Thanks to Julie Walas and Professor Jeff Rubin, I was given the opportunity to shadow what ended up becoming a tremendous night at the iSchool. When the College Challenge rolled around again this year, both Julie and Jeff realized that a change was needed.

According to Julie, “We decided that iSchool students really function best in this high stress, Hack-a-Thon environment. It really allows for creativity and innovation and real teamwork and leadership.” Thus, the Hack-a-Thon format of the event was born.

In this format, students would have a mere 24 hours to incubate and create the next big idea for When the representatives arrived for dinner, they announced the Challenge to the competing 17 teams: come up with either an improvement of a current service or the next big thing.

Syracuse Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Hopkins set the tone with his introduction: “My advice to you is think outside the box… A lot of our best decisions ever made in terms of our program have come about 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning…”

The students had no idea how prophetic those words would be.

The Competition Unfolds

After the dinner and introductions, the participants headed back to the iSchool for the rest of the competition. What made this event even more fun was that the action was not just development of an idea. brought enough “swag” for everyone involved in order to lighten the mood as the night sped by. Participant Max Kaplan from the team Rubin’s Army’said, “I’m not going to have a heart by the end of this” as they  got to work at 11pm.

By the next morning for lunch and pitches, the teams may not have been well rested, but that did not mean the energy was any less than the day before. Teams were fine-tuning their pitches and getting dressed in their business best for the climax of the event. While many got their most restful night’s sleep in their life after the competition, the Hack-a-Thon Style was well-received by all.

Hack-A-Thon Leads to Innovation

“I was impressed to see the level of detail in such a short amount of time. Some of these presentations put together weren’t just slides. The story boards and wire frames and ideas they had going that they were so passionate about, I didn’t expect that,” said Rubin, moments after the final presentation had been pitched.

“It was really good to have it in this condensed timeframe…Condensing [the challenge] down to 18 hours or 20 hours or whatever it ended up being worked out better for the students because they were passionate and physically here and engaged in working together,” added Michael Hoffman, Director of Front End Development for MLB Media.

From an observer’s standpoint, the Hack-a-Thon format was a success by creating both a competive and collaborative atmosphere. Everyone had the same tools and time and realized that they were in this together for 24 hours. Each team was able to showcase unique views on the subject that only come from instinctive thought and planning.

For more information about the College Challenge 2011, read posts from the winning team here:

How to Win the College Challenge 2011: Idea, Development & Implementation by Eric Zeleznik

Winning Isn’t Everything: Participating in the College Challenge 2011 by Ben Romy