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My first experience as a mentor at a hackathon: #CropsonMars SF 2017
A few months ago, I received an unexpected email from Silicon Valley Forum asking if I’d be interested in mentoring at their upcoming Crops…
At the time, I was busy completing take-home assignments during my search for my first software engineering job. Precisely at the moment when I was busiest, I received this one-of-a-kind invitation to mentor at this world-first hackathon.
It’s funny how life works sometimes.
I had never attended a hackathon neither as a participant nor as a mentor. And there I was, being asked to mentor alongside mentors and judges from established engineering companies like NASA, Microsoft and IBM.
You’d excuse me for feeling a tiny bit of imposter’s syndrome.
And yes, it duly came through. Imposter’s syndrome told me that as a new bootcamp grad, I wasn’t prepared or experienced enough to mentor anyone. You know, some of the participants might even have been programming or building for longer than I’ve been alive.
That’s a fair point. But I didn’t give in for these reasons —
Hackathons are partially about ideation and general problem-solving. These are skills that I have experience with. Sure, I might not have the requisite experience to understand the nitty-gritty details of Martian physics, but I back myself to ask enough questions to gain a high level understanding of some relevant aspects in this domain.
My chemical engineering background and training could provide me an edge since the theme was Agtech. Participants might need ideas or resources on topics within relevant domains like power generation, pollution control or fertilizer/pesticide production. Or elementary physics modeling in the form of force or energy analyses.
You simply don’t turn down good, free opportunities to learn and network . Especially ones with free food🤷🏽. Looking back on my life so far, I’ve found that I grow and learn the most during periods when I have to stretch and challenge myself.
What’s the worst that could happen if I accepted their proposal?
I hastily agreed to help out.
Why crops on Mars?
You might be asking yourself a question that goes something like:
Why are people thinking about growing crops on Mars where no humans live when we have very real, problems growing sufficient, nutritious crops here on Earth where 7 billion currently live, and 9 billion are expected to live by 2050?
That’s a fair question. The premise behind this hackathon is not to overlook agricultural challenges on Earth, in fact the hackathon motto is very much Earth-centric: “if we can grow it there, we can grow it anywhere”.
The idea is that the future of agriculture on Earth will require bold thinking as farmers will increasingly need to overcome harsh growing environments while being responsible about their resource use. In essence, the question being asked is: How do you feed 9 billion with limited resources in a sustainable way?
When we begin to think about growing crops on Mars, we need to strip away many of the assumptions that we have about growing in general. We need to ask the fundamental questions and challenge our biases straight from the jump. Doing something “just because that’s the way things are usually done” is a destructive idea here.
It turns out that innovating for the harsh and constrained environment of Mars can in turn produce valuable technologies or principles that can then be implemented on Earth. The inherent constraints of the tough Martian environment means that we have to innovate to yield feasible solutions. These solutions, either in part or in full, can then be applied to certain environments on Earth. For example, ideas such as robotic pollination or autonomous harvesting could be further explored in different environments on Earth.
The brief from the organizers, Autogrow and Silicon Valley Forum was intentionally broad — the goal was to develop data, design or software solutions that could support life on Mars for at least 12 months using known technologies. The judging criteria was centered along four axes —
Reproducibility: Could the solution be implemented here on Earth?
Sustainability: Resource efficiency — energy, water, nutrients use
Originality: Have you gone where no one else has gone before?
Scalability: Can you feed your team and then your neighborhood?
Given the broad nature of the brief, I along with the other mentors and organizing committee could not predict what sort of ideas or solutions participants would deliver. That was really exciting as it encouraged us to keep an open mind while brainstorming alongside attendees with very different backgrounds.
Brainstorming with the participants
So how do you even start approaching such a bold, weird goal?
Well one approach is to first truly internalize the requirements of the brief. Understanding the criteria on which your solution will be judged is important as it’s very easy to get dragged into the fine details. You have only two days to hack so you have to prioritize your ideas along the lines of the judging criteria to have a good chance of winning. It also helps to research the background of your judges in order to pre-empt the kinds of questions that they may ask you after your presentation.
