HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

Solving real-life problems and learning from industry – UOW STEM Hackathon


Guest Post by Terence Vu

Introduction: Careers Central recently co-ordinated the inaugural UOW STEM Hackathon as part of the UOW STEM Careers Expo in early August.  Here Terence Vu, a PhD researcher in the Faculty of Engineering & Information Sciences, reflects on his participation, what he learned and how he developed his skills. 

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels (license)

The STEM Career Expo has been traditionally received by researchers like myself with much enthusiasm – a once-a-year event for students to meet up with representatives from various organizations from a wide range of industries and sectors. To know more about the companies and what to expect from the job –directly from the staff– is a rare opportunity. For the first time this year, I found another career learning opportunity to be excited about: the UOW STEM Hackathon.

Teams of UOW students came to UOW STEM Hackathon for a chance to solve real-life business problems. Although our team comprised of 5 friends from the same cohort, students could also register as individuals and were allocated a team. Teams had a mix of participants from PhD to Bachelor and from various discipline areas.  Based on their preference during registration, each team was assigned to solve a business case of one among the 4 participating organisations:  FinoComp (IT/Maths), JACOBS (Engineering), Cardno NSW/ACT Pty Ltd (Engineering) and FDM Group (Consulting). EIS Career Consultant, Cara Dobinson, introduced the teams to their respective company before leaving the stage for representatives from each company to explain its business and present a business challenge case.  Thanks to this method, all students had a chance to listen to and appreciate the business problems of other companies apart from their selected organisations.

Comprising of Mechanical and Geotechnical engineering students, our team was to work with Cardno. The company was looking for ideas regarding the development ofa Biophilic City, preferably a holistic solution that takes into account 6 pillars of sustainability: Bio-Diversity, Climate Change, Bio Sequestration, Cooler City, Urban Farming, and Zero Waste. Coming from a concreated city plagued with pollution and lack of green spaces, I found this topic particularly relevant and exciting, which offers lots of room for creativity and critical thinking.

‘Geo Mech’ team during brainstorming, (from left to right) Ha Le, Minh Truong, Terence Vu, Quang Phan and Tri Vo (supplied)

Teamwork, creativity and time management 

For the next 3hrs, each team found their own corner to work on the given business problem. Our team, Geo Mech, decided to station outdoors for more space and fresh air. This turned out to be beneficial during a brainstorming session as we needed a large space and an undisturbed environment for the Carousel Brainstorming technique. In this approach, 6 separate papers – each labelled with an aspect of Biophilic City – were spread out on a big table, from then all members walked around, brainstormed and noted down their ideas on the respective paper. The brainstorming session ended with a grand review of ideas and a group discussion. I was amazed to listen to many creative ideas from other team members – some as radical as building an entire city of the future, especially when I have known them as very down to earth engineering students. It was extremely fruitful that all of us had an opportunity to present and evaluate our solutions, receive constructive feedback and add-in ideas from other members. Representatives from all the companies were available to help teams should any questions arise. Time flew quickly, our team barely finished the slides and presentation speech within the 3 hours. Considering myself a perfectionist and procrastinator, I found the pressure of time in UOW STEM Hackathon a good exercise for time management and work completion, besides team collaboration.

The Hackathon climaxed with the showcase of solutions from each team. As teams took turns to present their solutions within 3 minutes, I could learn from other students while appreciating the diversity of ideas and styles across teams despite aiming to address the same problem. Thanks to the loosely defined problem, we had the freedom to think out of the box and be creative with our solutions. Instead of developing isolated parks inside a city, our team’s vision was to build a city within a mega park – which allows connected green spaces and continuity of biological networks.

The STEM Hackathon puts students in the spotlight and encourages them to act promptly. I found a boost in confidence thanks to the attentive and encouraging audience, and proved to myself I could be the initiator of ideas, present on stage, and manage the time limit.

The Hackathon ended with a networking session among students and company representatives. All participants went home with a full stomach, a confident heart and a fresh creative mind ready for exciting future challenges.

Terence Vu is a current PhD candidate in the area of Artificial Intelligent (AI) and Robotics at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences. Under the supervision of A/Prof. Zengxi (Stephen) Pan and A/Prof. Stephen van Duin, Terence employs soft computing techniques to develop an automated system to plan the sequence and movement of parts during assembling. Aspiring to be an AI engineer, Terence has completed career development modules including Critical and Creative thinking, Leadership and Communication by the Australian Technology Network, Grow your Career training series supported by the Rail Manufacturing CRC, and recently CRLH900 Career Ready Learning for Higher Degree Researchers by the UOW Careers Central.


Thanks Terence – it sounds like a wonderful experience!

Careers Central facilitates a range of Work Integrated Learning opportunities (WIL), such as the Univative program, where UOW students act as consultants to local organisations to solve a real business challenge over a 4 week period in the Winter and Summer breaks.  Read about a PhD students Univative experience here. 

You can find out about other opportunities to meet industry representatives and employers here.

Have you participated in a Hackathon or similar business challenge?

Share details of your experience or other similar opportunities where HDR students can get involved in the comments below.

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