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A virtual hackathon

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Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria hosted its fourth annual hackathon, HackBI IV, last month —  although this year looked different. After months of preparation, virtual meetings and more than 1,000 hours of work from student leaders, the school virtually hosted more than 100 middle and high schoolers from Northern Virginia and beyond to compete in the 24-hour event.

HackBI is a student-run event where participants attend workshops, work in teams to create projects to fit a theme and win prizes. This year’s theme, announced at the virtual opening ceremony, was outer space. 

The hackathon offered many opportunities to win prizes, with the grand prize an internship with Decipher Technology Studios. Teams of "hackers" virtually met with judges to show off their projects. Prize categories included "Best Use of Theme," "Best Beginner Hack," "Most Popular" (voted on by hackers), "Most Creative," "Best Use of Web API," "Girls Who Code," "Best Use of Hardware" and "Best Overall." 

The overall winner project was a space rover that autonomously drove while collecting and uploading data. Other projects included an application and a website that utilized machine learning, a Java game, and a two-part application with a game and an informative map of the constellations.

In addition to the high school event, HackBI also hosted a 12-hour hackathon for middle school students. The shorter hackathon provided hackers with opportunities to learn more about computer science and meet students their age with similar interests. These students engaged virtually through icebreakers, workshops and activities led by members of the HackBI IV team.

"I was particularly impressed with the leadership team this year," said Terri Kelly, a teacher at Ireton and a HackBI moderator. "They faced numerous challenges and never lost hope that they would be able to provide a quality experience."

A group of 30 juniors and seniors took on the challenge of planning the hackathon. The team divided into groups for marketing, administration, logistics and planning the middle school hackathon. The teams coordinated to choose a theme, design swag and social media posts, create a website, schedule the event, and communicate with mentors, judges and sponsors. They also ran registration, helped hackers, and led workshops and activities during the event. 

"I loved working with passionate people who have diverse talents because I was constantly being challenged to explore new mediums of technology," said senior Caroline Czarnecki.

This year’s hackathon transitioned to fully virtual just months before the event. The team adapted quickly and built a map in Gather.town, an interactive virtual space. The Gather map, built by Jack Ambery, Kieran Kelleher and John Olson, resembled a spaceship and had numerous rooms where participants could walk around with their avatar, video chat with each other and participate in activities including workshops, slideshow karaoke, Scribble.io, Among Us and Minecraft competitions. 

HackBI offered attendees workshops on topics such as Java, Photoshop, Python, web design, Aeronautics and even a college Q&A hosted by Ireton alumni. The format allowed beginner and advanced coders opportunities to learn new skills, ask questions, interact with the leadership team and expand their knowledge of computer programming. 

"I had a great experience at this year’s HackBI, despite it being all virtual," said junior EJ Edora. "I learned a lot from the workshops and enjoyed working with my teammates and playing games throughout the event."

Many Ireton alumni attended the hackathon as mentors or judges. "Coming back as an alumni mentor, going around to each ‘table’ and connecting with familiar and new faces collaborating in the virtual environment from my dorm room four hours away was a really special experience," said Emily Ambery, a member of the HackBI III team. Hackers interacted with mentors and asked questions throughout the event via Discord and Gather. 

"HackBI could not exist without significant support from the BI Community; while we did not need as many adult volunteers this year, the administration and staff of Bishop Ireton stepped up to ensure the event was able to occur, despite the pandemic and lockdown restrictions," said Kelly. 

"Every day planning for HackBI IV was a new challenge," said team leader Critter Johnson. "But, God gave me a great team to lead, and they stepped up to meet every challenge. HackBI IV might not have looked exactly like we thought it would when we started, but I am proud to say my team put on the best HackBI yet."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021