Students are coming out of school expected to solve 21st-century problems and enter into occupations that haven't even been imagined yet. Schooling is not designed in this manner, so we wanted to give students an opportunity to solve problems in authentic contexts, using 21st-century skills and collaboration techniques. We wanted to break down walls between classrooms and have students use interdisciplinary skills to solve problems with teams of their peers, with mentors, and with industry professionals.
Why a Hackathon?
Hackathons have become a new way of doing business, creating products, advancing healthcare, and innovation. The energy is high, and so are the stakes. Can you turn an idea into a product over the course of a weekend? But let's move beyond that. Let's look at the teaching and learning within a hackathon. Hackathons are really the ultimate classroom. That is why Joe Romano and I (Brandon Zoras) thought it would be great to have a youth-focus hackathon across our school district.
Hackathons usually take place over a set time frame such as a weekend, where different people with different skills and abilities work together to propose a solution to a problem. The solutions can be code based, wearable technology, analog, or any type of product imaginable.
It is within hackathons that students are utilizing their skills and knowledge to solve problems. It's project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and STEM all wrapped up into one activity! It's about design thinking and truly a 21st-century learning opportunity. Students are working collaboratively within mixed-ability groups to examine problems and come up with solutions.
The winning team blew away the judges with an app called Switch On. The pitch wasn't just about the coding but about how well they presented, the practicality of the idea, and the creativity demonstrated. With many students missing the school announcements in the morning, this app pushed out school announcements to students, teachers, and parents. Many felt that the announcements were too fast for ESL students, so translators were build in for that population. (Our district has 115 languages (PDF) spoken by students at home. . . yes, 115!)
Thanks to Joe Wilson, Senior EdTech Strategist at MaRS, our hackathon was built around a key component of integrated teams. He stressed that for any startup to be great, it needs to have a balanced team that can work together and employ a wide range of skills and experiences. The problem, though, is that most high schools compartmentalize their subjects physically by walls and floors -- and also by types of students. As educators, we seem to encourage the mindset that what students learn in chemistry class stays there and isn't brought into art or business class, and vice versa. At least at the university level, we see programs changing as specializations give way to cross-department programs, because it's becoming clear that we can't know just one skill or subject area any more. So within a hackathon, a strong team stems from including the hacker, the hustler, and the designer:
We all know those students who love to code, tinker, and make! The hacker is essential to overcoming obstacles and thinking outside the box. They also have to bring the idea to life through technology.
So you got the product, but does it sell itself? The hustler makes sure that it gets into the hands of the customer. They are interviewing customers, coming up with a business model, and launching that social media campaign.
The designer makes sure that it's packaged just right, has the aesthetic wow factor, and comes in the right colors. Is the logo catchy? Does the interface work? What's the UI/UX for the apps?
Benefits For Students
A huge learning factor is failure. Often, school protects students from failure, and students always manage to mix A with B to get C. The hackathon, though, enables a support system where, once an obstacle or failure throws a wrench in students' plans, they work as a team to get around it. This is still unique at the high school level as it often doesn't happen in until the post-secondary, masters, or PhD level when researching a novel problem means that there's no recipe or lab manual about what you should do or expect.
Resources: The Hackathon Kit
Mozilla and Hive Toronto supported our initiative and had us build an open-source hackathon kit that could give districts, families, and classrooms a way to get started doing their own hackathons. The hackathon playbook is loaded with resources, printouts, checklists, and student examples that allow educators to successfully run their own event. Here are just a few resources: