Hackathon Brings Next Generation of Innovators to Campus
What do you get when you gather a group of bright teenagers together for a three-day hackathon? Inventive solutions to some of the city’s biggest problems.
On July 18-20, the UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization hosted a Camp WIT hackathon at the new Design and Innovation building on campus. The event gathered close to three dozen students for three days of hands-on lessons and activities centered on building social entrepreneurship and leadership skills. Working in teams, the participants tackled real-world problems—such as food insecurity and homelessness—and then pitched their solutions to a panel of experts from the community.
WIT (which stands for “whatever it takes”) was founded by teacher, entrepreneur and speaker Sarah Hernholm. In addition to hackathons, WIT offers individual coaching, online programs, community building and courses that grant college credit through a partnership with the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies.
“The point of Camp WIT is to really amplify teen voices around solving problems that are happening in their city,” said Hernholm. “At WIT, our commitment is to provide teenagers with spaces, places and programs where their voices are heard and their ideas are valued.”
The program encourages students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to apply, inspiring an array of diverse perspectives to help the teams “hack” the issue they have selected to address. UC San Diego also funded $10,000 in scholarships to support enrollment fees. The hackathon’s location right off the new UC San Diego Blue line trolley stop also provided increased access to the event. Students were able to use public transportation to arrive to the hackathon, which took place primarily in The Basement space within the Design and Innovation Building on campus.
“It’s really important for me that young people from different walks of life can connect and build together,” said Hernholm. “You also don’t want to be solving problems without input from the people who are impacted by those problems … If you want to build empathy, bridges and community, you’ve got to put people in the room together and encourage them to work together.”
The hackathon was organized into daily learning sessions followed by dedicated time for teams to develop their solutions. University faculty and community leaders lead informative classes—such as a virtual reality lesson and design thinking activity—as well as serve as sounding boards for the participants. Throughout the three-day event, experts were available to share insight about their careers and backgrounds, inspiring participants on their journey to becoming entrepreneurs. Six UC San Diego undergraduates in majors such as communication and psychology also volunteered for the event, offering their time as student mentors.
Camp WIT concluded with the teams pitching their final ideas and prototypes in front of a panel. The team with the highest-scoring pitch—evaluated on factors ranging from presentation quality to how easily the solution could be executed—took home prize money. All participants receive a certification of completion from the university’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization.
UC San Diego's involvement in Camp WIT falls within the broader context of the campus’s innovation and entrepreneurship priorities, which includes helping drive social and economic prosperity in the community. The university does this through talent development, technology development and community engagement.
“Any time that we can bring our innovation and entrepreneurship resources to benefit the community is a good thing,” said Paul Roben, Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization at UC San Diego. “We're trying to build the innovation workforce of the future, which means building confident, creative people who can contribute to the economy. Our responsibility doesn't end at the borders of the campus. It extends into the community and to the extent that we can bring our resources to help the communities—particularly the under-resourced communities that don't always have access to these types of things—that really is the responsibility of a public university.”
A team of five students used their time at Camp WIT to address an issue around youth mental health: specifically, tackling the high school scheduling system that they believe causes extreme stress for students. The team developed a reimagined and reinvented school day schedule that would allow more time to pursue extracurricular activities and explore personal interests, hence promoting happier and more motivated students.
“What I’ve really taken away from this experience was that they taught us how to think, rather than what to think,” said Sabrina Haji, a rising sophomore at The Preuss School UC San Diego. “I think that it’s helped me really be able to voice my opinion and change my way of thinking … I’ve also learned to speak up for myself and advocate for myself—what I want and what I need, rather than what’s given to me. I’ve also made really great friends through this program.”
“Coming to events like these, I could maybe see myself coming to UC San Diego and continuing where these experts and leaders have left off,” added Fabian Garcia, also a rising sophomore at The Preuss School UC San Diego. “I feel like them showing their success and career [as part of the event sessions] gives me a spark of hope in seeing what I can later do in the future.”
Alongside three students from Preuss School, the team included an incoming freshman from the local Francis Parker School and one incoming freshman who will be attending high school in Irvine.
This collaborative work with Camp WIT is just one recent example of community engagement and outreach that the university has been a part of. In January, UC San Diego announced it was awarded nearly $1 million as part of the U.S. government’s Build To Scale initiative, a federal program promoting the growth of technology entrepreneurship in historically underserved communities. The grant will support UC San Diego’s Talent Foundry Accelerator over the next three years, working to expand innovation resources and training to underserved populations in the region.