AMNH hosts Hack the Universe

On Friday, November 7, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is hosting more than 100 developers, programmers, and computer science specialists to build applications using the Museum’s Digital Universe data set at its first-ever hackathon, “Hack the Universe.”

The 24-hour hackathon serves as the kick-off for the Museum’s BridgeUp: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program—a new youth educational initiative that highlights the integral role of computers in scientific research and science education. The program aims to also inspire young women in high school and college, and underserved middle school youth in New York City, to pursue careers in computer science. This new program follows the long-standing precedent set by the Museum of providing extraordinary opportunities for authentic science learning that leverages young people’s interests into further studies and careers, laying ground for the next generation of innovators and scientists.

More than 250 “hackers” applied for the 100 spots in less than 48 hours after “Hack the Universe” was announced, drawing interest from a diverse pool, including tech executives, graduate students, and programmers of varying skill levels. Approximately 50 percent of “Hack the Universe” participants are female, in sharp contrast to what some estimates cite as a 10—15 percent turnout of women at hackathons.

The hackathon will begin with an introduction to the data set behind the Museum’s Digital Universe—the most complete and scientifically accurate 3D atlas of our universe—by Carter Emmart, the Museum’s director of astrovisualization, and Ward Wheeler, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and curator-in-charge of the Scientific Computing Facility. The 100 hackers will then form teams and begin working with the data throughout the night. Dinner, snacks, and a sleeping area will be provided.

 “We’re excited to launch BridgeUp: STEM with “Hack the Universe” because it is such a natural demonstration of the power of computer science in science,” said Christina Wallace, director of BridgeUp: STEM. “The responses from both the tech and the astrophysics communities were so strong. We can’t wait to see what they build together in this hackathon—which I hope will be the first of many at the Museum.”

“Hack the Universe” will take place in the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Hall of the Universe, located on the lower level of the Museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space. This first event is aimed at connecting the dots and showing the crucial role computer science plays in understanding our universe and science.

The following day, Saturday, November 8, students and the public are invited to join “Hack the Universe” beginning at 1 pm. While the hacking teams continue their work, visitors can hear from Museum scientists at brief informative talks, or “lightning talks,” and explore several tables of activities for an introduction to the applications of computer science and data visualization in the study of the universe.

Activities open to visitors will include a Digital Flight School demonstration, a Computer Components and Circuitry station, and an interactive star search where visitors can virtually point to a star and learn more information.

Lightning talks will start at 2:15 pm, with a second round beginning at 4 pm, with presentations by:

  • Ward Wheeler, curator, Division of Invertebrate Zoology and curator-in-charge, Scientific Computing Facility
  • Jackie Faherty, research scientist in the Department of Astrophysics
  • Emily Rice, research associate in the Department of Astrophysics, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Science & Physics at the College of Staten Island, and a member of CUNY Astronomy
  • Carter Emmart, director of astrovisualization

At 5 pm, several hacker team projects will be showcased for the public. After the Museum closes at 5:45 pm, the hackathon will continue with demonstrations and judging, which will take place during a cocktail reception.

Funded by a five-year grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust, BridgeUp: STEM will launch a portfolio of programs in 2015 spanning secondary after-school education, public programming, post-baccalaureate fellowships, and teacher professional development.


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