Athens High School students crack the code at hack event

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published December 19, 2017

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TROY — Educators and organizers hoped 40-50 students would attend the first-ever Hackathon, a chance for students to learn to write computer code, at Athens High School Nov. 17. 

Athens parent Sowmya Sathyan, who works in information technology for Flagstar Bank, had approached Athens High School Assistant Principal Bill Turner and Athens computer science/math department co-chair Josh Pudaloff with the idea of offering students a chance to learn computer coding. 

 Sathyan said “hack” is used in the sense of exploratory programming, not its alternate meaning as a reference to computer crime.

She explained that her son Varun, who graduated last spring, was interested in computer science. He is studying it at the University of California, Berkeley. While her daughter Laya, a 10th-grader, is not interested in computer science, Sathyan said she, herself, loves working with students. “I was hoping to give students the opportunity to figure out what interests and excites them,” she said.

Sathyan approached her employers at Flagstar Bank to see if they would sponsor the event, and they donated the $1,600 needed when 100 students signed up. About 80 students attended the seven-hour after-school event. 

“We had to turn off the registration. It was very satisfying to see the level of interest from the student community,” she said. 

The event was targeted to everyone, she said.

“There was no prerequisite. We were trying to level the playing field.” 

Using computer codes — no shortcuts — students created websites and learned how to send encrypted email messages. 

Michigan State University professor Joshua Nahum spoke to the students about artificial intelligence and how it applies to computer science, and Jim Wong spoke about cybersecurity at the event. 

“They were very excited to see the code work,” Sathyan said. 

Turner said that after Sathyan emailed Pudaloff with the idea and they decided to go forward with it, they brainstormed and got the Athens Computer Club involved. 

Adithya Sairamachandran, a senior at Athens High School, was a founding member of the club and now serves as the president. 

The club advertised the event with a video that aired during the school announcements and with flyers around the school in order to reach out to students who didn’t have backgrounds in computer science. 

“I thought we’d struggle to get 50 kids,” he said. “We opened a lot of students’ eyes to computer science. Half the people (who attended) had no computer science background.” 

He said he wants students to know that “computer science is not nerdy or geeky. I want to show people more than that, that they can have a lot of fun.” 

Sairamachandran said he plans to study computer science, with an emphasis in artificial intelligence, in college. 

“Some kids had no idea and some were Advanced Placement computer science students,” Pudaloff said. He said it was about a 50-50 mix of boys and girls. 

“It was a very exciting event. The kids really enjoyed it,” he said. “They learned HTML (a web programming language) from scratch, then customized their websites with their own images, pictures and sound.” 

He said the aim was to offer something for students at every level. 

Organizers plan to offer and expand the event districtwide in March and to possibly feature a competition. 

“They were learning computers at deeper levels,” Turner said. “The information technology field is a growing field. … There’s not enough talent. Getting more kids into computer coding is exciting.”