The way we are changing University and the first UCL Hackathon

by Nicola Greco

I think as time passes, technology advances, the education system needs to keep up. This post is a final result of different thoughts I had during and after the University Hackathon that we – as UCLe, University College London Entrepreneurs – organised.

Gentle introduction

Just a few weeks ago, around 60 students left their Saturday and Sunday free to participate in an event whose aim was to build a solution to a problem with people they have never worked before and more importantly in 24h. This marathon is what we call a “hackathon“, a marathon in which hackers code and build things together for a great good. This was on the 25th of October, the first UCL hackathon organised by students societies for UCL and nearby university students. What I have witnessed in this event is something I have never seen before in a university environment, a huge concentration of learning and creativity, people binding and creating innovation.

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Sharing ideas

I am fully convinced that ‘sharing‘ is a mutual exchange, whenever we give, in a form or in another, we will get something back. Talking about our ideas, make us thinking and develop them further, especially when analytically criticised by a gang of very intelligent people. When we organised the event we were expecting very few ideas to be shared, few of them technically possible (especially in 24h) and a more even little subset of them to be actually good ideas. After we announced at the microphone to stand up and pitch an idea, we had a few awkward seconds of silence; people need inputs, and after the first idea, a second idea, and another one and one after another. Here we triggered something beautiful. We had input a free flow of ideas. Looking students standing up proposing way to revolutionise note-taking, education or even solutions to optimise a pub crawl is definitely something that you don’t and will not see every day in a university class. And, what is the difference in the two situations? The ideas are just there but not likely to be out and be heard by people that can like them or even contribute to their implementation. It’s the same exact feeling of looking a mountain and wonder how many beautiful statues are kept inside. So, to conclude this, it’s all about inputs, what if this would not have been a “special” and “student” organised event, and what if we could give these inputs every day?

Connecting people

After the idea sharing, students started to look for the idea they liked. If you have to spend 24h working on something, you really want to make sure that the idea shares the same vision that you have. More importantly, if you really want your idea to be chosen and realised you need to be open for feedbacks and be flexible. When the season of love ends and everyone found his own team, now, these 3-4 people will be bound together for 24 hours. They will argue, code, stress, dine and work together towards the same aim. At night, I was walking through the corridor and looking through the glass walls, group of students working together in a team that didn’t exist before on an idea that had life of a couple of hours. In real life start-up, the creation of a time is one of the most difficult and important stage, in a hackathon is just the natural flow of things. I am pretty sure that such of a strong and extreme experience is an unvaluable team building activity that will bind them forever. I am more bound to a person I have been doing a hackathon with, lived together for one day, under stress, pressure of time, understanding each other finding a common language rather than someone I have been in a university group project for 3 months with weekly meetings; universities are full of people that could be potentially connected in this way.

Back to the story, there, beyond the glass wall, four people, sharing the same experience and working like they have always worked together. The creation of a team has been again something beautiful to witness.

Learning

The amount of things I heard people learnt are uncountable. Apart from the very heavy metal coding skills that someone could master. A hackathon is a full learning experience, from team working to time management, to being patient, to relying on each other work, and so on. More than that what you really learn is something that a participant told me, “you delete the barriers in thinking that something can be done” and this is fundamental. Aiming higher and higher because you know it’s possible is the catalyst of inspiration.

Why we are changing University

Out of the ideas that have been done, very few may be developed further, but the experience will always be a strong mark in the students that have participated as much it has been for me. Organising a Hackathon has not been organising an event, but stimulating creativity, inspiring future entrepreneurs and creating a rainforest for great ideas and talents. I believe that this event should not be an exception and not event a student organised one. The spirit that runs a hackathon should be in every university course and project. The inputs that a hackathon trigger should not be a serendipitous random phenomenon but what a university as environment should aim to spark, stimulate and provoke.

That said, time passes, technology advances, the education system needs to keep up and yes, we are changing University.

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