Creative Students Get Their Hack on at PennApps

On Friday, Sept. 4, nearly 2,000 of the world’s top young computer scientists and engineers assembled in the bowl of the Wells Fargo Center. They were awaiting the start of PennApps, the world’s largest collegiate hackathon.

In the opening ceremony, Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, put a fine point on the purpose of the event.

“Hacking is the noblest form of research,” Kumar said.

Though it conjures images of cybercrime, for engineers, “hacking” is the embodiment of the ingenuity it takes to solve a problem. Over the next 36 hours, PennApps contestants vied against one another to make the best possible pieces of software and hardware—and were also teaching and learning from their peers.

While the crucible of a competition featuring more than $60,000 in prizes is a motivator, students, including hundreds of high-schoolers, come to PennApps to push the boundaries of what they can do with computers.

“Whether you win the grand prize or just make your first working program and put it on the App Store, both of those are equally gratifying,” says Pranav Vishnu Ramabhadran, PennApps’ director.

Ramabhadran, a senior in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, a dual degree program with the Engineering and Wharton schools, is carrying the torch for PennApps, an organization founded in 2009. The student group has hosted 11 such competitions in the past.

The hackathon has evolved significantly since it launched with just 17 teams, which were all from Penn. This year’s program, PennApps XII, featured hundreds of groups, hailing from around the nation, India, Denmark, Singapore, Australia, and more.

Hacking is really taking the best of what you have around you and making something new. It’s taking the normal stuff and doing something unconventional with it.

Pranav Vishnu Ramabhadran, PennApps’ director

The weekend’s proceedings—from teams’ travel costs, to catering, to the space itself—were entirely made possible though sponsorships arranged by the students behind PennApps. Foremost among these sponsors was Comcast, the owner of the Wells Fargo Center, which was eager to show its arena’s new technical capabilities and scout rising talent.

As part of their recruiting efforts, other sponsors were happy to lend or donate their hardware as testing platforms, and PennApps provided a parts library, plus soldiering and 3D-printing stations, to help contestants build their own. Still, many contestants’ suitcases were stuffed, not with clothes, but the chips and wires necessary to realize their ideas.

Sponsors also incentivized participants with a series of prize categories for using their technology. Apple watches, Microsoft tablets, and more fungible rewards, like bitcoins or gift cards, were in play.

New this year was the inclusion of routes, or thematic categories contestants could enter their projects into. The top “Health” hack was a program that could help detect skin cancer by taking a picture of a mole, while the top “Civic” hack provided an easier way of filling out various government forms. Runners-up for the best overall hack included a tool for measuring a person’s gait and a search engine designed for codebases.

Fifth Sense

The grand prize winning team, Fifth Sense, developed an assistive device that connects to smartphones and allows input and output in braille.

The grand prize winning team, Fifth Sense, developed an assistive device that connects to smartphones and allows input and output in braille. Carnegie Mellon sophomores Edward Ahn, Cyrus Tabrizi, Rajat Mehndiratta, and Vasu Agrawal also took home prizes in two other categories, including best “Hardware” hack.

It was this combination of ingenuity and problem solving that impressed the panel of judges—made up of representatives from local tech and venture capital firms—and is sending the team on to an invite-only hackathon at Facebook headquarters.

It also embodies the envelope-pushing spirit of PennApps.

“Hacking is really taking the best of what you have around you and making something new,” says PennApp’s Ramabhadran. “It’s taking the normal stuff and doing something unconventional with it.”

  • Text by Evan Lerner
  • Video by Chip Murphy
  • Photos by Rebecca Elias Abboud