Computer wizards converge on LSU to test their skills

With cases of energy drinks, pillows, blankets and, of course, their laptops, about 75 students descended on Coates Hall on LSU’s campus this weekend to compete in the 24-hour GeauxHack hackathon.

The group of college students from all parts of the country came for the chance to compete in teams for the best invention of the day, with the winners receiving bragging rights and scoring new tablets.

The competition involves writing computer code and coming up with innovative products. Early in the day on Saturday, teams were busy strategizing.

One group was exploring designing an app that would organize emails based on keywords to allow the user to see what takes up most of their emails.

Another used a computer and camera to manipulate an animated arm on the computer screen as they talked about making a musical instrument to be played only through hand motions detected by the camera.

GeauxHack is one of more than 50 hackathons the company Major League Hacking will put on this year, aimed at helping young computer science students and hobbyists gain valuable experience in the field.

Jon Gottfried, a co-founder of the company, said the all-night event at LSU’s campus will give students the kind of practical experience they can’t always get in the classroom.

He said hackathons are about creatively experimenting and building and ultimately letting the students grow and learn without the obligations a class or job might bring.

The events are not 24 hours spent staring into blinking computer screens and working out intricate computer codes, though. Time was set aside for midnight pizza followed by a “possible Nerf gun fight and speed Jenga tournament.”

LSU computer science sophomore Howard Wang was a driving force behind bringing a hackathon event to LSU. He reached out to Major League Hacking to host an event after attending a similar hackathon on MIT’s campus last year.

With the help of friends, fellow computer science students and a faculty adviser, he got the ball rolling for the GeauxHack hackathon at LSU.

Wang said organizing the event has taught him a lot about the tech industry in and around Baton Rouge and the event is bringing more awareness to the need for tech-savvy workers in the area.

Samantha Fadrigalan, who helped to organize the event, said it was important for students to get practical experience that compares more closely with real-world work.

Hackathons help turn computer science students into tech developers, she said.

The students who can attend hackathons for free, paying only for transportation, have access to loads of technology. In some cases, the innovative products they make at a hackathon have the potential to be developed and, in some instances, can even be the start to businesses.

One hour into the competition on Saturday, most teams were still brainstorming ideas and playing around with the cool gadgets supplied by organizers.

Surprisingly, most teams don’t go into the hackathon with an idea for a product, Gottfried said.

Some teams huddled together throwing around ideas; others took to the Internet for inspiration.

A group of three Texas A&M students was unsure of its design but confident it would be good. One of the students, Devan Huapaya, said he had done well in a couple of hackathons prior to GeauxHack and was pushing himself harder each event to get better.

The Texas A&M students said their desire to create and the experience was what brought them on the 5½- hour journey from College Station.

Others students didn’t have such a long journey, like the group of five LSU students who were happy to see the tech industry making a mark on Baton Rouge.

Computer science sophomore Phil Breland said he has been programing since he was 13 and is happy the younger generation has opportunities like hackathons to obtain the experience needed to succeed at computer science.

He said the tech industry is fairly new to Louisiana, but it is bringing with it tons of jobs and students participating in hackathons like GeauxHack are gaining valuable experience for those jobs.

“We are testing our limits and learning from each other,” Breland said.