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A hack day’s night – Hack AE hits UMaine

February 27, 2019
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Image from UMaine's hackerspace. Image from UMaine's hackerspace. (photo courtesy CITL)

ORONO – The University of Maine is preparing to play host to a unique weekend of problem solving.

UMaine is the site for America East Hackathon 2019. Known as Hack AE, the event takes place March 2-3 on the University of Maine Campus in Orono. Scores of students from all over the country will be landing in Orono, primed to use their myriad skills to find unconventional solutions to specific problems.

This marks the third year of Hack AE. It is what is known as a “civic hackathon” and is organized by the America East Academic Consortium; the AEAC is the academic initiative of the America East athletic conference.

This year’s event is focusing on agriculture. Small farmers and other independent agricultural and agricultural-adjacent enterprises are the targets. Essentially, Hack AE 2019 is bringing together students of considerable cross-disciplinary skill from all over in an effort to help integrate technology and general tech-savviness into the world of small agriculture.

But really, all this begs the question: what is a hackathon? And why does it matter? From the FAQ for the event on the AEAC’s website:

“Hack AE is a civic hackathon designed to provide students with a unique opportunity to build software and hardware projects that address real-world challenges. This year, the America East hackathon will bring together teams of student designers, foresters, horticulturists, engineers, coders, artists, business entrepreneurs, and more to create ways in which local agricultural businesses can utilize inexpensive, readily available, and environmentally resilient equipment, tools, and services to gather, assess, and respond to information important to growing, protecting, and/or harvesting.

“Hackers may build anything (e.g., web applications, desktop applications, mobile applications, hardware), provided the project strives to solve a problem related to one or more of the above topics/sub-topics.”

And there you have it. A hackathon is an opportunity for people to tackle an issue in an unconventional way, bringing whatever skills they have to the table in an effort to come up with something effective. One of the joys of creative collaboration is a willingness to throw everything at the wall and seeing what sticks; that’s essentially what a hackathon is. It’s teams of excited, enthusiastic and engaged people coming together and throwing themselves at a problem.

It might sound counterintuitive, but it can actually be considerably easier to think outside the box if you’re surrounded by like-minded individuals. Granted, it only works it that like-mindedness includes being open to logical leaps and big swings, but still.

The University of Maine’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) is one of the UMaine institutions at the, well, center of this event. What is CITL? What do they do? Here’s an excerpt from the “What We Do” section of their website:

“The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) provides support for innovative pedagogical efforts and promotes excellent teaching and learning at the University of Maine.

“Together with our partner centers and departments on campus, we work to create and sustain a culture of innovation in teaching. To this end, we offer workshops and personalized consulting on curricular and instructional design, educational software, technologies for instruction, and related efforts to support 21st Century information and learning cultures.”

In essence, CITL is devoted to learning more about how we learn and using that information to help others better convey the information they seek to teach.

As part of that devotion to current information distribution and learning innovations, CITL plays host to a Hackerspace, which provides students and faculty the space and opportunity to experiment with and explore new technologies that may lend themselves to creative solutions for unforeseen issues in the academic realm.

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the writer’s spouse is employed at CITL.)

Peter Schilling, Executive Director at CITL, was generous enough to answer a few questions about the hackathon itself, as well as the University of Maine’s role in hosting it.

The Maine Edge: What exactly does a hackathon entail?

Peter Schilling: A hackathon is a timed event in which teams (or individuals) attempt to develop solutions to problems. They draw on new technologies, though rather than identify an existing product as the top-to-bottom solution to the problem, they try to develop their own or combine parts of a number of available technologies in new and innovative ways.

TME: How did it come to pass that UMaine and CITL are playing host to this event? And what other UMaine entities are involved?

PS: America East has sponsored a hackathon for its member universities for the last two years. UMaine is hosting the AE hackathon this year. To that end, many groups and individuals have come together to support the event. This includes the Provosts Office, the Student Life Office, CooP Ex, Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR), Wireless Sensor Networks Lab (WiSe-Net), New Media/SCIS, and many faculty from Food and Agriculture, Forestry, Business and other departments and programs have been deeply involved.

TME: Can you give people a sense of just what a hackerspace is? How is it used?

