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four students sitting around the table working on a project

Students at last year's WinterSession collaborated on a project.

A New Approach to WPI’s Distinctive Winter Events

WinterSession and Hack@WPI Team Up for Bigger Impact

January 4, 2021
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For years, WPI’s winter break between B-Term and C-Term wrapped up with the eagerly anticipated WinterSession, traditionally a days-long, workshop-packed event in early January. Then, in late January, students looked forward to Hack@WPI, a 36-hour hackathon that attracted students from across the country to the intense and creative hack.

This year, the reimagined WinterSession/Hack@WPI combines these two popular annual events into one. This year’s event is taking a new approach as a co-branded event sponsored by WPI’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and the student-run Hack@WPI, as part of WPI’s Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). This year’s all-virtual event will feature three days of skills-building workshops for WinterSession (open to students, faculty, and staff) followed by a hackathon (students only) where event participants will work in a focused burst to tackle problems submitted by community organizations. Unlike a traditional hackathon for tech-savvy students, this year's hack is for social good so no coding or computing experience is needed to participate or make an impact.

The WinterSession workshops will run January 18-20 and will be taught by WPI faculty members. Topics are geared toward participants who will go on to the hackathon, but they are helpful for anyone who just wants to learn something new—whether that’s identifying and promoting a personal brand, learning how to advance teamwork skills, or understanding value creation principles. The Hack@WPI hackathon runs January 22-24 and gives hackers a chance to develop innovative tech-based solutions to various problems.

In the past, WinterSession attracted students, faculty, staff, and alumni who wanted to learn something new just for the fun of it. From ballroom dancing to glass blowing to SCRUM certification to perfecting your pitch, WinterSession invited all participants to stretch their brains after the winter break and start to gear up for C-Term. After launching in 2015, Hack@WPI became WPI’s definitive annual hack where students enjoy using their tech skills and a lot of creativity to break up the winter doldrums.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing disruption threw both events into uncertainty this year. The I&E team was set to run WinterSession 2021, although pandemic interruptions were causing them to rethink holding it at all. And, according to Hack@WPI’s Sarah Akbar, the hackathon team was considering canceling this year’s event. “There are a lot of hackathons,” she says. “We weren’t sure how to differentiate our event to make people want to come to ours.”

When Hack@WPI approached I&E for help promoting the annual hack, both groups realized that together they could have an even greater impact. And when they decided to invite local organizations to participate, they knew they had found a hook that would appeal to their audience.

“We are pivoting and being creative with the times we are in,” says the I&E Center’s Lusine Baghsarian, noting the event also helps the I&E Center meet one of its goals of hosting a third innovation challenge this academic year. 

The community sponsors will take on a significant role. They will provide prompts for problems, mentor some hack teams informally, and act as judges for the hack. According to Akbar, the team looks for ways to involve the sponsors directly so they can participate in an active way.

The community involvement brought the two teams onto the same path and appeals to so many who want to make a difference during the pandemic. “We were inspired by people everywhere who are coming together to find ways to help,” says Akbar. “We can use our community to help other communities. And working with I&E has been amazing; we have the same vision.”

With a devoted base from both events (including nearly 200 student participants from around the country who worked on 34 submissions in last year’s hack), the groups knew the potential impact would be meaningful.

“The COVID period has been a struggle for organizations and startups,” says Shannen Lin of Hack@WPI, “and the students know how eager the WPI community is to put their talents to real-world use while having fun.”

“I love seeing people working together,” says Akbar. “It’s neat to see what people can come up with—they adapt ideas in the craziest ways.”

by Julia Quinn-Szcesuil