Beyond Your Basic Hackathon

#BeyondHacks Teams

Students preparing for final presentations

At first glance, the Beyond Hacks event this past weekend at Facebook looks like your typical hackathon. Groups of young hackers chatting and plugging away on projects surrounded by energizing music and pizza. (Lots of pizza.) However, when you take a look behind the scenes, you quickly realize it was a rather unique gathering. The entire event was organized by a group of high-schoolers from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy as part of their participation in the BeyondZ Program.

BeyondZ, which sprouted from the social innovation efforts of Teach For America, was founded by Aimee Eubanks Davis and is currently piloting programs in Washington DC, New York, LA and the Bay Area. Eubanks Davis shared that her passion for this work comes from a deep motivation to,

“ensure our nation’s next set of leaders can emerge from anywhere.”

She went on to describe the vision behind their programs is to create a “suite of opportunities that a young person needs, beyond traditional academics, to take some of the pressure off of schools to do it all.”

FB Tour

Taking a break to tour the FB campus

Building more than Apps

The Bay Area program, lead by Miki Heller, focuses on in-depth leadership and coding curriculum. The students develop leadership skills and build their networks through learning how to code their own website, connecting with popular tech companies, and creating a student community that will hear from experts in the industry from across the country.

Organizing the hackathon was the perfect way to combine their new-found passion for coding with developing those leadership and communication skills. When brainstorming possible locations, one of the organizers, Jurgen Arvayo, felt the answer was right in their backyard. “We should do it at Facebook,” suggested Arvayo, who was inspired by his participation in the Facebook Academy program the previous summer.

Under guidance from Heller, as well as Leah Weiser and Aly Mejia, two Beyond Z volunteers from Stanford, the student organizers, Cristian Jiminez, Paulino Lopez and Carlos Garcia, secured the space, contacted local vendors to donate the food and recruited over 50 attendees.

Trio from Buchanan High School, Fresno

Trio from Buchanan High School, Fresno

Building Authentic Experiences

I was especially impressed by a trio who made the trek all the way from Fresno. Johnny Tiscareno, Rahul Bekal, and Rushil Mehra won honorable mention for building a snapchat-like website that allows you to take a photo and share it instantly even if you don’t have a smartphone. They had a sense of what to expect having made the similar drive to attend CodeDay in SF this past May.”We don’t have things like this back home. This event has been better since the group is smaller and we actually get more time with the mentors,” shared Mehra. Another female participant echoed similar feelings, saying that,

“the best part of these events is getting into small groups and working on something over a sustained period of time. The fact that we are at Facebook is just a bonus.”

A promising sentiment for schools and libraries that are trying to create a coding culture.

The projects were designed around real-world challenges. The winning team built a fully functioning app that lets you take a photo of a receipt, categorize it, and email it to someone for reimbursement purposes, while second place created a Chrome extension to enhance functionality for School Loop, a website that allows students to track their grades.

The Next Rev

Moving beyond the hackathon, most (but not all) of the EPAPA students will spend their summer honing their javascript skills through a free summer coding program, CodeCamp. In designing the vision for Embark Labs I am constantly thinking about how we can create authentic experiences for students to learn relevant tech skills beyond just a super-long Saturday here and there. Opportunities for students to not only participate, but lead as well, and weekend events like this illustrate how engaging this can be for students.

These experiences are essential because as Eubanks Davis captures so simply, “education as we know it is not enough.”
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The BeyondZ team would like to express special appreciation to Facebook for their generosity in hosting the event, the engineers who volunteered their time (particularly Brian Rosenthal) and for donating four Macbook Pros as the prizes for the winning team.

 

Hacking the Future

HSHacks- Paypal

Getting ready for the final round of judging

Inside the High School Hackathon Scene 

My ongoing exploration of coding opportunities for kids led me to the HighSchoolHacks event this past weekend at PayPal HQ.  I felt this invigorating energy as soon as I walked in and to some it probably represented the ideal high school of the future. Beyond the space itself, the organizers clearly have a strong grasp of how setting the right tone and expectations is an important aspect of building a healthy hacker community.

Having supported #HackLynbrook, a student-organized hackathon at a local high school, I had a general sense of what to expect, however, this event blew me away.  According to HSHacks Founder, Shrav Mehta, there were over 1000 students present throughout the course of the weekend, with 550 staying overnight and 150 teams presenting their projects. (You can read about some of the specific hacks in this post from VentureBeat.) Between the impressive list of sponsors and judges (including usual suspects Pearson and Amplify) there was no shortage of support for this event.

One of the judges captured the essence of the event perfectly, telling the room full of students that “you’re challenging  teachers to do more and I’m taking that message back to them.” As schools explore how best to integrate computer science into their curriculum, it is essential that they consider the role of space and culture on teaching kids to code. However, it was clear that as K12 schools struggle with introducing authentic CS learning opportunities, many students are already figuring it out themselves.

NCLB: No Coder Left Behind

Witnessing the energy and enthusiasm these students put into their projects over the course of the weekend was inspiring, but the lack of diversity in the room illustrates how efforts like this often perpetuate the digital divide.  The lack of girls present was stark, and not surprisingly the male attendees were predominantly Indian and Asian. This reality makes programs that help bring under-represented students into the hacker community, like GirlsWhoCode, TechBridge and CodeNow, even more important.

IMAG0327

Wendy, sharing their app Pen, which turns any web page into a shared document

I tracked down a few female participants, including Michelle Yeung, who started the GirlsWhoCode chapter at Lowell High School in SF and recruited fellow members to join her for this event.  Wendy (pictured above), who made the trek all the way up from Irvine, was one of the only girls to make it to the final round.

The team with the highest energy was definitely the trio from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, who also took  the opportunity to promote CodeCamp, a free summer camp and after-school program they run to teach kids to code.  The impact of these authentic hacker experiences, especially for new coders, is profound. Shadi Barhoumi, one of the CodeCamp instructors shared that “our kids were so focused and excited to code today after the hackathon, because they finally understand why coding is cool and useful and fun.”

It was amazing to see the level of student engagement and learn how attendees keep that energy flowing beyond the weekend. Resources like Hackers Under 20 and StudentRND are just a couple that support young hackers. While education policy wonks debate the best way to teach kids to code and if CS should take the place of a foreign language, many students are ready to hack their future and are clearly not going to wait for schools to figure it out.