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Hackathons as Possible Student Motivators

A new phenomenon cropping up certainly among college age students that is trickling down to the K12 arena is the concept of a hackathon. Often the events take place over 24-48 hours and are sponsored by a college or university. Attendees are presented with an open-ended problem (or are left to come up with one themselves) and form teams to build a solution. Often, they revolve around mobile or web apps.

Recently, MIT sponsored a hackathon for K12, called Blueprint. A dozen or so students from my school attended, with varying reviews. Although the event was advertised as open to all skill levels, some of my students with limited skills felt left out. Some even left early. Others jumped right into projects with other students from other towns and really enjoyed the energy of the event. The swag from sponsoring companies and limitless food were other benefits students really enjoyed.

In my student population, there are a cadre of students, mostly seniors, who are beginning to regularly attend these hackathons, often traveling long distances to attend these weekend events. Because my senior students attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute, they are aware of most of the college level hackathons and can attend through their WPI connection. Hackathons seems to appeal to a certain type of student; one who is willing to work in a team, who likes meeting new people, and who is confident in his/her abilities! There is the option to work alone at the events, so some students will do that, but the majority team up with other attendees to collaborate on a project of interest to all of them. I have one female student who has been to several hackathons this year. Although a good Computer Science student last year, she never showed much interest in pursuing it as a career. Even though she currently intends to major in engineering in college, she has multiple programming projects that began at hackathons that she continues to work on in her spare time. She has made connections with other students around the country with whom she continues to network. She went out and bought an Android tablet so she can work on these projects. The hackathon connection has really changed her perspective on Computer Science. She sees limitless opportunities.

These hackathons are definitely a motivator for certain students. It is a different mode of learning from many classrooms: intense, collaborative, energized, real world, and unstructured. As a teacher, it makes me wonder (a) if this is how students today prefer to learn and (b) if I can take some of the elements of hackathons to make my classroom more energizing and motivating for students.

Karen Lang
CSTA 9-12 Representative


Some students love hackathons, some love programming contests, some love large-scale solo projects, some love lots of quick little puzzles, and some hate everything you might try.

There is no silver bullet. Each learner is going to be motivated by different things, and giving them a variety of paths to success is the best you can do for them.

You might also be interested in checking out Pilot (www.gopilot.org), which cosponsored the hackathon with HackMIT. We host events like this all over the country and currently working on bringing them to the classroom. Feel free to reach out if you're interested! We'd love to get some more teacher input.

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