'BCC Hacks': Students, engineers set to hack new ground

Keynote speaker Audrey St. John, associate professor of computer science at Mount Holyoke College, demonstrates an interactive electronic chameleon created during a hackathon. Berkshire Community College hosted its first hackathon over the weekend.

PITTSFIELD — When a group of Berkshire Community College students invited campus peers to the college's first hackathon, "BCC Hacks," the resounding response seemed to be: "What's a hackathon?"

The festival-style event brings together computer programmers, coders, hardware and software engineers, and other creative and technical types, to spend 24-plus hours to work on a project, address a particular problem or build a prototype with the benefit of collaborating with other like minds.

The idea to bring a hackathon to BCC started with second-year engineering student, Liliana Atanacio, who received an invitation to HackHolyoke at Mount Holyoke College back in November. The program was designed particularly to empower and provide an interactive experience for women working in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I ended up building a gadget all by myself," Atanacio said. "It was awesome for me."

She ended up developing a program with her own children in mind, a game to teach them English and Spanish, that would light up when they selected the right answer.

In February, Atanacio gathered some fellow BCC students to head to the Hack@Smith 2016 hackathon at Smith College, where the BCC group collaborated to design a mobile app. Atanacio said it was another source of empowerment for the group.

"We all want this kind of experience," she said. "the experience of learning and working together as a team to get things done."

Carlos Campoverde, an aspiring mechanical engineer, BCC student and BCC Hacks sponsor said that a hackathon can give participants a chance to try something new and gain confidence in practicing innovative processes.

"You don't have to be scared of this problem," he said. "And it's interesting to see it from the perspective of improving the things you use every day."

During the inaugural 24-hour BCC Hacks, participants got to explore new technology, from 3-D printers to Arduino circuit systems, and working on projects ranging from coding to developing hardware and software.

Nick Walsh, a data scientist and coach for the national association of hackathon sponsorships, Major League Hacking, said the number of hackathons in the country has grown exponentially, from 15 to 210 events within the history of its membership. Because of this, hackathons also offer great incentives, from prizes to platforms for publishing work, and scholarship opportunities.

BCC Hacks keynote speaker, Audrey St. John, an associate professor of computer science at Mount Holyoke College, urged participants to use the hackathon experience to discover their "inner tech-key," a play on words referring to opening doors to new opportunities.

"I didn't know what I didn't know," she said of her entry into the field of computer science.

St. John said, "A hackathon is a place where it's low-risk to try something out," without interruption or fear of failure.