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The Simmons Voice

The Student News Site of Simmons University

The Simmons Voice

The Student News Site of Simmons University

The Simmons Voice

First Simmons hackathon: a weekend of coding and creativity at SharkHack

By Alison Berstein
Staff Writer

Who knew sharks were such scientists?

During an exciting 24 hours between Friday and Saturday evening, around 50 college students from the Boston area convened on the Simmons academic campus to create apps, websites, and other tech-based projects.

Welcome to SharkHack,  Simmon’s first hackathon, a 24-hour-long event where participants created “hacks” (projects such as games and apps) within a set amount of time.

Selfie with the event co-chairs
The creative team that brought SharkHack to Simmons with Provost Kate Conboy and Dean Eileen Abels. (Photo by Alison Bernstein)

“The goal is to increase programming skills, to network, and to just learn something new,” said Karina Bercan, one of the four co-chairs of the event.

Participants were sorted into teams based on the type of project they wanted to create. Each team, which was named after a species of shark, worked with a mentor—a Simmons professor, tech-based field worker, or other industry professional.

“It’s definitely an experience,” said Alex Rass, an engineer at Twitter and mentor for SharkHack. “Every [hackathon] I feel is a little different, depending on the people you have, your sponsors, all that jazz.”

“I love coming to these,” added Diane Williams, a serial entrepreneur and a mentor. “The creativity is off the charts. It’s so encouraging.”

The first recent Simmons event to be held overnight in the academic buildings, SharkHack encouraged the role of women and individuals of other gender identities in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“We were really thinking about women in the workforce,” said Simmons student Meghan Corbett, whose team—the Hammerhead Sharks—created a website to outline users’ strengths and weaknesses in the job interview process. “We wanted something for ladies. We compiled a list of things important to women just starting out.”

The participants, many of whom had never participated in a hackathon before, were limited only by the clock and their own imaginations.

“This brings in a lot for us. The CS department is so small that it’s great that we can get companies and mentors to see us,” said co-chair Caitlyn Gemma.

Simmons computer science professor Nanette Veilleux served as the faculty adviser, entrusting the planning and execution of Shark-Hack to its four student co-chairs: Karina Bercan, Caitlyn Gemma, Clare Pak, and Katie Sittig-Boyd.

As the sun set on Friday afternoon, the event’s keynote speakers—both Simmons alumnae of the class of 2011—advised the audience on the importance of confidence, competency, and criticism.

“This is a conversation,” began Betty (Elisabete) Baker, a software developer for Education First. “As you have your wins and your mistakes, I hope you have a conversation. It’s about us staying in tech.”

“At Simmons, we’re all about finding your voice,” she said (which is good, considering the name of our school newspaper).

Fellow keynote speaker Rebecca Slatkin urged programmers to have faith in their abilities despite the competitive nature of software development. “It’s competitive but not critical of yourself,” she said. “Being able to take criticism is so important. Don’t be afraid to ask. The only way to get better is by throwing yourself in there.”

“It should never be personal,” continued Slatkin, now an iOS tech architect at Universal Mind. “You are who you are. Write great code. Do your best.”

Baker reminded the audience to view criticism as a critique of someone’s work, not of themselves.

“You need to be able to separate your self-worth from your day-to-day work,” she said. “Even though you may not feel it in that moment, you have worth. You have to remember that. You have strength.”

Picture of the mentors and sponsors
Three cheers for the Simmons’ hackathon mentors and sponsors! (Photo by Alison Bernstein)

The teams certainly displayed their strength by dishing out clever and creative apps, games, and websites, an especially impressive feat given the time constraint and the fact that some participants were working with a program that they had never previously used.

The Angel Sharks created a mini web app called World Clock, which explores various time zones around the world. The user selects a listed country to see what time it is there. Because the team members realized that students travel to and are from all around the world, they wanted their hack to display time zones conveniently.

The Goblin Sharks created a roleplaying game called Shark Knight, which tells the story of an ill-timed oil spill. The user controls a shark on a quest that has multiple outcomes, depending on the dialogue that the user chooses.

Simmons student Megan Ludgate and her team created DoggieTracks, a mobile app that tracks a user’s daily interactions with their dog, such as when the user walks or feeds the dog.

“This was a challenging project,” Ludgate said of the app, which was inspired by the team members’ own dogs. “It was an awesome learning experience.”

Other hacks included “b-positive,” a blood donation app, and “What’s up, Doc,” a website tracking professors’ availability on a given school day.

Provost Katie Conboy addressed the proud programmers on Saturday afternoon: “I hope this is the first of many such events at Simmons.”

The learning certainly didn’t stop once the “time’s up!” call came. Baker encouraged today’s upcoming programmers to uphold consistency in their work and learning.

“This is a great career to have. It gives us a lot of tools and resources that let us shape the lifestyles we want,” she said. “Continue to learn. Build your own career and skill set.”

Prizes were awarded for hacks in select categories, which were backed by sponsors.

The Zebra Sharks won the “Socially Minded” prize for their app Anti-Penpal, where users discuss current issues with someone on the other end of the spectrum on that issue.

“You’re encouraged to keep it civil and intelligent. It gives users a perspective,” said Zebra Shark member Becca Govoni, a Northeastern student. “You talk with someone you would never talk to.”

Added team member Sarah Bobski, “We want to encourage more long-form discussion.”

The “Game Hack” prize went to the Goblin Sharks for their Shark Knight game, which was based on Simmons’ very own mascot.

Team Lemon Sharks took home “Web Hack” for their weather-based app that emits an LED light of certain color depending on the temperature of an inputted region.

The “Popular” vote went to the Crocodile Sharks for their translator website Trumpify, a political translator app.

Hungry for more? Boston offers plenty of opportunities for tech-based events and general networking.

“There are meetups for every conceivable thing,” said Martha Huntley of WeGush, one of SharkHack’s sponsors. “It’s really easy on your budget and it can build your contacts. Build your sphere and it will just compound.”

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