At the tech competition, students brainstorm ideas for solutions to a problem for 48 hours. The goal is to build a prototype of a project by Sunday.  Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Software that makes your laptop scream “I’m being stolen” if it’s taken from its owner.

An algorithm that will predict the next Most Valuable Player in the NBA.

A visual representation of how cases of coronavirus increase or decrease over time with a feature that compares it to previous outbreaks of coronaviruses such as SARS.

These are the types of projects hundreds of students from across the country were collaborating on at Stony Brook University’s 48-hour hackathon this weekend.

The event, in its fourth year, was sponsored by the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology and Major League Hacking, a global organization of student developers which was co-founded by Jon Gottfried, a university alumnus.

“I like to think of hackathons as ‘invention marathons’ — they have nothing to do with hacking into security like some people might think,” said Gottfried, 29.

Students get together to brainstorm ideas for solutions to a problem. They form teams made up of computer science majors, mechanical engineers and designers, and spend the rest of the weekend building a prototype. The goal is to have a demo to show off on Sunday.

Stony Brook University graduate student Haixiang Zhu, front, and Hofstra...

Stony Brook University graduate student Haixiang Zhu, front, and Hofstra student Orlando Vargas, partially hidden, were among dozens from around the country to came to the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology at Stony Brook University to take part in a 48-hour long hackathon. The event gives students then opportunity to challenge their skills and also take part in technical workshops. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

There were rooms filled with students working together on laptops, others taking naps in sleeping bags, and more participating in workshops with mentors on the Stony Brook campus on Saturday.

“You’re working really hard to find creative ways to solve your problem and that’s what motivates a lot of people here,” Gottfried said. “It’s kind of the equivalent of running a marathon, you feel physically terrible afterwards, you know you’re not going to win, but you’re doing it for your own self-satisfaction of completing a goal.”

There were mostly male students at the hackathon, which reflects the science, technology, engineering and math community, both in higher education and the workforce. Women make up 28% of the science and engineering workforce community, according to a National Science Foundation study in 2018.

“Sometimes it can be difficult if you feel your perspective isn’t being heard in this field,” said Isabelle Greenberg, 20, a Stony Brook University student from Manhattan majoring in computer science with a minor in theater. Greenberg is a member of the university’s Women in Science and Engineering organization.

“The whole software development field would kind of fail if it was just made up of one particular type of person,” Greenberg said. “The best thing about making a project with a lot of different kind of people is everyone bringing their own perspective into it.”

Some students traveled hours to attend the annual hackathon, including Matt Virian, 20, a Rhode Island resident who attends Johnson and Wales University in that state. Virian and his team created a computer software that would yell “I’m being stolen!” and “No, put me down!” if a laptop was taken from the owner.

He hopes to share in one of the cash prizes, which range from $250 to $1,500.

“The weekend does have a competitive aspect, but it’s largely collaborative,” Virian said. “I think the best thing about this hackerspace and atmosphere is it allows people to be as creative and innovative as they can while exploring ideas to real problems and learning from our peers.”

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