UMassDartmouth CIS team wins Hoya Hacks competition at Georgetown University

Project to aid the visually impaired takes top prize in the Equity & Access category

Four students sitting around a table with their laptops
Computer science majors who won the Hoya Hacks competition at Georgetown University are, from left, Abhishek Mahaseth '20, Samuel Spillane '19, Hieu Ngo '19, and David Kelchner '20.

After driving from UMass Dartmouth to Washington, DC and taking turns sleeping for the next 36 hours, a team of four computer science majors drove back to campus energized by their win at the Hoya Hacks Competition at Georgetown University.

David Kelchner ’20 of Tiverton, RI, Abhishek Mahaseth ’20 of Fall River, MA, Hieu X. Ngo ’19 of Hanoi, Vietnam, and Samuel J. Spillane ’19 of Centerville, MA, won for their project, “Team Dash #35 Camureye.” They created an artificial eye for the blind that allows them to use computer vision to identify objects.

The UMass Dartmouth students beat teams from Georgetown University and Pennsylvania State University. The judges represented Georgetown, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and IBM. This year’s event focused on projects for social impact. 

Team learned new material to complete the project

Team advisor Clinton Rogers, full time lecturer in computer and information science, credited the motivated students for expanding their knowledge beyond what they learned in class to prepare for the competition.

“They take what we’ve taught them and amplify it,” he said. “They start teaching themselves. A hackathon is a great opportunity for that.

“They get a problem and try to find a solution. It might be a problem they’ve never seen before. This win is a testament to the quality and drive of these students.”

Rogers also advised the team that won the PerkinsHacks competition last year at Perkins School for the Blind. Ngo was a member of that team.

Utilizing neural networks

When the team arrived at Georgetown, they chose their project from several options and got to work, sleeping wherever they could in sleeping bags. To develop their idea, they utilized a neural network called neural nets, a subset of artificial intelligence, to simulate how the human brain works. Algorithms mimic the brain as the neurons wrap around and identify objects. The camera alerts a person of objects in the way.

For the Hoya Hacks project, objects are viewed using software on a laptop. The team hopes the technology can be adapted for a smaller device like a smartphone.

 “The judges felt the project had the most impact. It could be used outside the hackathon to help people,” said Spillane. “We would love to connect with a company and develop it further. Companies sponsor hackathons, so this is a really good platform for us for future jobs.”

Winning was a team effort

Ngo, who has competed in seven hackathons and won six, says winning was a team effort.

Kelchner agreed. “We want to challenge ourselves to do better. Our learning is all connected, and I learned a lot while I was at the hackathon.”

Since computer science is an evolving field, Mahaseth said it is important to be able to teach yourself as the team did during the competition. “This put us on the map,” he said of winning his first hackathon.

Preparation for careers in computer science

Mahaseth said that UMass Dartmouth was a great choice to study computer science and engineering. “A lot of the work we do in classes is getting you ready for when you look for a job,” he said. “You have to do this kind of research, learn new material, and monitor your time. You have to try to work as a team.”

The hackathon was also good experience in completing a project on a deadline, an important skill for a professional engineer.

“You learn core concepts that you can apply to anything,” added Spillane. “In our algorithms class, we learn the general framework. You learn the basics of how to program and go about the problems you’re encountering. We definitely got a good foundation.”

The students would like to form a club where undergraduates of any major can organize teams to compete in hackathons and create a network with other organizations and universities. They would love to host a national hackathon and even have a name—UMass Hacks.

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