Conscious Hacking with PennApps 2018

This post adapted from this posting on the Penn Engineering blog.

For the last three years, Claire Donovan (ENG, ’20)  and Adele Li (M&T, ’20) have worked in the logistics and outreach committees at PennApps, Penn’s first-of-its-kind collegiate hackathon. The two rose to the executive board, and now both serve as directors of the organization. The eighteenth iteration of PennApps, held this past September, marks the first in which two women have served as directors.

Clare and Adele shared their PennApps experiences below.

We both joined PennApps during the spring semester of our freshman year, knowing it would be a good opportunity to join like-minded peers who loved hacking and hosting an amazing event. But we both didn’t fully know the magnitude of the operation til we joined the executive board.

Claire Donovan and Adele Li

In the five months leading up to the eighteenth PennApps, our team worked tirelessly to put on the best event yet. It also had the best theme yet: Superheroes. But the theme wasn’t all about capes and tights; it’s about the goals of the hackathon, putting an emphasis on social impact. We challenged hackers to work on interdisciplinary applications of technology with a focus on local communities.

A Little History…

PennApps was founded as the first collegiate hackathon,  challenging programmers and engineers to innovate and create a functioning project within 36 hours. Eight years and 18 hackathons later, PennApps has reached and surpassed its original goal. With more than 1,200 students and 40 sponsors coming to PennApps XVIII, the event has a reputation as the premier collegiate hackathon: a place where hackers can expect a showcase of cutting-edge technology by dozens of reputable firms and a meet-up of the brightest students from across the nation and world. We take pride in the fact that we’ve been able to democratize and spread the idea of “conscious hacking” — building technology for positive social outcomes.

What Makes PennApps Great

So what makes PennApps so great? What makes our 36 hours of hacking so memorable? Some might think it’s the amenities, the endless snacks, the awesome swag, the hottest companies, the ice-skating, or the unlimited gaming. But for many of us, it’s the community. As freshmen, we both stumbled into PennApps a little wide-eyed and anxious, feeling a mix of confusion and excitement for whatever seemed to be happening. The event had multiple lives of its own, starting from a recruiting session with major sponsors and transitioning to workshops in topics like AI and neural nets, project ideation and execution, networking with other hackers, and more.

PennApps is a breeding ground for professional connections, innovative ideas, and some cool projects that have transitioned to reputable companies and platforms we all know and use today.

At PennApps, the stakeholders for our organization are different from a regular club. Although our event is geared towards high school and college hackers, we are also conscious of the needs of our sponsors. Some of this year’s topics focused on how to enhance the quality of our event such as: How do we ensure corporate topics like diversity and inclusion are a part of our application decision process? How can we encourage hackers to work on meaningful and unconventional projects? How can we gather the mistakes made and lessons learned by our hackers and share that with our community?

PennApp’s Impact

Organizing PennApps taught us both much more than just how to set up an event. We have the privilege of scale, and with scale comes responsibility. The message and values which we hope to instill in this iteration of PennApps have the ability to reach far and wide. We hope our hackers will challenge themselves to learn something new every hour. We challenge our sponsors to meet ambitious students with unconventional backgrounds. But most important of all, we hope that attending PennApps will leave hackers feeling energized by what it’s possible to accomplish when you put a little heart into something ambitious.