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Fox Chapel Area seniors organize 'hackathon' at high school

| Monday, April 3, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Jan Pakler | For the Tribune-Review
Fox Chapel Area High School students (from left) Mihir Garimelia, Bliss Uribe and Andreas Pajug planned and hosted a 'hackathon' called FCHack at the school, March 25. In this photo, they are are judging a project in which a guitar generates a current to a Tesla coil .

In less than nine hours, four Fox Chapel Area High School students created a glove that could effectively turn your hand into an electronic string instrument.

Using a combination of wires and sensors, they fitted the glove so that it could be put on one hand and strummed with the other, creating the sound and pitch of a guitar or violin.

The glove is only a prototype, but it recently received the first-place award in the Pittsburgh area's first “hackathon” for high school students — FCHacks. Hackathons are events where computer programmers collaborate to create something technological in a limited amount of time. And they usually happen at schools like Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan or the Massachusets Institute of Technology — leaders in technological development.

“These events almost never happen in high schools,” said Megan Cicconi, Fox Chapel's director of instructional and innovative leadership. “But luckily, these student organizers are so aware that there is a digital gap out there.”

Fox Chapel seniors Mihir Garimella, Bliss Uribe and junior Andreas Paljug planned and marketed FCHacks, an event intended for students to meet and engage in computer programming and a robotic building competition.

Some 180 students from southwestern Pennsylvania high schools flooded the hallways, classrooms, library, multi-purpose room and cafeteria inside the high school for the 12-hour event focused around computer software and robotic workshops.

The event, sponsored by Eaton— a national power management company with a facility in Pittsburgh— kicked off at 7:45 a.m. with guest speaker Dave Mawhinney, a CMU professor and venture capitalist. From there, students moved into groups, brainstormed ideas and began hacking.

The students had until 5:15 p.m. to create and present their prototypes for judging by representatives from Eaton, Google, CMU, the University of Pittsburgh and .tech, a website domain company.

The projects could be anything — ranging from apps and websites to digital games and robots. Fox Chapel had 3-D printers, laser engravers and Arduino prototyping platform kits available throughout the school.

“My biggest takeaway from this was how remarkable of an impact you can make when you give students the right tools,” Uribe said. “And once we gave them those tools, all the kids were instantly inspired.”

FCHacks was intended for all students — experienced or not, she said. More than a quarter of the participating students registered as beginners and took workshops to learn things before they started hacking.

The group that took first place as beginner hackers created a moving robot that was able to navigate while drawing with a Sharpie.

What took Uribe by surprise was seeing students from different high schools work together and collaborate ideas and designs.

“We usually have very little interaction with other high schools, and when we do its in a very competitive scene,” Uribe said. “But at this hackathon it was much more of a collaborative competition, with many teams working together and helping each other out.”

Fox Chapel students made up roughly 50 percent of the crowd. Kids also came from South Fayette, Pine-Richland, Mount Lebanon, Shaler Area and North Allegheny.

Uribe has been interested in computer science since the sixth grade and is especially dedicated to educating girls in the field. Prior to planning the hackathon, she taught a course she called “Code Like a Girl” to the elementary school students.

“Aiming to teach younger girls to love computer science can really make a difference,” she said.

Christine Manganas is a freelance writer.

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