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ISAAC School students on hackathon-winning team

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New London — Two students from ISAAC School were among the winners of the region's first hackathon over the weekend.

Clarileni Santiago and Teressa Simpkins, both eighth-grade New Londoners at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, were aided by adult team members Kristin Harkness and Lili Dwight. The team created a technology to turn the newly popular safety pin that symbolizes "unity against xenophobia, sexism and racism into an actual safety device," according to a Facebook posting.

The idea is for someone being harassed to be able to push a button on a piece of wearable technology and be able to alert nearby people in the safety-pin network that their help is needed. The device pinpoints where people needing help are located.

"I wanted people to not feel so alone," said Simpkins. "It had a good cause behind it."

The hackathon, which began last Friday and finished up with presentations Sunday at the CURE Innovation Commons in Groton, gave coders and other tinkerers and thinkers a chance to tackle a regional transit problem or any other idea they wanted to explore. About 20 people participated.

According to the winning team, the app's technology involved determining proximity. The students spent hours literally stitching together the wire thread that made the electronics work, as well as coding for hours.

Hannah Gant, a hackathon organizer, said Monday that about half the participants were from Connecticut College, which has about 80 computer science majors.

"It's amazing what can be done in a short amount of time," she said. "Everyone had a really great time."

Harkness, a local programmer and member of Spark, said she has been volunteering at ISAAC to help kids learn about programming, microprocessors and other technical issues. She is currently doing consulting work in the Boston area, helping develop iPhone apps.

"The girls were great," Harkness said. "They helped us to design the circuit."

They also were instrumental in a skit put on at CURE Commons that was so compelling a judge from IBM asked them to do it again so he could get a video of it, Harkness said. She added that judges were particularly impressed that the team had walked into the hackathon with nothing but an idea and put together their project in little more than a day.

Santiago, an ISAAC advanced-technology student in Diana McMaster's class, said her mom insisted she be part of the hackathon, though she was reluctant.

"When I actually got there, it was fun," she said.

"I just kind of like seeing things happen," said Simpkins in a video interview provided by McMasters. "I like doing something and then getting a reaction out of it ... like it will light up or something."

Pizza from 2 Wives restaurant and dinner from Mi Casa kept the energy level high, participants said. The team won $300, or $75 apiece.

Runnerups were a group from Conn who used thousands of datapoints for their Amtracker technology that attempted to predict the likelihood of a train arriving late or on time at Union Station as well as another group centered on Electric Boat that developed Hitchhike or Go, a way to find people headed to the same location who could pick up one another.

The theme of the Thames River Hackathon was transit. But organizers said the hackathon was not limited to transit.

Gant reported that there appears to be interested in regular meetups for local coders at Spark Makerspace, an organization on Golden Street that allows members to share space and tools in a co-working environment. It also appears that this hackathon — first of its kind in the region — might be a more regular thing in the future, she said.

"I really think there are the beginnings of a tech community," Harkness said.


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