All Oles Can Hack It
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and several classrooms in Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences are filled with the hum of activity and anticipation. As the sounds of clicking keyboards and dry erase markers squeaking across whiteboards echo throughout the room, formulas and calculations slowly overtake every inch of available writing space on the walls. In the middle of it all, students huddle together deep in conversation, surrounded by computer monitors displaying their coding work.
As the hours creep by, the students rapidly work together on coding projects that can address real-world needs. One team creates an app that uses U.S. Department of Transportation information to answer questions about air travel. Another develops a digital world simulator to increase knowledge about ecosystem sustainability. Yet another creates an app that centralizes St. Olaf campus safety resources.
All of this work is part of the inaugural OleHacks — an around-the-clock, 36-hour hackathon organized and led by women in computer science at St. Olaf. Dozens of students from St. Olaf, Carleton College, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota spent the weekend in Regents Hall participating in OleHacks. At the conclusion of the hackathon they pitched their projects to their peers and a team of industry experts, who awarded a total of $2,000 in prize money to a winner, runner-up, and two honorable mentions.
Bringing OleHacks to Oles
OleHacks began as the brainchild of Jiwon Moon ’24. She had planned to use a gap year after high school to see the world. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and cut her travels short. As she settled back in at home in Seongnam-si, South Korea, she discovered an online Java course and decided to self-learn coding. Soon she was writing code, creating interactive web content and applications, and participating in virtual hackathons. She was hooked.
By the time Moon arrived at St. Olaf as a first-year student, she knew she wanted to major in computer science. She also knew that she wanted her fellow Oles to experience the excitement of the hackathons she had grown to love.
“I had a lot of fun because I got to meet new people and it was fun to stay up all night and build something cool,” Moon says. “I wanted to bring this to Northfield because we don’t have many hackathons in the state of Minnesota.”
Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Sravya Kondrakunta provided the perfect support network for Moon. A frequent participant in hackathons herself, Kondrakunta understood that this could be a powerful way for St. Olaf students to sharpen their coding skills in a fun, hands-on learning environment. Together with Moon and Patricia Kinsumbya ’23, they created OleHacks. They quickly received strong support for their idea from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science (MSCS), and the Linux Ladies — a student organization focused on supporting women and underrepresented groups in computer science and STEM.
Besides strengthening students’ technical skills, one of the major goals of OleHacks was to provide a space for women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other traditionally marginalized communities to be represented within and have access to the computer science field. Computer Science is a heavily male-dominated field. In the United States, women earn 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees. At St. Olaf, 30 of the 103 St. Olaf students who are majoring in computer science are women.
“There’s a small number of students who major in computer science, but there are even fewer women. By opening this hackathon, we’re hoping to target more marginalized communities at St. Olaf so they can see themselves represented in computer science,” says Kinsumbya, who, along with Moon, serves on the executive board of the Linux Ladies.
Kondrakunta agrees, noting that she often felt lonely in graduate school because there were not many women in the program. “One thing that I’m very passionate about is trying to increase the women population in computer science. Computer science is bad at gender diversity right now, so for that reason, this hackathon was organized and led by all-female students,” she says. “When the participants come in, they get to see female students in managerial positions, which might encourage others to push through and see that there is a place for them in the program and they can thrive in the field.”
The Power of Hands-On Hackathons
Once they came up with the idea for the hackathon, Moon and Kinsumbya connected with Piper Center Associate Director Meghan McMillan about supporting their work. From these conversations, OleHacks became part of the Piper Center’s Ole Career Launcher, a program that helps students pair skills that they learn inside and outside the classroom with applied skills that they can immediately use in situations they’ll encounter when they enter the workforce. OleHacks complemented the AlgoExpert coding certification, which is a technical prep program for computer science offered this year through the Ole Career Launcher.
OleHacks served as an opportunity for participants and other individuals interested in technology to utilize the skills they learned in AlgoExpert to create their own projects. In addition to co-hosting the event, the Piper Center helped make connections with employers and sponsors who supported OleHacks, including Dev10, Netspi, and Securian. The hackathon also included talks from University of California- Santa Cruz Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Leilani Gilpin and industry expert Dustin Dannenhauer, in addition to a panel session with St. Olaf alumnae in tech.
From Idea to App
Rain Hartos ’25 enjoyed applying her coding skills in a new setting as her team — which also included Zachary Novak ’25 and Piers Hanson ’24 — worked to create a digital world generator to increase knowledge about ecosystem sustainability. “I have the ability to apply my skills somewhere I usually wouldn’t be able to, so having that type of opportunity is really great, and I’m happy to be able to code with people I enjoy working with,” she says.
The OleHacks team of Kaz Matsuo ’24, Jonathan Young ’25, Ashton Altmann ’23, and Pavel Karasek ’26 created a multilingual, instant translating chat room in ChatGPT using the natural language processing technique of artificial intelligence — an idea that earned their team an honorable mention. Young joined the hackathon because he wanted to utilize his skills to bring to life a new, innovative idea. “You have a time limit to put all your effort in and figure something out within that time and present it at the end, so having a strict deadline is intimidating but it encourages you to work hard and hopefully at the end have something really good,” he says.
The team of Dhesel Khando ’24, Swagat Malla ’24, Peter Fortier ’24, and Evan Wiebe ’24 won this year’s OleHacks for their Ole Safe app, which centralizes St. Olaf campus safety resources and enables rapid communication with authorities. The runner-up was the team of Alyssa Romportl ’23, Theresa Worden ’24, Keegan Murray ’24, and Ethan Jones ’23 for their DOTbot that serves as an all-in-one flight and travel assistance chatbot.
I strongly believe that diversity generates new ideas and perspectives, enabling a field to expand in various directions. Increased diversity benefits both the field and society in general, as it brings fresh insights and viewpoints.Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Sravya Kondrakunta
Kinsumbya, Moon, and Kondrakunta hope to make OleHacks an annual event. Moon notes that she would love to have more alumni involvement, from individuals coming in for tech talks to more industry sponsors to more networking opportunities to help students find mentors within the field. Kinsumbya aspires for people to be able to “work on bigger, more crazy, more ambitious projects” and for OleHacks to “become more influential.” Kondrakunta is excited to see both the participants and organizers grow as people and the ideas students will come up with.
Most of all, they hope OleHacks will continue to be a space for creativity, innovation, and inclusivity.
“I strongly believe that diversity generates new ideas and perspectives, enabling a field to expand in various directions,” Kondrakunta says. “Increased diversity benefits both the field and society in general, as it brings fresh insights and viewpoints.”