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Want to host a hackathon and teach real-life STEM skills? Here’s how

On Saturday, January 27th, Warren Township High School in Illinois celebrated our 2nd annual hackathon, Devil Hack 1.01. This two-day event featured teams of high schoolers hacking out a real-world solution to a real-world challenge. Devil Hack began at 9 am on Saturday and ended on Sunday at noon.

If you hear the word “hack” and you start to panic, please don’t! A hackathon is not an excuse to illegally access government or corporate databases. A hackathon is an invention marathon in which programmers, designers, and builders, come together to learn, build, and share their creations. Today, hacking means to quickly and intelligently create an application or solution that others can use.

Inside Devil Hack 1.01

More than 150 students competed and collaborated for 26 hours on projects focused on energy efficiency, health/biopharma, and societal/human services. These areas have huge potential for growth, need real-world solutions during this time of expansion, and are primed for disruption, particularly by tomorrow’s leaders.

(Next page: More advice for hosting a hackathon)

Brian Derrow from Zebra Technologies—and a district alum—gave a talk titled “A Journey of STEM Innovation in the IoT Era” and shared his experience launching a startup and working for Zebra Technologies.

Doug Cash from Sonalysts shared some of the work he is doing with augmented and virtual reality to help better prepare employees and cut training costs.

Detective Jack Metcalf of the Gurnee Police Department shared some digital citizenship and cyber safety information with the kids.

In addition to collaborating, the students had the opportunity to visit with industry leaders, evaluate some of the latest technology innovations, participate in a mind/body component, and join in other fun activities.

Some of the problems students hacked include:

Mirror Mirror: a smart mirror that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to have smart conversations with the user to boost confidence and self-esteem.

Variable Speed Limit Signs: a smart device that uses real-time weather and road condition information to adjust speed limits to match current conditions.

Cyberbullying Web App: a web app that scans content on a post for keywords and phrases to help prevent cyberbullying.

Project Data Shield: a data-storage solution using blockchain technology to create and store permanent data records.

Outdoor Lighting Solutions: a plan to create more efficient outdoor lighting to provide lighting only where and when it is needed.

Teachers Educate: a social media platform for teachers to connect and collaborate with other educators.

Remi: a reminder system using AI that reminds people to complete tasks using specific pitch and tone, based on the user’s mood.

6 ways to make your hackathon a success

Devil Hack 1.01 was an incredible success for students, teachers, families, and our community. Here are sixthings we learned that can help anyone who would like to host a hackathon of their own.

1. Form a Hack event planning team.

The Devil Hack planning team was led by Kim Lobitz, the high school activities director, and me. I handled sponsorships, partnerships, and recruiting tech-industry volunteers. Lobitz focused on facility usage, logistics, event scheduling, and the very important tasks of advertising and marketing.

Our planning team also included the educational technology department secretary, an educational technology department technician, two high school students, and an ed tech intern/college student who also happened to graduate from Warren Township High School. This group met regularly and was integral to having a successful event. Student involvement is key to the success of any event, and the students provided a great voice for their peers.

2. Find partners and sponsors to support the event.

Several Chicagoland companies and thought leaders worked with us on this event. Major League Hacking backed the event, providing access to everything from microcontrollers to free web hosting and domains. This year’s Devil Hack Platinum sponsor was Aruba-a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Other sponsors included McQueen Technology Group, Zebra Technologies, Image Systems Business Solutions, SentinelOne, HackerEarth, Sonalysts, Outpost CrossFit Gurnee, and the Gurnee American Legion Post #771.

3. Publicize the event.

A social media presence is key. Be sure to schedule posts well in advance, and a little bit of paid targeted advertising can go a long way! If you have access to other school leaders, share event information via email to spread the word to students from other schools.

4. Invite mentors and people to assist in the event.

We found that a successful Hackathon has breakout sessions in which industry leaders can speak to some of the current trends in technology and the marketplace. We were able to garner support from Warren alumni, local educators, and local technology leaders to share breakout sessions and serve as mentors. They all worked with the hackers throughout the event to provide valuable support to the students. A number of these volunteers left saying, “Wow, I wish they had these types of events when I was in school.” It may be difficult to recruit people the first time, but we believe every year will be easier to get volunteers to participate. Start small, look for potential session leaders within your school and local community, and build out from there.

5. Focus on the problem statement.

It is important that students have a focused problem statement and possible solution to guide their work for the event. This year, one of our teachers spent about 15 minutes helping the hackers understand how to form and create a strong problem statement. A number of the volunteers made it around the room to have the teams share their problem statements. The students have to add the group’s statement to their online workspace, which in our case was provided by HackerEarth.

6. Be prepared to “hack your own Hackathon.”

The very core of a Hackathon is trying to solve a problem or make a process better. Why should your event be any different? Be sure to build in some flexibility in your schedule because things will always change on the day of the event. Take notes, make observations, adjust on the fly, and send out a post-event survey. All of this information will help you “hack” your next event.

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