Columbia Missourian: Students tackle real-world problems at TigerHacks

Grant Sharples

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Columbia Missourian and is shared with permission. 

Since Friday evening, University of Missouri student Justin Hofer and his team have been building an artificial brain designed to detect when a news headline is true or false. So far, the “brain” has a 92 percent accuracy rate.

“It’s an artificial brain that I’ve trained to read text,” Hofer said. “We’ve basically got 20,000 headlines with a 50-50 split of real and fake news and fed them through it in order to train it.” 

Hofer is one of 262 participants in TigerHacks, a 36-hour hackathon lasting all weekend on MU’s campus. Students came from Lindenwood University, University of Missouri–St. Louis, University of Kansas, University of Arkansas, Purdue University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to participate.

Although “hacking” is generally a term with a negative association, TigerHacks is not about intrusion, director and MU student Holt Skinner said. The event’s title can be misleading, but hacking means something different in the computer science industry, he said.

In software engineering, hacking refers to putting something together in a short amount of time. It’s about “tweaking little things here and there to make something that works very quickly,” Skinner said. 

Attendees will also have the opportunity to participate in workshops to learn about various kinds of development, including iOS, Android and Cloud.

“It’s really great, especially for people that are brand new to this,” Skinner said. “You can just go up to a team and see what they’re working on and maybe learn a little bit from them and get that kind of experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Participants are split into groups to work on a project over the course of the weekend. They present their work on Sunday. The ultimate goal of TigerHacks is learning and innovation, Skinner said.

“We want to just see the cool projects that come out of this,” Skinner said.

Prizes also serve as an incentive to create an interesting project. These prizes include four Nintendo Switches with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”, an Amazon Echo and cash.

TigerHacks has been an annual event since 2013 (excluding 2015), but it operated under the name “Hack Mizzou” until this year. This year, TigerHacks is collaborating with the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and more specifically, its app-building competition. Anyone who participates in TigerHacks can participate in the app-building competition as well.

The participants’ work needs to relate to journalism in some form to be eligible for prizes. Paul Meyer, a student at Lindenwood University, is working with his team using the Amazon Echo, also known as Alexa. Meyer and his team are working to help journalists take notes for articles through voice interaction.

“Further down the road, if we would create a prototype and go a step further, (a goal) would be to integrate analysis of your thoughts and maybe bind this to possible resources,” Meyer said.

For example, Meyer said this prototype would be able to link to journals, articles and other resources that could benefit journalists in creating their articles.

Skinner said he wants TigerHacks to give students an experience they can’t have in a classroom setting.

“You’re working very hands-on with the software as you’re building it,” Skinner said.

Meyer is eager to gain this experience from TigerHacks.

“It’s the only time outside of internships when you get a real-world problem,” Meyer said.


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