Students from around the world participate in a virtual version of HackPSU


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop 644 students from around the world from participating in a virtual version of HackPSU. The 48-hour hackathon was held entirely online for 45 teams of students, some as close as University Park and others as far as West Bengal, India. The students were required to complete several challenges over the course of the weekend to compete for prizes and the opportunity to bolster their coding skills.

Students also had the opportunity to compete in sponsor challenges, alongside the larger competition. One of the winning teams of a sponsor challenge competed in the Nittany AI Mini Challenge, facilitated by the Nittany AI Alliance — a service of Penn State Outreach — where they were charged with creating a solution using artificial intelligence for good in the areas of education, environment, health and/or humanitarianism.

Penn State students Kareem Jelks, a senior majoring in cybersecurity analytics and operations in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and John Keeling, a sophomore majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering, created Vigilant — an app designed to provide the user with predictive analytics on sex crime data trends. Jelks said the goal is to raise awareness about the impact these crimes have on society at large.

“We, as Penn State students, receive timely warnings from the University about sex crimes on campus and students should know that sex crime is an issue as early as their first semester on campus,” Jelks said. “We aim to create a tool that will assist the administration at Penn State with the implementation of necessary initiatives to reduce the likelihood and impact of sex crimes on campus. Sex crimes are underreported across the nation, so we want all victims to know that their voices will be heard and that we will provide them with a platform to speak their truth.”

Jelks and Keeling are also competing in the 2021 Nittany AI Challenge. While they are creating a different solution using AI for Good for the larger competition, Jelks said the skills they learned during the Mini Challenge at HackPSU will assist them.

“The technical details we explored while developing Vigilant will help us in the development of our 2021 Nittany AI Challenge project, Reach.AI, which analyzes public data in rural Pennsylvania to bridge racial and ethnic health inequity and disparity,” Jelks said. “Our team has worked together on many projects before, and our organizational skills have translated well.”

HackPSU is Penn State’s largest student-run hackathon and attracts participants with all skill levels to create change by developing technology to solve real-world problems. Students 18 years of age or older from any university were invited to enter the free event. Anastasia Vopelius, co-executive director of HackPSU, is a junior majoring in data sciences in the College of Engineering at Penn State. She said she is most proud of the level of engagement students were able to have during the virtual event.

“There are inevitably a lot of challenges with trying to keep participants engaged in a virtual setting, but our workshops and entertainment events saw a lot of engagement and that’s really what it is all about,” Vopelius said. “In addition, we had a large number of beginner hackers and hackers with no experience, so it was really great to see them being active and displaying interest in hackathons and the tech world.”

Three student teams were chosen as the overall winners of HackPSU:

  • First place went to Styra, a team from Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi, India, that created an app to help users increase personal productivity online.
  • Second place went to Tutrolink, a team from Penn State and Northeastern University in Boston, that created an app that will allow teaching assistants to create a space that has online waiting rooms that they can control.
  • Third place went to Bump AI, a team from Mizoram University, in Aizawl, India, that created an automated speed controlling system that allows drivers to slow down via tracking their speed and raising visual speed bumps out of the ground if they are driving over the limit of the area.

HackPSU was part of Penn State Startup Week. Along with the Nittany AI Alliance, other collaborators include the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences; College of Engineering: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Smeal College of Business: Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship; College of Information Sciences and Technology; Lion Launchpad: Special Living Option; Happy Valley Communications and EchoAR.

For more information about the Nittany AI Challenge, visit the Nittany AI Alliance.

Visit HackPSU for more details about the hack and plans for the fall 2021 event.

Startup Week is an Invent Penn State initiative.


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Megan Lakatos