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H2O Hackathon, a Water Challenge
Caravan News 2769

H2O Hackathon, a Water Challenge

Students at the Fourth Annual H2O Hackathon used their coding knowledge and problem-solving skills developing apps to make California's system of dams safer

This article originates from the 5th issue of the San Joaquin County Office of Education's Outlook magazine.

The new numbers coming in from submerged sensors behind the dam were not good. The water level in the reservoir was rising, and rising fast. The dam would not be able to hold back the water much longer.

Fortunately for the over 125 students downstream, the reservoir was about the size of a shoe box. It had been wired up to provide a steady fl ow of data to competing teams at the Fourth Annual H2O Hackathon, which is a daylong competition for students to develop a water-related app able to help California.

Last year the challenge was to conserve water. The “What’s the Dam Problem?” challenge this year focused on the system of dams providing California with both water storage and protection from flooding by holding back millions of acre-feet of water.

Even though Lake Shoe Box held less than a gallon of water, it represented the real threat of flooding looming over California, particularly in wet years. And the updated data showing water levels rising drove that point home to students at the Hackathon.

“It kind-of creates a new sense of urgency,” said Amrutha, a junior at Merrill F. West High School (Tracy Unified School District). “It was like: Oh, my God! The dam is going to overfill, we’ve got to do something!”

Amrutha and her three teammates were building an app that would track data from dams, then alert government agencies when it might be the right time to notify the public and get them ready to move to safety. The team -- Wolfhack Kappa -- executed the task well enough to win the coveted Golden Spigot Award -- a $4,000 prize. Nineteen teams competed in the high school division. They came from 12 high schools, including charter schools, from six school districts and the San Joaquin County Off ice of Education (SJCOE).

In the college division, the Coding Robots team from San Joaquin Delta College won the prize. The addition of the college division was new this Hackathon, making it the largest year yet for the growing competition. Six teams from Delta College competed.

The Hackathon took place at the SJCOE on March 16. It was organized in partnership with iHub San Joaquin, the SJCOE, and San Joaquin Delta College. In addition to being an educational experience where students could apply their skills to real-world problems, the competition aligns with the iHub San Joaquin mission to nurture entrepreneurship and enterprises in the region dedicated to innovative and emerging technologies.

Major sponsors of the H2O Hackathon include Restore the Delta, Café Coop, California Water Service, San Joaquin County WorkNet, Collins Electric, Port of Stockton, San Joaquin Partnership, Central Delta Water Agency, and A.G. Spanos Companies. For more information, visit

Winners were selected by a panel of judges that included water and technology experts. “It’s pretty inspiring,” said Lawrence Sim, a judge who is an application developer at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. One of his projects tracks algal blooms using an app that constantly updates with new data. It is an app developed to work with a data set, which is what Hackathon students were making.

“It’s the same process, but it’s just superaccelerated,” he said. “What I do in weeks and months, they’re trying to do in six hours.”

A team of eighth-graders in a Girls Who Code club from the Housing Authority of San Joaquin’s Conway Homes competed in the high school division.

“We were stressed, at first. We were really nervous,” said Honestee, 13, a student at Williams Elementary School (Lincoln Unified School District). She said she and a teammate went for a walk before the competition to talk about it and build up their confidence. It worked, and Honestee anticipated the feeling of accomplishment they would have at the end of the day.

“Even if we win it or not, we’re still champions. We’ll still be able to do it. At least we got an experience. We made it through this,” she said. Their design impressed the judges enough to recognize their work with a Future Innovators award, a prize of $250 for the team.

On top of the technological focus, the teams all gave a two-minute presentation to a packed conference room to explain what they were designing. It’s a valuable experience, said Lynette Hodge, who teaches at East Union High School (Manteca Unified School District) and is the speech and debate coach for SJCOE Migrant Education. She also coached the Water Lilies, a Hackathon team made up of three students from Edison, Escalon, and Sierra high schools. “Our focus is to work on our presentation skills,” she said. The team went on to take third place.

Oduwa, a sophomore at Langston Hughes Academy in Stockton, only had a limited amount of coding experience and didn’t think much about the Hackathon until the February training for coaches and students.

“I wasn’t excited at first. But we came and did all these challenges, and it was fun,” she said. The excitement continued, and during the first few hours of the Hackathon, she and her Titan teammates were charging ahead.

“It’s a tough challenge, but I think my team is figuring it out.”

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