Q&A with HackPrinceton Directors

Every year, students across the country come to campus for HackPrinceton, the biannual hackathon event that boasts thousands of visitors. While I’ve never attended a hackathon in my life, quite a few of my friends attend them regularly. They gather in small teams to work on technology and engineering projects (colloquially called “hacking”) at the event, which culminates in group presentations of the projects they’ve created. I’ve noticed that the hackers who are involved in research or entrepreneurship find the hackathon experience especially rewarding. So, this spring, I plan to try out my first hackathon at HackPrinceton. In preparation for the April 1-3 session. I decided to learn a little more about hackathons and how they relate to research in general.

Here’s a snippet of my Q&A with 2015-16 HackPrinceton Directors Zach Liu ’18 and Monica Shi ’18, who helped run the incredibly successful HackPrinceton Fall 2015.

A great perk of being a HackPrinceton competitor – lots of free swag! Swag Credit to Monica!

Me (Kavi): What exactly is a Hackathon?

Monica: Essentially it’s an event where people come together to think of and build projects. Traditionally, these projects are divided between software and hardware, but there are hackathons for other things – like design projects. It’s a great way for people to learn about programming and technology by getting together with a group of like-minded students to build a project for 24-36 hours. It’s kind of like a marathon where you have any and all the materials you need to build your project. The hackathon organizers will do their best to make sure you’re able to hack with all the resources you need – including all the food you need to keep you satisfied. At the end, teams get feedback from a panel of judges, and the top projects win awesome prizes!
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Design Thinking in Research

I remember it like it was just yesterday. The steps to the scientific method: Question. Research. Hypothesis. Experiment. Analysis. Conclusion. I can actually still hear the monotonous voices of my classmates reciting the six steps to the content of the middle school science fair judges.

Princeton student researchers working at the Lewis Thomas lab
Princeton student researchers working at the Lewis Thomas lab.

For our middle school science fair, I had created a web-based calculator that could output the carbon footprint of an individual based on a variety of overlooked environmental factors like food consumption and public transportation usage. Having worked on the project for several months, I was quite content when I walked into our gym and stood proudly next to my display board. Moments later the first judge approached my table. Without even introducing himself, he glanced at my board and asked me, Where’s your hypothesis? Given the fact that my project involved creating a new tool rather than exploring a scientific cause-effect relationship, I told him that I didn’t think a hypothesis would make sense for my project. To my dismay, he told me that a lack of hypothesis was a clear violation of the scientific method, and consequently my project would not be considered.

This was quite disheartening to me, especially because I was a sixth grader taking on my very first attempt at scientific research. But at the same time, I was confident that the scientific method wasn’t this unadaptable set of principles that all of scientific research aligned to. A few years later, my suspicions were justified when my dad recommended I read a book called Design Thinking by Peter Rowe. While the novel pertains primarily to building design, the ideas presented in the book are very applicable in the field of engineering research, where researchers don’t necessarily have hypotheses but rather have envisioned final products. Formally, design thinking is a 5-7 step process:

Steps to the Design Thinking Process
Steps to the Design Thinking Process

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A Summer of System Change

Selecting candidates for the fellowship isn't exactly easy - just ask panelist Shanti Raghavan (pictured)
The Ashoka India Selection Panel. Selecting candidates for the fellowship wasn’t exactly a serene process – just ask panelist Shanti Raghavan (standing).

“Sorry Kavi, I don’t think they’re a fit for our fellowship. Their proposals are not system-changing”.

I received this disappointing message countless times this summer while interning at Ashoka, a global non-profit organization committed to the spread of social entrepreneurship. Working out of the India office in the beautiful city of Bangalore, I was responsible for interviewing recently-nominated social entrepreneurs interested in Ashoka’s fellowship program. The program helps connect these select individuals with other fellows, resources, and tools to help further their work in the social space.

Every candidate I had championed was rejected on the basis of this lack of “system change” in their envisioned work. This confused me because each of these candidates was immensely successful in their field. Furthermore, their repeated denial was personally frustrating because when I talked to these candidates, I became personally tied to their work. One particular instance stands out to me. About a month into my internship, I had to reject a candidate who was educating adolescent village girls on gender equality issues through group-based discussions she secretly held in their college dorms. A day after I sent my report to my supervisors, I was unnerved to see the “not a fit” email in my inbox.

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