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Sweet Briar College debuts at Technica, the First All-Women’s Hackathon at the University of Maryland

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What is a Hackathon?

First, let’s dispel a common misconception:  A hackathon is not about cyber crime, hacking into companies or personal information or anything illegal.  Let’s break it down:

“Hackathon” doesn’t (yet) exist in Webster’s Dictionary, but the best way to understand it is how it breaks down.  “Hack” refers to the old fashioned use of the term to create, break something down, a project.  “Thon” refers to an extended collective effort just like a “dance-a-thons”.

Technica, University of Maryland’s first All-Women’s Hackathon

This past weekend, Technica, the University of Maryland’s first all-women’s Hackathon launched at Ritchie Coliseum with over 400 participants.  University of Maryland’s Terrapin Hackers have been national leaders since their inaugural “Bitcamp” hackathon in 2013.

I had the pleasure of witnessing Sweet Briar College’s first visit to a hackathon.  I was particularly delighted to welcome this group as they come from my alma mater which is undergoing a resurgence after nearly facing closure by the prior administration in March of 2015.  Sweet Briar has one of only two accredited Engineering programs at a woman’s college, the Margaret Jones Wylie `45 Engineering Program.

Sweet Briar College students attend their first Hackathon, "Technica" at the University of Maryland.
Sweet Briar College students attend their first Hackathon, “Technica” at the University of Maryland. Left to right: Alicia Wooten, Erika Stepel, Des’Rae Davis, and Ashton Reid.

“This year over 50,000 students will participate in over 150 official Major League Hacking sanctioned hackathons around the globe. The student hacker community has been doubling in size every semester since 2013 and it is clearly here to stay. Hackathons are growing at warp speed,” — Major League Hacking.

Many describe hackathons as tomorrow’s classroom, career fair and even the rebirth of America’s economy.   In this article in the Chronicle of Education (which also features my son, then a high school student), Brian Matthews describes his first experience at a Hackathon being the “frontier of education”.

Hackathons are a movement taking hold across the country bringing together people and ideas.  They can take many forms from technological to social justice to artistic.

“Hackathons have grown to become a global student movement. By fast-tracking the software and hardware development process, hackathons provide students with valuable technical skills they will need in their future careers. Students learn by doing and finish with a final project that has the potential to turn into a real business. Collaborating in a high-stakes environment, students learn how to work effectively on a team. Students meet like-minded peers from around the world and also have a chance to interact with professional engineers and recruiters. Their new motivation and creativity remains after the hackathon, as hacker culture grows and a more diverse array of students travel to other collegiate hackathons to make new friends and win prizes.”

Students arrive at hackathons by car, bus, plane and other forms of transportation (including their parents driving them if they are in middle or high school).  Some hackathons even reimburse for transportation, but all are free to participants.

Sweet Briar College students arrive at their first Major League hackathon.
Sweet Briar College students arrive at their first Major League hackathon.
A view of a hackathon from above.
A view of a hackathon from above.

Students select their “home” for the weekend, a spot at one of many folding chairs and tables.  After some introductory remarks including shared values for a positive group experience, participants have many choices.  Workshops kick off right way offering many opportunities to learn new skills from coding to design to  fun activities.  When I left the Sweet Briar College team, they were in a class to learn python.  Many of the strongest candidates for jobs in higher education today are learning skills outside of the classroom.  Hackathons are a great way to add skills to one’s resume.

Hackathons don’t just offer coding, there are many things to learn. Some teams come in with ideas.  Others arrive as individuals and form teams over shared interests.  Some come out of the weekend with projects including the germination of a business while others are happy to learn new skills and return home.

Hackathons are great for Colleges and Universities because they do not require new resources.  Skills taught at hackathons add to student’s skill sets and make them more employable.   Technology changes so quickly, it is very difficult for academic institutions to prepare curriculum to keep pace.  With hackathons, students have access to the latest technology that some institutions may not be able to provide.

Companies interested in students also become more connected to the Colleges and Universities sending students and hosting hackathons.  These corporate-college relationships often expand into support for other programs, professorships, scholarships and even capital projects.

What is delightful is to see the joy and fun participants have through organized games and shared experiences.

Sponsorship

Sponsors make hackathons accessible to anyone.  Cost is not an obstacle as most are free (some even reimburse for transporation costs).  Sponsors linger through the weekend providing mentorship and getting to know participants personally.  Sponsors also offer feedback on projects during demonstrations on Sundays.

In my work I have the opportunity work with University Relations recruiters from some of the nation’s top companies.  More and more I am seeing them select hackathons as their “student engagement” of choice.

Sponsors of hackathons are able to have informal and formal interactions with participants.  Most hackathons offer a resume database at the end to match interested students with potential companies.  What makes hackathons “tomorrow’s career fair” is that companies can mentor students over the weekend and watch both student’s intellect at work as well as their personal skills.  One recruiter told me, “You get to see their brains at work.”

