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Hackathought: Student developers compete to build mental health app

Hackathons provide students with experience outside of class
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BRITTANY GEROW/THE VARSITY
BRITTANY GEROW/THE VARSITY

On November 7-9, Ryerson University will be hosting “Hackathought,” a hackathon that will challenge young developers to produce a mobile app for Thought Spot to aid post-secondary students in having better access to mental health resources in the GTA.

The Varsity spoke to Ken Liao and Kevin Zhu, two engineering science students, and Steven Marcok, a computer science student at the University of Waterloo. All three students have competed in multiple hackathons in the past and will be participating in Hackathought.

The Varsity: Tell me about your experiences with hackathons. What do you like about them?
Ken Liao: A hackathon is a really challenging competition where you can both learn and have fun at the same time. It can be pretty rough because you only have 24 hours, sometimes 36 hours to finish a program. So you have to think fast.
Steven Marcok: [A hackathon] is a different experience because you have to work under pressure. You have a timeline but you can also use the opportunity to learn a lot of things because [there are] mentors from all sorts of different companies that sponsor the hackathon. They’re willing to teach you about their product and how to use their product.
Kevin Zhu: … Hackathons… tap a part of your brain that is not used in regular classrooms. We’re just given tools to work with, a path, and a space to hack in. It’s a sandbox experience; we can do anything we want.

TV: It must feel good to have the things you learn in the classroom be applied in real life!
KL: With software you can always apply [what you learn in class], but in a hackathon you have access to different [application programming interfaces] and different tools that are not accessible to you in your daily life.

TV: Tell me about the upcoming hackathon, Hackathought. Are you looking forward to it?
KL: Yeah we’re definitely looking forward to it. It’s for a great cause — mental health.
KZ: You can often see on “Spotted at U of T” or those [types of] U of T pages where students anonymously post instances in which they are troubled. The response is generally very favourable — there are always people there to reach out and help. But that’s all on Facebook. We feel that it will be a lot better if we can make that a lot more three dimensional — extend it to something that is more tangible, and something that can make students that are troubled always… [feel comfortable].

TV: The way I understand it is that most of the hackathon participants will be students. Do you feel like you’ll be able to apply your own experiences with being students and handling stress to help you create a good product?
KL: Well yeah… I feel like I’ve never been so stressed out that I’ve have [sic] a mental issue. [Whenever I get stressed] I usually just take a break and go walk around at a park.

TV: Isn’t that kind of the purpose of the app though? To tell you where the parks are?
KL: Yes exactly.
KZ: It doesn’t really have to be mental issues, it can be general stuff. Whatever program you’re in, there are always days that you’re just feeling so down that you just don’t know how to pick yourself up. And that’s where things can come together at this hackathon.
SM: This hackathon is good because it raises awareness about these services. Beforehand I didn’t even know that [these services] existed. It’s a good resource if the need ever arises.

TV: Are the three of you going in for the grand prize?
All: Of course!
KL: But the experience is the most important part.
KZ: The desire to win and the desire to learn, those are the two things that motivate us. [But] in the end the prize money is temporary, but the knowledge that we gain is much more permanent. The knowledge, the friendship and the bonds are permanent.
KL: For many hackathons that we’ve done their purpose is just to develop something or to push us to do something that nobody cares about. But this one is really for a good cause. So this hackathon is quite unique. It’s going to be a great experience.