George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Two young women and man sitting together working on laptops

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.

Our Event

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!)

Lessons Learned

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:

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Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I love this innovative approach to cross-disciplinary learning. Can you share the rough cost involved? The time commitment? How many chaperones/volunteers were needed?

Brandon Zoras's picture
Brandon Zoras
Science Teacher in Toronto, Canada

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the comment. In terms of costs, it was free for everyone to attend and Joseph and I did this voluntary. The sponsors gave in kind sponsorship so space, prizes, equipment, etc. so it ended up everything broke even in terms of budget. The one thing we had a sponsor for was for the food for all the kids, coders, etc. so that was a bit of a cost. Time, since it was our first one both Joseph Romano, a fellow teacher and Joseph Wilson from MaRS started about 6 months prior to plan, at maybe 5 hours a week prep and getting closer to the last couple weeks about 20 hours a week. It was a lot of work as we are both full time teachers so this was all on our own time at night and on weekends. We had 1 chaperone per team as they came from the same school and we had about 10 volunteers for sign in and documenting and about 50 mentor volunteers who were from Humber College, a local college and also industry.

We did a second one in a school without many sponsorship and the only 2 costs there were food for the kids and that was about $1000 and then each school had to send a teacher, which required the school to get a supply teacher for the day. Here is some pics of our second in school version which was at a family of schools level, so about 8-10 high schools in the neighbourhood, where the first event was 20 schools spread out across our whole district/board.


Kendra Grant's picture
Kendra Grant
Learner, Teacher, Parent, Entrepreneur, Volunteer, SOOC Designer. UDL informs practice, process & product. It's all about Transformative Learning.

Brilliant work! It embodies so much of what we need to do in schools. Thanks for sharing the resources as well. You should definitely present this at SXSWEdu and/or ISTE. For US educators they could easily connect the learning to the ISTE Standards (Tech) and Common Core
I volunteer at MaRS as an EdTech advisor. Sorry I missed it! Will you be doing another one this year? I'm just started working with Vizwik (also at MaRS). I definitely see some connections. Would love to discuss further.

Brandon Zoras's picture
Brandon Zoras
Science Teacher in Toronto, Canada

Hi Kendra! Thanks for commenting! We want to get as many teachers and districts trying it, that is why Mozilla/Hive had us do the playbook kit so others could do it free and open source. I would love to go to ISTE and SXSW one day! I have been at ECOO and Connect and the EdTech Team GAFE summits so far and liked those. I am a volunteer as well with MaRS when they need the teacher feedback. Krista from MaRS just emailed me about Vizwik and would love to connect! As for another hackathon we are working on some plans now.

Kendra Grant's picture
Kendra Grant
Learner, Teacher, Parent, Entrepreneur, Volunteer, SOOC Designer. UDL informs practice, process & product. It's all about Transformative Learning.

Great! I was just on a call with morning with Krista. I'll talk with her and see what we can arrange

pranaam's picture

This is a great idea that I mentioned last year. My admin's response was not receptive. Why? Administrators, generally speaking, are older and def not in-tune with the real world of children. The further from the classroom they are, the less they know. I hate to say this but the "modern" state of public education is pretty pathetic. I realize there are pockets of brilliance in our dim landscape, but I'm afraid they are few and far between these days.

Brandon Zoras's picture
Brandon Zoras
Science Teacher in Toronto, Canada

Hey Pranaam. I feel what you are saying and for sure know what you mean. I think though there are key people at all levels in education and we were able to turn to those who saw the importance and worker with them to convince the non converted. You could try a classroom or between a few local schools and document the success and use that to leverage a bigger event. Having industry partners is also key as they can help support new initiatives. Let me know if you get one up and running, would love to see what you can do! Also see the links in the bottom of my article as it has a lot of resources to run your own. All the best! - Brandon

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