Showcase vs. Competition

At the end of a hackathon, students have an opportunity to showcase their work over the weekend.  Not everyone participates.  The environment is one of showcasing over a competition.  Prizes are awarded for categories.  Sponsors have the latitude to create categories or to provide special recognition.  Major League Hacking even has a category called, “I see where you are going with that…” and “Punny-ist Web Name”.

When I arrived on Sunday, the vixens were going strong.   Wrapped in blankets, they had smiles on their faces and declared, “WE DID IT!  IT WORKS!”  I was impressed!  Many teams don’t finish the weekend and a large majority do not actually come out with a finished project.  What is even more amazing — and speaks to the quality of the education provided over a weekend — the girls pursued learning a new computer coding language and never dreamed they would have a finished project by the end.  As an alumna knowing the importance of enrollment, it was incredibly gratifying to see their project:  An app for prospective students.

An Alternative Homecoming

At the University of Maryland, my colleagues in University Relations are embracing hackathons as an alternative to homecoming.  We find our alumni (I work in the sciences) relish the opportunity to attend an event exploring technology, the arts, and bringing together students, faculty and corporate leaders.  Hackathons are also a family-friendly opportunity for alumni to bring their children and introduce them to the world of technology.

Finish Line – “Demos” (Demonstrations)

Every race has a finish line and every hackathon has a closing ceremony.   The feeling is more of a campfire than a formal ceremony.  Participants sit in a large circle and sponsors share feedback on the projects they particularly liked.  Industry leaders offer their personal stories and encouragement.

The Sweet Briar College team tidied up their table of water bottles, leftover snacks, notes and laptops and cleared the way for their demonstration.  They created an account on DevPost, a site dedicated to showcase digital portfolios.  A DevPost entry is also the portal to officially representing your college or university at a hackathon and earning points.  Sponsors streamed by their table and the students worked out their pitch.  One described what they had learned, another pointed out the features of their app, another talked about the benefits of a hackathon, another pointed out the benefits of their college.  By happy coincidence, the kit I had used at a recent college fair was in my car and the students put the materials to good use decorating their table.  They were even interviewed by WTOP — Washington’s largest radio station.

The creativity around the room was inspiring!  Participants came up with creations with laser printers.  One team even came up with a way for children to make 3D printable furniture for their stuffed animals, dolls or barbies.

As I have raised money for Technica and the students know me, they were kind to allow me to take a moment in the program to tell the Sweet Briar College story and to acknowledge the students.  I donned a pink “alumna” shirt over my University of Maryland polo for the occasion. The Sweet Briar College vixens earned loud applause and left with trophies wrapped in pink and green (the school colors).

Technica wrapped up with students hugging one another, paying final visits to sponsors and then streaming out to the awaiting buses and their cars.   The Sweet Briar College team had a four-hour drive home, but they said their excitement would keep them awake.  WTOP aired their story on Technica with Sweet Briar students as the lead story:

For more insight on hackathons, please visit my son Kent Heckel’s vlog where he provides a video journey through a hackathon (note – this hackathon was from Friday to Sunday):

Over the past three years, I have seen students create amazing projects at hackathons.  Spending a weekend creating is a wholesome way to have fun while boosting skills.

The students of Sweet Briar told me they are looking forward to Pearl Hacks at the University of North Carolina.

There is a hackathon (sometimes two) nearly every weekend of the year.  Check out one near you!  

Photo credit:  Major League Hacking,

Sweet Briar College hackathon team.
Sweet Briar College hackathon team.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  Stacey is a Senior Director of  in the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences.  She is working with the Department of Computer Science on a campaign for a new building, the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation made possible by  the largest gift in the history of the University of Maryland, $31 million.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

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It’s Never too Late…to find the College of your Dreams

Leaving for College, no Mom is prepared...
Leaving for College, no Mom is prepared…

It was decided.  Or so I thought.

The Terrapin, mascot of the University of Maryland.
The Terrapin, mascot of the University of Maryland.

Throughout my son’s junior and senior year of high school, he had his heart set on the University of Maryland.  This was only natural given that we spent nearly every weekend there.  I work for the University of Maryland and my husband has been a loyal alumnus (Smith School MBA `82) and season ticket holder attending Maryland sporting events since he was a small child (driving from Pennsylvania with his father for games).  Lyn’s passion was infectious and Kent and his brother, Leland, happily attended tailgates, football games, basketball games and enjoyed the special events afforded to loyal donors.

As the child of a staff member working in the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, Kent came along for hackathons, tech-talks and visited some of the coolest companies existing today (Facebook, Google, Twitter…).  Eventually, he was participating in hackathons as a high school student and had his heart set on being a computer science major.   Kent wanted to be a Terrapin.

He wanted so much to be a Terrapin that he didn’t want to apply to other Colleges (though I encouraged him to do so).  The Admissions staff were very encouraging and he felt confident that Maryland was his only choice.  He was okay with a community college option if that didn’t work and didn’t want to consider other Maryland Schools.  Maryland was his top choice.

