All-day “hackathon” engages students in environmental problem-solving

Students at “EarthHacks” use hardware, art, text and software to solve environmental problems with innovative solutions. (Photo courtesy of EarthHacks)

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu, Contributing Writer

“EarthHacks,” a 24-hour hackathon, returns for its second year Jan. 26-27  as student teams, with access to mentors and other resources, discover novel answers to global problems.

This year’s event will focus on corporate sustainability, public health, biotechnology medical waste and energy efficiency. The first event, hosted in March 2018, sought to explore solutions — no matter how small — to environmental problems affecting the world today.

“[We] wanted to provide an avenue for people to be able to do something,” said Stephen Fong, VCU associate professor and EarthHacks mentor. “And by doing something, I mean thinking about it more deeply, diving into it, and saying, ‘I want to learn more about this … is there some solution we can think about?’”  

EarthHacks, he said, is a way to provide people interested in environmental issues the opportunity to have focused discussions and potentially yield some solutions.  

“And it doesn’t have to be an overly complicated solution. Sometimes the solutions are simple,” Fong said. “There are small adjustments we could get people to make right now that could alter the long-term results.”

The first EarthHacks focused on pollution, renewable energy and conservation technology. Held overnight at the museum, participants took breaks from hacking to enjoy exhibits during the 24 hours.

“The first year, it was kind of an experiment for us, to see how an environmental hackathon would go and how the museum setting would be,” said Sanjana Paul, EarthHacks co-founder and lead organizer.

Paul studies electrical engineering and physics as a senior at VCU. She said one of the goals of the event is to focus on “exponential innovation.”

“This hackathon is not limited to just engineers, it is not limited to just STEM majors,” Paul said. “We want people from all backgrounds to come because environmental problems are everyone’s problems.”

EarthHacks’ solutions may involve hardware, art, text, software and other materials, according to the EarthHacks website. Projects vary on the problems each team focuses on solving.  

“The way we go about our daily lives sometimes isn’t really in the best interest of human well-being,” Fong said. “Extrapolating long-term … short-term maybe it doesn’t make that big a difference, but after a while, there’s a cumulative effect.”

To register for EarthHacks, visit earthhacks.vcu.edu.

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