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STEM Education

8 Steps to Running a Great Hackathon

Hackathons can inspire innovation, create a sense of community, teach computer science skills and prepare students to become digital leaders of the future. Here's how to put together a successful event on campus.

group of students high fiving

"Last year, more than 100,000 students gave up their weekends and their free time to learn something new. There were no teachers, there were no textbooks. There were no lesson plans. They had one singular goal to build something cool, and share it with the world," said Jon Gottfried, co-founder of student hacker community Major League Hacking (MLH). Those students were participating in hackathons: weekend-long invention competitions that bring people together to solve interesting problems with technology. They conceived and created tens of thousands of inventions, from robots, websites and mobile apps all the way to homemade self-driving cars, said Gottfried, and in the process were redefining the future of computer science and STEM education.

MLH has supported thousands of hackathons, technical workshops and recruiting events with the goal of building up the next generation of technology leaders and entrepreneurs. In a session at this past fall's STEAM Week virtual conference, Gottfried spoke about the logistics of running a campus hackathon as well as key factors that help turn the event into a memorable — and educational — experience for students.  

1) Find a venue.

"Don't overcomplicate this," Gottfried said. "You can do a classroom, you can do a gym, you can do a computer lab, Student Union. When you walk into a venue, you ideally want it to feel like a space that people would be comfortable spending 24 hours in. It does help to have it be outside of the normal classroom environment, but it's certainly not a requirement."

Sample 12-Hour Schedule

9:00 a.m. Registration and breakfast

10:00 a.m. Opening ceremony

11:00 a.m. Workshops

1:00 p.m. Lunch

4:00 p.m. Mini event

6:00 p.m. Dinner

8:00 p.m. Demos and judging

There are basic logistical needs, however: WiFi and/or Ethernet, two to three power outlets per person, group work tables (individual desks are not ideal), a dining/buffet area, mentor/sponsor tables and a projector and screen for opening ceremonies and project demos. "Once you have that, that's really it," he said. "As you get into bigger and bigger events, the logistics become more complicated due to the scale. But if you can get a room with power and Ethernet for a weekend, you're well on your way to doing a hackathon."

Sample 24-Hour Schedule

Saturday

9:00 a.m. Registration and breakfast

10:00 a.m. Opening ceremony

11:00 a.m. Workshops

1:00 p.m. Lunch

4:00 p.m. Workshops

6:00 p.m. Dinner

9:00 p.m. Mini event

Sunday

12:00 a.m. Midnight snack

8:00 a.m. Breakfast

9:00 a.m. Demos and judging

2) Get students involved.

In many cases, university hackathons are driven by students. "It's often something that comes to campus when a student goes and experiences an event themselves and just decides that they want to bring it back with them," Gottfried said. "It does tend to be very grassroots." But even when a hackathon is organized by administrators or professors, it's important to have students in the mix: "They're the core constituency who the event is for. Having their perspective and support and involvement makes it a much better experience and much more memorable. And it gives them a leadership opportunity that they probably wouldn't get anywhere else in putting on a large-scale event."

3) Organize food, prizes and free stuff.

Free food is a draw for a lot of students, but it's also a democratizing factor, Gottfried pointed out. "The reason that we highly recommend the meals be free is to lower the barrier of entry for students. We don't want finances to be a barrier for people, and really, we don't even want people thinking twice about [going to the event]. It should be something that's a no brainer for them to participate in." In addition, snacks and drinks make it easier for students to work for long periods of time, hackathon-style.

Prizes make participants feel rewarded and recognized for doing good work. "It doesn't have to be huge, it doesn't have to be expensive," Gottfried said. "I would recommend starting with something that's simple and usable — maybe an electronics kit or a cool gadget that you can get for $30 to $50 per person."

And don't forget the free stuff. For students, Gottfried asserted, one of the most important things they get out of a hackathon is swag. "For a lot of these students, being a hacker and going to hackathons and creating technology is a core part of their identity. So having a sticker to put on their laptop or water bottle, or having a t-shirt to wear around campus, is part of identifying with this culture. And so it's actually really important from a bonding and experience standpoint."  

4) Market your event.

A website, even a simple one, is essential to publicize your event. "We've seen hackathons run purely off a Facebook event, or an Eventbrite page, or any number of other simple event hosting platforms," Gottfried said. "You really don't need to create something custom, though if you have the capabilities, it might make it feel a little friendlier."

