Wednesday, November 22 , 2017, 9:26 am | Fair 74º


Students Find Novel Solutions to Everyday Problems at Santa Barbara High School Hackathon

Mentored by local tech workers, students apply computer science skills to coding projects of their choosing in inaugural competition


Down a flight of stairs and through a computer lab, 15 or so high school students clustered in small groups in front of rows of wide Mac computer screens and their own laptops. Peanut butter, oranges and a buffet of other snacks sat on a nearby table.

All day Saturday, students from Santa Barbara High School and one from San Marcos High coded away on projects for the SBHS Computer Science Academy’s first hackathon.

“They’re learning tons of technical stuff,” said Sky Adams, an SBHS computer science teacher and hackathon organizer.

“Some of them are learning new (programming) languages right now. They’re learning how to use new (application programming interfaces) with the languages they already know.”

While hacking is commonly thought of as breaking into computers to steal information or take control of a system, hackathons are actually competitions where groups spend a single long stretch of time focused on projects meant to creatively solve problems in programming and technology.

Because those events are typically college and post-college competitions, Adams said, she decided to put on her own local high school event.

AppFolio, a Goleta-based tech company, provided the Computer Science Academy $1,000 for the hackathon, and mentors from the local tech industry were on hand to assist the hackers.

Mentors and students brainstormed project ideas beforehand, and student teams coalesced around the ideas they liked.

“There are really no guidelines saying that you have to do this or that,” Adams told Noozhawk. “It’s really whatever they want, whatever language they want.”

Hackathon projects tend to approach common features of the tech and programming world from a totally new direction.

“Basically what we do is we’re making a biometric password,” SBHS student Aidan Barbieux said.

Under that system, a person logging on to a computer simply types a word or phrase provided on the screen. The computer, knowing how a person types — their speed, their common typos, how many milliseconds a given key gets pressed down — will log in if it recognizes the person’s typing pattern and tendencies.

“Your style of typing will become apparent from that, and it can determine who you are and whether you’re the person trying to log in or not,” fellow student Byron Osborne said.

“Just by being you, you have your own password,” Barbieux said. It obviates the need to memorize phrases, and mitigates the risk of someone guessing a weak password like a birthday, he explained.

Barbieux and his group said that refining the system and making it reliable requires constant typing by users so that it can learn to distinguish people’s idiosyncrasies.

The system must also be able to account for variation in each individual — for instance, if someone is known to be tired in the morning and types a little bit slower than usual that time of day.

“My purpose was to get them excited about it, and hopefully they learn some technical skills along the way,” Adams said.

“But the biggest thing was getting them to see the variety of things they could do with it: Regardless of their interest, they can find some way to apply it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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