Mountain Dew, pizza and Java. These are the trademarks of any good hackathon, and this November, high school students from all over the East Coast will get to experience this at Penn.
The event, called Pilot Philly, will run — as most hackathons do — for a 24-hour period beginning at 1 p.m. on Nov. 9. Similar to PennApps Hackathon, Pilot Philly will dominate McClelland Hall in the Quad for that weekend.
“We’re a group of people interested not just in hacking but in getting high schoolers to view computer science as a useful and valuable education,” Shriram Sundararaman, an Engineering sophomore and one of the event organizers in Pilot, said.
Pilot, the organization that is running the high school hackathons, is marketing the hackathon to local high school students and those in surrounding states. It is free for any student and doesn’t require any background in computer science. Pilot will provide mentors during the hackathon to those without experience and give them a crash course in computer programming.
The effort began when Wharton and Engineering freshmen and Pilot founders Alex Sands and Ben Hsu started a hackathon at their high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, this past April. “We realized the potential high school students have for creating pretty awesome apps,” Sands said of why they decided to replicate the hackathon here.
“After they participated, [my friends] said they wanted to study computer science,” Hsu added.
Over the summer, Sundararaman joined in on Sands and Hsu’s efforts to form Pilot. They then took the project to a national scale, partnering with a soon-to-be Stanford freshman from Thomas Jefferson High School.
They also reached out to Wharton and Engineering sophomore Jake Hart, who is one of the PennApps Hackathon organizers. The group has “the same mission we have at PennApps, expanding computer science education,” Hart said.
This past weekend, their partners in San Francisco hosted Pilot San Francisco, drawing in 150 students. “Everyone was impressed with how excited the high school students were to learn,” Sands said.
The group’s success has gone hand in hand with their ability to attract high profile sponsors. At Thomas Jefferson, they secured Facebook and Palantir as sponsors, while companies like SAP, a multinational software corporation, and VMWare signed on to help at Pilot San Francisco. These sponsors help to offset the surprising costs of running a hackathon — each one costs about $12,000, the group says.
“Our biggest costs are generally prizes and food,” Sands said. “Mentors come free.” The group also pays for maintenance and facilities.
Pilot’s success may also stem from the niche they have carved out in the hacking world. “There are a few organizations who do high school hackathons … but the difference between theirs and ours is that we don’t expect any prior CS education,” Sundararaman said. “We’re more encouraging and inspiring students to do computer science rather than having them do the same things college students do.”
The Pilot group has no plans to stop, and wants to hold more hackathons. “We’re looking at Philly now, but maybe New York [or] Boston in the future,” Sands said.
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