Penn State IT Supports Learning through HackPSU

April 17, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At its core, HackPSU has always provided opportunities for students to go beyond what they’ve learned in their classes and continues to offer more choices over not just what, but how they’re learning.

Ideally, the projects created by competitors at Penn State’s 24-hour hackathon will lead to innovative solutions for real-world problems and make them more desirable hires as they transition into their careers, said Michael Kubit, vice president for information technology and chief information officer.

“Two important pillars at Penn State are transforming education and driving digital innovation, and events like HackPSU are shining examples of those pillars,” Kubit said at the opening of this spring’s event on April 7, held in the Business Building on the University Park campus. “At its core, HackPSU is about providing an opportunity to put technology to work in a new way.”

To kick off the hackathon, Kubit encouraged the capacity crowd to “take advantage of this opportunity and surround yourselves with the other brilliant minds who are here.”

He wasn’t just talking about their peers. A handful of Penn State IT professionals were on hand to help lead the 650-plus student hackers, primarily from the University Park campus, to code their way toward solutions for real-world problems.

Peering over hunched shoulders and across desks littered with circuit boards, partially constructed computer towers, mazes of wires, empty potato-chip bags and crushed soda cans, IT professionals such as Shawn Smith, the director of software engineering, had one of the best views of the innovation taking shape.

Student hackers seized the opportunity to create a gamut of projects at the bi-annual competition, leaning on the professionals when they needed them.

“It was really great to see what these teams came up with,” said Christy Long, who serves in an advisory capacity to HackPSU’s executive team. “The diversity of projects was impressive, ranging from game design to virtual-reality hacks. Many students expressed interest in wanting to continue building on their projects.”

Long, who’s leading Penn State’s Cloud Program, took time during the judging to explore many of the projects, including a “hacked” stuffed animal that works as a sleep monitor for children, a radio-controlled car that relies on ultrasonic sensors to avoid obstacles, and a “magic mirror” that uses facial recognition to recommend style choices based on current trends, among other features.

“Seeing what people can do in 24 hours helps me see what I can do for the rest of my life,” said Sophia Beyda, Penn State freshman and HackPSU communications director. “I love creating new things and innovating. In this whole hackathon culture, everyone is so supportive of each other. It is a competition, but it doesn’t really feel like that.”

Penn State students Yuya Ong, Vince Trost and Vamshi Voruganti, who worked on the “magic mirror,” have competed together for three years and were well-versed with one others’ skill sets. This familiarity between teammates led to a fluid 24 hours in which they developed the hardware and fine-tuned the software to come closer to their goal of revolutionizing the beauty industry.

Ong, Trost and Voruganti, who are members of Nittany Data Labs, said they liked that they weren’t being graded or getting class credit for competing.

“Taking classes and going and taking tests, you’re incentivized to get the grade rather than to learn,” Voruganti said. “Hackathons hack that system and break that rule where you’re incentivized by creating value for yourself.”

Penn State senior and HackPSU co-executive director Mayank Makwana said he thinks a lot of value for students comes with the educational aspect of the event. Workshops on virtual reality, application development, hardware prototyping, cybersecurity and cryptocurrencies were available for participants, in addition to the resources provided by Penn State IT and other sponsors including Apple, Google and General Motors.

“Right now with tech, you see so many uses,” Makwana said. “Now people are noticing, 'if I want to succeed, I have to know technology.'

“You’re not going to learn how to code in a marketing class, but in your industry, you’re going to be doing stuff like Facebook advertising, maybe Google ad work,” Makwana added. “All this very tech-heavy stuff that you don’t do in your classroom. How do you tackle that without forcing it in the classroom?”

It’s an easy answer: You attend an event like HackPSU.

Learn more about HackPSU at hackpsu.org. Learn more about Penn State IT at it.psu.edu, or follow Penn State IT on Facebook and Twitter (@PennStateIT).

  • HackPSUjudging18

    Vice President for Information Technology and Chief information Officer Michael Kubit (left) browses student projects at HackPSU following the 24-hour hackathon, held April 7-8, 2018, on Penn State's University Park campus.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated April 18, 2018