ASMSA-related teams take top two spots at Venture Center’s JOLT Hackathon

1 year ago

The Venture Center’s JOLT Hackathon this past weekend brought together teams to compete in an event focused on cyber security. By the end of the two-day, 20-hour competition, two teams with ties to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts were atop the final leaderboard.

Rev365, a team comprised of ASMSA computer science instructor Nicholas Seward and ASMSA Class of 2012 alumni Zach Lovin and Jordan May, won first place. There weren’t any bad feelings between the first- and second-place teams, however.

Team[0] were ASMSA seniors Ben Allen of Bella Vista, Denver Ellis of Paron, John Ostermueller of Little Rock and Noah Sherry of DeQueen. They finished 1,100 points behind first place but 350 points ahead of the third-place team, which were all technology professionals. In fact, the majority of 28 teams who participated in the competition were professionals who work in the technology field, whether it is in cybersecurity, coding or another area.

ASMSA also had two other teams of students participate in the competition. They finished in 14th and 15th place respectively. Seward said it was an impressive performance by all three teams.

“That’s a huge achievement,” he said. “I’ve known this stuff for a long time. For the most part they were creating the knowledge to complete the challenges on the fly. It was a valiant effort on all of our students’ parts. Even the teams that finished 14th and 15th—they were doing this against people who do this for a living and ended up smack dab in the middle of the leaderboard.”

The Venture Center is a business-focused nonprofit organization that serves as an engine for economic growth in Central Arkansas. The center’s JOLT Hackathon provides the development of soft skills such as communication, leadership and collaboration as well as real-world, technical hard skills.

The competition is divided into groups of categories that focus on different areas of cyber security. More difficult challenges provide opportunities to score more points. Teams work to find solutions to the challenges, completing as many as they can before time runs out.

Teams began working on the challenges at 8 a.m. Saturday morning at the Little Rock Technology Park. Doors to the event didn’t close until midnight that night, meaning teams were allowed to work 16 hours straight on the various challenges. They then returned at 8 a.m. Sunday morning for another four-hour session.

Team[0], the student team, completed 46 challenges during the competition, finishing in the top three of all competitors in nine of the puzzles. Rev365, which included the ASMSA alumni and Seward, completed 48 challenges, finishing first 11 times and in the top three overall in 21 of the challenges.

Those two additional completed challenges were high-point scores (500 and 400) that provided the bulk of the final difference. In fact, Rev365 was the only team to complete the 500-point challenge. Penalties for hints received by Team[0] on three challenges accounted for the additional 200 points.

Team[0] members said they started out fast with easy problems but hit a rough patch in the first afternoon as they adjusted to the competition and the difficulty of the challenges. Ostermueller, who arrived later than the rest of his team because he was taking the ACT on Saturday morning, said when he walked in he was a bit overwhelmed by the sight upon his arrival.

“I walked in and there were just so many people working on things who looked like they knew what they were doing. It was a very slow process to try to find things, to find leads to the solutions,” he said.

What helped the team was the diversity of skills on the team and team members’ ability to quickly take new skills they learned and apply them to the challenges, Ellis said.

“It became how fast can you figure out what you need to be able to do, learn it and then apply it,” he said.

Ostermueller praised the ability of his ASMSA classmates on the other teams to perform as well as they did. He said Team[0] had the advantage to have experience in answering some similar questions in class and other competitions that were a part of this event. This was the first time members of ASMSA’s other teams may have seen these type of questions.

“Some of them are in [Computer Programming 1] and are just starting out. They wouldn’t have seen this level of question. They came in blindly and had to learn even more than we did,” he said.

Seward said it was a “fantastic environment” for the students. “Everyone is working hard to try to solve these problems. You can just feel the gears turning. Teams would be helping each other. I learned a few new things. For (Team[0]) to almost beat us and make up all of that knowledge as they went—looking things up on the Internet and figuring it out on the fly—was phenomenal,” he said.

Seward and the students on Team[0] all agreed that it was an atmosphere that put an emphasis on learning and a community spirit. Teams would assist each other, giving tips that would help teams learn new skills and solve challenges on their own.

It was also fun to get to compete on a team, Seward said. At the spring JOLT Hackathon, he served strictly as a mentor to the ASMSA teams. At the recent wedding of a pair of alumni, Seward visited with Lovin and May. He asked them if they wanted to compete as a team. He said their supervisor at Rev365, a digital marketing and design company in Little Rock, agreed to pay for the team.

Seward said he didn’t know he would be competing for the top spot at the event with a team of his students. Otherwise he may have sat out the competition, he said.

“If I would have been able to predict where they would end up landing, I wouldn’t want to take a spot from them. It’s not a good feeling to take that from the kids,” he said, adding there was some good-natured heckling between the teams during the competition.

Seward’s team and the three teams of students weren’t the only ones to represent ASMSA. Four other teams had at least one ASMSA alumnus as a member of their squads, meaning 19 people with ASMSA ties on eight total teams competed in the event.

“I would go around to other teams to trade hints. They would ask me where I was from. When I told them there were several who would say ‘I went there too!’ It was great,” Ellis said.

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