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’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  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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Wall Climbing Whatsits


Wall Climbing Whatsits

One of the Creativity Lab’s top priorities is to get our community comfortable with the idea of making things, and perhaps more importantly, to learn to be persistent when things get tough and to learn from mistakes made along the way, whatever the project.

Take for example the challenges 2nd graders have faced trying to get busy making our Wall Climbing Whatsits. Students were shown a model made from the inner cardboard of a toilet paper roll, snipped pieces of straw and two equal measures of string, a popsicle stick, and some hollow (and straw-like) coffee stirrers.

If you’re familiar with Arvind Gupta’s Toys from Trash website, you might recognize this trashier rendition of his “Climbing Cat” project, and you may even know that you can get the cardboard cylinder to climb by pulling outward on the handles at the end of each string.  Students weren’t given this information.  Instead of knowing what the contraption was or what it could do, they broke up into design teams: each group took some time to exam the model, to discuss the materials and tools they might need to make it, and to make speculative inferences on what, if anything, the contraption could do.

Students wondered if it was a twirling toy or an elevator or perhaps, if it could somehow fly; I was delighted that some of their inferences were so close to being bulls-eyes, and they were amazed when they saw the thing in action.  They got to work, and early on, a few of them came to realize what they had initially failed to see: that the design is in the details; specifically, that holes made through the cardboard cylinder need to have a narrow diameter so that coffee stirrers won’t slip out.  Another realization had to do with the placement of those holes-how the distance between holes differs between the top and bottom sides of the Whatsit.


Little Hands Hard at Work

2nd graders had a really hard time deciding where to place and how to make their holes the right size.  It was also challenging to get the stirrers to stay in place, and perhaps hardest of all, was the task of threading the string through the stirrers once they were finally secure in the cardboard.  Watching them struggling through the work, I realized there was a design flaw that could be altered to make the project more feasible for their small hands, and for the level of fine motor skills they had.

When they came in the following week, they had two models to exam. The first was the previous model, and the second was the newer, altered one.  It was their job to exam each, to discuss differences between the two with their design teams, and to use these discussions to ascertain what had changed in the newer model, and how those alterations might benefit the making process for their own Wall Climbing Whatsits.  They quickly realized that stirrers had been ditched in favor of straws, and it didn’t take long for someone to figure out that a hole puncher (conveniently placed out on the supply and tool table) makes perfect sized holes for straws to fit through.  When it came time to thread the string, the task was one that they could successfully manage.


Time For Modifications

Even with these design improvements, there was a lot of frustration around the room.  Students wanted to give up, but I continued to urge them on, letting them know how their mistakes were part of the learning process. There were a couple of students that did throw in the towel, but many others struggled through and persisted. All in all, though, difficult as it was, the project is another step in getting students familiar with the ideas of failing forward and the tenacity needed to turn hard fun into a trashy toy model that gets a toilet paper roll to climb, climb, climb.

Time to figure out what we’ll be pulling out of the trash next!

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Kindergarten Sews

Sewing gives our students so many possibilities to create.  This quarter, our Kindergarteners have been learning the basics of sewing using burlap, yarn, and a big plastic needle.


Our Kindergarten teachers suggested sewing as the focus for the second quarter because they thought it would be an appropriate challenge for five year-olds and would help them with their fine motor skills.  After the first few weeks I heard how hard it was for students to thread their own needles, not go around the side of the cloth, and pre-plan a work of embroidery.  K_Sewing1

When I went to observe on Friday, I was amazed to see students overcoming all of these obstacles; they were still struggling, but they were cutting the frayed end of the yarn, licking it (which they thought was hilarious), and then squeezing it to get it through.  They were also remembering to sew back into the same side the yarn last came out.  They were starting to plan their designs as well; drawing what they wanted to make on the burlap before beginning to stitch.  K_Sewing4

What have we learned so far?  Early on, students were using embroidery hoops, but we quickly learned that the hoops just got in the way.  They’ve had a much easier time since they started using the fabric on its own.  Teachers also modeled the skills that were proving challenging for students, talking them through the important pieces.

Thanks to our Kindergarten teachers for your amazing perseverance and willingness to try new things in your classes.  I especially appreciate that you share your lessons learned – they are quite helpful!  Next up, we are hoping to practice empathy by having students interview each other about what they would like, and then designing and making a piece of sewn art for their classmate.

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Families Scribble, Tape, and Electrify

Making9-30 246Families engaged in creative play together – an outcome we want to build as we integrate making into our school’s practices.  Recently our fourth grade teachers invited their students and families to engage in creating scribbling machines, circuit boards, and a little bit of tapigami.

