What is a Hackathon?
A hackathon is a coding event that has become quite popular in the tech world. This type of event involves gathering folks of various backgrounds and experiences who are interested in creating a game, app, device, or other project that involves technology based on some theme given for the event. An example might be AT&T’s Public Safety Hackathon to provide tools to first responders or an IoT (Internet of Things) Hackathon that might benefit cities by providing tools that a city mayor can use, though some hackathons also encourage more recreational pursuits such as game design.
Hackathon events typically involve a short time frame for participants to work on their projects and so are often two-day events that involve working overnight to meet the deadlines of the competition. Because of the liability of this extended stay and the need for participants to be independent, hackathons are typically limited to adults, though a few are appearing that may accept involvement among high school students. TriV youth members have participated in some of these and done very well which you can read about on our blog.
With TriV’s membership open to youth ages 5-17 years old, many of our youth members would not be able to participate due to the liability issue and need to be independently managed. Still other youth may be reluctant to participate in some of these hackathon events due to lack of experience. The benefit of participating in a hackathon, however, brings useful life skills.
What goes on at a hackathon?
Typically a basic format of a hackathon might be similar to this.
- Opening announcements
- Idea pitch
- Formation of teams
- Teams work on project
- Team presentations
- Awards ceremony
Depending on the length of the hackathon, there will be additional time set aside for meals and for educational hackathons, there might be talks or seminars that cover some instruction on coding or other topics of interest. However, all of these additional activities also eat into any time for teams to work on their projects.
Opening announcements can include speeches by notable dignitaries such as a government official or corporate CEO. During the idea pitch, any individual may pitch an idea to the audience of participants. Then participants are invited to form teams around the ideas they would like to work on. Teams then brainstorm to discuss ideas further and determine the roles and tasks that each individual team member will have. In hackathons, not all participating individuals are programmers, some are there because they have great ideas, some have strengths in promotion/marketing the idea, others design, and some coding. The size of the team depends on the complexity of the project. Some people join the hackathon with a team already formed, while others form teams at the event. The size of the team depends on the requirements at the event. Generally, the greater the number of teams, the longer the time needed to be set aside for team presentations. Three minutes is a typical time limitation for team presentations.
Because of the compressed time frame for hackathons, there often is added pressure to complete the projects by the deadlines, leading the format to include overnight stays, or as is often the case, teams may not have the time to completely code a project and instead choose to develop a prototype of their project that can illustrate to the judges the vision they have of the functionality of their project. Some teams might do this through traditional presentation slides, while others use prototyping tools to illustrate a more polished pseudo product without having to use coding.
What is the benefit of participating in a hackathon?
One of the greatest benefits of a hackathon experience is working with a team, but leaving it at that would be too simplistic.
To work within a team means working with different personalities and skill sets. One has to learn to communicate by asserting yourself to have your ideas heard, but also respecting others and learning to listen to their ideas with an open mind without criticism. Team members recognize their own strengths and those of others in deciding how to divide up tasks. These tasks need to come together into a cohesive whole necessitating further communication and coordination among team members. If disagreements arise, participants need to learn to negotiate their differences while focusing on common goals. Developing these interpersonal communication skills is a critical benefit that can be practiced both inside and outside a hackathon, but a hackathon provides the event initiative to purposefully bring individuals together.
Another benefit of hackathons is learning to work in a limited time frame. This means organizing the work to be done, managing time, and setting priorities to be able to accomplish the objective.
Delegation doesn’t stop at the work to be done, but it also includes deciding which individuals in the team will be doing particular parts of a presentation. Although not necessarily every member of the team has a speaking part, typically all members of the team are standing up front while the team is presenting. Team members benefit by developing presentation skills in both designing and organizing the presentation and in performing their speaking parts.
Individuals also benefit by learning the development process used in a hackathon that is used in many projects even those not based on technology. Understanding the requirements is the first step and in a hackathon that involves any parameters required by the contest, but also end user needs and usability. Next, ideation or brainstorming is a process fostering creativity in meeting those requirements, followed by prototyping (even in writing a paper this can be considered a draft), then developing a presentation which in a hackathon would be to the judges, but in real life could be to a boss or end user. While a hackathon would stop there at the end of the event, in the outside world, it would be a reiterative process based on feedback from the target audience. This process incorporates developing skills in collaboration and decision making present in all aspects of life.
All of these decision making, organization, and interpersonal and public communication skills are skills that we as adults continue to improve and utilize in our personal and professional lives. It is never too early to expose our youth to begin to conceptualize and develop these skills as a lifelong practice.
How does TriV plan on bringing these benefits to our hackathon event?
TriV plans to organize a one-day event during hours that all youth members from 5-17 years old can participate in. Possible considerations include scheduling a half-day for the youngest members. In this way, we avoid the overnight requirements of traditional hackathons.
By organizing our own hackathon, we can ensure that it is an educational and supportive experience that keeps within the mission of our club. Basing our hackathon on Scratch, a visual drag-and-drop programming language developed by MIT used in school for all grade levels and online college computer science courses, all ages and experience levels can participate and learn during the process. We can also set up practice sessions on Scratch to further prepare kids to optimize what they get from participating.
Update: TriV’s First Hackathon
Our hackathon plans are coming together. TriV’s first Scratch Hackathon member event will be on March 4, 2017. We’ll be posting an update following this post shortly on what we’ve been up to.