By Lindsey Doermann
February 23, 2021
Undergraduates learned to code and tackled a real-world chemical production problem in first annual department hackathon
In 2021, 68 chemical engineering undergraduates made new year's resolutions to learn a new language. A coding language, that is. These enterprising students were participants in the first ever ChemE hackathon, or C-HACK. Over the course of two weeks in January, they took nightly tutorials in Python, then put their new skills to use to parse reams of real-world industry data.
C-HACK is the brainchild of ChemE assistant professor Stéphanie Valleau. Valleau joined the faculty in 2019 as part of a department-wide effort to strengthen teaching and research at the intersection of data science and chemical engineering.
Valleau recognizes how intimidating it can be for non-computer-science students without coding experience to take that first step to learn. But at the same time, coding skills are increasingly in demand in chemical engineering careers. “No matter what you do, learning how to code will help you,” she told students, whether in a homework assignment, a future job, or any situation where you’re analyzing data.
So she developed C-HACK to be a free, accessible, low-pressure exploration of coding and data science. After kicking around the idea from the time she started at UW, Valleau sat down one day in late August of last year, bought a domain name, and began creating the event. Before she knew it, she was recruiting tutorial instructors, having students evaluate the tutorials, lining up sponsors, and setting the many other pieces in motion.
The welcoming, ChemE-focused approach seems to have worked: whereas the organizers thought maybe 20 students would sign up, they ended up with 68. “The hard part was when we realized that we had a lot more students than we were expecting,” said graduate student Nida Janulaitis, who along with fellow Valleau Lab member Evan Komp, played a central role in planning and executing the event. “But it was really great to see how excited they were, and how they took the problem and ran with it,” she said. As an added perk, students received mugs, t-shirts, and “C-HACKMASTER” pins for participating. (Sponsorship from Dow, Micron, UW eScience Institute and UW ChemE helped make this happen).
During Week 1, participants joined nightly tutorials in the Python coding language, taught by ChemE faculty, staff, and students. The following Sunday morning, they joined in a Zoom session (shown here) to hear Dow data scientists Ivan Castillo and Leo Chiang introduce the problems they would be tackling.
They wanted the students to help shed light on the presence of impurities in the output of a large-scale distillation system. The impurities affected their chemical production rate and reduced the lifespan of the catalyst in the reactor: a lose-lose for customers and the company. In the coming days, teams could choose to either visualize data to determine what variables correlated with impurity levels, or use modeling functions to identify which variables were important for predicting the impurities. Valleau said the problems were designed with broad guidelines so they could be tackled in multiple ways.
When sophomore Kendrick Echevarria learned about the problem, he found the sheer amount of data overwhelming. “But when we all sat down together and thought about it, the data became less intimidating,” he said. Echevarria’s upperclassman teammates found that coursework such as mass transport was helpful to focus on the most important data.
Andrew Love and his teammates were all coding for the first time, and the dataset was similarly intimidating. But when Dow diagrammed the system it came from, he recognized the “kind of bread-and-butter mass and energy balances we’ve been doing for a couple years now,” he said. “Our classes allowed us to have a sanity check when we were looking at trends [in the data],” added teammate Joshua Coballes.
By the conclusion of C-HACK on the final night, all 18 teams had their presentation ready to go. Nine judges rotated around to Zoom breakout rooms to hear the groups’ 10-minute presentations. Prior to this, they’d had a chance to review their code and other project details.
The standout presentation came from the ultimate winners, the Hackyardigans, a team of seniors Kenny Andre, Julien Butwin, Vivian Jones, and Jarrid Nakata. In addition to their team chemistry (teamwork was a key judging criteria), they impressed the judges with their approach to the problem and their data visualizations. Bright graphics and a clever team name — even if somewhat diminished due to the judges’ age demographic — indicated they had fun with the challenge, too.
In the end, Valleau was impressed at what all the teams had to show. David Juergens, a ChemE alumnus and MolES Ph.D. student who helped in the Python tutorial breakout rooms, echoed that sentiment. “The students got these fundamental programming lessons, but then they really had to extend their knowledge to dealing with things they didn’t get taught,” he said. “I think the projects turned out amazing.”
Looking to the future, Valleau says she can envision a gradual expansion of the hackathon to more chemical engineering students. Next year, for example, could include schools with ChemE departments across the state of Washington. Then perhaps it could extend to more west coast universities, and beyond.
In whatever form it may take, what Valleau and the team behind C-HACK want is to break down barriers to programming and demonstrate how it can be fun, too. “When you realize it's just you typing on a keyboard and doing some math,” said Juergens, “that’s the coolest.”
Through C-HACK, we saw how our coding knowledge could be applied to solve real world problems. The tutorials fostered a communal learning experience, which is especially difficult in times of remote schooling. The casual and low-pressure atmosphere made it particularly welcoming to interact with faculty and fellow students within the department. In addition, the emphasis on learning made this event widely accessible to coders of all skillsets. We really enjoyed participating.