What’s a Hackathon Anyway?

What’s a hackathon, really?  Until fairly recently, I didn’t have much of a clue.  Reading up on one taking place in Oakland, I figured the weekend-long event would be an opportunity for middle school students at Lighthouse’s Creativity Lab to be exposed to programming and software development.  Explaining that to my 6th graders using words like coding and hacking garnered some interest, but what really clinched the deal was this: Every student who attended both days would receive a free Datawind Ubislate tablet.

Affinity Diagramming!

Affinity Diagramming!

That settled it; I couldn’t work fast enough to help ten students get signed up for Level Playing Field Institute’s event: Level the Coding Field 2013.  LPFI’s mission is to eliminate barriers people of color face in STEM fields, and to foster untapped talent from students of underrepresented communities.  That meant that my ten students, all of color, could team up with about 125 other Bay Area middle and high schoolers to take part in what would be, for many, their first Hackathon.

What that boiled down to was this: Asking students to break into groups of five or six, and then, after discussing the broad topics of health, education, and environment, asking teams to isolate problems faced in these areas.  Teams were introduced to d.school’s Design Thinking Process, and with help from facilitators, students brainstormed, conducted affinity diagramming (a fancy way of describing the use of Post-its for concept development), and defined potential users and their needs.  All of these steps, and more, were done in order to refine students’ understanding of the problems being discussed, and through insightful consideration, to help teams decide on a focus for the app-based solution they needed to design over the weekend.

Did I forget to mention that students also needed to learn how to develop apps using either myBalsamiq Mockup or Appery.io?  All of that over the course of two days.  For many students, they’d never even heard of either of those two programs; I know I hadn’t.  Sure, we could all download apps easily enough, but could my students survive this crash course in app development successfully, in order to be producers of content, rather than merely consumers?  Of course they could!

Presenting Individual Solutions

Presenting Individual Solutions

One of our teams, The A Team, concentrated their efforts on the unhealthy problem of cigarettes.  They utilized the Design Thinking Process to discuss a variation of tools, some intended for smokers and others for nonsmokers.  After learning to use Mockup, they decided to collaborate on an app that would allow nonsmokers to avoid areas where smokers congregated, an issue they all said they faced in their community.  Users could mark these places as hotspots on a map, and that interactive map would provide directions to reroute their walks home from school or elsewhere, thereby helping nonsmoking users avoid the inhalation of smoke.

The Bay, the second Lighthouse team, tackled the problem of police response times.  Again, every student mentioned that this was an issue they had all faced in their lives, but not from the perspective of the police offers.  Luckily, Police Headquarters was only a few blocks from the venue so the team decided to ask officers about the issue.  Through this empathetic interview process, they learned something about the complicated issue of responding to so many 911 calls with an understaffed force.  That gave students their focus: They decided to come up with a program to help police officers search through and locate penal codes faster, thereby making it easier for them to respond to 911 calls, and alleviating the problem of slow police response times.

Prepping For The App Demo

Prepping For The App Demo

Only seven of about twenty-five teams were chosen as finalists, which included The Bay.  One by one, all of these groups presented their development processes and their apps to the entire Hackathon community, and to a panel of judges who would decide which two groups took home cash prizes of $2,500 each.  I watched my students present and field questions from the judges, and when they didn’t win, I was heartbroken to see these eager eleven-year-olds break into tears, unable to deal with the loss in the moment.  When I was their age, $500 would have been a whopping and unimaginable sum of money, so I can understand their disappointment.

In the end though, students from both my groups stomached the sense of loss that comes along with healthy competition.  Walking out of the event with a new Ubislate tablet under their arms, they all left with a desire to learn more about programming, and that left me thinking that everyone who took part in the Hackathon was a winner, regardless of who was heading home with a fattened wallet.  Next time, these kids will be ready, cause I know they’re excited to code and to hack their butts off, especially now that the power’s in their very own fingers.

Finalists Waiting To Hear From Judges

Finalists Waiting To Hear From Judges

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About John Howard

JT taught Making in the Creativity Lab’s after-school program during the first year of this program (2013-14). He is currently studying creative writing at the Indiana University.