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Penn Apps Spring 2014 Hackathon Credit: Krisha Vasani , Krisha Vasani

Two hardworking Columbia students figured out a way to never do their math homework again.

“The Homework Machine,” designed by Columbia sophomore Derek He and Columbia junior Chris Yan, is the winner of the Spring 2014 PennApps hackathon, which took place over the weekend in the Engineering Quad.

The app is a robot which scans a worksheet of math problems and writes solutions to them in the correct spot, in the student’s handwriting.

Rob Spectre, an eight-time PennApps judge and employee at cloud-based communications company Twilio, was impressed by the team’s innovation. “If they were doing half the problems … or if they were just doing handwriting recognition … or if they were trying to make a robot, it would be very difficult. But they did all three and delivered all at a level of excellence,” Spectre said.

Yan noted that it is less difficult to program the robot to solve an equation like five plus five than to have the robot find it on the page.

The morning of the finals at 4:00 a.m., He and Yan saw a “glimmer of hope,” as Yan described it. At first they thought their machine was not printing anything useful at all. They soon realized it was actually printing the correct numbers, just flipped upside down.

PennApps participants are no strangers to working into the early hours of the morning. One of the challenges of PennApps is completing a complex project during the 48-hour Hackathon.

Yan and He conceived their app months in advance, after Yan’s friend built a device that could solve puzzles to win HackNY, a hackathon co-hosted by New York University and Columbia. Yan described the app as “mystifying, paired with childhood wonder.”

However, the pair did not make any real preparation. They did read relevant research and buy a couple of pieces of hardware the day before the competition. Derek He was concerned about constructing the hardware aspect of the hack, since it was something he’d never done before.

Two plastic dinner knives ended up playing an integral role in their design. “We grabbed whatever was around us [at PennApps],” Yan said.

While Penn might be concerned with the academic dishonesty implicit in “The Homework Machine,” Spectre is not.

“That’s awesome. That’s hacking,” he said. “If they have the capability of building something like that, they deserve an A.”

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