Record numbers connect, learn and have fun at McGill Physics Hackathon

The McGill Physics Hackathon provides an uplifting example of ongoing efforts by members of the Faculty of Science to help students connect and stay engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic

Of all the disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, the loss of opportunities to connect with other people is one that many at McGill and beyond are feeling especially keenly. In November 2020, in the depths of a Zoom-fatigued fall semester, a 24-hour online coding challenge run by McGill physics students and faculty members achieved remarkable success in bringing people together to tackle projects around shared interests.

Over 190 hackers took part in the fifth edition of the McGill Physics Hackathon, setting new records not only for the total number of participants, but also for the relative numbers of first-time hackers and participants from outside McGill. The strong turnout was a pleasant surprise for organizers, who were concerned about how effectively they would be able to attract interest and keep participants engaged in an online event.

Thomas Abbott, who is in his final year of a Bachelor of Science at McGill, says while the Hackathon had often appealed to him in the past, the greater accessibility of this year’s online edition was a compelling reason to finally take the plunge and sign up.

“It was so easy this year,” he says. “I didn’t have to go anywhere or make too much time in my schedule. I just had to log in to the computer.”

Keeping the ball rolling

Lead organizer Nick Vieira describes the special atmosphere of previous in-person editions of the Hackathon, which have seen participants and mentors come together for 24 hours of intensive collaboration at venues like Mila, the sleek artificial intelligence research institute that hosted the Hackathon in 2019.

“When you have to actually show up to the event, and you’re surrounded by other people working hard on their projects, and there are mentors milling about in case you have any questions or you’re stuck with your code, you want to stick around, you don’t want to go home,” Vieira says.

“But when you’re literally at home – maybe in your pyjamas – and your project’s not going well, it’s really easy to just say, ‘Peace out.’”

Sabrina Berger, member of the Hackathon’s 12-strong organizing team, says while she missed being able to meet participants in person, running an online event in the shadow of a pandemic brought its own opportunities to get to know people and the projects they were working on.

“We would play games with the hackers or just interact with them in ways that felt more connected,” she says. “During that weekend, I remember not feeling the normal COVID loneliness.”

To help keep participants engaged, the 2020 Hackathon included mini-challenges, small side projects with well-defined goals that allowed hackers to switch focus when they wanted to take a break from their main objective. Different “channels” on the Hackathon’s Discord server also gave the hackers a virtual space to chat and play Pictionary and other games. In place of the on-site catering that has fuelled participants through previous years’ events, 2020’s participants were sent vouchers for a popular food delivery service, a gesture appreciated by many a late-night coder and one that was extended to Hackathon participants all around the world thanks to the tenacity of organizers in overcoming logistics challenges great and small.

Connections made

The thoughtful efforts of organizers were matched by the goodwill of participants in creating a sense of community. The event was marked by respectful, collaborative interactions, often between people who were meeting each other for the first time.

“It was really quite inspiring to see folks banding together and making new friends when we’re all so socially distant from each other,” says Vieira.

“We were pleasantly surprised that people were forming teams really quickly because that’s challenging when you can’t walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, what do you do? Do you want to be in a team?’

“I think it was a testament to the fact that people were willing to make that step and say, ‘I’ll get out of my bubble. I’ll be a social person today, and I’ll make a new friend.’”

Thomas Abbott, who, like roughly a third of all 2020 Hackathon participants came to the event without a pre-formed team, confirms the process of finding teammates through the event’s Discord server was quick and easy. With one teammate in Ontario and another in India, Abbott says it was exciting to connect with people from all over the world and that his team benefitted from a diversity of skills and expertise.

“It was nice having fourth-year and first-year students in our team,” he says. “We were able to explain our steps. We shared our screen to show what we were coding and walked each member through it. It was a nice learning experience, for sure.”

Knowledge shared

The McGill Physics Hackathon distinguishes itself from many other software development events in bringing computing skills to bear on problems in the physical sciences. Those new to programming were welcome to participate in the Hackathon and were supported with numerous introductory coding workshops in the weeks leading up to the main event.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, renowned epicentre of the global tech industry, Sabrina Berger finds it refreshing that the McGill Physics Hackathon focuses on goals other than creating the next big thing in the world of smartphone apps.

“Compared to all the other hackathons I’ve participated in, it’s nice that this one is not driven by the thought, ‘Ok, there’s going to be 10 venture capital investor people there and you’ve got to try and get your next start-up funded,’” she says.

Thomas Abbott’s team came together around a shared interest in astrophysics. After discussing a few ideas, they settled on a project to develop a three-dimensional animation depicting what happens when stars explode, an astrophysical phenomenon with some intriguing features.

“[In the life cycle of a supernova], there is something called a Sedov Taylor phase, where the expansion of the blast is not linear. That kind of surprised me,” Abbott explains.

The project was an opportunity for the fourth-year mathematics and physics major to gain a more a detailed understanding of the phenomenon his team was modelling.

“We spent time researching the expansion of [an exploding star] and learning about the equations that model it. I hadn’t actually covered supernovas in detail before, so it was all new knowledge,” he says.

Abbott was especially pleased to find himself working with a teammate from the University of Waterloo whose coding skills complemented his own.

“[He] was familiar with doing animations in Python and, before the Hackathon, I had no idea how to do that, but I had done some 3D plotting. So we really built off each other and ended up with, I think, a result to be proud of.”

A sense of purpose

As much as the 2020 McGill Physics Hackathon proved a valuable opportunity for participants to connect with others and learn new skills, it was just as rewarding an experience for the organizers and nearly 40 student mentors. The organizing team was made up of ten students, from undergraduates to PhDs, and two professors. All were overjoyed at the success of the event.

A master’s student in astrophysics, Nick Vieira was fresh out of CÉGEP when he participated in the first McGill Physics Hackathon in 2016. He enjoyed it so much that he has returned nearly every year since, becoming a mentor and subsequently leading the 2020 organizing team. The experience has helped solidify Vieira’s sense of how much he enjoys helping others find a way into the world of physics.

“When I started doing the Hackathon, and when I started doing physics outreach in general, I already really liked teaching and I really liked communicating with people about science,” he explains.

“[But] I didn’t think that I would love it quite as much as I do. I was pleasantly surprised by how rewarding it is to do the Hackathon – and not just the Hackathon, but all of our other programs – just reaching out to people and helping them feel like they can be physicists one day, or just teaching them a little bit of physics.

“I think I learned after the fact how much I love doing outreach. And now I’m hooked,” he laughs.

 Outreach in the time of COVID-19

The McGill Physics Hackathon is just one of countless outreach initiatives that are part of a tradition of McGill students and researchers making connections with the wider community. In the present time of crisis, the online edition of the Hackathon is a testament to how outreach groups across the Faculty of Science have found new ways to connect in response to the restrictions on in-person activities that have been in place since March 2020.

Science Outreach Program Adviser Jacky Farrell notes that, while online programming was rare prior to 2020, the number of groups providing virtual outreach quadrupled in a matter of months. Farrell and her team have supported these groups with special training workshops. Thanks to these and other efforts, 160 students involved in outreach have learned how to actively engage learners online, communicate science virtually, write outreach grants for new funding, and explore equity issues in STEM.

“The past nine months have been a time of high creativity and learning for the science outreach groups and the public programming team at the Redpath Museum,” Farrell says.

“They have developed new skills, fostered a sense of connection and tried out different programming to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Everyone has worked extremely hard to find new ways to connect and engage online with schools, families and the public in meaningful ways. The results have been inspiring.”

Learn more about Science Outreach at McGill