Making9-30 259Making9-30 271Scribbling machines are fun – they instantly engage people to want to design and re-design, to tinker, to play.  Families were  invited to take a few materials (a container, a battery, a motor, a piece of hot glue, some tape, and a few markers) and try to make the machine work.  Within minutes of starting there were a few scribbling machines drawing on tables.

While the kids jumped right in, there were some parents who had to be encouraged.  They were more comfortable watching their children, and helping when necessary, but after some encouragement started to try their own ideas.  Soon everyone had a machine working and was watching the varied designs they made.

But getting them working was only the beginning.  As students and parents started to watch them draw, questions popped into their heads — “How can I get it to…?”  “What would happen if I …?” They were off to do more tinkering.  Before long we had run out of drawing space on the tables and threw together a larger drawing space on the floor.

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There was one family in particular that intrigued me.  I have observed this activity in multiple settings, but the five people at this table were consistently coming up with different ways to use the materials and different designs then I had ever seen before.  It was fun to watch they way they played with the machines to develop something new; if there’s an engineering gene, it’s definitely found in this family!Making9-30 235

After lunch we opened up the circuit blocks exploration table and broke out even more tape for tapigami.  The 4th graders had studied circuits the year before and were excited to get to play with the open ended circuit boards.  These materials have been used in our curriculum in many different grades, from 3rd-12th.  What makes them so versatile is the open ended nature of the activity.  Using the circuit boards, the 4th graders were able to apply what they had learned the previous year and take it to a whole new level of complexity.  In addition, the students are working with tapigami in their class and some were eager to show their parents this new form of expression.

Making9-30 252

The response was overwhelmingly positive.  In particular, comments indicated that they enjoyed experimenting together, and that they had fun.  Mission accomplished.

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Building and Space Design

photo-3 copyOur middle school students have teamed up with Hamilton + Aitken Architects to collaborate on a five-week-long project that has two major goals: first and foremost, we want to introduce our young designers to the concepts and practices that make up building and space design; secondly, students are working to generate ideas and input for the renovation of the Creativity Lab here at Lighthouse Community Charter School.

Mentors from the Bay Area architectural firm have been visiting after school classes with design challenges that task students to think about and reconsider the way they understand space.  Specifically, our design teams have considered how space is used here in the Creativity Lab, and they are continuously thinking about and discussing strategies for improving the usage of that space with each subsequent challenge.

On the fourth week, prior to beginning models for their final proposals, students toured the Creativity Lab with one mentor roleplaying the part of an elderly woman, and with a 6th grader roleplaying the part of a kindergarten student.  They interviewed both as potential users of the Creativity Lab, and their answers offered our student designers insight into the ways in which age, body-size, and even literacy, may have an effect on how a user engages with a particular space or building.

Our students went on to discuss and to brainstorm solutions for one of thephoto-3 biggest challenges we face here in the Creativity Lab: As a making space for students that range from grades K-12, we need solutions that can serve big bodies as well as small. When they broke up into design groups to map out how the Creativity Lab might be redesigned, students continued to talk about ways younger students might find it difficult to work at tables and chairs designed for older people.  More than one group started to hash out plans for adjustable furniture, trying to conceptualize how that might be incorporated into the floor plans they were mapping out.  Another discussion piece was the use of pictures: how images might help younger makers, still learning to read, to recognize where materials and tools are stored around the Creativity Lab.

We’re still under construction here at the Creativity Lab, but with the help of our middle school design teams, we’re pretty certain things can only get better from here on in.  Now all we need to figure out is where the couch will go for the Chill Zone that students have unanimously agreed is a top priority!



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Kindergarten Sculpts with Sand

Continuing their work with sand, kindergarteners were given the opportunity to work with a mixture of sand, water, and corn starch – which will harden and keep its form over time. In order to make the mixture, you have to heat it to activate the properties of the cornstarch.

Sand Construction 010

They were also given a variety of materials to add to their sculptures.  Many of the materials were reused — found at the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse.

Sand Construction 023And then they were set free to create their own sculptures.

Sand Construction 044

And then you have 48 wonderful, creative, sandy sculptures!

Sand Construction 062

Sand Construction 050

Sand Construction 061In order to make the mixture, mix two parts sand, one part cornstarch, and one part cold water.  Mix the ingredients together while cold and then heat until thickened.  When it is ready, the white water will have disappeared (as in the photo at the top of the post – and I cooked it for a few minutes after that).  The image below shows what the mixture looks like before it is cooked.

Sand Construction 002

To make enough for a class of 24 students, I mixed a total of 12 cups of sand, 6 cups of water, and 6 cups of corn starch together.  In order to make it easier to stir, I recommend splitting the recipe into two batches.

