July 7, 2023
From idea to prototype in 32 hours: Computer science team takes 1st at Calgary hackathon
For most people, having 32 hours to come up with a new product, build it from scratch, and present it to a discerning audience would induce wide-eyed panic. But for Ana DuCristea, Nathan Wu, Allan Kong, and Lujaina Eldelebshany, it sounds like a fun weekend.
The four students recently claimed first prize at CalgaryHacks, one of several local hackathon competitions where teams rapidly design, develop, and pitch innovative software product ideas. Judges with backgrounds in business and technology then assess the pitches for their inventiveness, execution, and market potential, Dragons’ Den-style.
DuCristea and Kong are computer science students at the University of Calgary, while Wu studies computer science at the University of Alberta. All three recently finished their first year of studies. When they met in high school through a mutual friend, they were already a force to be reckoned with, winning the Calgary Mayor’s Youth Council Hackathon which took place virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. With CalgaryHacks on the horizon, DuCristea invited second-year UCalgary software engineering student Eldelebshany to the team.
“Hackathons are a great way to meet new people,” explains DuCristea. “Lujaina and I had the same scholarship, so it seemed like a natural collaboration.” Both are recipients of the Schulich Leader Scholarship — Canada’s most coveted high school STEM scholarship, of which only 100 are awarded each year nationwide.
Together, the four-person dream team conceived and created their first-prize-winning entry, UniQuest. Using QR codes, this app is designed to be implemented on university campuses to maximize use of campus services through a process of gamification.
“We thought that lots of university students don’t know about the resources their campuses offer,” says Wu. “So we came up with the idea of ‘quests’ to visit new locations and buildings, and you get points as you go that could be translated into prizes like free access to recreation areas, or free printing.”
The app would offer immediate value to universities looking to increase use of their services and events, from counselling to recreation spaces to lecture series. Similarly, students would get a richer university experience by learning about all the amenities they might otherwise miss. Many of the other competitors commented that UniQuest would be a useful tool. “It was great to hear that people said they would actually use the app if it were implemented,” says Eldelebshany.
Although the team recognized they had a strong idea from the outset, implementing it was another matter. “It’s like a Jenga tower,” says Kong, “but instead of taking out pieces you’re trying to build it up, and when you’ve got a bug it feels like it’s going to collapse until you solve it and build it back up again.”
“The idea itself gave us a lot of motivation,” adds Eldelebshany. “You’re staring into nothingness and you know the clock is ticking. But once we got into it, that helped us plan it hour by hour, and it gave us some structure.”
From concept to finalization, the team worked for a solid 24 hours, taking only the occasional break to quickly eat, drink, and refocus. As they began their presentations to the judges, UniQuest had gone from a bright idea to a fully functional prototype app complete with an interactive demonstration. By scanning QR codes and examining the interface, the expert evaluators got a sense of what it would be like to explore campus amenities and events, earning redeemable points.
By the time the winners were announced, the competitors had been designing and presenting for 32 straight hours. “Our hearts were beating really fast, and of course they do the winners in reverse order,” says DuCristea with a laugh.
“It’s very stressful but super fun. We cheered when we won and we got to show our project to the entire group.”
Hackathons — in this case, “hack” refers to innovative programming rather than breaching security systems — are growing in popularity among young software developers for several reasons. They build innovation, teamwork, and entrepreneurial skills, all in a fun and challenging environment.
For Eldelebshany, part of the appeal of competitions like this one lies with her generation’s emphasis on individual expression. “A big thing for our generation is the unique expression of oneself. You can see it in fashion and the rapid rise of startups all the time. What’s important is to maintain an empathetic approach and ensure that you’re actually solving problems, and approaching each issue with an empathetic lens.”
DuCristea is also encouraged to see the gradually increasing representation of girls and women at hackathons and in the broader STEM field. “I think there should be compulsory school experience in programming for everyone,” she says.
“Girls or women may not get involved because of the perceived barriers around it. They may not get interested until they experience it for themselves, which is why it would be great to have everyone at least try it.”
With one university-level hackathon win under their belts, DuCristea, Wu, Kong and Eldelebshany are on the lookout for their next challenge. “We would love to discover some other competitions out there and represent Alberta on a national scale,” says DuCristea.
Wherever they set their sights next, they’ll be the team to watch.
You can see more details about UniQuest on Devpost.