Students Tackle Problems During UNCW’s 48-Hour Hackathon

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Last weekend was all about the numbers: Four researchers. Twenty-four students. Forty-eight hours.

Engineering, computer science and information technology students gathered at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Nov. 18-20 for the first UNCW Hackathon, a two-day event that provides students a venue to tackle problems through technology and innovation. Students were assigned projects related to research currently underway by UNCW faculty.

Students were paired with GE Hitachi employees, who served as mentors and coaches. Together, they developed a plan and technical architecture for the projects. They presented solutions on Nov. 20, which included an oyster cage tracking system to help automate data collection and field service work; an integrated-design weather balloon project that connects to a central cloud-based repository; and a low-cost scientific probe that gathers data and measures the health of a fish tank along with an app to alert researchers through text messaging about the health of the tanks.


Graduate student Sarah Ritter, the CIE’s student entrepreneur in residence, organized the event, along with Jennifer Wescott and Chris Krumm, both with the UNCW Office of Innovation and Commercialization. The Hackathon is a joint OIC/CIE project to support researchers from Center of Marine Science and MARBIONIC with student-developed technology, she said.

“I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the students and impressed that we could get real systems and prototypes running in 48 hours,” Ritter said. “The fish tank probe was an incredibly hard problem, but they made it look easy. What they engineered was both a hardware and software solution, and they had a working prototype at a lower cost than what is currently on the market.”

Students who participated in the hackathon did not receive academic credit or pay, Ritter added. “They are passionate about technology and helping other people.”

“I have not been involved in something like this that spans so many different software architectures,” said graduate student Michael Fabbri, a computer science information systems major. “It was interesting to see how everything fit together. I am expecting to get a job soon where I will be dealing with a variety of interconnected architectures and I can see parallels [from this event] directly with my professional career.”

The UNCW Hackathon also aims to create a bridge between students and industry professionals. GE Hitachi, N.C. Biotechnology Center, Ralph Reda and Elite Innovations sponsored the event. The event fits CIE’s mission of connecting students, faculty and community, said CIE director Diane Durance.

“Even though the projects aren’t focused on how to start a business, they are focused on innovation solutions to real problems and that’s what leads to entrepreneurship,” she said. “There really is no substitute for having a single intense focus for that number of hours and have a team working together in that way. It’s a very unique way to approach the problem and get to a solution.”

-Venita Jenkins