Hackathon challenges students to work with class data

Tuesday, October 20, 2015 - 7:01pm

MHacks is not the only hackathon in town.

Twelve students spent hours at the University’s Digital Innovation Greenhouse’s inaugural hackathon on Tuesday, working with massive amounts of synthetic student data to create grade prediction software.

Students split into two teams — referred to as Team Collab and Team Bunker — and each team was given the same data sets to work with. The data was not real student data, since Physics Prof. Timothy McKay said using real data would infringe on student privacy. Even so, the synthetic data was based on real patterns from 150 of the most popular courses at the University. The data included information regarding high school performance, current course performance and gender.

Each team took a different approach to the data. Team Collab estimated where correlations might occur within the data sets. Information senior Meera Desai said one factor they focused on was GPA.

“We are trying to understand how GPA, courses and faculty members correlate, and if you can understand and predict GPA based on certain variables and factors,” Desai said.

Team Bunker took a different approach. They sought correlations by performing a series of statistical tests for the class data from Physics 140 and Physics 240. LSA senior Alexander Verros said certain variables became insignificant when analyzed together.

“When you start adding interactions, the first thing that becomes insignificant is high school GPA,” Verros said. “But the most insignificant thing was actually the interaction between college GPA, major and sex.”

At the end of the event, both teams presented their findings and outlined how they would proceed with their work if they had more time.

McKay, the founder of the hackathon, discussed the uses of the students’ ideas for academics at the University.

“A lot of people talk about this as grade prediction, which is scary and negative in a lot of ways, so I try to speak about this as learning from experience,” McKay said. “If we know you are headed for trouble we should treat it as something to act on, not as what’s going to happen.”

Kris Steinhoff, lead developer at DIG, said he was interested by the students’ unique take on projects already in the works.

“From the comments that I’ve overheard, they’ve been proposing a number of ideas that we’ve been discussing separately,” Steinhoff said. “It’s really interesting to see that they’re coming up with some of the same ideas that we’ve had, but it’s also interesting to see their unique take on those problems.”

McKay said he constantly finds that students rise to the occasion when presented with a challenge.

“Every time I give students the chance to just contribute, they do that in a way that amazes me,” he said. “I used to think that I had to shape the student experience more, but the more I provide students with the open spaces to contribute, the more successful they seem.”