Next, we can start building up from the bottom. You might create a list of essential, open-ended questions that your design must answer in order to identify and prioritize areas for further exploration. An example of such a draft list might look like:
Crops are plants. And plants need water to grow. So how do we get water to our plants on Mars?
How do we recycle water that gets “dirty” or polluted with impurities on Mars given there are no wastewater facilities on Mars?
How do we provide light and warmth to plants in an energy-efficient manner?
How do we control the environment that our plants will grow in?
Will our growing environment require data or information from Earth? Given that there currently exists no communications platform (like the Internet)on Mars , then how do we share data across planets with reasonably low latency?
This list of open-ended questions could extend endlessly in breadth and depth. But the key here is to prioritize your questions. Not all questions are worth spending the effort to develop a good answer to. Remember that the optimized solutions to these questions could very well be a 7 year, PhD pursuit. So balance is key. Yes, you want to diligently think through your solutions but nobody is expecting a fully-baked, perfect solution. That’s far far beyond the scope of the hackathon.
Here are some of my favorite observations from the hackathon:
Multiple thinking frameworks
Physics can be a useful framework for thinking about challenging problems. As long as a proposition doesn’t break a fundamental law of physics, then it’s at least technically feasible on one level — it might be cost-prohibitive, operationally challenging or might require technical breakthroughs to implement. But at least, you know it’s not impossible. It might still be improbable. However, knowing the limits of what’s possible or not can often be a good starting point when evaluating ideas or when stuck.
That said, there are many relevant questions that do not necessarily require a physics inclination to consider:
Ecosystem development — if you’re taking plants to Mars, is it a good idea to also create supportive, “seed ecosystems” on Mars by taking microbial life? What are the tradeoffs here?
Crop choice — what kinds of crops should one ought to grow on Mars? Given criteria such as high calorie return, ease of growing, time till harvest and resource requirements.
Economics — how can one begin to think about reasonable cost curves for growing crops on Mars?
Design — how does one design for reusability, functionality and minimal equipment footprint?
Data science — how can we make data-driven predictions about the best systems and crops to pursue?
Unique perspectives from varied disciplines
It was unique to work with participants from different backgrounds — academics, startup founders, students, software engineers, plant biologists and industrial farmers. This breadth was supported by expertise from an IBM Watson Product Manager, a NASA Plant biology expert as well as Autogrow farming experts.
This ensured that each brainstorming session was fresh and unusual. And as a mentor, it was fun to approach each discussion with an open mind and thoughtful consideration.
Within 30 minutes, I went from assisting a group to estimate the cost of carrying compartments from Earth to Mars, to helping another group retrieve some JSON response from a Watson API in their web app. From physics/economics to software engineering in less than an hour of human context switching.
Enthusiasm and willingness of participants
I was impressed by the raw courage and enthusiasm that participants displayed by exploring a new frontier. Many participants (myself included) had limited knowledge of the intricacies of space or agriculture. But they were all so willing to work diligently to explore, create and learn new things on the way.
The willingness to explore new frontiers is often taken for granted. It’s not unusual to see people retreat to their safe areas for fear of ‘looking stupid’ or their belief that their abilities are fixed. So to see such eagerness to explore especially in college freshmen was a refreshing, encouraging sight.
Winners and runner ups
The winners, Just Food designed a system based on duckweed that the judges deemed could realistically sustain human life on Mars. Two aspects of their design stood out to me —
the intrinsic, high nutrient value of the crop
their prototype of a very thin LED growth bed that provides warmth and light to the crop.
Two teams tied for runner ups. One designed collapsible growth chambers — a great win in terms of space economy and maneuverability . The other runner-up devised a deployable robotic enclosure in which all cultivation and harvesting would occur.
All in all, I enjoyed this event a lot. For the umpteenth time, I noticed the power of expressing technical content in plain English sans buzzwords and sans unnecessary, technical jargon. Especially, when dealing with multidisciplinary teams, the ability to cut across different backgrounds is a timeless, valuable trait.
And on a general note, I reinforced my belief that that I have nothing to lose by putting myself out in challenging, somewhat uncomfortable scenarios. That’s where the real growth happens.