VR Hackathon Mini
After a year of plotting – with the AMAZING 3D developer, Damon Hernandez | teaming up with the “We Can Do It” Bergen Makerspace AND rounding up a team EPIC educator-collaborators – we did it! We ran the first VR Hackathon Mini organized for grades 5-8. We did this with the help of community mentors, generous parents, commercial sponsors and an EXCEPTIONAL group of young “hackers”!
HACKERS! Wait, don’t run away in fear! We are NOT talking about cyber criminals! We are talking about exploratory programming! Turns out “hack”, a fascinating term, is one of those words in flux. In this context, think of it as creative problem solving. Wikitionary offers these transitive definitions of hack:
(transitive, colloquial, by extension) To apply a trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to something to increase productivity, efficiency or ease.
(computing, slang, transitive) To work with on an intimately technical level.
Hackathons are popping up all over the world. Each one focuses on a theme and typically spans 24-72 hour. Powered on pizza and high-speed bandwidth, participants address real problems with their creativity and collective expertise. The event culminates in sharing prototypes, judging and awarding prizes (often cash). While hackathons generally receive sponsorship from industry, they are typically community organized for and run in a no-frills manner.
Some high schools, like Bergen County Academies run student organized hackathons (with teacher support). Our team was curious if it was possible to create a scaled model for middle school youth. There were a few obstacles, to be sure, but we were committed to the idea of exposing younger students to hackathon culture.
One of the decisions we made was to scale the event back to 12 hours, long enough to make wear out participants, but still logistically feasible. We built in some mini presentations in the beginning so that participants were exposed to all of tools and platforms. Additionally, participation at our event was limited to the schools or organizations participating to ensure each child had assigned chaperones. We were not sure if the day would be an epic win or fail, we just knew we wanted to try because it was such an epic idea!
On Saturday morning, May 9th, kids started to roll in. The mood was super-charged with excitement and it wasn’t long before we knew we had an epic win. We announced that we were short on sponsorship and asked the adults to pitch-in to help pay for food. Parents immediately stepped in and volunteered to generously donated delicious snacks, lunch and dinner for EVERYONE. Totally unexpected! It meant we actually had money for prizes. Whew!! I was especially impressed that Amy Kadomatsu not only generously donated funds but did all the heavy lifting to make the food “magically” appear. She told me, “Let me take this off your plate, you worry about the kids, I’ll handle the food.” That gesture epitomized the community that came together to make the event hackathon a reality for the kids.
Once I knew we were set for food and prizes, I finally could relax and enjoy the sheer joy of what was unfolding. It was magnificent to move around the room talking to kids about their projects and enjoying to the noise of deep engagement. I will admit to a little “teacherly” behavior in the first hour or so, wanting to make sure that all kids had found a group or were comfortable with flying solo. However, I finally remembered that this was not school and I needed to respect the space and the kids autonomy to work it out for themselves. Even as progressive as I am “teacherly” practices die hard. That is why running spaces like these are critical to shift thinking from teacher/adult to mentor/co-learner.
We are still in the process of unpacking and evaluating the event so that we can make recommendations to others about how organize their own hackathon mini, so stay tuned! In the interim, enjoy slides, blogs, movies and podcasts that covered this pilot event.
Overview: Brian Cook, Bergen Makerspace Instructor