Digital AgAthon encourages students to bridge areas of expertise

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Academically diverse groups of WSU students and researchers will compete next week by working on major agriculture issues using large data sets in WSU’s first-ever Digital AgAthon, organized in partnership with Microsoft, Innov8Ag, and the Cascadia Innovations Corridor.

Participants will work in teams online Oct. 1-5 to answer questions centered on issues facing the agriculture industry.

Originally scheduled in March as an in-person event, the digital version includes participants from over 14 departments spanning four colleges and five WSU campuses.

“The goal is to bring out creativity in the students, allowing them to think about problems in different ways,” said Lav Khot, a professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE).

AgAthon is based on popular hackathon events. In the competition, teams answer the questions, then judges review the results and determine winners. Prizes are planned for top teams. The students will have mentors available to offer guidance and advice.

“Because this is interdisciplinary in nature, teams will have students from different backgrounds and they’ll have to work together,” said Kirti Rajagopalan, an assistant professor in BSE. “From a pure competition perspective, the students that can bridge the differences in their areas of expertise will be more likely to put together competitive answers.”

To move from in-person to virtual, organizers are working closely with Microsoft to make sure teams have the resources to analyze the data they’ll be given.

“We were very apprehensive about how we could to this virtually,” Rajagopalan said. “But we’re working with the Microsoft’s Garage team, who have run multiple virtual hackathons.”

The questions focus on different aspects of agriculture. The first is on the use of sensor data for decisions in an orchard setting. The second centers on plant breeding and phenomics. The final area will look at a regional concern that may affect a government agency or industry commission.

Even before the event, organizers are already happy with the response. The AgAthon reached its maximum number of participants over a month before the event, and organizers had to increase capacity.

“This response from students is fantastic,” said Von Walden, professor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The virtual nature of the event is a bit of a blessing as well. This is potentially how people will be working going forward, where they’ll have to learn to work with people in different locations. Gaining skills in how to work effectively together online is a valuable experience.”

The AgAthon is only open to WSU participants. If the event goes smoothly, event organizers hope to expand future events to include other universities.

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