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Topographical Tapigami

“Getting smarter takes work, just like getting stronger physically or becoming a better ball player does.  Sometimes it even hurts!  But when you feel your brain becoming smarter, all the hard work is worth it!” (Independent School Magazine)

Our 4th graders recently started building a topographical map of California using tapigami.  They were each given a 1’x1′ floor tile with one piece of a (large) topographical map of California glued on top.   Each pair of students is building the topography of their region using tapigami and a elevation key and at the end, they will take all their squares and assemble them, like a puzzle, revealing a twelve foot long three dimensional map of the state.

When I arrived to help in Heather’s class I found the students reading the quote at the top of the post.  The growth mindset to intelligence and ability is at the core of why we Make at Lighthouse.  Through Making, our students are learning to be persistent and learning that through this persistence, they are capable of things they never thought they would be able to do.

Making9-13 170

How does this relate to tapigami?  Well it is pretty difficult for many people (of all ages) to learn to do, it takes many trials to learn, and it takes quite a bit of patience.  Tape, by its very nature, is a sticky mess and in the hands of a tapigami novice often results in your creation turning into a misshapen blob, nothing like the rolling hills and mountains of our state.  In addition, although making a 1’x1′ tile may not seem to be trying, if each tapigami mountain were just one inch square (they are generally smaller) it would take 144 to cover the entire tile.  I don’t know what you remember about being in 4th grade, but I know that doing anything 144 times is quite extensive.

So, how did they do?  Well, we started by making tapigami tubes, although some of us hit a hitch when we started trying to twist the tape instead of roll it.  Then we rolled our tubes into cones and placed them on the tiles to show the heights of the Bay Area hills, the Sierras, and of course our highest peak Mount Whitney.  Generally with a good dose of adult coaching most students were able to make their first tapigami mountains after a few trials.  And the students were persistent – they kept trying and trying, even when it was clear they wanted to give up.  Ever since the day we started, the 4th grade teachers report that their students are eager to return to tapigami!Making9-13 187

The initial inspiration for this project was an incredible tapigami city at the 2013 Bay Area Makers Faire.  You can learn to make your own tapigami structures by purchasing a book from the artist Danny Scheible at!

Quote from:

“Independent School Magazine.” You Can Grow Your Intellegence. National Association of Independent Schools, 2008. Web. 8 Oct 2013. <>

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Tinkering with Circuits

They started with four piles – power sources, simple loads, switches, and complex loads – and by the time their hour of tinkering had passed, our students were expertly connecting multiple circuit elements together, drawing circuit diagrams, and investigating how to make more complicated circuit elements like 7 segment LEDs and potentiometers work.  And they were excited!

Persistence is a core part of what it means for students to become makers and circuit blocks is a persistence builder.  All of the students run into circuits they don’t quite know what to do with.  For some it is using a switch in a new situation without any guidance.  But most  struggled with how to use a potentiometer – you see this is the first time they have encountered an electrical device that has three connections.  And so they stumble through it generally using trial and error until they figure it out for themselves and then, hopefully, start to figure out how they can use this new device the next time they are confronted with it.Making9-13 130

But they do it themselves – and that is the magic.  They learn to persist, build, and they learn about electricity and how it works.  We all have to build our own understandings and giving students the chance to explore invests them in understanding these ideas at a deeper level than if they were just given a task to complete.

This activity was brought to us through a collaboration with the Exploratorium Tinkering Studio as part of their vision to bring activities they use on the floor of the museum to classrooms in schools.  Through this partnership we have been able to use circuit boards in 3rd, 7th, 9th, and 12th grades – and learn quite a bit about how different ages engage with and learn from an open ended hands-on activity.  They will continue to bring new activities to Lighthouse in the coming months – and we look forward to sharing them with you!

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Kindergarten Starts with Sand

Making9-13 089Our plan for Kindergarten this year is to explore different media each quarter, giving them an opportunity to experience and experiment with a variety of materials.  The new group of five-year-olds entering school have been starting with sand and water.

We started with dry sand.  It didn’t take long to discover that it doesn’t stick together very well.  After pairing it with water they started to build and create. Some students focused their attention on free-form building; others packed containers with wet sand and dumped it out into a shape.  Others started experimenting with how to cut masses of sand.  Anyone who built sand castles as a child remembers the fun and frustration of trying to create a vision with such a temperamental medium.

Kindergartener playing with sand

As a final project for this unit, the students will be making sand sculptures with sand and glue, giving their structures a little more permanency.

One thing we quickly learned about sand and water is that you don’t want wet sand sitting around for long in the classroom — it gets pretty smelly!

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