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24-hour challenge

Competition asks programming students to tackle real-world problems

FREEPIK Screenshot from the game students created to teach people, including the visually impaired, how to programFREEPIK

A team of undergraduates from the University of Campinas Computing Institute (IC-UNICAMP) has won Facebook Brazil Hack 2018, a competition that brought together programmers and hackers from all over the country in São Paulo on April 7 and 8. The team will now have the chance to compete in the Facebook Global Hackathon Finals, scheduled for November 15, where they will join representatives from various countries at the American company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, California. Brazil’s winning project involved the development of a mobile game designed to teach people, including the visually impaired, how to program. “It is an Android application accompanied by a kit made of paper to teach coding standards. It is an inexpensive, affordable, and fun way to learn how to program,” says Rafael Eiki Matheus Imamura, a 21-year-old student at IC-UNICAMP.

The term hackathon has been used since the 1990s for events where young people gather and spend hours, even days, on programming marathons. In these environments, technology enthusiasts dedicate themselves to exploring new programming possibilities and security techniques (see article). In the Facebook event, students had 24 hours to present a prototype. “Our team worked in shifts, so that everyone could eat and have a few hours of rest without interrupting the project,” says Leila Pompeu Zwanziger, 20. She and Imamura are both recipients of FAPESP undergraduate research scholarships.

The competitive environment helped stimulate the students, and Facebook engineers and programmers were on hand to offer guidance to the nearly 20 participating teams. “Being able to interact with these professionals was a unique factor at the event,” says Imamura, who in 2017 participated in a Motorola hackathon, which he also won. The game developed by the UNICAMP team—which also included Rodrigo Amaral Franceschinelli and Victor Gasparotto Capone—involves leading a character across the screen of a smartphone. To make the character move, the user must write a program based on simple programming tasks, using QR codes printed on small squares of paper. A QR code is a square pattern that works similarly to a barcode and can be scanned by a cell-phone camera. “The purpose of the game is to teach programming logic in a playful way, especially for children,” emphasizes Imamura.

Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor at IC-UNICAMP and Leila Zwanziger’s advisor, believes participating in competitions like these helps students learn to work collaboratively. “The success of the project depends very much on how well the group members work together,” she says. “The industry is increasingly looking for people who know how to work as part of a team.” The hackathon is a test of the participants’ flexibility and their ability to reason under pressure: in this instance, a tight deadline. “In the end, everyone wins. It is a great learning opportunity for the students, who have to overcome the challenges of what is a very exhausting experience, physically and emotionally,” says Medeiros. She highlights how the students prepare in advance at the university: “At UNICAMP we teach a solid theoretical foundation alongside practical solutions to real problems.”