WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Catholic University of America’s Novak Symposium, now in its second year, is a day filled with the sharing of thought provoking ideas.

To honor the memory of Michael Novak, an American Catholic political scholar best known for his demonstrations that democratic capitalism and Catholic social teaching are compatible, Catholic scholars from think tanks and educational institutions come from all over to deliver speeches on current social issues and the solutions they have discovered through their work.


But as part of the symposium this year, cures for social ills were developed on-site.

The 2019 symposium marked the inaugural year of the “social justice hackathon,” an event where Catholic University students spent a two-and-a-half-hour lightning session during the afternoon of March 19 hammering out proposals to solve the world’s most pressing public conundrums.

“Hackathon” is a term typically used to refer to a multiday contest when teams of computer coders gather and compete to craft new programs.

So what are the rules for the hackathon’s social justice counterpart?

Elizabeth C. Shaw was the organizer of the game. She is assistant director of special academic programs at the university’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship in the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business. She explained to Catholic News Service that the students would be broken into teams, and each team would be assigned a different issue to begin attacking.

According to her, all competing students “had to select (their) top three problem areas” from a longer list, and from those short lists came the topics used for the competition. This year, the issues for the solving were cross-cultural tensions, underperforming schools, homelessness and inadequate health care services.


The students’ proposals were judged by clarity of plan, understanding of challenges and possible setbacks, creativity, realistic means and ends, and their application of Novak’s vision of social justice and Catholic social teaching to the problem.

Novak’s scholarship eschewed unrealistic “utopian” solutions and instead sought ways to use common entrepreneurship and business to better the lives of people. In preparation for the hackathon, competing students were required to read two of his works.

Shaw remarked that the grafting of the hackathon concept onto social science obviously made for a lot of similarities between the two kinds of events, saying she “(stole) the term” from computer science and that both sorts of contests force a group to “solve a problem.”

But she knew its introduction to a social science crowd would have interesting effects on the people in attendance as well as rekindling a lifelong goal of Novak’s.

“Michael loved people … and students,” Shaw related, explaining that this competition style was “carrying on that legacy” by allowing students to come up with ideas in an “educational setting.” Novak in addition to his scholarship was an esteemed professor at Harvard, Stanford and Catholic University, among others.

Additionally, Shaw said that there are usually “a lot of think-tankers” at the symposium and this event was unique because “we are targeting students,” a demographic that Novak was always pleased to work with.

Later in the afternoon, the winners were announced.


The victorious team included Catholic University undergraduates Matt Chavira, Sean O’Grady and Charles Lyden, who tackled the issue of underperforming schools. Their solution: instituting stricter rules on management of public school funds, downplaying common core curricula and “teaching to” standardized tests, and allowing more specialization toward individual kids’ needs.

The three boys all voiced their passion for the issue. “I want children to have a great education no matter what ZIP code they live in,” said Chavira, who remembers the struggle to find quality education in his native Arizona. O’Grady added that education was “very important” to him: “Going to public school I always look for ways for the education system to change.”

Shaw hopes that the hackathon model will be used by other social science programs as an activity, telling CNS that “trying to develop a mental agility for problem solving on the spot” is “certainly something that should be modeled” by liberal arts programs at other universities.