Rhodes University trio triumph in Hackathon challenge

Rhodes>Latest News

Hackathon champions, from left to right: Irene Nandutu,  Kamvalethu Vanqa and Nicole Oyetunji.
Hackathon champions, from left to right: Irene Nandutu, Kamvalethu Vanqa and Nicole Oyetunji.

A team of three Rhodes University students and two external collaborators have won first prize at the recently concluded nationwide Hackathon challenge. The two-day challenge, which was organised by the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), started on Friday, 25 June at 15h00 and ended on Saturday, 26 June 2021 at 15h00.

A Hackathon is an event, usually hosted by a tech company or organization, where programmers get together for a short period of time to collaborate on a project. The participants work rapidly to achieve their task, as the events generally only last 24 hours or take place over a weekend.

According to the Department of Mathematics & Applied Mathematics Lecturer, Dr Patrice Okouma, when Rhodes Artificial Intelligence Group (RAIRG), hosted by the Mathematics Department was made aware of the challenge, they realised that it offered a unique opportunity for strengthening teamwork among some of our students. Three graduate students in the Mathematics Department accepted the challenge to compete. They are Irene Nandutu, Nicole Oyetunji and Kamvalethu Vanqa. Vanqa has joint affiliation with the Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technology in the Physics & Electronics Department. Prof. Oleg Smirnov, Drs. Marcellin Atemkeng and Patrice Okouma are the students’ Supervisors. As per the design of the competition, the team had two external collaborators.

Nandutu is a Ph.D student who has considerable experience in building communities, Vanqa is an MSc student who has won a number of prizes and awards and Oyetunji is an MSc student and team leader.

As per the Hackathon event website, the problem statement consisted of devising a solution that can mitigate the effect of Space Weather on Satellite-based technologies such as communication and navigation. “This win re-asserts the fact that Rhodes University has talented students with an inspiring willingness to contribute towards alleviating some of our practical problems. As the university strives to strengthen a fertile environment for our students’ creativity to blossom, one naively expects more of similar “wins” in various forms and scales, in the near future, for a better life here,” said Dr Okouma.

Nicole recalled how she told her tutorial students about it, because they tend to have misconceptions about real-world maths application not extending beyond teaching. “While teaching is an extremely important profession, there are other career paths for mathematicians who wish to be active in science. Maths is a very male-dominated area, which can be intimidating, but I hope this win by two female leads encourage any girls out there that have an interest in science and to know that they are capable of achieving great things,” said the 24-year-old Nicole.

Dr Okouma said learning from this small-scale initiative and the students’ enthusiastic response, there seems to be some potential value in envisaging an annual or bi-annual competition at Rhodes University. “Groups of students could compete for a sizable financial reward based on practical and innovative ideas they have. Further support could take the form of mentoring winning team(s) towards commercialisation of their prototype, using organisations such as the Technology Innovation Agency and others,” concluded Dr Okouma.  

The Rhodes University team won R5000 and a sponsored two-day tour of the Western Cape's top space facilities, including the SANSA Hermanus campus.  Flights, food, and accommodation are also included. Dean of Science, Professor Tony Booth and Mathematics Department Head, Professor Denis Pollney congratulated the three students for their hard work.