At this hackathon, students take on the challenge of a sustainable future

Sanethia Thomas smiles and poses for a photo

Sanethia Thomas, an assistant instructional professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, is overseeing the hackathon and shares how the event is teaching students more than how to code.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

More than 700 teams of students from across the country are participating in the Florida Hacks with IBM event, which runs through November. Their challenge? Find solutions to some of the most difficult environmental issues, from protecting waterways to developing sustainable fisheries. Sanethia Thomas, an assistant instructional professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, is overseeing the hackathon and shares how the event is teaching students more than how to code. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Patricia Vernon and James L. Sullivan.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida.

I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I'm joined today by Sanethia Thomas, an assistant instructional professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

Sanethia, as you're about to learn, is an amazing person and she is overseeing the first “Florida Hacks with IBM” event for the university. Now, I don't know much about hackathons, but today we are going to learn what they are and how they help students learn and grow.

Welcome, Sanethia, thanks for joining me today!

Sanethia Thomas: Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: So Sanethia, tell us a little bit about your background. You were a successful student athlete, a professional basketball player and are now a highly regarded professor of computer and information science. How did your interests come together and why information technology and computer science?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so as a child, I was always intrigued with computers and so I knew that computers were going to be the future. I was also very talented in sports and so I played basketball and that's when I got a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso. Halfway through, I said there's not really much as far as opportunity for women's sports at the time. WNBA was not formed. But I was very talented and I wanted to play, so I went overseas and played for a short period of time. I played in Belgium, Amsterdam. Came back and then went straight into industry and worked for AOL. It's funny, because sometimes I ask my students, "Have you heard of AOL?" And a lot of them are like, "No!" But that's where I got my start in industry working for a tech company, a very prominent tech company at the time.

So then, I decided to get my master's degree at Clemson University. And so I always loved working with younger student athletes and youth in general. I got my master’s of science at Clemson and I met Juan Gilbert and one conversation with him changed my life

Nicci Brown: For those who don't know who Juan Gilbert is, can you tell us a little bit about him?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, Juan Gilbert, he is the Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Chair of the Department of Computer Science here at University of Florida.

And so I decided to get my Ph.D. in computer science because he showed me that you can merge computer science with pretty much anything. And you can see that in reality today, that computer science touches every part, every industry, across the board. It became very interesting when I could take my passion working with young student athletes and develop technology tools for them to use.

And so, that's when I decided to get my Ph.D. in computer science. My research is in athlete development and I create tools to help young athletes realize that they're more than just an athlete and they can strive to become a professional athlete, just as I did, but then there's life after sports, as well, so to give them that paradigm to say, "Hey, you're more than just an athlete. You are a total individual, so what other things are you interested in?" And my tool shows them different career paths that they can take.

Nicci Brown: Terrific, and I want to take a moment to give you a shout out for your incredible work to pay it forward and help student athletes through Second Shot and Score High Coach. What are these programs and why did you start them?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so Second Shot evolved for my dissertation work and my research work, as I mentioned before, helping young athletes identify a career path outside of sport. It has a play on words. Those that are familiar with athletics, you get that second shot on the foul line to where you can take another breath or that second shot when you're kicking in the end zone for football, so that second shot is very strategic. You have to plan it out, and it's really impactful of how the game will turn out. And so, translate that into life. You have to be strategic about your life. Second Shot informs student athletes of all the career paths that are out there.

Score High Coach is a tutoring program where I work with all youth on how to raise their SAT, ACT scores, hence, Score High, so I work with them in that area.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. Sounds like a conversation for another day. But our main topic of conversation today is the “Florida Hacks with IBM” event — also being sponsored by the Florida Technology Council — which just got underway. I think it would be helpful to start with a description of what a hackathon is for our listeners who, like me, may be unfamiliar with these events.

Sanethia Thomas: So yeah, a hackathon is traditionally targeted to computer scientists, graphic scientists or the people who are interested in developing and coding programs. Normally, it's for a predefined period. You will see it, maybe over 72 hours. In the school setting, students will stay up, bring their sleeping bags and code throughout the entire 72 hours. They're trying to come up with solutions and different types of products that can answer whatever question that the hackathon has surrounded by or targeted at. So, it allows students to, one, try technologies that they haven't used yet, get a deep dive, immersive experience in using the technologies, work with a team, and create innovative answers to problems, in a short period of time.

Nicci Brown: From what I understand, this is the first hackathon hosted at UF, so can you tell us a little bit about how it might be different and how the partnership came about?

Sanethia Thomas: Sure. UF has clubs where we do small hackathons, as I mentioned the 72-hour hackathons. And so, when Dean Abernathy spoke with me about that, she mentioned, "Well, what if we do a hackathon to bring in other people outside of computer science?” We have this big AI initiative and we would like to open it up to other students, not necessarily targeted at computer science students. And I thought it was a wonderful idea because a lot of times students are intimidated by hackathons, because if they're not in the computer science field or they haven't heard of a hackathon, they tend not to join in since it's such a compressed time of 72 hours they have to turn around a solution.

Provost Joe Glover and [Engineering Dean] Cammie Abernathy worked with IBM and we created this hackathon for students at the University of Florida. Then we brought on the Florida Tech Council and it rolled out to the entire state of Florida. And now, it's offered to anyone in the U.S. 16 years of age and older. It's a longer period of time, so where we're able to target more students. It's over 11 weeks to give people a chance to learn the tools, attend webinars, get some information, and then come up with a sound solution that they are to build. It's literally from September 13 all the way to November 29.

Nicci Brown: Fantastic. How many students are participating in the “Florida Hacks with IBM”?

Sanethia Thomas: We are very excited that we already have 734 teams registered.

Nicci Brown: And how many schools are represented?

Sanethia Thomas: We have about 60 schools represented all across the U.S., schools from Duke University, Clemson University, Berkeley, MIT. We have schools in Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Southern California. All the Florida schools are participating, so it's a great representation across the map.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. And speaking of representation, is there a lot of diversity in terms of the students that you're seeing?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes. I have a personal interest in that, and I'm very excited. We have a lot of women that are interested and we have positioned ourselves to offer a lot of women mentors. That is very attractive because if you see a woman in computer science, then that says, "Hey, I can do that, too. She looks like me." And so, as we know, computer science has mainly been a male-dominated field, and now we're seeing more women involved, which I'm very excited about. We are prepared for that and we are expecting a lot more women to join in.

Nicci Brown: And I guess that also speaks to the fact that computer science and AI really is integrated across so many different fields?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, it is. It doesn't matter if you're in agriculture, if you're in computer science, if you're in art, AI touches all the industries.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the challenges they are trying to address? Do you have information about that?

Sanethia Thomas: Absolutely. We are advertising “Be a part of the change.” And so, we are protecting environmental resources and we have six challenge statements. The challenges are, challenge No. 1, deals with climate change in the Florida ecosystem. Challenge two deals with improving the condition of Florida's waterways. Challenge three, sustainable fisheries. Challenge four is power consumption. And challenge five is animal agriculture. And then we threw in a wild card, so anything that deals with climate change or sustainable fisheries or animal agriculture, they can bring all those together for a wild card. Our focus is on the environment and improving the environment for all.

Nicci Brown: As you mentioned, this hackathon really is focused at problem solving, but you also alluded to something else, and that was what students get out of it in addition to that. Can you speak a little bit more about that aspect?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so when you participate in a hackathon, you are immediately stretched. One, students are learning new technologies and they have a lot of pressure under the gun. With pressure, things rise and things come to fruition, so students are able to work in teams. They're able to learn the different technologies. This hackathon is unique because we have webinars where students are able to work with mentors one-on-one to help them learn the IBM tools and technologies. Just for registering, IBM is offering $200 in credits for these tools. The AI initiative that Florida is really embracing, this hackathon allows students to operate in that. The winners will actually receive access to the HiPerGator AI platform, which is really enticing, as well. Those students that are not computer science students, they will definitely learn some basic tools to help them operate in this world that's being run by AI.

Nicci Brown: Right. It's that interconnected world and so there'll be able to form relationships with people outside of their programs.

Sanethia Thomas: Yes. Yes.

Nicci Brown: Can you talk a little bit more about that big prize at the end?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, so there's a $100,000 prize pool and that's broken up into different categories. The grand prize is $30,000. Second place is $20,000. Third place is $15,000. But those that have participated, maybe this is your first hackathon, we are even giving awards for that. So, if this is your first hackathon, you can win a $2,000 prize.

We also have prizes for each challenge category that I mentioned before. There will be award at $3,000 for each team within each challenge category. We also have a submission incentive, so the first 20 teams that submit qualified projects will receive $4,000.

One additional category, which is really exciting, is the social media category, so it's the TikTok challenge, and students can win a $1,000 by creating a really good TikTok showcasing their project.

Any team that has some type of gamification will receive $10,000 and that gamification you get points by watching different webinars, watching the video replays, interacting with mentors. We are rewarding students for being active in the platform and learning the different tools and working with the mentors because that's the overall goal is for students to get educated on what we're doing on the AI initiative, and they can walk away as better students and better off for the University of Florida.

Nicci Brown: Sounds like a lot of fun. We'll have to be on the lookout for that one. When will we know the results of the hackathon and where can listeners learn more?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, so the results will be released on December 6 and you can find more information

Nicci Brown: Wonderful. I want to say good luck to all the students who are participating in the “Florida Hacks with IBM” competition. We look forward to hearing more about the solutions you propose to address these challenges facing our state and many others as well. Thank you so much, Sanethia, for being our guest today.

Sanethia Thomas: Thank you for having me. This was a wonderful opportunity.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward.

My name is Nicci Brown and I hope you will return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

October 5, 2021