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Computer Science Students Take HackVT for the Win

CS Crew team
Team Collateral Damage (from left: MacEwan, Eldridge, Vendeville, Fritz and Wilding) in the CS Crew headquarters in Votey Hall. (Photo: Sally McCay)

In 332 Votey Hall, computer science majors have a room of their own. It's the home of the student organization CS Crew, a service-based group with a mission to provide programming help to those who need it and to connect computer science students with each other. Both of those goals were in mind when a handful of the crew's members joined a competition to work together to build an app for the state of Vermont. Their team, "Collateral Damage," took home the prize for best student effort: a check for $2,000.

Computer science seniors Ethan Eldridge, Garth Fritz, Scott MacEwan, Phelan Vendeville and Dillan Wilding, joined the competition --  HackVT, held Oct. 19-20 in Burlington -- at the urging of CS Crew adviser Professor Robert Erickson. The catch? The more than 100 participants on 32 teams had just 24 hours to build "a killer app." The results would be judged on innovation, user experience, presentation quality, ambition and execution of the Vermont theme. 

The five began the competition armed only with a concept for their app and, per the rules of the contest, no other work completed ahead of time. Using an array of programming languages -- HTML5, CSS3, PHP, MySQL and Javascript -- and a handful of data sets provided by the organizers -- weather and farm information and a recipe database, for example -- they set to work. Fueled by free food from local vendors and yes, the occasional energy drink, they emerged 24 hours later with a tool that would allow users to decide where to source local produce and farm goods based on precipitation around the state. Locations with average rainfall are indicated as the best bets for quality, local produce. The program is also designed to find a recipe using the ingredients selected.

"It was a good app," Erickson says of the group's efforts at the hackathon. "Conceptually it's fantastic. It solves a problem. That's what computer science is all about, and those problems can exist in any space."

The team credits their win, in part, with how they chose to package and present the tool to the judges. Although weary from being awake for 34 hours at that point, they were agile enough to focus the presentation on a main point of the competition: providing a service to the state. "Sell them Vermont," Eldridge says was his mantra when presenting. "Don't sell them my app -- sell them Vermont." Of service in that mission was the savvy design, which featured a picturesque background photo taken by a friend of blue skies, fall foliage and a split-rail fenced field and an earthy, green, brown and blue color scheme.

Although the back-end functionality is in place to carry out each of the app's features, a time crunch prevented the group from synching up the recipe mechanism, for example, with the user interface. "If we only had three more hours!" Eldridge says. Completing the app is a project the group may take up back at 332 Votey, when not occupied by the academic support they provide to peers or the programming jobs they occasionally work on for professors or community members.

The CS Crew experience, they say, was a strong foundation for the success they found at HackVT. "In programming classes, you learn how to program by yourself," Eldridge explains, "but out in the real world, you don't typically program by yourself. You program with a group of people. CS Crew is there so you can meet all your peers and form a community and a network with them."

"I was so impressed that everybody was so on top of their own specific stuff and everyone was willing to help out," Vendeville says of the group. "It was a fantastic team environment. There were no jagged edges."

With the hackathon behind them and the end of the fall semester looming, each of the seniors are beginning to ponder their options post graduation. Google is mentioned by a few, particularly Vendeville, who earlier this year was one of eight nationwide recipients of a Google Student Veterans Association Scholarship for Computer Science. That award came with $10,000 and an all-expense paid trip in June to the Googleplex in Mountain View, Ca. "That's the dream job," he says.

When considering his next step, MacEwan, energized by the win at HackVT, turns to his friends and asks with a grin, "Start-up, anyone?"