“What makes HackRice unique is that it is first and foremost for Rice University undergrads,” said its founder, Computer Science alumnus Waseem Ahmad, who returns each year to help support the event.
“No other hackathon will be as convenient or personalized to our undergrads. The environment gives them an opportunity to create solutions that specifically cater to local needs. Furthermore, they can easily connect with people across the class years and reach out to alumni attending the event,” said Ahmad, who graduated with a B.A. in CS in 2013.
The 48-hour event hosted by the Rice CS Club is a friendly environment for students to develop projects and compete for prizes. After making it through the early heats, the top five teams demonstrated their projects for the audience in the final round of judging. The overall winner was an app created to aid walkers who are visually impaired.
The new healthcare track was developed with assistance from more than 20 professionals from the Texas Medical Center. Josh Bochner, a sophomore in chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChBE), said, “Last semester, the HackRice volunteers were discussing how to incorporate ‘tracks’ into the event.
“The idea behind tracks was to provide some direction for students who wanted to work on projects in new fields. One of the suggestions was a healthcare track, so I offered to reach out to my aunt at Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH). One of her contacts led me to John Hamm, Asst. Vice President at Texas Children’s.”
Hamm was excited, discussed it with a TCH vendor, and interest in the new track continued to spread.
Bochner said, “John wanted to meet with me and a few people from TCH and Mark III Systems, so we setup a lunch during the first week of classes. When I learned that 10-12 people were going to attend, I asked for some CS backup, since I’m actually a ChBE major. Avery Jordan, one of the HackRice co-chairs, came with me, and we had a great conversation.”
Bochner and Jordan explained HackRice to the TCH healthcare providers and system developers. “It was a unique opportunity for us to hear a potential sponsor’s perspective,” said Bochner. “We left the meeting with a list of different real-world problems facing Texas Children’s that technology could help solve.”
Several TCH partners attended the event to answer questions and judge the final projects. Bochner said, “The ones who could make it to HackRice found it a great experience, and they increased awareness of the huge role technology plays at Texas Children's and across the industry.”
The first HackRice, in 2012, was created by Ahmad so students in computer science courses could apply the methods and programming skills they were learning in class. Inspired by hackathons at the University of Pennsylvania, Ahmad’s event attracted 50 Rice students and alumni, with nine sponsors donating more than $1,000 in prizes. Now a software engineer at Facebook, Ahmad and colleagues at Facebook work the 48-hour event as mentors, judges and recruiters.
“HackRice was the first hackathon that I attended --and also organized,” he said. “Since then, I have participated in over 15 hackathons hosted at Rice, Facebook, UPenn and other places. Attending a hackathon hosted by Facebook let me learn more about the company and lead to an internship there.
“As a full time employee, two of the hacks I worked on were shown to Mark Zuckerberg [co-founder and CEO of the company]. These experiences taught me a lot of technical skills and lessons about building and presenting products. Obviously, hackathons have played a major role in my career and provided me a lot of opportunities. I come back to HackRice every year so I can pay it forward by mentoring students and connecting with the CS Club officers.”
In addition to providing students with experience working on real problems and against strict deadlines, HackRice7 also offered a variety of one-hour workshops in which participants could learn new technologies and platforms. Topics included the basics of machine learning, working with IBM Watson, analyzing flight data, tapping into cloud platforms and deep learning, and giving good technical presentations.
HackRice sponsors contributed almost $50,000 in prizes and hospitality, keeping the students fed, hydrated and caffeinated. In addition to supplying healthy incentives to the participants, leftover meals were donated to feed the hungry.
Abhijeet Mulgund, CS junior and HackRice co-chair, said, “Avery had heard about Second Helpings from Sara Meadow, a Rice junior who interned there. We gave them all of the meal leftovers that qualified for their program, and redistributed the excess food to non-profit meal providers.”
Ahmad is enthusiastic about the way his original event has been evolving, and wants to get more alumni involved. At the end of the closing ceremonies for HackRice 7, he announced a surprise award: “The Alumni Choice Award was created in 2016 to recognize a team who we thought deserved to win a prize but wasn’t selected by judges or sponsors. Last year, the award went to TrumpScript. This year, we’ve selected Beats.Me, an app that visualizes your music preferences based on data in your Spotify account.”