Inaugural Hackathon Brings Teens to Campus to Explore the 'Internet of Things'


The “internet of things” has been defined a number of ways, but to Dr. Dawn Owens, it starts with being able to connect any object or device to the internet.

“You should be able to send messages to it, control it, and it should have connection to the broad scope of what we know as the internet,” explained Owens, director of the Naveen Jindal School of Management’s BS in Information Technology and Systems program.

An assistant professor of information systems, Owens also oversees the ITS Academy, a home to JSOM outreach initiatives that introduce middle school and high school students to the opportunities an ITS degree can provide. Under the academy’s aegis, Owens created the first Hack IT hackathon, which took place February 9 and 10.

The hackathon’s goals were to impress upon the more than 50 junior high and high school student participants what the internet of things is, and then, through a competition, encourage them to make their own “IoT” inventions.

As the event wound down, it was exceeding Owens’ expectations. “Some of the ability of the students is at an extremely high level,” she said. “But what’s important was the increased knowledge and the interaction. I wanted them to come away seeing how much fun the internet of things can be.”

Dawn Owens (center) helps Kyla Chastain of McKinney Christian Academy and Grace Peng of Highland Park High School  work with their Arduino board at the Hack IT hackathon.

Given an Arduino board —a development board with hardware and software that can be utilized in coding — they were shown how to use it on the opening night and eventually broke up into student teams to design something under the heading of home protection.

An important task, Owens said, was to create an alarm that could send a message over the internet signaling a problem. Teams that were ahead in their projects could choose to move ahead to work on apps.

Students had leeway to talk about other uses for their creations when they made presentations to four judges, even stretching to the area of environmental issues.

“In school, there is environmental science, and one of the main topics we’re talking about is waste management,” said Vishnu Vemulapati, an 11th-grader at Independence High School in Frisco whose team’s project received a first-place designation. “A thought with what we are doing here is to detect water when it comes to areas like landfills.…Around the world, many get their water from groundwater, and when waste gets involved it can obviously be a huge problem.” Putting water where their sensor was, it was able to detect the water and send a signal to a phone.

Another first-place entry was inspired in part by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. For caregivers to be able to keep better track of sufferers, this team’s project centered on a laser beam boundary. If the beam was broken by someone crossing through it, an alert would go out.

Ethan Sayre (left) of Murphy Murphy Middle School and Yash Totlani of Pearson Middle School in Frisco at work on the laser beam project that led them to a first-place finish

“It was just so much fun to learn how to work with Arduino, and it was challenging to try to come up with something that could help people,” said Yash Totlani, an eighth-grader from Pearson Middle School in Frisco who was a member of the laser team.

What came across from many teams was their enthusiasm for the hackathon and its success in encouraging their interest in technology.

“It was very informational,” said Mukunda Bodapati, a seventh-grader at DeWitt Perry Middle School in Carrollton. “I didn’t really know what the internet of things was before this event, and it’s interesting to know there’s a whole other side of technology that people haven’t experienced. To get to build your own thing and experiment with it, it was exciting…It makes me want to learn more.”

The judging categories these young hopefuls faced included meeting the definition of the internet of things, technical feasibility, design, mechanics and team presentation.

Judges (from left) Courtney Llera, Luis Garcia Fuentes and Guarav Shekhar applaud a presentation as Dawn Owens takes notes.

Luis Garcia Fuentes, an IT analyst for PepsiCo and a Jindal School 2017 BS in ITS alumnus, was “simply blown away” by the participants. “I was really surprised,” he said. “Some of them honestly presented better than some college students, and there was unbelievable work.”

Other judges were JSOM professors Kelly Slaughter and Ron Bose, and MS in ITM program manager and 2016 alumnus Gaurav Shekhar. They served along with Libni Wheeler, a JSOM 2016 undergraduate alumna; Courtney Llera; and Amber Sodikov, all software development engineers at USAA.

The hackathon was one in a series of related ITS Academy offerings that include a weeklong ITS summer camp for high school students and a spring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — STEM symposium — to introduce middle-school girls to STEM opportunities such as information technology and supply chain management.

Owens said the inaugural hackathon is slated to be followed with a second one in October.

“We want to keep the momentum going on what we’re doing,” Owens said. “I hope this will encourage a middle-school and high school student to consider an IT degree and see that their potential is unlimited.”


First-place finishers Srikar Josyula and Vishnu Vemalupati

The two first-place teams each received $750, the two second-place teams, $500; and the two third-place teams, $250. Raffles also resulted in two spots being given for the next ITS Academy summer camp, coming in June, and one for the next hackathon.

Besides Vemulapati and Totlani, other first-place winners were Ethan Sayre of Murphy Middle School and Srikav Josyula of Independence High School.

Second-place finishers (from left) Sri Middela, Tarun Vignesh, Lalith Vemulapalli, Siddhartha Palle and Suhas Shivaraju 

Second-place winners (all from Frisco) included:

• Lalith Vemulapalli of Pioneer Heritage Middle School

• Sri Middela of Roach Middle School

• Suhas Shivaraju of Pioneer Heritage Middle School

• Tarun Vignesh of Wester Middle School

• Anand Cheruvu of Roach Middle School

Second-place team (standing, from left) Joseph Sa'Ra, Dinakara Parcha and Ronit Totlani approaching the stage to collect their prize money

• Siddhartha Palle of Pioneer Heritage Middle School

• Dinakaru Parcha of Roach Middle School

• Joseph Sa’Ra of Roach Middle School

• Ronit Totlani of Pearson Middle School.

Third-place finishers (from left) Jesus Paez, Ramon Torres, Leonardo Quiroz and Jose Rangel

Third-place place winners included:

• Nicholas Hirai of Imagine International Academy, McKinney

• Shawn Halimman of William B. Travis Academy/Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, Dallas

• Tyler Kaphingst of Imagine International Academy, McKinney

Third-place finishers (from left) Shawn Halimann, Tyler Kaphingst and Nicholas Hirai

• Ramon Torres of Vanston Middle School, Mesquite

• Leonardo Quiroz of Vanston Middle School, Mesquite

• Jesus Paez of Vanston Middle School, Mesquite

• Jose Rangel of Vanston Middle School, Mesquite

Eric Butterman

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