Penn State student teams awarded 1st, 2nd prizes at Civitas Hackathon

Mary Janzen
February 19, 2015

Two teams of three Penn State students each participated in the Civitas Learning Student Success Hackathon the weekend of Feb. 7 and 8, garnering both first and second prize. During the event, held at the Civitas Learning offices in Austin, Texas, students were tasked with building a product around the themes of learning analytics and student success.

The students, Bryan Adams, Zhaonan (Albert) Guo, Eli Kariv, Nicole Kelner, Christina Platt and Mitch Robinson, were accompanied and advised by Anne Hoag, associate professor of communications and director of the New Media cluster of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor.

Travel expenses for the teams were cosponsored by Information Technology Services (ITS) and Outreach and Online Education. The two sponsoring units have entered into a formal partnership with Civitas Learning, a three-year-old start-up, to roll out a learning analytics product at Penn State that is focused on collaborative learning, online research, and student success.

Taking part in the 29-hour Hackathon were students from across the country formed into seven teams. Each team was provided with a space in the Civitas offices to work on a project of their choosing. Teams were evaluated by a panel of six judges on their project’s impact on student success, the functionality of the app that was developed, and their ability to use the allotted time efficiently.

Kariv, a senior marketing major, said that his team, which also included Adams and Kelner, called itself Project Lady Bird (after a corgi of the same name they met in the Civitas Building). "We built a project that created your academic plan for you based on the classes you're actually interested in taking," he said. "You simply input your major, semester standing, and a few of your interests, and from the classes that you're required to take, it selects classes that you'll actually enjoy." In addition, he explained, "it also records which skills you're learning in each class and gives you badges to reward you for taking different classes."

The team of Guo, Robinson, and Platt called their project Construct. According to Robinson, a junior energy business and finance major, "Construct was a skill-sharing platform that matched students who are trying to learn a particular skill with other students who had a background in that skill, to work on a project and learn from one another." Within the platform, he said, "We implanted a basic badging system and a project recommendation system, and plan on releasing an initial public version in the future."

The Project Lady Bird team was awarded first prize and $3,000 at the conclusion of the event, while the Construct team won second prize and $2,000.

Civitas provided a supportive atmosphere during the Hackathon, according to Kariv, and their staff expressed interest in what the students were building. "There were constantly Civitas engineers walking around, looking to see if they could help in any way," he said.

Hoag explained that she first learned of the Civitas Hackathon from Outreach's Small Business Development Center, who suggested that she mentor a group of students who would represent Penn State in this national competition. Their staff consulted to provide a list of potential students. She provided names of students she knew through the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor and associated student clubs as well.

She said that students interested in entrepreneurship, like many of her advisees, are part of the same type of community that likes to participate in hackathons. "It's almost like a sport," said Hoag. "This is a phenomenon that started in the private sector -- companies doing code sprints. Then they spread to college campuses."

The students who were identified were asked to apply to participate, and a group from ITS including Chris Millet selected the six who attended the Civitas event. Millet is assistant director of Education Technology Services within ITS and Penn State’s Civitas partnership project lead.

Before departing, the students divided into two self-selected teams. "They were fairly evenly skilled in coding and design, the skill sets that you need for a hackathon," said Hoag.

She and Millet met with the students to brief them on the basics of learning analytics, a field of research aimed at evaluating and improving student success.

"I really loved working with my team," said Kariv, noting that it was made up of one designer, one information sciences and technology major, and one marketing major. "I was worried about how we'd all work together," he said, "but our team dynamic was really fun and we pushed ourselves to build something that we had no idea how to build before the weekend."

Referring to Civitas Learning, Kariv said, "It was great working on our idea side by side with a company that was doing very similar things and being able to get their feedback about our idea and refine it the entire time."

Asked whether he felt that he benefited from participating in the Civitas Learning Hackathon, Kariv said, "Unbelievably so. I'm so appreciative that Penn State made this opportunity possible for us and I feel like I gained a lot from the entire weekend from technical skills, the ability to work in a team with a tight deadline, and a lot of knowledge about the education technology space."

Robinson expressed similar enthusiasm for taking part in the event, saying, "We are really lucky to be at a school like Penn State that makes these sorts of opportunity even possible for students. It was an incredible weekend—an opportunity to build our own skills while working on difficult problems in educational technology. We can't thank Penn State Outreach enough for making this weekend even possible."

Reflecting on the impact of providing support for the students to attend the Civitas Hackathon and of supporting student innovation generally, Millet said, "Events like this are really authentic learning experiences for students."

Especially during this recent hackathon, Millet said, students were provided with an opportunity to take a real-world problem and try to apply the skills that they gained in college and their creativity to solve that problem. "The problems that they were solving while they were in Austin are very much problems that Penn State has, that we're trying to solve in partnership with Civitas Learning," he said.

"I think that going into the workforce, they're going to have quite an advantage, having had this experience," noted Millet. He explained that hackathons are becoming more and more prevalent, and participating in one can be compared to attending a job fair. "Actually," he said, "some of these hackathons are increasingly being used by recruiters as a way to find talented students."

In terms of specifically inviting students to apply their skills, creativity, and ability to handle novel situations to work centered around learning analytics and student success, Millet said, "It's really important."

"Learning analytics will only ever be successful if the students are directly involved in the analytics programs and student success programs," Millet explained. "At Penn State, what we're hoping to do—starting with this group of students that we sent out to this hackathon—is get them, on an ongoing basis, more directly involved with the work that we do around learning analytics, to make sure that we understand what their needs are and what resonates with them in terms of programs that meet those needs, to make sure that they’re successful."


Read more about this event in Civitas Learning’s press release.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 20, 2015