Why Hackathons Are Great Opportunities to Continue to Learn Coding

Coding for Beginners
Written by:
Claire Wicher
Published on:
January 8, 2019

Explore why hackathons are considered excellent platforms for continuous learning. The post delves into the unique opportunities these events provide for skill enhancement and knowledge expansion.

We asked a UK-based programmer to provide an assessment of her experience attending hackathons. Check out her experience and, if you’re a programmer thinking about attending one, a professional wanting to continue your professional development, or someone thinking about becoming a programmer, don’t hesitate to contact us at the main App Academy site.  

I’m currently sat at home, reminiscing about where I was this time last year.

It was Hack Manchester 2017, and I was one-third of probably the most inexperienced coding team, surrounded by 250 developers, computer science graduates and boot camp students, waiting for the results of the competition.

Hack Manchester is a 25-hour coding competition, open to teams of up to four people. Sponsors set challenges, and you, as a team, have a race against the clock to develop a response to one or more of those challenges and submit your solutions to an expert judging panel.

I’ve been a part of Hack Manchester for several years, although usually as a volunteer helping to manage the night shift. As a self-taught coder (for fun), my skillset was far beneath that of the average competitor, but I still joked every year that one day I wanted to give it a go.

In 2017 I was training to be a Computer Science teacher in Secondary schools, and I convinced two of my fellow PGCE students to sign up to the hack as ‘CPD’, and it was probably one of the best things we ended up doing that year.

We entered three challenges in total, although two were entered using the same code. These were the requirements:

Texecom: Use our network of wireless sensors to show us something interesting about the behaviour of people at Manchester Science Festival and the Texecom head office. Come up with ways to extract, visualise, analyse and pool the data gathered from the sensors deployed across the Great Western Warehouse and our own offices.

Dunhumby: We challenge you to use technology to enhance the retail experience for a customer in the home or in store. This could be anything from mapping the most efficient way around a supermarket given a customer’s shopping list, to a home automation app that creates an alert if you’ve run out of orange squash based on your previous shopping habits.

(We used the same submission as Texecom for this challenge)

Ombudsman: Your challenge is to create something that will make a consumer even angrier when registering a complaint. We want you to create the most frustrating, irritating, intolerable and anger-inducing complaint experience. Be careful though, if you make it too infuriating people might not actually register the complaint, so you will need to entice them to complete the torturous process. You could Gamify complaint registration, you could create an Alexa skill as a virtual ombudsman. No one needs to tell them that your game might be rigged or your virtual ombudsman is obnoxious, or you could just slap the complainant with a foam hand every time they make a complaint. Surprise us & them with your evil genius.

While most teams were seasoned developers, using cutting-edge technologies and combining programming languages with sophisticated frameworks and API’s, here were we, three trainee teachers, creating visuals using Python’s Turtle module

While our solutions were not elegant or advanced, we were really proud of what we had managed to come up with. See, a hackathon truly values the taking part and learning experience its teams go through. You are judged fairly with your starting point taken into account, and overcoming obstacles is all part of the process.

After 25 hours of frustration, Googling solutions and finding alternative approaches, we submitted our solutions and awaited the results. During the awards ceremony, we were ecstatic to see we had made the top three entrants into the Texecom Challenge (which is the one we put the most effort into and spent the most time on). We had worked quite closely with the Texecom team throughout the competition, and they had been invaluable in helping us understand how to access the data from the sensors. Our solution was to use the data to create a visual representation of the busiest areas in a building. We wanted it to look pretty, but have it serve a purpose. While our initial thoughts were to use the solution to help people avoid congestion, especially when suffering from anxiety, we knew that it could be used for lots of other purposes too.

In the end, we won! Being commended on our lack of experience versus what we had produced over the 25 hours, we were delighted to have our efforts recognized in front of hundreds of professionals.

Hackathons as CPD for Computer Science Teachers - Texecom Challenge Winners
Hackathons as CPD for Computer Science Teachers - Texecom Challenge Announcement

So what’s the benefit of entering a hackathon over coding at home?

  • You’re pushed out of your comfort zone. Too often the challenges we face in our classrooms are problems we have either developed ourselves, have seen before, or come with a sample solution we can refer to. Hackathons don’t provide this luxury, and you have no idea what you might end up facing.
  • You can be more creative! The problems we usually face in the classroom can be quite simplistic and/or restrictive. They’re presented hand in hand with a specific learning objective (using loops/selection etc) and even step-by-step tutorials meaning everyone ends up with the exact same code. Hackathons allow you to approach the problem in your own way, and challenges are often open enough to allow very different solutions to the same problem.
  • It’s fun! It’s also stressful and you don’t get much sleep, but you’ll be thankful for the experience when it’s over!
  • You get to meet industry professionals. From the businesses setting the challenges to your fellow contestants, you’ll have the opportunity to see how developers work in Industry. While competition is on the cards, many other teams will be happy to show you how they work through solutions and support you in your design process, something that’s often ignored in the restrictive classroom environment.
  • SWAG!

But what if there aren’t any hackathons near you? Why not run your own! Connect with your local Computing at School Hub and set aside a weekend for some coding fun. If joining a big hackathon isn’t your thing, here are some alternative ideas:

  • Run a one-day hack with your local CAS Hub. You don’t need sponsors and SWAG, just have someone set a challenge or two and then get those creative juices flowing. You don’t even need prizes, just enjoy showcasing your solutions to the other teachers/teams.
  • Run a practice hack using the NEA challenges. Realistically these are too restrictive for your average hackathon, but if too much freedom puts you off, why not get together with a group of other teachers and see who can come up with the best NEA solution in the shortest amount of time. You’ll be thankful for the prep work when it comes time for your students to give it a go as you’ll have the experience of already trying it for yourself.
  • Run a hack for your students! If you’re still not keen in taking part yourself, why not try and facilitate one for your students instead. You may need to provide sample solutions for low-ability and SEN students to use as a starting point, but this can be a great activity to allow your students to let loose and have some fun with their coding.

Have you taken part in a hackathon for your own professional development? Let us know how you got on in the comments below.

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