MellonHeads hosts lecture on the benefits of hackathons

The core team of MellonHeads is made up of a group of students working towards developing an inclusive hackathon environment at Carnegie Mellon.  (credit: Avi Romanoff) The core team of MellonHeads is made up of a group of students working towards developing an inclusive hackathon environment at Carnegie Mellon. (credit: Avi Romanoff)

Last Tuesday evening, an event entitled “Hackathons Demystified” was held by MellonHeads, a recently founded group at Carnegie Mellon dedicated to fostering collaborative work between individuals of various disciplines interested in education and technology. The event included speakers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, including Po-Shen Loh, an assistant professor of mathematical sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO and Founder of the educational technology startup Expii. Each of the speakers talked about a different aspect of hackathons, and the many benefits they offer to communities like Carnegie Mellon’s.

The concept behind MellonHeads was developed at the start of the spring 2015 semester. With help from individuals involved in various clubs on campus, including ACM@CMU and ScottyLabs, as well as Carnegie Mellon faculty, the organization was formally announced in February of 2015 at TartanHacks.

Avi Romanoff, a sophomore cognitive science major at Carnegie Mellon, was the initial force behind the organization. “In the beginning, it was just me,” Romanoff said. “I planned and organized everything, and got companies — Google and Facebook, respectively — to sponsor our first two events. Over the summer, I created an online form for students to apply and be considered for joining the ‘core team,’ a sort of a title-less executive team, which has since become the organizing force behind MellonHeads.” Since then, MellonHeads has grown in size and popularity on campus, and continues to work towards bringing together innovative, passionate individuals across Carnegie Mellon.

The event last Tuesday embodied this collaborative effort, combining talks by students and professors of various disciplines. Loh began the event by discussing Expii, a startup that offers crowdsourced, interactive math and science lessons. According to Expii’s website,, the startup’s mission revolves around the belief that “high quality educational resources should be available to anyone, no matter where they are or what they can afford.”

Through talking about Expii, Loh also commented on the growing ability of individuals to create social change through technology. “The great thing that we have today is that if you want to go around an entire system which may or may not be difficult to penetrate through the bureaucracy, you can, because everyone has [a smartphone]. So if you wanted to, for example, do something to improve education you don’t actually need to go sell things to schools, you can just build something that goes right into the hands of everyone,” Loh said. “With Expii, that is actually what we do.”

Loh concluded his talk by commenting on the potential benefits hackathons have to offer, noting that his experience with Carnegie Mellon students in class and at his company has revealed a pool of talent and an impact-driven culture that he believes would thrive and benefit from the hackathon experience.

The event continued with a talk from Romanoff, who gave an overview of hackathons in general, in an attempt to debunk some misunderstandings of what hackathons are and who they are for. Hackathons have exploded in popularity among college students and universities over the last several years. These caffeine-fueled competitions offer students interested in technology the opportunity to build anything within their means and imaginations in under 36 hours. These technological and intellectual showcases are attractive to students for good reason, as influential technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, often sponsor and attend hackathons to procure future talent.

Generally, hackathons are perceived as events purely for computer programmers, yet Romanoff argued for a broader understanding of the term. “All ages, majors and experience levels are more than welcome,” Romanoff said. In an interview with The Tartan after the event, Romanoff expanded on this idea. “We’re spreading the hackathon ethos to as many students — and disciplines — as possible,” Romanoff said. “Why aren’t there hackathons for creative writing? Architecture? Improv comedy? Carnegie Mellon is home to incredibly diverse subjects and students, but there’s something that unites us through that diversity: our passion. Hackathons are celebrations of that passion, and we intend to spread them to every corner of our campus.”

Following Romanoff’s introduction, various members of the MellonHeads organization gave short presentations about the hackathon experience. Presenters included Laura Fulton, a sophomore engineering mechanics major, Russell Hawkins and Rajat Mehndiratta, sophomore electrical and computer engineering majors, and Tiffany Jiang, a sophomore design and human-computer interactions double major. The presentations dealt with topics of team building and collaboration lessons on how to demonstrate projects in front of a crowd.

Additionally, Cyrus Tabrizi, Vasu Agrawal, and Edward Ahn, sophomore electrical and computer engineering and robotics double majors, spoke. These three students won this year’s PennApps, a hackathon hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, and spoke about building hardware devices as an alternative to building software. Spencer Baugh, a senior computer science major and president of the Carnegie Mellon computer club, and Oscar Bezi, a junior computer science major on the ScottyLabs board, also spoke about their respective organizations.

Looking forward, MellonHeads hopes to continue being an active force on campus. They are currently working to draft a constitution and gain official recognition as an organization on campus. In the mean time, they will continue to host events and work toward an inclusive, collaborative hackathon experience on campus.