Oglethorpe Senior Racks Up Hackathon Wins

IMG_8825Haider Khan ’15 doesn’t exactly fit the hacker stereotype. But, the Oglethorpe senior, who’s majoring in chemistry and minoring in computer science, recently bested the competition to win two back-to-back hackathons, as well as a start-up competition, all hosted in metro Atlanta. A testament to Haider’s skills and training, the victories have also been lucrative. So far, Haider and his teammates have won a total of $13,300 in cash and prizes.

In layman’s terms, a hackathon is a competition, usually lasting several days, in which groups of developers and other experts collaborate in computer programming to solve a given issue or challenge. The events typically are kicked off with an introduction to the sponsoring companies and a presentation about challenge the competitors will tackle. The sponsoring companies then give the developers access to their technology to create their solution.

Haider’s first competition was the AT&T Mobile App Hackathon, which focused on real public safety issues. Atlanta emergency medical responders, police officers, dispatchers, fire and rescue teams were onsite to discuss with the developers the challenges they encounter in their jobs. In response, Haider and his team built a hybrid mobile-web app called Safety Net to assist EMS responders in large scale disasters by tracking personnel in real time. They were awarded 1st place in Best Overall Public Safety App, 1st place in Best Use of AT&T’s WebRTC API, and 2nd place in Best Use of Telerik Technology.

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Haider (left) with his one of his Charge Forward teammates after their big win.

The next hackathon, for interactive wearable financial apps, was sponsored by Global Payments Inc. and CaixaBank in Barcelona. “At the second hackathon, the theme was wearables,” Haider explained, “so we were given smart watches and were told to come up with novel solutions to five challenges, ranging from ease of payment, user authentication, security, alternative payments, and design for payment services and transactions.” Haider and his team Charge Forward were awarded the $10,000 3rd prize for their smartwatch application that lets the user change credit card payment method with the flick of a wrist and uses NFC technology to process transactions on the spot.

Most recently, Haider competed in Atlanta Startup Weekend, hosted at Coca-Cola Company headquarters. Teams pitched startup ideas to judges (and an audience) and were evaluated on customer empathy (did their idea address a real problem for real people?), execution (did it work?), and their business model (how would it successfully compete in the market?). Haider’s team, GatherCam, pitched their idea and business plan for a program that would compile photos posted on various social media sites by different people at the same event, such as a wedding. Their idea was a true crowd pleaser and won over the judges, earning them 1st place in judge’s scores, as well as the audience choice award.

Haider (second from left) with his GatherCam teammates during the Atlanta Startup Weekend at Coca-Cola.

Haider (second from left) with his GatherCam teammates during the Atlanta Startup Weekend at Coca-Cola.

After graduation, Haider hopes to continue his efforts in creating innovative technology. He plans to move to California to work in Silicon Valley and eventually to start his own technology company. Haider is confident that the knowledge he’s gained while pursuing his education at Oglethorpe, particularly his minor in computer science, has helped him significantly in his recent accomplishments.

“I highly suggest to Oglethorpe students that if they have a passion for technology to take a computer science minor,” Haider advises. “I personally think the tech industry is extremely fun to work in (and) the applications are endless. We are moving into an economy where knowing how technology works is a currency.”

Gates Millennium Scholar Selects Oglethorpe

009Oglethorpe freshman Lila Siwakoti ’17 says that he’s thankful for many things. He should also be very proud of his accomplishments.

Lila was born in a refugee camp in Nepal and immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, thanks to a sponsorship from the International Rescue Committee. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the nonprofit responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster.

“Refugee life is not like a regular life,” says Lila. “You live at home in fear. You have food and medical shortages.” Adapting to a foreign culture and language was rough for him, he says. But over time, Lila and his family settled in to life in the U.S. and he says he is thankful to live here. Lila eventually became fluent enough in English to take AP and Honors classes and credits his religion, Hinduism, with helping him do well in school.

