BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo computer science
students outwitted the competition at two recent hackathons, taking
home top honors and thousands of dollars in prizes.
A four-student UB team won first place at Kent State University
two weeks ago for developing a computer program that allows people
to browse the Internet without a mouse or keyboard.
And in September, sophomore Nate Burgers received $2,000 and an
iPad after competing in MHacks, a 36-hour codefest featuring more
than 1,000 competitors. He placed in the top 10, and won the prize
for the most technically difficult hack.
“These competitions are a great way for like-minded
students to meet each other and boost their skills,” says
Aidong Zhang, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor and chair of the
Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences. “But they’re also an
indication of how talented our students are.”
Despite its underworld connotations, the original meaning of
hack is to code and build programs for computer software. A
hackathon is a gathering, often involving students, that asks
participants to develop programs in an intense, deadline-oriented
The four UB students who went to Kent State were near strangers
when they rented a car and drove 3 ½ hours to the
“We connected through UB Hackers and chatted a few days
before the event. Then we met for the first time at Davis Hall
before driving to Ohio,” says Mackenzie “Mack”
Ward, a junior majoring in computer science and mathematics.
Ward and his teammates — Pritesh Gupta, Gabriel Holodak
and Zach Wieand — decided to develop a program that uses the
computer’s webcam to monitor the user’s face. As the
user tilts his head up and down, or from left to right, the page he
is viewing moves in that direction, thus eliminating the need for a
mouse or keypad.
The team wrote the code and demonstrated the program within 37
hours. It could be especially useful for people suffering from
ailments that limit the use of their hands.
The program impressed the event’s judges, who awarded the
team first prize among 1o competitors. The students split $1,000
cash and $3,000 in the cloud computing platform Amazon Web
MHacks was held Sept. 20-22 at the University of Michigan.
Burgers placed in the top 10 by inventing Lark, a new programming
language that allows iPhone and iPad app developers to edit
applications while they’re running.
He tested the language on a simple app he created. The app
featured a blue circle bouncing amidst a sea of red circles, and a
demo video shows how Burgers used the programming language to alter
the size and speed of the blue circle without shutting down the
“Usually, apps cannot be changed while running, so if you
have to fix things or add a button or change the background, you
have to stop your app, write the code and turn it on again,”
Burgers says. “Lark lets you change things live.”
What Burgers accomplished is tricky. In addition to his top-10
finish, he won the hackathon’s $2,000 Andreessen Horowitz
Prize for the Most Technically Impressive hack. He also was given
an iPad as an award for the best use of Apple’s iOS operating
Several startups and hackathon organizers are interested in his
work. He also was invited to interview for an internship with one
of the world’s largest computer companies.
Both Burgers and the Kent State team plan to continue working on
their respective programs.
Thinking back to MHacks, Burgers is slightly stunned by how
quickly and smoothly the fundamentals of Lark came together.
“It was incredible,” he says. “Here I am, six
hours into working on this thing, and the core language was already