But that was not to be. The Admissions process at the University of Maryland did not have a sieve large enough for my son to pass through.   He was not accepted (though they were encouraging of the possibility of coming in the second semester).

college pioneers

So, it was settled.  Kent was going to attend our local community college.  Anne Arundel Community College is an exceptional College.  I worked there for five years as Executive Director of the Foundation and Institutional Advancement.  Kent received a scholarship for entrepreneurship in his senior year of College for some of his business ideas.  I knew the faculty there were exceptional and thought the small class sizes would be great for him.  He was going to be a Pioneer.   Or so I thought.

camp leelanau

Kent left for Camp Leelanau in Michigan in June of 2014.  His car was packed with his trusty trunk, clothes and all manner of toys for his time off. He had attended since he was six years old along with his brother and many lifelong friends.  This year he was to be a counselor.  It was a magical summer which I lived through vicariously through his photographs, vlogs, occasional letters and infrequent phone calls.  It was a magical summer.  I looked forward to his return and having him living with us for the fall.  But that was not to be.

Kent pulled into the driveway in August with his car packed to the gills.  I envisioned several days of laundry and unpacking, but that was not to be. His first announcement upon pulling into the driveway was that he was NOT attending AACC and was going to attend Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.   He wanted to be a Panther!

Panther, the mascot of Principia College, Elsah, Illinois
Panther, the mascot of Principia College, Elsah, Illinois

I didn’t even know it was possible to make a College choice so late in the process.  Everyone I knew had children with deposits on file at their chosen schools and most had already left to deliver them.

This was where I discovered the strength of a small, liberal arts College — personal attention.  The Admissions representative for Principia walked us through the process and expressed his enthusiasm over Kent’s application.   Kent’s application was fast-tracked.  We reviewed curriculum, we discussed housing, we ran numbers and ultimately came to the conclusion that this would be an excellent choice.  Kent’s enthusiasm led the way in this regard.  He never even unpacked his car from camp.  He shoved in a few items to decorate his dorm room…and off he went.  None of us have regretted this decision and no one has looked back.

A small, liberal arts College becomes a part of one’s family – even one’s DNA (I’ve written about this in a separate post about my relationship to my alma mater, Sweet Briar College).  Kent’s first year was phenomenal.  I got together with several of Kent’s friends who attended the University of Maryland where I work.  While they were in large lecture halls “teaching themselves”, Kent was exploring the joys of experiential education.  His joy for learning came through every conversation.  I knew we’d made the right decision.

Last week, Kent left for his sophomore year at Principia.  His RAV4 was packed to the gills and he couldn’t contain his beaming smile.  He is a Panther indeed.

Sweet Briar College "Vixens": "There's Nothing You Cannot Do"
Sweet Briar College “Vixens” with the motto, “There’s Nothing You Cannot Do”

This week, students returned to Sweet Briar College.  This historic group of students chose a College facing its future with determination.   These new members of the Class of 2019 want to be Vixens!

This milestone was not a certainty. The former President and Board of Sweet Briar College voted to close the College on March 3, 2015.  These former leaders had given up on the students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and community.  They had given up hope.  But their plan was not to be.

Instead, thousands rallied to raise funds for legal fights to keep the College open.  Against all odds, the suits were successful and a settlement was reached to keep the College alive.  The board members all resigned and the keys were turned over to a committed new board in July, 2015.

Alumnae and friends have visited campus for work days leaving dorms, social spaces, and classroom buildings sparkling.  Faculty and staff – some paid and some volunteer – are filling key spots to launch a new academic year with sound operations.  This is an incredible example of engaged alumni faithful to an institution.

All across America, students are returning to school in the care of faculty, staff, administrators and their community.  For the majority, their choice is certain.  But not everyone is certain.

It is not too late to select the College of your dreams.  I am so grateful that my son followed his heart and made his dream come true to attend Principia College.   Some would have thought it was “too late” to make such a change.

My heart swells with pride seeing the students returning to Sweet Briar College, my alma mater.  Those driving up the driveway this past weekend — and those who will come — are a new part of my family.  They make our dreams come true. So many worked to make their dreams come true to return and graduate.

If there is a doubt in your child’s mind about their choice (or yours), know that there are thoughtful admissions officers who can reach out to help determine a new path.  Small, liberal arts Colleges like Principia, Sweet Briar, and many more can address unique situations with thoughtfulness and care. There is a place for everyone that will feel like home.  Until you find that place, don’t give up hope.

It is never too late.  Some College will welcome your child and your family with open arms.

college welcome back

Students returning to Sweet Briar College warmly welcomed back, 2015.

Resources:

Sweet Briar College Admissions

National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

 

SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during "the last" Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.
SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during “the last” Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement. She raises funds for Saving Sweet Briar, a charitable organization committed to the future of the College  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

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