By Jonathan Gutierrez
Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News

images-4GroupDesk and Personal Concert won the grand prizes at the inaugural School’s Out Hackathon for high school students last Saturday.

The GroupDesk team created an online collaborative platform to “nourish productivity and teamwork.” The web application helps teachers and students collaborate on school projects.

“Working with other people can be hard,” according to GroupDesk’s pitch. “With tardiness, non-accountability or even just plain laziness, collaboration can be difficult even amongst the most organized and social of us. GroupDesk was designed to help those who need just a little more organization in small projects, both personal and curriculum-based, by providing a set of simple but powerful tools.”

The app includes chat rooms, task lists, email lists, file management tools and more to encourage collaboration.

The GroupDesk winning team included Miguel Obregon from Katy, Michael Brenan and Andy Sturzu from Houston.

Personal Concert created an affordable, personal audio system “that makes use of tactile transducers to create a sound experience you can feel,” according to its pitch.

The winning teams created products that would be hard for most tenured programmers to create, said Lorenzo Gomez, director of Geekdom in San Antonio and one of the panel judges.

The judges picked the winners based on problem solving, creativity, design and technical aptitude.

As the grand prizewinner for software, each member of GroupDesk received a pair of Beats Headphones and a new Occulus Rift.

As the grand prizewinner for hardware, each member of Personal Concert won Beats Headphones and the team won a 3D printer.

Overall, the sponsors for the event gave out more than $13,000 worth of prizes.

Apps for Aptitude and Rackspace, the cloud-hosting company, collaborated to host the largest hackathon for high school students. Apps for Aptitude, a non-profit startup, develops and publishes mobile applications to fight illiteracy.

The inaugural School’s Out Hackathon brought 500 students from around the country to Rackspace headquarters in San Antonio to participate in the 24-hour event, which kicked off Friday. Some students brought laptops, desktop computers, backpacks, pillows and sleeping bags. Some of them worked straight through the night on their projects. Others slept under desks or at their workstation.

“San Antonio was very well-represented in attendance, but the event also featured out-of-staters from Seattle, Arkansas and California, as well as Dallas, Austin and Houston,” said Daniel Sherrill, Rackspace’s community affairs specialist. “For those kids to come just for this event, was to me so special. And for our local San Antonio kids to get to connect with those other kids, the relationships they made in the last 24 hours are going to last forever. It’s so life-changing.”

Students demonstrated their coding and entrepreneurial skills in front of sponsor representatives from companies such as Rackspace, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook among many others. Apps for Aptitude raised $40,000 in sponsorships to put on the event.

A lot of the students who attended the hackathon had little experience in coding and developing web applications. The event was a competition, but also served as a way for students to seek guidance from volunteers, teachers and representatives from some of the most prominent tech companies in the world.

“It was really brave of them to come here and say, ‘I don’t know anything and I’m OK with that, but I’m going to learn in 24 hours how to build something awesome,” said Josh Springer, CEO of Apps for Aptitude.

“We had been to hackathons in the past, and we found that the best way we learned was through these hackathons because you’re forced to build something or you won’t meet the deadline,” he said. “There’s no, ‘Oh, I’ll just put it off until tomorrow.’ It’s, ‘I have to do it in the next hour or I won’t be able to submit my hack.'”

“People are venturing into code which is one of the hardest things to learn in today’s economy,” Springer said. “(These students) who competed had one goal in mind and they wouldn’t let anything stop them from getting to that goal.”
Gomez, the director for Geekdom, said every city needs an “Apps for Aptitude.”

“They have three high school students that have really been the catalysts for the high school hacking movement in San Antonio,” he said. “It’s something special. And really what they’ve done is give high school students a place where they can meet their tribe. Ten years ago, if you were programming in high school, you were alone. You didn’t know where to go to meet people like you. Apps for Aptitude just gave them a place to do that with SoHacks, (an initiative group that helped organize the event.) We hope to help them do this every single year and we think it’s going to be a great event going forward.”