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W&L Students Place Second in the HooHacks Hackathon Event Lakpa Sherpa ’25 and Ignas Volcokas ’25 designed a personal learning assistant that utilizes the power of artificial intelligence.

Lakpa-and-Ignas-at-entry-to-Hoos-Hack-576x400 W&L Students Place Second in the HooHacks Hackathon EventLakpa Sherpa ’25 and Ignas Volcokas ’25 took second in their category at the HooHacks event.

Washington and Lee students Lakpa Sherpa ’25 and Ignas Volcokas ’25 took second place in the education category at the HooHacks hackathon held March 25-26 at the University of Virginia.

HooHacks is the largest hackathon in Virginia and one of the 50 largest collegiate hackathons in the United States. A hackathon is a 24-hour tech event where teams of students can learn new skills, build technology projects and meet other students and professionals in the tech industry.

The 2023 HooHacks event was free and open to all high school, undergraduate and graduate students at least 18 years of age. It featured 438 total participants who performed coding from noon on March 25 through noon on March 26 as they competed for a total prize pool valued at $16,526. Participants were instructed to choose a category for their project from a list that included accessibility and empowerment, art and gaming, finance, education, health, sustainability, and data science.

Sherpa and Volcokas chose the education category and were selected for the second-place prize. Each received a drone as their reward for a runner-up finish.

Both computer science majors, Sherpa and Volcokas were inspired by recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and the growing concerns surrounding the use of AI programs in education. Rather than focus on the content that AI can produce, the W&L tandem decided to focus on how AI can promote learning and designed a personal learning assistant named EsyLearn. EsyLearn communicates with users via a web interface where the users can easily speak and get responses back just like talking to another human being. Through natural language processing, it provides responses both in text and audio for better understanding.

“We are proud of what we accomplished within the 24-hour time of the hackathon,” Sherpa said. “We created a virtual assistant that is as smart as Jarvis in the Iron Man movies. We learned the importance of never giving up, adding, and committing regularly to the git repository and bringing a pillow.”

“I would say the greatest challenge we faced was the time constraint and the lack of sleep,” Volcokas noted. “I only slept for one hour and that was on a table. Another challenge was connecting the bits and pieces of code into one project. It was like having puzzle pieces from different puzzles, but we had to make it work – and we did.”

During the event, Sherpa, a native of Khotang, Nepal, and Volcokas, from Vilnius, Lithuania, were able to attend various workshops and presentations, providing them insight into a variety of innovative technologies and tools. It also offered the ability to network with programmers from different institutions and backgrounds who came together to create innovative solutions to pressing problems.

“The hackathon was an excellent opportunity for us to apply our coding skills and learn new ones, network with fellow programmers, and gain valuable experience in project management and teamwork,” said Sherpa. “It was a memorable experience that not only pushed us out of our comfort zones but also taught us the value of collaboration and the potential of technology to create meaningful solutions to real-world problems.”

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