Seventh-annual TreeHacks brings thousands together, this time online

Feb. 15, 2021, 10:32 p.m.

Around 2,000 students in over 15 countries participated in Stanford’s seventh annual TreeHacks — and first in a virtual format — this past weekend.

Students who took part in the 36-hour hackathon, themed “Hacking for the Future,” worked in teams of four to deliver a rough draft of a novel project in one of five global and technological challenge categories: healthcare, education, civic engagement, sustainability and social connectivity.

Abigail VanderPloeg ’23, one of the event’s lead organizers, said these areas were chosen because of their “immediate merits given all the crazy things happening in the world today.”

Many of the winning projects rose to this challenge: The “Best Hardware Hack” award went to Maskus, which allows users to 3D-print personalized facemask frames that allow for a tighter fit. And the “Best Social Connectivity Hack” went to Common Grounds, which connects users of diverse backgrounds to have a virtual coffee chat.

A key focus for the organizing team was to take advantage of the virtual format to make TreeHacks as inclusive and beginner-friendly as possible. Normally the event’s budget sets a limit on how many non-Stanford coders can bus or fly in, but this year more than half of participants were from schools other than Stanford. Beginners were able to attend several workshops leading up to the event.

TreeHacks elected to use a platform called Ohyay, which allows users to join auditorium-style video calls, complete with applause and audience reactions.

Organizer Pranav Vaid ’23 said the team asked themselves, “How do we encourage hackers to interact in this new virtual space?” To that end, TreeHacks also hosted a series of HackX events designed to provide relief from hours of code.

Highlights included dance classes with Common Origins and Stanford Zumba, a performance from Stanford Counterpoint and workshops in speed chess, origami, cooking, juggling and yoga.

“One thing that was really important to us was bringing that sense of Stanford — just kind of immersing people for a weekend so that they can become part of this community and really creative fun space,” VanderPloeg said.

Participants said the organizers managed to achieve their goals of creating a welcoming and engaging online event. “In complete truth it was a great experience, and if I had to suggest it to anyone else as a first hackathon I definitely would,” said Krish Nair, a freshman at Dartmouth and hackathon beginner. Nair, who worked on a civil discourse app, added, “I think my biggest takeaway for the hackathon was don’t try to bite off more than you can chew.”

The TreeHacks event also drew big names from the tech industry. The hackathon opened with a keynote address from Max Levchin, Paypal co-founder and Affirm CEO, and the event’s sponsors included big-name companies such as Google, Microsoft and OpenAI, who all hosted workshops to train participants in various topics such as cloud computing, machine learning and web app development. 

Sy Bohy ’12, co-founder of Seam, an Internet-of-things startup that sponsored several prizes, lauded participants for making meaningful connections with others despite the online format. He said one downside of the virtual event was that hackers would miss out on the serendipity of having a senior engineer from a big tech company peek over their shoulder and drop a helpful comment.

“It seems like the participants have had this willingness and this kind of drive to overcome these virtual barriers,” Vaid said. “When I pop into Ohyay and see people together hacking in their virtual space, it’s kind of replicating what it was like in-person. And I’m really glad that they’re taking advantage of that.”

Contact Owen Veit at owenveit ‘at’

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