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Engineering Students Rapidly Learning at Hackathon Events

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Making, Hacking, and Extracurricular Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Cecilia La Place Arizona State University

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Cecilia La Place is a fourth-year student (beginning Fall 2017) at Arizona State University studying Software Engineering and beginning an MS in SE concurrently. She joined the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative in her junior year after participating in hackathons in Arizona and Southern California due to her love of learning and hackathons.

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Shawn S. Jordan Arizona State University, Polytechnic campus Orcid 16x16

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SHAWN JORDAN, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. He teaches context-centered electrical engineering and embedded systems design courses, and studies the use of context in both K-12 and undergraduate engineering design education. He received his Ph.D. in Engineering Education (2010) and M.S./B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Purdue University. Dr. Jordan is PI on several NSF-funded projects related to design, including an NSF Early CAREER Award entitled “CAREER: Engineering Design Across Navajo Culture, Community, and Society” and “Might Young Makers be the Engineers of the Future?,” and is a Co-PI on the NSF Revolutionizing Engineering Departments grant “Additive Innovation: An Educational Ecosystem of Making and Risk Taking.” He was named one of ASEE PRISM’s “20 Faculty Under 40” in 2014, and received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama in 2017.

Dr. Jordan co-developed the STEAM Labs™ program to engage middle and high school students in learning science, technology, engineering, arts, and math concepts through designing and building chain reaction machines. He founded and led teams to two collegiate Rube Goldberg Machine Contest national championships, and has appeared on many TV shows (including Modern Marvels on The History Channel and Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC) and a movie with his chain reaction machines. He serves on the Board of the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa, AZ, and worked as a behind-the scenes engineer for season 3 of the PBS engineering design reality TV show Design Squad. He also held the Guinness World Record for the largest number of steps – 125 – in a working Rube Goldberg machine.

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Micah Lande Arizona State University

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Micah Lande, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering programs and Tooker Professor at the Polytechnic School in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. He teaches human-centered engineering design, design thinking, and design innovation project courses. Dr. Lande researches how technical and non-technical people learn and apply a design process to their work.  He is interested in the intersection of designerly epistemic identities and vocational pathways. Dr. Lande is the PI/co-PI on NSF-funded projects focused on engineering doing and making, citizen science and engineering outreach, and “revolutionizing” engineering education. He has also been an instructor and participant in the NSF Innovation Corps for Learning program. He received his B.S in Engineering (Product Design), M.A. in Education (Learning, Design and Technology) and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering (Design Education) from Stanford University.

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Steven Weiner Arizona State University, Polytechnic campus

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Steven Weiner is a PhD student in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. He is interested in researching innovative learning frameworks at the intersection of formal and informal STEM education, specifically focusing on the impact of long-term, project-based programs on middle and high school students at community makerspaces and science centers. Before starting his doctoral studies, Mr. Weiner served as the founding Program Director for CREATE at Arizona Science Center, a hybrid educational makerspace/ community learning center. He has previous experience as a physics and math instructor at the middle school and high school levels.

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Hackathon events are severely time constrained events (24-36 hours consecutively) where engineers dive deeply into solving design challenges. Part of the learning experience is to learn as much as you can in a short amount of time. This work explores how participants learn enough to complete a project during the limited amount of time given about something new to be able to “hack” together (design) a feasible solution. This intense but short-duration of time occur naturally in hackathons and magnifies the importance of applying learning strategies and specific types of knowledge to be able to contribute to the event.

Hackathons in this context refer to technological invention sprints that occur over a period of 24-36 hours to program software and hardware to solving a real world design challenge. A majority of participants enter hackathons not knowing the direction of their intended project beforehand, and not knowing what specific additional information they will need to complete their project beyond their own technical abilities. These hackathons are not related to breaking into systems for the sake of exploitation, a popular but outmoded notion associated with “hacking.”

Participants often have to learn something new in a short amount of time, such as a specialized programming language and/or new hardware, and strategies to integrate both into a system. As projects develop throughout the duration of the hackathon, the needs of the project, and the skills needed for the project, can change abruptly. So, in a rather quick and responsive manner, participants then have to change what they were learning. With limited time then, the confines of a hackathon event forces participants to find effective personalized learning methods to better understand, develop, and very quickly apply skills crucial to their project’s development and ultimate success.

For this research, the research team observed engineering and computer science students in action over the course of collegiate hackathon events, with particular attention to checking in with a couple of student teams over the course of the time period. This work observes these trends and is an observational study to understand the learning strategies present. Some of the observed trends include peer learning, adaptive learning, and variations on self-directed learning. We will highlight these with specific examples from our field work. We expect to be able to dive more deeply into this through our continued analysis of hackathon teams recorded as they progress through hackathons, and their process of finding information and using resources is documented.

This work can be used to better engineering education through a more specific understanding of personalized learning strategies, especially with self-directed learning. The nature of hackathon events can help illuminate ways in which engineering and computer science students can be better prepared in more formal learning environments. We hope to provide ways in which we can bridge a gap between personalized education and formal learning.

La Place, C., & Jordan, S. S., & Lande, M., & Weiner, S. (2017, June), Engineering Students Rapidly Learning at Hackathon Events Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio.

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