Mission work has long been a draw for students on spring break, but STEM programs…
Hacking, engineering in the service of others
When many people think of a great Catholic university, perhaps they picture ivy-covered walls in front of quads swarming with priests and theology students, or centuries-old universities in Europe dating back to the Middle Ages, or gold football helmets on a chilly fall Saturday. Until recently, they most likely did not picture a group of students nearly winning an international “hackathon” hosted by the Vatican.
But that is just what happened last spring. The Catholic University of America — one of the preeminent Catholic universities in the United States, and the only pontifical university in the country — sent a team of five to the first-ever Hackathon at the Vatican. The CUA team took second place overall.
Hacking for solutions
The Hackathon, also known as VHacks, “seeks to use technological innovation to overcome social barriers and embrace common values,” according to the event’s website. The mission is to leverage technology to address current global problems; to promote collaboration among youth leaders across diverse academic, ethnic and religious backgrounds; and to encourage values-based institutions to embrace technology to further their missions.
The five students who represented The Catholic University of America were selected from among participants at the university’s Hackathon against Homelessness in January. The team consisted of Vy Bui, a doctoral student in electrical engineering; LeQuan Clinton, a masters student in architecture and planning; Emma Flanagan, a sophomore studying business and marketing; Van Lam, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering; and Michael Monaghan, a senior studying computer science.
Clinton became interested in the hackathon through the Hackathon for Homelessness. “I was interested in being a part of an event that put like-minded individuals together in a space to come up with feasible solutions to real problems people are facing every day,” he said.
The Vatican Hackathon featured 120 students from around the world. The CUA team competed in a category devoted to interfaith dialogue, aiming to establish open communication between differing faith traditions to help foster understanding and cooperation. There were two other categories in which teams competed: social inclusion, and migrants and refugees.
The CUA team prepared by having a mock hackathon that allowed them to produce solutions for potential topics. “This enabled us to work on making quicker choices as a team and really flesh out our synergy,” Clinton said. The preparation also highlighted each teammate’s particular skills, helping the team assign tasks and work more efficiently.
At the event itself, the team coded for 36 hours and developed a web application called Faithstrings, which uses virtual reality to allow users to be immersed in different faith communities. There were mentors on hand from Microsoft, Google and other corporate sponsors; participants came from more than 30 countries and represented nearly every major religion. For finishing second place in their category, the team won $1,000.
John Judge, a faculty member at CUA for 14 years and current Dean of Engineering, is proud of the team’s performance at the Vatican Hackathon. “It was really exciting to see CUA students do so well,” he said. “They all worked very hard and did a great job, and had a lot of fun competing with and getting to meet students from around the world.” Judge expects “to have students rising to these sorts of challenges and other opportunities to serve humanity while testing their skills.”
Clinton values the perspective he gained from the experience, especially in regards to “some of the issues that plague people in other countries.” The hackathon is well-integrated into the CUA emphasis on service. “Service plays a huge role because it is imperative to give back to the community and help those that make up the community,” said Clinton. “It is important to note that ‘the community’ reaches well beyond the boundaries of the campus of CUA.”
Judge notes that service is a significant feature of CUA’s engineering programs. The students “take advantage of opportunities to volunteer around the country and the world, through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Engineers Without Borders and Engineering World Health.” They also volunteer closer to home, including at high schools, and with organizations like DC Reads, So Others Might Eat, Ronald McDonald House and many more.
Within the School of Engineering, CUA participates in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program. In this program, students combine service-learning, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary collaboration and global awareness to address one of the 14 “grand challenges” of the 21st century as identified by the National Academy. These grand challenges include things like “Make solar energy affordable,” “Provide access to clean water,” “Restore and improve urban infrastructure,” “Prevent nuclear terror” and more.
Service is a critically important facet of the School of Engineering, and indeed of CUA as a whole. “Sometimes people think engineering is about gadgets and technology rather than people,” Judge said. “The reality is that engineering is fundamentally about serving people — we design the buildings, vehicles, machines, tools, and other devices and systems that empower people to be safer, healthier, happier, more productive, more connected, and more informed.” This is at the heart of the work of the engineer, and speaks to the service to which all Catholics are called.
“Applying knowledge to solve problems for others isn’t an ‘add-on’ in engineering — it’s what the profession is all about!”
The technology produced by engineers must be wielded carefully. “Technology is a tool, which can be used for both good or ill — it’s wonderful to see young people coming together to figure out how to use technology to benefit others and bring people together,” said Judge.
CUA is not the only Catholic university with a thriving engineering program. The sciences are booming at schools across the country. At CUA, the emphasis on service and the recent participation in the Vatican Hackathon go to show how science can be lived and integrated with the Catholic faith.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.