Students take top honors in hackathons in Ohio, Michigan

Four UB computer science students standing in front of a white screen.

UB computer science students won first place at a hackathon at Kent State University. The team, from left to right: Gabriel Holodak, Pritesh Gupta, Zach Wieand and Mackenzie “Mack” Ward.

Working on adrenaline and little sleep, undergraduates develop award-winning computer programs

Release Date: November 7, 2013

We connected through UB Hackers and chatted a few days before the event. Then we met for the first time at Davis Hall before driving to Ohio.
Mackenzie “Mack” Ward, hacker and computer science and mathematics student
University at Buffalo
Nate Burgers speaking at a podium with a microphone.

UB sophomore Nate Burgers placed in the top 10 in MHacks, a hackathon held in Michigan featuring more than 1,000 competitors.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo computer science students outwitted the competition at two recent hackathons, taking home top honors and thousands of dollars in prizes.

A four-student UB team won first place at Kent State University two weeks ago for developing a computer program that allows people to browse the Internet without a mouse or keyboard.

And in September, sophomore Nate Burgers received $2,000 and an iPad after competing in MHacks, a 36-hour codefest featuring more than 1,000 competitors. He placed in the top 10, and won the prize for the most technically difficult hack.

“These competitions are a great way for like-minded students to meet each other and boost their skills,” says Aidong Zhang, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “But they’re also an indication of how talented our students are.”

Despite its underworld connotations, the original meaning of hack is to code and build programs for computer software. A hackathon is a gathering, often involving students, that asks participants to develop programs in an intense, deadline-oriented environment.

The four UB students who went to Kent State were near strangers when they rented a car and drove 3 ½ hours to the hackathon.

“We connected through UB Hackers and chatted a few days before the event. Then we met for the first time at Davis Hall before driving to Ohio,” says Mackenzie “Mack” Ward, a junior majoring in computer science and mathematics.

Ward and his teammates — Pritesh Gupta, Gabriel Holodak and Zach Wieand — decided to develop a program that uses the computer’s webcam to monitor the user’s face. As the user tilts his head up and down, or from left to right, the page he is viewing moves in that direction, thus eliminating the need for a mouse or keypad.

The team wrote the code and demonstrated the program within 37 hours. It could be especially useful for people suffering from ailments that limit the use of their hands.

The program impressed the event’s judges, who awarded the team first prize among 1o competitors. The students split $1,000 cash and $3,000 in the cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services.

MHacks was held Sept. 20-22 at the University of Michigan. Burgers placed in the top 10 by inventing Lark, a new programming language that allows iPhone and iPad app developers to edit applications while they’re running.

He tested the language on a simple app he created. The app featured a blue circle bouncing amidst a sea of red circles, and a demo video shows how Burgers used the programming language to alter the size and speed of the blue circle without shutting down the program.

“Usually, apps cannot be changed while running, so if you have to fix things or add a button or change the background, you have to stop your app, write the code and turn it on again,” Burgers says. “Lark lets you change things live.”

What Burgers accomplished is tricky. In addition to his top-10 finish, he won the hackathon’s $2,000 Andreessen Horowitz Prize for the Most Technically Impressive hack. He also was given an iPad as an award for the best use of Apple’s iOS operating system.

Several startups and hackathon organizers are interested in his work. He also was invited to interview for an internship with one of the world’s largest computer companies.

Both Burgers and the Kent State team plan to continue working on their respective programs.

Thinking back to MHacks, Burgers is slightly stunned by how quickly and smoothly the fundamentals of Lark came together. “It was incredible,” he says. “Here I am, six hours into working on this thing, and the core language was already working.”

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