HackUMBC goes virtual in a big way, attracting over 1,000 students

By: Megan Hanks Mastrola
Nov 23, 2020

More than 1,000 students from institutions across the country and around the world—from as far away as Kazakhstan, Albania, Spain, and Nigeria—logged onto their computers for a 36-hour hackathon organized by UMBC students, November 13-15.

HackUMBC’s events typically draw huge crowds overflowing conference spaces. This year, the event was held virtually for the first time due to COVID-19. HackUMBC President Anuhya Challagundla ‘21, information systems, says that she was pleased to see participation remain so strong. 

Young woman sits in front of a brick building and tree in the autumn. She wears a long-sleeved t-shirt with a logo for hackUMBC.
Anuhya Challagundla. Photo courtesy of Challagundla.

Challagundla explains that the HackUMBC team was able to connect participants with each other through the HackUMBC Discord channel launched the week before the event. There, they formed teams and discussed ideas for hacks under the themes of connection, healthcare, education, equity, and hobbies (as well as a general track to allow for limitless creativity). 

Collaboration in virtual environments

Participants developed web, mobile, desktop, and hardware projects. While independent participants were allowed, students were encouraged to form teams of 2-4 people to make it a collaborative experience.

Perry Vinner ’21, information systems, an organizer on the HackUMBC team, created a virtual campus that was based on UMBC in the Gather.Town platform. The virtual UMBC featured tents and other spaces that allowed participants to move from one place to another easily. Over the course of the weekend, approximately 2,700 viewers tuned in to experience a livestream of the online event. 

The event also featured an interactive online space to access resources and event elements beyond the competition, including a career fair, a hallmark of HackUMBC. 

Innovative spirit

HackUMBC alumni judged entries based on 3-minute videos that each team submitted. They evaluated the projects’ creativity, technical difficulty, usefulness, and professional “polish.” The judges were able to speak directly with their top three teams to learn more about the hacks that they created and to determine the winners of each category. 

A team of UMBC students developed Office Hour Bot, a streamlined way to hold online office hours when face-to-face meetings are not possible. The bot, which was created using Discord, allows people to take on various roles within the platform, like professor, teaching assistant, and student. Office Hour Bot allows faculty and teaching assistants to open and close their office hours, and prioritizes students in the queue depending on a range of criteria. It also prevents students not in a course from joining the office hours designated for that course.

Another student team developed a video calling platform that matches people into group calls in real-time. The Dinner for 4 Strangers app matches individuals based on mutual interests and allows them to connect via video calls. The app provides participants with prompts and ideas to guide conversations, as a way to establish connections and have meaningful interactions with each other. Creators of the app how it will help users combat loneliness and isolation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A third hack the judges recognized was Expen, a budgeting app that allows users to track and chart their income and expenses. Expen also allows users to scan barcodes of items, rather than having to manually enter product details, and to search for items that are already in the system.

Unique prize for collaboration tech

T. Rowe Price, one of HackUMBC’s top sponsors, invited students to develop a hack that addressed the theme of collaboration technology. Each member of the winning team in this category would receive a unique prize: a chance to connect with a professional in their field.

The Best Use of Collaboration Technology prize went to the Office Hour Bot team, including Gabby Khan ‘22, computer science; Oliver Dininno ‘22, computer science; and Eddie Nieberding ‘22, computer science. T. Rowe Price representatives had an opportunity to meet with Khan, Dininno, and Nieberding to learn about Office Hours Bot during HackUMBC. In early 2021, the company will schedule a personalized virtual meeting for each student with a member of their Technology Management Committee, based on areas of interest.

Benefits of hybrid event 

Thanks to the student organizers’ innovative spirit and ability to pivot to an online format, Challagundla says, “It was a super fun and exciting event.” It also had unexpected benefits, allowing more students to participate and to establish connections with companies, regardless of where they or those employers were located.

Even if the event can be in person next year, she says, it will likely be a hybrid event to replicate the most valuable elements of the online format.

Banner image: The virtual UMBC town that the HackUMBC organizers created online.

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