands-on experience in their fields

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This spring, more than 350 students joined in this year’s annual HackUMBC, a 24-hour “tech innovation marathon” where participants were challenged to come up with creative solutions to specific challenges. The slogan: “Dream big. Make it happen.”

Students worked individually and on teams to build projects, or “hacks,” which were judged on technical complexity, elegance, and creativity during an expo at the conclusion of the event.

Contrary to popular belief, not all hacks require computer coding. “We call it an idea marathon,” explains Michael Bishoff ’16, computer science, a founder of HackUMBC. “It doesn’t have to be an app or a computer program.” In the past, participants have built tangible things like pop-up showers and coffee makers. Next year, HackUMBC would even like to incorporate a social good component, challenging students to come up with solutions to societal challenges.

“I’m trying to see where tech could come into play for disadvantaged groups,” says current HackUMBC co-president Celestine Wong, a rising senior studying computer science and social work. “I find a lot of joy in doing good for someone else.”

Wong’s dual major in social work and computer science has fueled her interest in finding real-world intersections between the fields, and she’s not alone. Many hackathons focus on how hacks can make the world a better place. As both Bishoff and Wong point out, these events can be great resume builders, but they’re even better when they create an opportunity to help the community.

The event has drawn interest and sponsorship support from a variety of leading tech companies and government agencies. Dan Hood ’01, computer science, is the chief technology officer for one of those companies, ClearEdge IT Solutions, which provides provides software engineering and data solutions and services. Hood says that for ClearEdge, getting involved with UMBC and the hackathon makes sense — it gives their company a chance to see some of the brightest upcoming students, and they get to help those students by providing learning opportunities and exposure to the career options that await them.

“I think it’s important to support the next generation of the workforce,” says Hood.

The National Security Agency (NSA), a top employer for UMBC alumni, provided “technical talks, mentors, and recruitment opportunities” for students during the event, says Kathy Hutson, NSA’s associate director for human resources.

“NSA and UMBC work closely together to help build the leaders of today and tomorrow to ensure that the Agency can protect and defend the country,” Hutson explained. “UMBC graduates have contributed greatly to our mission and we are proud of all we have accomplished together.”

Tenable Network Security, a firm that provides comprehensive security technology solutions, supports the Hackathon because it values UMBC’s educational initiatives, its students, and its cyber-focused extracurricular activities.

“The platform UMBC provided, which allowed companies to help students with hacking-related questions, was very useful in creating an innovative and collaborative atmosphere,” said Tenable Network Security’s spokesperson.

That innovative atmosphere goes a long way to helping students gain the valuable real-world experience they’ll need to land a job. In fact, those extracurriculars can help students stand out amongst a crowd of applicants.

“While classroom experience is fantastic, we encourage students to engage in personal projects that help them apply the skills learned within the curriculum,” says Tenable Network Security’s spokesperson. “These are qualities of very successful employees at Tenable and something we feel is important for students to realize early on.”

Hands-on experience is one of the chief benefits of HackUMBC, says Bishoff. “It’s like a 24-hour recruiting event,” he explains. “The students who come to these events are passionate about programming. They’re the kinds of people who want to work on weekends.”

Hood adds that the Hackathon gives students the chance to work in a team environment, navigate the stress of a time crunch, and be innovative. “To see [participants] go from nothing to concept to prototype in a day is pretty remarkable,” he says.

See more news coverage: http://technical.ly/baltimore/2016/03/07/5-innovative-projects-hackumbc/ AND http://news.umbc.edu/students-turn-ideas-into-inventions-at-hackumbc-tech-innovation-marathon/

Learn about Hack UMBC: https://hackumbc.org/

HackUMBC was sponsored by Tenable Network Security, ClearEdge IT Solutions, the NSA, McCormick, TowerSEC, Northrop Grumman, PayPal, T. Rowe Price, VentureStorm, Namecheap, Soylent, Google, and Square.

— Meredith Purvis

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