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New student group focuses on hacking, a.k.a. creative repurposing

Graduate students in computer science Ben Schulz (right or left) and Ian Graves (right or left) started a new “hacker” organization this month at Mizzou. The group hopes to offer an educational outlet for those interested in customizing and combining already existing computer programs.

When most people think of a hacker, they don’t imagine a school-sponsored club that meets once a week, much less a school funded organization. They generally imagine an unknown person who steals private information behind the screen. But for a new MU group, hacking means a constructive way to learn about repurposing systems for new means. The term “hacking” is not just used for those who branch computer security by circumvention, it also refers to those who customize programs and create combinations of electronic equipment to make new uses. And Ben Schulz, graduate in computer science, wants formalize this group at MU.

Schulz attended the Hackers on Planet Earth conference – with speakers, discussions and workshops — in New York City in July. The learning atmosphere made an impression on him. He wanted the open learning forum of hacker ideas to continue to be accessible, even after the conference ended.

There are other hacker groups in the Missouri area — two in Kansas City and one in Rolla — but none in Columbia.

“I really wanted to know why we don’t have something like this in Columbia with such a large student population,” Schulz said.

He started talking to friends at MU when he returned, and realized a lot of people felt the same way. So Schulz and classmate Ian Graves, graduate in computer science, decided to start an MU hacker organization.

The organization’s goal is to offer students the opportunity to experiment with hacker projects they may be interested in, as well as propose specific ideas.  Schulz and Graves want to fabricate a custom malicious hardware system and have members work to detect it. An example of this is an assembly of odds and ends into something unexpectedly useful. Schulz gave the example of obtaining an old automotive alternator from a junkyard, hooking it up to bicycle pedals and rigging the whole thing up inside of an old sofa in order to produce a pedal-powered cell-phone charger.

They also want to use Arduino, a hardware system “tinkering kit”, to introduce materials and new technology ideas.

Arduino has been used to control garden watering systems, steam engines, bikes and signs, as well as create robots.

The new group is currently working with ORG to receive official status as an MU organization. Schulz says they hope to have meetings started by the end of September. Anyone can join the organization.

“We want to empower people to say ‘this is something I am curious about’ and learn more about it hands-on,” Schulz said.

Bill Harrison, assistant professor in the computer science department, will be the advisor for the group. For more information contact Schulz atbjs428@mail.missouri.edu.