Treehacks 2017

I just completed my first hackathon! At Treehacks 2017, conveniently located at Stanford University, I worked alongside close to 1,000 students from Stanford and universities across the world, trying to create something interesting in 36 hours.

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This may seem a little odd, given my academic background (Econ major / Education minor), but I found my first hackathon in which I was fully invested to be a great experience. To be sure, Treehacks was filled with engineers, especially Computer Science (or “Computer Engineering”) majors. However, there’s always room for personal growth, if you know where to look.

My goal was simple; I wanted to learn something new, in a space I hadn’t explored before. That led me to trying out Arduino hardware, which I had wanted to do for quite some time but never really had the impetus to do (plus, Arduinos are expensive). Fortunately, a friend of mine let me borrow his Arduino kit, and I set about designing a hardware system for my “hack” idea: a smart bucket that encourages spatial-kinetic learning for the K-5 demographic. As befitting someone who was taking this hackathon with a bit more levity than some of the hardcore hackers, I named my nascent startup idea “Beyond the Pail.”

Playing with Arduino hardware and software was a fun challenge, but it did come with a fairly steep learning curve. I spent a few hours trying to figure out how to connect the Arduino Uno to an LCD display using a breadboard, which I slowly began to comprehend as I successfully made the LCD turn on. Getting the LCD to correctly display text took some more time, including a rapid self-led introduction to Arduino code and forcing a potentiometer into my already-cluttered breadboard panel. With a bucket left over from Halloween (for a kid-friendly UX, of course) and a reasonable amount of duct tape, I completed my hackathon project.

Originally, I wanted to attach a load cell to create a built-in scale that kids could play with in the context of a bucket. Longer-term (but out of my league for this hackathon), I thought it would have been great to integrate IBM Watson’s learning technology to scan the inside contents of the bucket and generate descriptions of the contents. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a load cell that would work to my desired specifications in time, and I wasn’t at the technical level to implement Watson in a smart pail. At the end of the hackathon, I proudly presented my efforts to the judges – a bucket with an Arduino duct-taped to it, but a successful hardware hack nonetheless.

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I may not have won a grand prize (“Beyond the Pail” pales in comparison to a VR immersive experience of common mental and visual disorders, or an audiobook app that instantaneously translates scanned pages of a book into full audio), but I built my first Arduino device, improved my coding acumen, and got a taste of the crazy world of hackathons over the course of a weekend. I count that as a win.

You can see my official project submission on Devpost.

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