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William & Mary computer science students win top two hackathon prizes

  • An AstÜte group
    An AstÜte group  Top prize winners in HackU, sponsored by Dominion Enterprises, is this team of William & Mary computer science students (from left) Ulises Giacoman, Ben Dykstra, Nathan Owen, Kelvin Abrokwa, with Daniel Burke, Hack4 chairman and Mobile Development Manager for Dominion Enterprises.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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AstÜte is its name. (“And don’t forget that umlaut!” Nathan Owen said, poking two holes of a dieresis in the air with a finger.) And AstÜte was astute enough to win a William & Mary student team the top honors at HackU 4, a hackathon sponsored by Dominion Enterprises.

 Actually, teams of William & Mary computer science students took both first and second place at the coding and app-creation marathon held Feb. 4 and 5 and Dominion Enterprise’s  Norfolk headquarters.

AstÜte was created by a group that included Owen ’17, Kelvin Abrokwa ’17, Ben Dykstra ’17 and Ulises Giacoman ’16. The top prize won the team $20,000 in scholarships.

 Second prize went to HapU, an app created by Michelle Chen ’17, Zhaoliang Duan, Dara Kharabi, Alton Kim and Divya Bathey ’16. Each member of the HapU team won an Apple TV.

Don Snyder, career counselor for natural and computational sciences at William & Mary’s Cohen Career Center, organized a Feb. 11 event to recognize the victories. The William & Mary hackers got together to reprise the presentation of HackU’s top two entries for the campus community (including several members of the computer science faculty) and some visitors from Dominion Enterprises, including Ken Rogers, Dominion’s senior management recruiter, and Daniel Burke, mobile development manager for the marketing services and publishing company.

Rogers noted that HackU 4 drew a field of 10 teams from six universities around the region. Burke, who chaired the hackathon, said the company reaps a number of benefits from the events, in which teams of student coders are invited to create an app in a marathon burst of collaborative programming and creativity.

“It’s a wonderful event. The creative energy that comes away from it is something that we carry deep into our own internal hackathons, actually. It helps us in many ways,” Burke said.

The theme of the hackathon this year was Coding Student Life, and all entries were to focus on some aspect of student-life enhancement. The theme generated a crop of apps similar to each other. AstÜte’s Owen explained the elements that he believes made his team’s app stand out.

“Each app, as you move up in the ranking, became a little more focused and a little bit smaller in scope, an attempt to solve a more specific problem,” Owen said. “It showed that the competition valued a realistic implementation, something that might actually be marketable in the real world — as opposed to something that is extremely ambitious and only may be possible.”

AstÜte’s function is to help students form study groups. “It helps you get work done with the help of friends,” Owen explained during the presentation of the app’s function and form.

The team members gave a collaborative presentation, noting the benefits of AstÜte’s minimalist design (preventing distraction that might stem from nonessential bells and whistles) and the app’s ability to “learn” after repeated use.

“AstÜte is as studious as you are,” Owen said in the presentation. It remembers the “stütes,” or individual study-session dates, a student subscribes to and lists new stütes in order of relevance based on previous usage. Each stüte lists relevant info about the study group: date, time, venue and number of interested attendees.

The second-place app, HapU, provides ideas of what a college student might do with the odd bits of free time in the middle of the day. HapU takes all planned events at a campus and compares them with the student’s location, offering a set of opportunities to spend that 40 minutes between class and lunch.

Neither of the apps are fully implemented and will require more work and testing before they’re released. James Deverick, a computer science instructor who is faculty advisor to the student chapter of ACM the Association of Computing Machinery —  was on hand for the Feb. 11 presentation. Most, if not all, of William & Mary’s HackU team members are ACM members.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Deverick  said. “I haven’t seen their work, yet, but I think it’s a great result.”

Hackathons have become an important part of the computing subculture. Michael Lewis, the chair of the Department of Computer Science, says that a hackathon is a good chance for students to pull together all the things that they’re learned in class and in internships.

“It gives them an opportunity to pull it all together for a project of their own, something more than just a classroom project,” Lewis said. “Plus, there’s the intensity of the competition. They can create something of their own.”