Hack the Bronx “Hackathon” makes a difference virtually

Ariella Frommer and Isabella Ciriello

96 students competed in Hack the Bronx last weekend, an online hackathon where students from various Bronx high schools work collaboratively to code projects that address problems in the community, gain experience in computer science, and win prizes. 

The goal of this event was to spread awareness about lack of access to technology and computer science in the Bronx. The students spent the weekend identifying a problem in their community and using code to solve it.

Twins Charlotte and Caroline Willer-Burchardi (10), as well as their sister Sophie (9), led and organized the event. They came up with the Bronx hackathon last January, Caroline said. They then reached out to local Bronx officials as well as the school to expand their idea and make it a reality.

The siblings attended their first online hackathon two years ago and wanted to spearhead an event for Bronx schools because they had fun and learned coding skills, Sophie said. “Hackathons are really great because they foster this creativity and you can work together with different people if you want,” she said.

During the event, students split into two groups of beginner and experienced programmers to accommodate different abilities. All competitors submitted their projects to the three sisters, who judged them and gave prizes to the two best programs in each skill level.

“We go through every project and then we rank them on certain things — innovation, feasibility, implementation, and the functionality,” Caroline said. Projects that excelled in those categories won the prize.

Students who needed help with their project, wanted to go over their solution, or wanted to learn new skills could attend various workshops throughout the weekend. One workshop was led by computer science teacher Samuel Grunebaum on the basics of web design. Echo 3D — one of the sponsors — led a workshop about how to implement their artificial and virtual reality software into projects, Charlotte said.

One winner in the Programmers with Experience category made DigiQ, a website that allows members of the Bronx community to generate a QR code to see their position in lines so that they can go elsewhere as they wait. “This allows managers to control the amount of people waiting in a line and it’s also particularly helpful during COVID as it allows people to wait without standing in line,” Charlotte said.

The first place winner in the Programmers with Experience category had a choice of an Apple Watch or a $200 Amazon gift card, and the second winner won a gaming bundle, Charlotte said. In the beginner category, the first place student won an Amazon Echo Show 8 and the second place student won a raspberry pi, a single board computer. 

To plan the event, the siblings reached out to Monica Major, the Director of Education and Youth Services in the Bronx, who put them in contact with other organizations and sponsors such as CS4ALL and The Knowledge House to sponsor prizes and provide underprivileged students with computers so they can participate, Caroline said. Major sent the information about Hack the Bronx in a press release to schools around the Bronx to inform them about the event.

After the sisters contacted Major and the sponsors, they worked together to make the event happen. “We all went on a few calls together and talked about how we could make this hackathon for Bronx high school students to encourage more Bronx students to use their passion for computer science and to create something to help their community,” Caroline said.

Sponsors signed on during the summer and fall, Charlotte said. The siblings wanted to incorporate more parts of the Bronx community, so they included Summer on the Hill (SOH) and the school provided 10 computers to students, Charlotte said. “We also had a an elective this fall for the SOH kids about web design so that they could learn about it to prepare themselves for the event,” Charlotte said.

Their passion for coding started with Scratch, an online website dedicated to introducing children to coding in a fun and interactive way, in elementary school, she said. “We took a few online courses and then we did summer camps, and we moved from block coding to techspace coding.”

Hackathons are important because students can learn and help the community at the same time, Caroline said. “Technology and computer science are super important, and especially in places like the Bronx where a lot of students don’t have the opportunity to be able to foster their passion for computer science,” she said.

The sisters hope to make Hack the Bronx an annual event because it was a great experience for many participants this year, Sophie said. Next year, their goal is to reach out to school’s earlier to get as many students involved as possible. “If we teach another course for SOH students, we plan to focus on the aspects that they partake in during the weekend to provide a baseline of understanding for the hackathon, as well as revolving it around the hackathon to a greater extent,” Sophie said.