'Hackathon' taking place this weekend

By James Kilborn | 4/12/18 2:25am

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GVL / Emily Frye Becky Oppman checks her grades on blackboard on Sunday October 15, 2017.

On Saturday, April 14, Grand Valley State University will host hackGVSU, a computer programming event, or “hackathon,” that will give high school and college students an opportunity to improve their computer coding skills. The event is in conjuncture with Blackboard Inc. and will focus on improving Blackboard Learn, allowing students to practice coding on a web application with which many are familiar. 

Szymon Machajewski, an affiliate professor in GVSU's School of Computing and Information Systems who is leading the event, sees it as an opportunity for students to expand their computer programming skills by tinkering on an application they use in their daily lives. 

“Hackathons are casual, party-like events, which make you think outside of the box while collaborating with others,” Machajewski said via email. “Given a general goal, instead of just seeing problems, you start to imagine opportunities. Our tag line for this event is 'ideas worth coding,' which suggests that the hackathon is primarily about generating new ideas. They may not get implemented into programs at this event, but they may be a start of a new product, service or a career.” 

Machajewski also spoke about experiences he’s had attending programming events in the past.

“Personally, I enjoy participating in hackathons,” Machajewski said. “I own a few Echo devices I won during Amazon Alexa hackathons. I also got second place in last year’s Blackboard World Hackathon, so I know the fun of a competitive coding event from experience. 

"In addition to free food, $100 Amazon web services and a free domain name, each visitor to hackGVSU will be able to suggest ideas and get involved in design thinking conversations. Right now, on Twitter we are inviting ideas on how to improve Blackboard with the #hackGVSU tag.”

Competition will be a major feature of the event, as students will participate in teams with prizes awarded to the best performing groups. Machajewski sees the fast-paced environment as conducive to learning and establishing solutions to existing problems. 

“Hackathons use gamification principles to put a new light on the skill of coding,” Machajewski said. “With a little competition, time crunch and team collaboration, new programmers experience coding as a creative burst. They are memorable events where you can get noticed and learn. 

"Blackboard developers will be on site to provide learning sessions. Since we published on our website sample code, participants do not have to work from scratch. They just need to make adjustments and add on features.”

Tinkering with Blackboard Learn presents a unique opportunity for students, as the application has drawn ire from students in the past. By applying computer programming skills toward modifying the program as well as learning from Blackboard developers, students attending the event will gain a behind-the-scenes perspective of the web application and the coding that enables it to function. 

“When trying to improve a technology, it is important to be familiar with the existing system,” Machajewski said. “Students at GVSU use Blackboard often, and they understand the business process and user experience involved. This makes creating new integrations, adding content or improving how it works more meaningful. It may be easy to complain about how Blackboard works, but it would be a lot of fun and provide satisfaction to create solutions that help you and others who will use them after you graduate.”

Machajewski sees computer programming as an increasingly important skill, as businesses from all sectors of the economy continue to employ computer scientists and software developers. 

“Programming or coding, in any language, is a basic skill that turns a consumer into a creator,” Machajewski said. “Most professional companies, even when they are not specifically software businesses, employ people whose job it is to code on the web, in M.S. Office applications or in other areas. Many organizations, such as code.org, promote coding as a top priority skill for future professionals because it is not well covered in our school systems.”

The hackGVSU event will be the first of it’s kind on GVSU’s campus. The event will start Saturday, April 14, at 8:30 a.m. and will be held at the Mary Idema Pew Library. Students are encouraged to register early for the event at bit.ly/hackGVSU

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