By Olivia Deng, InBusiness Editor
What comes to mind when you think of “hack”? The word may have negative connotations – intrusion, invasion and theft. However, “hack” has also acquired a new meaning, one that is less associated with illicit activity and more associated with exploration and innovation.
HackBeanPot. HackMIT. HubHacks. Masshack. Boston, a city with a young population and a burgeoning entrepreneurial scene, has proven itself to be a breeding ground for hackathons, a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon.
What is a hackathon, exactly?
Hackathons are events where individuals gather together to work on projects — typically, software development projects. While there are hackathons that encompass a wider range of disciplines, some, such as MIT Hacking Medicine, have a narrower focus.
Make_BU, a Boston University student organization that started meeting informally spring last year, hopes to bring hacking to BU.
“There are lots of student hackers on campus that enjoy building web, mobile, hardware projects in their free time,” said Alex Wheeler, Make_BU cofounder and a College of Arts and Sciences senior. “This usually consists of students individually adding to their projects whenever they find the free time outside of class to do so.”
“BU has many clubs on campus that teach students the skills they need to start playing with technology, such as BUILDS, OpenWeb and Global App Initiative, so Make_BU also serves as a night to bring all of these students together to apply the skills they’ve learned and get more help with any questions they might have.”
In March, Make_BU hosted a 24-hour hackathon that drew a couple hundred participants, according to Wheeler. However, the club hosts smaller-scale hack nights that draw 25 to 50 students, according to Wheeler.
At Make_BU’s first weekly hack night of the semester, a litany of students with backgrounds ranging from computer engineering to journalism converged at the Engineering Product Innovation Center to work on projects and homework.
“With so much talent on campus, we knew that by bringing everyone together one night a week would allow the community to help each other build, learn and ultimately change the world we live in,” said Wheeler.
The relaxed event drew students, many of whom were freshman, interested in learning more about coding. Jenna Zhu, a College of Engineering freshman, said she attended the event to further her knowledge as a computer engineer.
“I was hoping I could learn stuff about hacking and coding so I could use those skills in my future as a computer engineer,” she said.
Emilio Garcia, a CAS freshman, also came to grow his knowledge and said there are benefits beyond simply learning about development.
“It’s a nice group. Even if it doesn’t help me knowledge-wise, it is still a nice group of people with the same interests.”
Ned Geeslin, a CAS freshman, also addressed the emphasis on community at Make_BU.
“I’ve been looking for a group to work with. I like it, I think it is really fun. I will definitely come again to meet new people.”
Wheeler said Make_BU has plans to expand their reach beyond BU.
“We’re teaming up with other Boston-area universities’ student hacker groups by attending hack night at their campuses, as well as hosting them here at BU,” he said. “I would love to see more students getting off campus and immersing themselves in the awesome technology community we have in Boston.”
To hack is to disrupt. While disruption can be viewed as a harmful activity, the entrepreneurial spirit that drives hackathons brings an entirely new meaning to the word disrupt.