Students Organize Tech's First National Hackathon

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Seeing students huddled around computers for weekends at a time is a regular sight at Tech — but it’s not always for classwork. Sometimes, students are devoting the only two days (and nights) they have off each week to hack.

Hacking has become part of campus computer science culture and has even permeated other areas of science and technology, but “hacking” may not mean what you think. These students aren’t trying to infiltrate a system or breach a security barrier. They are trying to come up with new and innovative ways to look at problems. 

“Hacking means to build something that works quickly and efficiently,” said Pavleen Thukral, a computer science major and co-director of HackGT, which will convene around 1,000 students on Tech’s campus this weekend. 

HackGT is Tech’s first national hackathon, with a first prize bounty of $60,000 and sponsors that include both local startups and global leaders such as Microsoft, Apple, and AT&T. 

“It’s really going to be something amazing, because people will have the access to technology, mentors, and a room full of students who are likeminded to spend an entire weekend building something,” Thukral said.

The basic formula for a hackathon is simple: Give young scientists and engineers 36 hours, food, mentors, and some incentives, and they will spend the weekend creating and innovating. 

“Hacking in this context is disrupting the flow of how things are traditionally done,” said Yogi Patel, a graduate student in biomedical engineering and co-director of Forge, a medical technology incubator program co-founded by students at Tech and Emory University. 

Forge hosted 150 attendees at its first hackathon in August. The event, like Forge, was geared toward the creation of medical devices. The winning team proposed an idea called Chatterbox that prints conversation topics on diapers as a way to guide and promote cognitive interaction between parents and children. Not only did the hackathon give students the chance to design something with a real-world application, it also brought together clinicians, students, engineers, and others from around the city. 

“The end result was pretty awesome, because we not only had teams that won prizes and are now working to turn these ideas into startups, but the event set Tech, Emory, and Atlanta on the map in terms of what we’re able to do as a city for the medical technology world,” Patel said.

External companies are eager to partner with students and capitalize on their talents. In March, AT&T hosted a mobile app hackathon on campus. Last year, Intel sponsored a Code for Good hackathon with a theme of teaching healthy lifestyle choices to combat childhood obesity.   

No matter the theme, hackathons give students the chance to put their skills to the test and hone them even further.

“We’re there to build projects, learn technology, and foster education in the best way we know how — through practice,” Thukral said. 

Though hacking has been gaining more attention in recent years, Tech has been hosting hacking events since at least 2010 with Hungry Hungry Hackers (H3), hosted annually by the Georgia Tech Research Institute. 

Tech’s faculty regularly make national news for hacking of various sorts. In June, researchers in the College of Computing identified a security weakness in Android software. The same group also identified weaknesses in iOS devices and presented on both findings at the Black Hat conference in August. Last year they proved that iPhones could be hacked with what looks like a benign USB charger. Thad Starner, associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing and a technical lead for Google Glass, will provide a closing keynote at HackGT.




  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Kristen Bailey
  • Created:09/19/2014
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016