5th annual ProfHacks hackathon event cultivates ingenuity and creativity

Senior mechanical engineering major Cami Watanabe is hard at work constructing a cube with 50 LEDs. This project was part of Rowan's 5th annual ProfHacks hackathon event. - Contributor / Giselle Onofre

Diligently and patiently, senior mechanical engineering major Cami Watanabe solders another LED connection onto a growing tower of LED lights. It’s 11:48 p.m. on a Saturday night and she’s just soldered her 50th LED onto what will eventually be a compact 5-inch cube of LEDs. She’s been at this since noon and she still has a long way to go.

You’d be wrong to assume that she’s cramming in work for a school assignment. Instead, she’s competing in a 24-hour event called ProfHacks, an annual hackathon event hosted by Rowan’s IEEE chapter in the engineering building. 

2020 marks the fifth year of this annual event. This year’s event was coordinated by dedicated members of the ProfHacks planning committee and a group of volunteers, all led by sophomore electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students Brian Costantino, Nick Gambino and Adam Sorensen. Planning for ProfHacks began in the fall semester, well before the event took place.

Team Leads: Nick Gambino, Brian Costantino and Adam Sorenson – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

“If you stay on top of things and stay consistent with the deadlines you set for yourself, it’s not that bad,” Sorenson said about the task of planning and obtaining sponsors for such a large event. 

ProfHacks 2020 was funded by 12 sponsors including Lockheed Martin, Sphero and Cookie Munchers. 

ProfHacks is open to all high school students, undergraduate students and graduate students. This year, 203 registrants took up the challenge to forgo sleep to program mobile apps, websites or hardware. Although prizes such as Google Home Minis, Oculus VR headsets, Raspberry Pi kits, Sphero BOLTs and Arduino kits serve as an incentive to participate, for many competitors, this is just a bonus. 

A common misconception about hackathons is that you need vast amounts of coding knowledge to participate. This is rarely the case for many attendees. ProfHacks in particular provides a unique experience to its participants. Not every participant is able to complete their project within the 24-hour period, but this is never a huge concern.

ProfHacks fosters an education-first ethos and encourages those without a programming background to experiment with new softwares and hardwares by loaning equipment through the Major League Hacking (MLH) Hardware Lab, and providing workshops throughout the day on topics such as web development, Git, Arduino, Internet of Things (IoT) and more.

MLH Hardware Lab monitored by ProfHacks volunteer and senior ECE major Karlie Naphy. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

One such student that was unable to complete their project was Alex Semler, a Rowan civil engineering alumnus.

“My team and I wanted to create a smart HVAC system for old buildings. It was a pain in the butt. In the process, we realized it would be better to continue spending more time on this properly with more than 24 hours,” Semler said.

There were a handful of other teams that gave up on their projects when the complexity of the task they took on struck them. Nevertheless, they were able to improve their technical skills, meet new people, indulge in free food and partake in other events throughout the evening.

ProfHacks 2020 was filled with planned and spontaneous events that defined the evening. From scavenger hunts to an elevator rescue to Beyblade tournaments, ProfHacks was abundant with chaotic excitement throughout the night. 

“There’s a mixture of creativity, passion and grit at ProfHacks,” said Melvin Sheppard, a senior entrepreneurship and management major and the marketing head for the ProfHacks planning committee. “The people here love what they do, they have the grit for all of the many errors they encounter. And there’s a culture of fun. People who haven’t picked up Beyblades in 10 years are cutting lose and being themselves. Nobody gets to do that anymore.”

Senior mechanical engineering major Kyle Fisher competes in the ProfHacks Beyblade tournament with a Beyblade he designed with a 3D printer and waterjet. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre
Police officers attempt to rescue ProfHacks participants from a broken elevator. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

ProfHacks 2020 also gave competitors more freedom in the projects they could pick. In past years, there has been a singular overarching theme. This year, competitors had the choice of picking among three different tracks: “The Best Hack for Social Good,” “Internet of Things” and “Smart Cities of Tomorrow.”

It’s inspiring to walk around ProfHacks and watch projects come to fruition from a simple idea. Through ProfHacks, high school students Elias Wambugu, Albert Zou and Arya Tschand, created a self-sorting trash bin fashioned from cardboard and sensors that was able to determine whether or not an item was recyclable.

High school students, Elias Wambugu and Albert Zou with their self-sorting trash bin project. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

“Seventy-five percent of all American waste streams are recyclable, but we only recycle 30% of it,” Wambugu said. “The biggest reason that people don’t recycle is that they don’t know whether they should recycle or not.”

Their project, named Sortzy, aims to solve a problem that Rowan University students know all too well. The ingenuity of their project and the team’s final pitch allowed them to win second place in the ProfHacks event. Top honors went to a team of high school seniors that developed a website called Corona Calculated, which provides a real-time data visualization of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Going up against university students with more resources at their disposal is always a daunting task, but these teams of high school students demonstrate that anybody can hone their technical skills to program and build an idea.

“Hackathons are always rewarding even if you don’t win. It is a competition, but it’s also a competition against yourself. It all starts with a thought. You can push your idea as much as you want, but you have to challenge yourself,” said Krishnan Ram, a member of Corona Calculated. 

Engineering student or not, anybody can come up with an idea and build it. ProfHacks shows that all you really need is a little bit of time, the space and a supportive community to help you start.

For comments/questions about this story, email features@thewhitonline.com or tweet @TheWhitOnline.