New MSR Students Bond During Hackathon

The three-day event challenged students while helping them expand their skill set.

Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program welcomed a new cohort of 19 students to campus earlier this fall, and each student arrived with unique aspirations. 

Take, for example, the different goals of three new students:

  • Riley Knox: "I'm hoping to work with medical robotics in the future and am looking forward to exploring biomedical robotics projects at Northwestern."
  • Josh Cohen: "I'm really passionate about open source hardware and am looking forward to learning a lot about kinematics and control theory."
  • Marcel Bonnici: "I hope Northwestern unlocks the depth of knowledge in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering that I crave."

These varying goals and perspectives are what make the program's cohort model so powerful. Students are able to learn from one another and incorporate different backgrounds and points of view into their work. That collaboration was on full display during the new student hackathon that wrapped up the students' orientation boot camp.

The hackathon is designed as a crash course to get people up to speed on skills that are important for practicing robotics engineers but not always explicitly taught in an undergraduate curriculum. Students worked together to assemble and program a small robot and complete a task. In the spirit of a hackathon, minimal instruction was provided. Students used their creativity to work through the problems they encounter.

"Prior to the hackathon, most of my programming experience came from theoretical concepts with little to no realistic grounding," new student Maurice Rahme said. "This meant that I struggled to implement useful concepts like Object-Oriented Programming. The hackathon completely flipped this around and gave me a tangible reason to learn and apply more advanced concepts.

"It also helped that a good portion of the cohort had strong software skills and patiently answered any questions I had. One of the most gratifying parts of the hackathon was being able to return the favor thanks to my mechatronics background when we had to assemble and control the pan-tilt camera systems."

The goal of the hackathon was to expose students to a variety of robotics topics they will encounter in the rest of the curriculum. The work is intense but fun, and nearly every student ends up with a working prototype.  

"The hackathon kick-starts the learning experience and helps bring people with different technical backgrounds up to speed with programming robots," said Assistant Professor Matt Elwin. "The challenges of the task and fast-paced work, and additional social activities serve as a bonding experience for the cohort."

Boston Cleek said the hackathon gave students the chance to practice what they learned during orientation, while at the same time fostering a sense of community that will exist through the cohort's time in the program.

"The hackathon challenged my newly developing python skills and helped develop camaraderie amongst the cohort," Cleek said. "I was able to learn from my fellow cohort members and was able to provide help as well. I think the hackathon was particularly important for developing the relationship between my peers that helped me through the first quarter."

To learn more about the MSR student body and meet the program's students, visit

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