PS: Over the last 10 years or so there has been a growing interest in “Makerspaces.” These are private or public spaces where clients or the public can use tools, such as table saws, drill presses, sewing machines, etc. to make stuff. More recently, higher tech versions have emerged that provide access to new tech, which is often very inexpensive, but not widely known. The Maine Public Library is a great resource to learn about both maker and hacker spaces across the state.

In addition, UMaine has one of the most amazing Makerspaces I have ever seen in the IMRC [Innovative Media Research & Commercialization] center [their website is]. It also has what may be considered an industrial version: The Advance Manufacturing Center [].

TME: What are some of the benefits of a hackerspace? And how long has the hackerspace at UMaine been in operation?

PS: We started the UMaine Hackerspace in late March of 2017. With this resource we are trying to help students and faculty discover a range of new technologies that may help them ask new questions as well as discover the answers to their questions.

In the past, for example, if students had a question, their first resource to find an answer was the library. This is still a good place to start, but with the capacity of inexpensive digital technologies, smartphone apps, 3D printing and much more to gather data or experiment with new approaches is having a significant impact on what we know about our world.

TME: Can you give us an idea of how the hackathon process is intended to work?

PS: The process should be that the students, who already know the general topic, will receive the final challenge(s) mid-day on Saturday. They will then work for 24 hours to try to come up with some kind of solution to the problem. They will have a pallet of gear from Major League Hacking as well as a pantry of gear from America East.

[Note: Major League Hacking is a prominent organization in the realm of student-driven hackathons. MLH works with independently-run university hackathons and provides them with an assortment of benefits, including the MLH Hardware Lab (the aforementioned gear), as well as a code of conduct and various other support. They also have a process for determining a league “winner,” which leads to an event organized at the winning school and the presentation of the MLH Hacker Cup. More can be found at their website:]

We will have mentors (ranging from folks who work in tech to others who work in agriculture available to answer questions and offer suggestions. The goal is that students will develop a functional prototype or proof of concept.

TME: Why the agricultural focus with regards to the projects being undertaken? Is this an arena that offers new and bigger opportunities in terms of technological adoption/adaptation?

PS: Large companies, such as John Deere and Monsanto, utilize new tech for agricultural work, but much of that can be too expensive for small farmers, wood lot owners, maple sugar operations, etc. We think that new, inexpensive tech may be able to help.

TME: How many participants are expected for this event? Are there aspects of the event that are open to the public and potentially interesting for spectators – project presentations and the like?

PS: 125-200 students will be part of teams competing. Current students registered come from as far south as the University of Maryland Baltimore County to SUNY Buffalo, Cornell, Western Ontario, and many more. 

Spectators and the public are welcome throughout the event. Perhaps the most interesting aspects for the public will be the selection of the winning hacks.


A brief history of hackathons

The term “hackathon” – a portmanteau of “hack” and “marathon” – has only been around for two decades.

The first usages of the term came in mid-1999, when an event in Calgary devoted to cryptographic development took place in early June. Hot on that first happening’s heels came an event at Sun’s JavaOne conference just days later. While the term almost certainly existed before, this seems to be when it made its “official” debut.

For a few years, hackathons remained very niche, revolving around extremely specific parameters. It wasn’t until the mid-00s that the notion became more widespread, both in terms of number of events and solutions being sought. From their wonky beginnings, they evolved in multiple directions – there’s the notion of the civic hackathon (like Hack AE) with more altruistic aims, yes, but corporations and wealthy tech-folk saw hackathons as opportunities as well.

These days, hackathons can be devoted to almost anything. Software development, apps and video gaming – there are plenty of those. They can be broadly sweeping or narrowly specific – there are still many events based around particular programming languages or other frameworks. And again, there are the hackathons for causes, devoted to finding solutions for healthcare concerns or humanitarian issues or infrastructure improvements or other items in the public interest.

Regardless of the why, the common bond is always the desire to innovate, to shift the paradigm with an idea. That’s what hackathons are for, to change the game. And who knows? One of those game-changing ideas might be born this weekend in Orono.

(For more information about Hack AE, visit the AEAC website at For more information about UMaine’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, visit

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