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Coders compete at Ireton’s first hackathon

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A tangle of multicolored cords, laptops, water bottles and sugary snacks sat on the cafeteria tables of Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. As pop music played in the background, teens typed on their keyboards and talked with friends. Ireton students wearing red shirts with a cartoon cardinal in a black mask walked around, answering questions for participants of the school’s first hackathon: Hack BI. 

Contrary to the implications of the name, hackathons are not about malicious hacking, said Peter Murphy, a senior and the co-founder of the coding club. “It’s a 24-hour event where students form teams to solve a problem from daily life with technology,” he said. 

Murphy and his friend Jared Ponmakha formed the coding club their sophomore year with the help of their computer science teacher, Terri Kelly. “She thought there should be more opportunities to get that experience without the pressure of the classroom environment so we started the coding club,” said Murphy.

Club members attended their first hackathon at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria and loved the experience. “We didn't know anything but we were inspired by that hackathon and we went to more (hackathons). Last year we decided to hold our own,” said Ponmakha.

Not long after the coding club was founded, senior Gabby Baniqued got together with the girls of the club to form Girls Who Code, which also is a larger international organization. 

“I noticed that there weren’t a lot of girls involved in computer classes and computer clubs. We came to the conclusion that a girls-only club (would be) less intimidating because a lot of the guys are advanced in coding. This is a very relaxed setting for girls to get together and collaborate on a lot of different projects,” she said.

As student interest in computer science grew, so did the administration’s. “Working with the diocese and our board of governors, we’ve decided to position Ireton as a center for STEM education,” said Tom Curry, head of school. In 2019, Ireton hopes to open a new building with state-of-the-art science classrooms and labs, including a robotics lab.

“Honestly, I’m really excited to visit as an alumna — it's going to be very cool,” said Baniqued. 

Ireton also started offering two new classes on cybersecurity and engineering.

The hackathon is one way the school is getting the word out about its STEM opportunities. “With Ireton being a small school in a place where we’ve got (Thomas Jefferson) and all these really big public schools in the area, for Ireton to just even play a little part in this STEM initiative is really refreshing,” said Baniqued.

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Emily Roddy, co-presidents of Ireton’s Girls Who Code club, teaches a class on mobile app development. 

More than 130 students from schools all over the Washington metro area attended Hack BI. Unlike most hackathons, they opened the event to middle school students as well. During the day Jan. 20, students could work with their teams or attend workshops on topics such as mobile app development, Photoshop and computer programming languages Python, JavaScript and Alice. 

“When people got here everybody just started working,” said Baniqued. “People were so eager to get their hands on things and start creating content.”

At midnight, Father Edward J. Bresnahan, chaplain, celebrated Mass for hackathon participants. By dropping everything and taking time to pray, Murphy hopes they show students the importance of the Mass. 

Kelly always has made a point to integrate faith into their computer science work, said Murphy. “Mrs. Kelly has been my largest influence in academics and a huge role model in terms of my faith,” he said. 

After a night of work, or a night of nodding off in sleeping bags, teams turned their projects in and waited to be judged in several categories, such as best overall, best game and best app. Winning projects included a crime map that informs users about recent local criminal activity and a four-person flight simulator where all of the players manage different controls. The grand prize was a paid internship at a technology studio, while others won gadgets such as an Echo Dot and Bluetooth speakers. In appreciation, the students gave Kelly a bouquet of flowers.

“I am amazed at the work that the Hack BI team did,” said Kelly. “They met every Sunday night via Google hangouts for over an hour for planning. They were truly amazing. It was only possible because of the driving force of the student-led team and then support from the facilities, IT, the administration, coding club parents, and the BI community.”

As they left, Kelly heard participants thank the organizers for hosting the event. One said, “I didn't know I could have this much nerdy fun.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018