With that in place, it's time for some "basic on-the-ground marketing," he added. E-mail student groups, put flyers around campus, share the event on social media, etc. Make a point to speak about it in classrooms — especially non-computer science classrooms. "There are a lot of students in other disciplines who are interested in technology," he said.

And for an extra bump, work with professors to offer extra credit for participating in the hackathon, Gottfried suggested. "What we often find is, people are skeptical of going to their first hackathon because it's kind of a big undertaking. But once they get there, it totally changes their perspective and they get hooked. So sometimes you need to give them enough of an incentive to try it for the first time."

Ultimately, you should aim to sign up about two times as many registrants as you want attendees. "Any free event has attrition: We usually look at 40 to 60 percent. So definitely try and go above and beyond there."

5) Recruit volunteers.

Almost all hackathons are run by volunteer staff, Gottfried said. "You want to get students, professors, administrators, maybe professionals in the local community to come help out. The tasks range from logistics (like moving boxes, handing out food, checking people in) all the way through to speaking at the event, maybe giving a technical workshop, maybe mentoring people on helping them debug their code at midnight. There's a lot of different things and ways that people can contribute."

You'll also need judges for the end of the event. These can be people who students are already familiar with, such as professors and mentors, but bringing in an outsider can make students feel another level of recognition. "Maybe it's someone who is a technology leader in your local community, maybe it's the president of the college," Gottfried said. Give students the opportunity to demo their project to someone they look up to.

Judges need to have a good understanding of what it takes to build technology, and what a hackathon is really about. "It's not a business plan competition. It's not a startup competition. It's a place for people to build cool prototypes," he asserted. "We usually look at it from the perspective of creativity, technical complexity, maybe usefulness in the real world, that kind of thing."

6) Find sponsors.

The most obvious purpose of a sponsor is to fund the event, Gottfried said. "When you're buying that food and buying that swag, someone's paying for it. University budgets sometimes contribute but generally are pretty strapped for cash — so you do bring in sponsors to help cover the cost." Sponsors can provide cash or in-kind donations (such as free or discounted food). A good place to start is with local businesses: companies that have a relationship with the school, are based locally or have an office locally, that want to get involved and support something on campus, he recommended. Even better, a sponsor can be a company that is recruiting and hiring students from campus, for internships or full-time jobs in technology, so there is a financial relationship there.

Another opportunity for sponsorship lies in developer marketing: "I imagine that many of you have had representatives of major tech companies come to campus to talk about different projects they're working on," Gottfried explained. "The same thing happens at hackathons, and it's generally something that people pay for."

7) Make the experience special.

"Once you have the sponsors, it's okay to move on and focus on the experience of the event," Gottfried said. That is, the prizes, workshops and activities that make the hackathon memorable for participants.

First off, he said, almost every event will have some kind of overall grand prize winner. But it's also a good idea to award prizes for special categories: "Maybe the best hack from a freshman or newbie, or maybe the best project that addresses a civic tech issue in our city — things that incentivize students to focus on a general area."

Workshops give participants a chance to learn from their peers or professionals from the community in a one- or two-hour boot camp format. They can cover a wide range of technical topics, from an introduction to iOS and Android to blockchain, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and more. Even a basic workshop on coding can help make participants more comfortable with the hackathon and get them started, Gottfried noted.

More Resources

The MLH Hackathon Organizer Guide provides an in-depth playbook on throwing a successful hackathon, from locking down a venue to post-event surveys and accounting. It also includes templates, sample documents and links to software tools for managing the event.

A hackathon is really a social experience as much as it's a learning environment, he added. "We recommend having fun activities to break up the time period of starting at your screen for nine or 12 or 24 hours." For example, a popular activity is cup stacking, a competition where students race to make towers out of plastic cups. "It's incredibly fun, really weird to watch, but students get a kick out of it and you can even give a little spot prize for the winner," Gottfried said.

8) Measure your results.

The top item on MLH's post-event checklist is to collect evidence of your success. That includes key stats (e.g., attendance numbers), press mentions, tweets, photos and videos. The organization also recommends surveying attendees and sponsors to get their feedback. All these things will help improve and promote your next hackathon.

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