Gates-Millennium-Scholars-logoSo well, in fact, that Lila was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding minority students with significant financial need. This year’s applicant pool for the scholarship was record-breaking, according to Lila. More than 54,000 students applied but only 1,000 are selected each year. To put this into perspective, less than 2% of applicants were accepted this year.

To qualify, students must demonstrate leadership abilities and academic distinction. They must also have two nominations for the scholarship—one for academics and one recommending the student for their leadership qualities. Lila graduated with a 3.9 GPA from Clarkston High School and actively participated in his community through volunteer work.

Lila chose to attend Oglethorpe because of Oglethorpe’s small class sizes. He likes the fact that you are able to visit professors during office hours and they know who you are rather than be a nameless member of the class. Plus, his family is important to him and the campus’s proximity allows him to remain close to them. He considers the scholarship a “blessing” and is currently deliberating on majoring in computer science and minoring in economics.

As part of the scholarship requirements, Lila participates as an ambassador for the Gates Millenium Scholarship program and is currently helping students from his alma mater with the application process. Ultimately, Lila wants to go back to Nepal or Africa and volunteer: “My long term goal is to help people.”

Computer Science as a Science…Not a Computer

Dr. Brian Patterson teaching Computer Science

Dr. Brian Patterson, assistant professor of computer science and mathematics, joined the OU faculty in fall 2011.

I was very excited to join Oglethorpe and have a chance to reintroduce computer science courses to our curriculum. My main goal is to help develop and implement a computer science minor (with a major being a longer-term goal). Such a minor program existed in the past but ceased. Computer science courses were offered again to current students beginning in spring 2011. Other faculty and I have the opportunity to shape a computer science minor that is unique to Oglethorpe.

In pursuing this goal, one relevant question is: how does computer science fit into the liberal arts at Oglethorpe? After all, the word “computer” is in the name of my discipline so it seems reasonable to think of the class being about learning the keystrokes to perform an operation in Excel or how to fix a specific piece of computing hardware.

However, addressing computer science in that way is like addressing astronomy as “telescope science,” or molecular biology as “microscope science.” All three disciplines use tools in an essential way, but all three also include the use of multiple paradigms to solve problems, drawing upon reasoning, logic, analysis, hypothesis testing, and formal problem-solving methodologies. As a combination of mathematical theory, experimentation similar to what is used in the sciences, and design methods from engineering, computer science carves out its own niche. It is much less about the tools used than most people realize. In fact, holding some computer science classes in a computer lab is sometimes counterproductive—the students may be tempted to surf the Internet for noncurricular reasons more than we use the computers to write programs!

One definition of a liberal arts environment is an environment that focuses on developing a whole person, to prepare them for a life—not just a job—after college. It’s very difficult to live and work in a world like ours without using or at least encountering computerized devices. Thus, knowing the principles behind them is useful. Much like how the sciences joined the liberal arts when they became more relevant in a scientific society, it’s time to include computer science in our view of a liberal arts experience.

Computer science is fortunate relative to other disciplines in that, after taking a single course in introductory programming, the student is already more valuable to a potential employer. It is not usually because the student learned the exact programming language we teach at OU (Java) or that the employer needs somebody to do what we learned in the class. It is because the student has been introduced to how to work with a computer and utilize techniques of computer science in a variety of new situations.

Most managers realize that a professional computer programmer spends less than half of his or her day actually writing programs on a computer—the rest is spent thinking and discussing ideas with others. A class in computer science and a liberal arts education to back that up is invaluable for this planning and discussion.

On this topic, I highly recommend “Computer Science and the Liberal Arts: A Philosophical Examination,” by Walker and Keleman (at Grinnell and Swarthmore, respectively). I look forward to integrating computer science into the existing exciting areas of study available at OU as I help develop a computer science minor.

Dr. Brian Patterson, assistant professor of computer science & mathematics, joined the OU faculty in fall 2011. He received his BA from Carleton College and his MS and PhD from iowa State University. His teaching and research interests include artificial intelligence, computation and complexity, graph theory, machine learning, probability, and statistics.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 edition of Oglethorpe’s Carillon magazine.