Sixteen Bachelor’s students spent the weekend of 6-9 October investigating light pollution at the University of Groningen’s Zernike Campus and finding innovative solutions to this problem. The hackathon was a pilot in a European Erasmus+ project for innovation in education that is carried out by Science LinX at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, in collaboration with the University of Groningen Honours College.
Participating students were recruited from the University’s Honours College, explains project leader Maaike de Heij: ‘We wanted an interdisciplinary group and the project fitted well within the Honours College curriculum.’ Fifteen of the sixteen second-year and third-year students came from different Bachelor’s programmes at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, the sixteenth was a student at Hanze Applied University. They spent a weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, studying a problem, devising solutions, and presenting these to each other.
The hackathon weekend started with drinks during an informal session. ‘This social mixer worked well,’ says De Heij. ‘The students appreciated the fact that students and staff were starting the weekend on an equal footing.’ The drinks were followed by the formation of four teams of four students each. They came up with a team name and a mascot. De Heij: ‘These were used throughout the weekend to increase the team spirit.’
Highlight of this first evening was a walk with light meters across the Zernike Campus. This allowed the students to measure and experience the levels of light pollution. ‘Some students were shocked to see how bright some of the lights were,’ recalls De Heij.
The next morning, they started to tackle the problem using ‘Design Thinking’, a method that is used to focus on a problem from different angles and to stimulate the development of innovative solutions. Project team member Denise Kool supervised this part of the programme. ‘Each group starts with ‘making sense’, where several specialists provide information about the problem and students must look at their question from five different angles, the Pentagonal problem.’ The next step is ‘framing’, i.e. getting into the context of the problem, followed by ’ideation’, i.e. the formulation of a number of potential solutions.
All this took a full day, the second day of the hackathon. On Sunday, the teams first selected their solution using a visual tool. ‘Some were a bit bleary-eyed, as they had walked across the campus again until the early hours to take pictures for their presentation,’ says De Heij. When all groups had ranked and discussed their ideas, they selected their best solution. Both De Heij and Kool were impressed by the intensity with which the students tackled the problem. De Heij: ‘There really was a lot of energy there.’
After a pitch training, the teams presented their solution to the light pollution problem to each other and to a jury of experts. All presentations resulted in a lively discussion. ‘I really liked the team that proposed to replace the green artificial turf in the outdoor sports centre at the campus with black turf, which would reflect less light,’ says De Heij. ‘To me, that was the most out-of-the-box solution. The other three groups came up with smart and more practical solutions to diminish light pollution.’
All sixteen students were enthusiastic about the hackathon experience. De Heij: ‘In the evaluation, we heard that any problem could be inspiring if tackled this way.’ This pilot edition was a success and is most likely to be followed by a winter edition in a few months’ time, organized by Han van der Strate from the Honours College and Karin de Boer from the Beta Science Shop, in collaboration with Science LinX. The hackathon is an innovative method for education. Part of the Erasmus+ project is the creation of an online platform for virtual hackathons. ‘That would be a good solution in case we get more lockdowns in the future,’ says De Heij. In the meantime, the results of the first hackathon will be summarized and sent to the experts. So, who knows, maybe the suggested solutions will help to reduce light pollution on Zernike Campus.
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A brief summary of the solutions that the four teams produced:
Read more about the Erasmus+ project on our website, or the international project site.
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