RL Boys Take Grand Prize at College-Level Hackathon

UMass Hackathon winners Robert Cunningham '18, Ian Richardson '20, and Chris Zhu '20

Over the weekend Roxbury Latin juniors Ian Richardson and Chris Zhu, along with recent graduate Robert Cunningham ‘18, participated in the Hack Umass Hackathon—36 hours of creativity, concentration, coding, and competition. Their team—which also recruited two female computer science students from UMass—won the Hackathon’s Grand Prize out of more than 250 teams—mostly comprising college students.

In the competition, teams must conceive of a project and then build it on-site over a 36-hour period, integrating hardware and code. The Hack UMass event was attended by nearly 1,000 college students, but allowed also for a small number of high school teams.

This was the first hackathon for both Chris and Ian, who teamed up with Robert heading into the Hack UMass event. “Ian and I both like creating hardware and software,” says Chris, “so we thought this would be a great way to apply these skills and have fun. It’s almost like spending the weekend competing in a sporting event.

“The event coordinators supply teams with a bunch of hardware and time, basically. From there, you can create whatever you want. At the end you have to pass some basic judging criteria: first, it has to work! About half of the teams have these great ideas, but by the end their implementation is only halfway there, or their final product doesn’t work in quite the way they’d imagined. Secondly, the judges assess whether the product is new and innovative—whether it pushed you out of your comfort zone.”

Their team’s product was an program they titled “Codability”—an interface that allows people to code without their hands—perfect for those with carpal tunnel, with repetitive stress injuries, or who are amputees. “One of the girls on our team has a sister who has early onset arthritis,” says Chris, “and that really sparked our idea.”

In Codability, the team built speech and text software that formats code, converting English language commands into proper syntax for code and proper coding symbols. The team even developed and incorporated foot pedals that allow users to move a mouse. While other software exists to translate speech into programming code, most require users to speak every symbol, or depend on lots of custom coding language. “The learning curve on these languages is impossibly high, so we wanted to make something that was user-friendly and would create ease of navigation for people,” says Chris.

Both Ian and Chris are currently taking AP Computer Science with Mr. Nick Poles, and both are members of RL’s robotics team, “which did help us a lot in designing this project,” Chris says.

The Hack UMass event is part of Major League Hacking (MLH)—the official student hackathon league. Each year, Major League Hacking powers more that 200 weekend-long invention competitions that inspire innovation, cultivate communities, and teach computer science skills to more than 65,000 students around the world. MLH describes itself as an engaged and passionate maker community, consisting of the next generation of technology leaders and entrepreneurs.