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Students Tackle Global Warming at VelocityX: Climate Innovation Hackathon, Earn $12,000 in Prizes

April 27, 2023

Ollie Gerland, director of strategy and product for Ensemble, helps CSM student Ari Gaskins strategize her approach to the data visualization challenge at the VelocityX: Climate Innovation Hackathon.

As climate change impacts our lives and environment, how will we share the information that people will need to make decisions?

This was the question that 25 participants from the College of Southern Maryland (CSM), local high schools and other colleges recently grappled with as they competed for prizes from a $12,000 pool at the VelocityX: Climate Innovation Hackathon at CSM's Velocity Center in Indian Head.

“We really want to focus on an issue that could resonate with students and this region,” said Ollie Gerland, director of strategy and product for Ensemble, who partnered with the Velocity Center to run the hackathon for the second year.

The hackathon presented two challenges for participants to solve: the Data Visualization Challenge asked participants to create tools that show how sea level rise will impact coastal communities and infrastructure, such as roads and properties, while the Marketing Strategy Challenge required teams to develop a comprehensive marketing campaign to increase awareness of government resources and services available to residents and encourage them to take advantage of these resources.

The teams chose one challenge to address and had two days to devise and create a prototype of their solution, which they then presented to a panel of judges that included representatives from CSM, the Maryland Sierra Club, SMECO, and Leadership Southern Maryland. Teams had access to Velocity Center resources as well as a group of mentors to assist them as they moved through the challenges.

CSM student participant and first-place winner Hasan Turay said that presenting information clearly is an important, but challenging, component of dealing with the effects of climate change.

“My goal in this project was to hide the massive amounts of data from users and instead provide them with simple, palatable information,” he said. His final project, which earned top title in the data visualization challenge, allowed users to map the flood risk of any property in the area. Turay was a second-time winner at VelocityX Hackathon: last year, he was part of team 111%, which took home the top prize in the Range Testing Analytics Challenge.

The first-place winner in the marketing challenge was team Eco Alerts, a group of high school students who created an app and branding campaign that could be used when sharing resources.

The full list of winners are:

Data Visualization:

1st Place: Climate Coders

2nd Place: SurgeProtector.py

3rd Place (tie): Interactive Map and Data Visualization Tools

Marketing Strategy:

1st Place: EcoAlert

2nd Place: Climate Marketers

First place winners in each challenge earned a $3,000 prize, second place winners received $2,000, and third place winners took home $1,000. Prizes were provided by the CSM Foundation.

But for students, competing in the Hackathon gave them something even more valuable than prize money: the opportunity to work with experienced mentors and practice facing the kinds of challenges they might encounter in the workplace in a collaborative, fun setting.

“This was great practice for tackling real world problems and getting job ready,” said Ari Gaskins, a CSM computer science student who took home second place in the data visualization challenge. She said that stepping out of her comfort zone, practicing explaining her coding to clients, and getting hands-on experience with new software were all just as valuable as the prize money.

“It’s an awesome learning experience, any employer would be impressed,” agreed Velocity Center Executive Director Lesley Quattlebaum. “We have many leaders from our community sitting here, you just don’t know where this will lead.”

 “What you’re doing is meaningful and impactful and will mimic the kind of humanity-wide work we need to do to solve the problem of a warming planet,” said judge Rosa Hance, chair of the Maryland Sierra Club. “People often see climate change as a problem society needs to engineer its way out of, but that’s not the whole picture. For example, data visualization is something we need to show decision makers when and where problems are happening so that we can begin to address them.” 

 “We can’t go back to how things were before, we can only go forward, so we are going to have to adapt,” explained Charles County Resilience and Sustainability Officer Beth Groth, one of the mentors for the event. “In order to do that, we need people who have creativity and innovation." 

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