After two years of virtual hackathons, more than 1,000 students returned to the University of Waterloo’s campus for this year’s Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon. The annual event brings together student hackers and innovators at all levels of experience with technology experts and industry leaders from across the nation.
Over 36 hours on the weekend of September 16–18, high school and university students from around the world worked in teams to build innovative software and hardware projects to impress a team of twelve industry judges.
Although Hack the North takes place in the Engineering 7 building, the Faculty of Mathematics plays a key role in its continued success over the nine years since its founding. The Faculties of Mathematics and Engineering co-sponsor the event, and two of Hack the North’s cofounders — both now industry leaders — hailed from Math. That key involvement from our students continues to this day. This year, more than 30 per cent of university students in attendance were from the Faculty of Mathematics.
While both Waterloo Faculties and industry sponsors provide funding and ongoing logistical support, Hack the North’s greatest asset is its continuing student leadership. The event stands out from other major hackathons because Hack the North is run for students, by students. This student involvement is especially evident in the event’s emphasis on cultivating the whole person, not just promoting technological innovation.
While many participants at Hack the North spend the weekend glued to computers until the wee hours of the morning, the event also provides valuable opportunities for networking and socialization. Participants took breaks from coding to attend interactive workshops, hang out with therapy dogs, and even perform their best karaoke renditions of Benny and the Jets.
There was also a dedicated space — the Empowerment Lounge — where students from underrepresented groups, including LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students, could gather to recharge and hang out. The Empowerment Lounge is one tangible result of Hack the North’s commitment to furthering diversity and inclusion in tech spaces. As co-organizer Jessica Zhang, a third-year computer engineering student, explained in an interview last year, “We have the ability to set the tone and to show hacking can be a way to help underrepresented groups find their place in tech and continue along that path.”
Jing Yi Wang, a fourth-year computer science student at Waterloo, has had the chance to experience Hack the North from both sides: first as a student, and now as an organizer. In both roles, she’s developed important soft skills that will aid her in her aspiration to be an engineering manager.
“Working with a passionate team on an event I care so much about taught me a lot about how to be an effective leader,” she reflects. “The communication skills [I learned] will definitely help me in my career going forward.”
Hack the North is also an example of the power of partnerships between the Faculty of Math and industry leaders such as IBM, Meta, and Cisco. “It was impressive to see the students engage with the industry sponsors,” says Stephanie Whitney, Director of Research and Innovation Partnerships in the Math Innovation Office. “Our students, current and aspiring, are world-class, and it’s easy to see why leaders in the tech industry are so excited to participate in Hack the North.”
Students often build their careers outside the classroom, and the industry involvement at Hack the North is key in helping them understand themselves as budding innovators and entrepreneurs long before graduation. As Jing Yi Wang describes, the hall was constantly buzzing with conversations between hackers and sponsors, “not only networking, but also discussing technical problems and learning from each other.” At the event’s end, the industry judges announced their twelve favourite projects from the weekend, as well as gave special awards for specific uses of different technologies.
First-year computer science student Eugene Zhang can speak firsthand to Hack the North’s exciting opportunities. Eugene came to the event with an impressive background: he’s the co-president of the hackathon Ignition Hacks as well as a SHAD fellow. This weekend, he and his team built journal4me, a mental health-voice-to-mood analysis journaling app. The app aims to replace traditional journaling on paper with an easier on-the-go experience. You simply “rant about your day effortlessly without having to pause and think about how to spell a word or structure a sentence,” and then the app processes your words for you and helps you identify your prevailing mood. The app was a hit with judges. Eugene and his team won second place for Best Use of Co:Here tech!
“Hack the North gave me an excuse to focus all my time and effort on creating a memorable side project,” Eugene says, “which is not only fun to do but also helps me hone my skills as a programmer. To top it off, hackathons like Hack the North push me to collaborate with other like-minded students, exposing me to both learning and networking opportunities.”
Hack the North also provides a chance for prospective students to engage with current Math students and faculty. The Faculty’s sponsor booth saw a constant stream of high school students stopping by to ask what it would take for them to get into Waterloo’s various computer science and math programs.
“It was fantastic to meet so many students,” says Charles Clarke, Associate Dean for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “I talked to people from as far away as Ireland, as well as high school students who are keen to study math and computer science at Waterloo.” Professor Clarke is proud of the Faculty’s continuing support of the hackathon, pointing to it as a prime example of a “long tradition of supporting entrepreneurship and innovation.”
Stephanie Whitney points to Hack the North as a successful example of how the Math Innovation Office supports entrepreneurs and innovators across all academic levels. She hopes to see many student participants again at the inaugural Math and Computing Research Discovery Days to be held this spring from April 17–18, 2023.
Discovery Days is a showcase for cutting-edge research taking place within the Faculty, and will include keynote addresses with moderated Q&As; student lightning presentations, posters, and pitches; research demonstrations; relationship-building and recruitment opportunities; student workshops; and a gala celebration. The hope is that Discovery Days will become an annual event, as key a part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at the University of Waterloo as is Hack the North.