Hackathons (or really focused creative sessions)

Two weeks ago, I went to a hackathon being put on at my school. I went with three of my close girl friends with the intention of having fun and making a viable project at the end of our 36 hour allotted time. But before I get too deep, you’re probably wondering what a hackathon is, and why in the world I’m telling you about it. I’ll answer the first part now, and the second part at the end.

A hackathon is an event where, for a dedicated period of time (usually 1-3 days), people from different aspects of creating software (or hardware) come together to try and make a viable product. Hackathons can have themes or restrictions on what types of content they want people to work towards. They can be just for fun, educational or competitive. The goal is just to get together with a group of people and create a technical project that you can all be proud of at the end of the hackathon. For the hackathon I went to, over 500 students from across the nation participated. Tons of mentors, free swag and food were present throughout the 36 hours. I and my friends didn’t sleep much, but we had a ton of fun.

Let me outline the process of what happened during this hackathon. I promise there’s a point to it 🙂 The hackathon started at 10pm at night on a Friday. We registered, got lanyards and listened to an opening ceremony and keynote. The atmosphere at once was very welcoming; hackers of all levels were invited to have fun and learn. There were prizes being offered too, but that wasn’t the main draw as to why I was there. Around 11:30pm, my group went into one of the main hacking buildings, got some caffeine, and began to discuss project ideas. We knew we wanted to work on a project that dealt with a relevant social issue. Many, many topics were tossed around. Homelessness, gender-specific issues, social movements and more were hotly debated. It was hard choosing a topic because we felt that in developing a piece of software or an app, we were limiting the potential to what our user base would be, which was not the base we wanted to reach with our project. We stayed up until 3:30 or 4am and then went to sleep. The next morning, around 8:30, we continued to brainstorm. Eventually, we settled on an outpatient monitoring system for doctors and patients, using a web platform and an iPhone app. Since I’ve had some web development experience this quarter, one other friend on my team and I buddied up to create the website portal for doctors to monitor their patients.

After getting some brunch, we worked on our hack until 4am Sunday morning. There were moments of frustration, of not understanding why the code didn’t work. Exhaustion from the night before definitely had an effect on my debugging ability (I took a nap at one point), and even with two or four sets of eyes, we often didn’t understand why things just didn’t work the way we wanted them to. Our other two team members started learning iPhone programming at 10pm Saturday night, and worked through Sunday morning to get a mock version of our app to show the general public at the expo on Sunday. And yet those crazy hours of not understanding, of rewriting code and then jumping up when the program finally worked made the weekend well worth it. At the end of the hackathon, we had a proof of our concept, and showed off our site and app to judges and venture capitalists.

So cool. I built a thing with some friends. If you’ve never programmed or even heard of a hackathon, how does this relate to you? A sleep deprived weekend typing on your computer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But take a look at it this way. For a long, dedicated amount of time, I worked on a project with a group of friends that made me really happy, and we accomplished something that none of us could have done alone (or at least not in the time span of the weekend). We started from nothing and came out with a nice looking project we could show off. So. When was the last time you spent a focused amount of time on a creative project, either alone or with friends? Did you finish the project? Was it something you made from scratch? I believe there is a huge, huge benefit to making things on your own or with others. Creativity is one of those things in life that you can’t force, but with the right environment and mindset, it can come in with a brilliant force. And what’s even better is that it often grows from other thoughts or opinions, which friends can provide. Pretty soon you’ll have a whole garden of creative ideas growing in your mind.

And so my challenge to you is this: pick a weekend where you’ll dedicate a fair amount of time to a hobby or project you want to work on. Start something from scratch or pick up a project you already started. Work alone or with friends. Listen to good music, eat delicious food, do some yoga or whatever you need to get you through the weekend. It’ll be a transformative process, and you will thank yourself later for it. By pushing yourself, you will learn and grow in your abilities. You might even surprise yourself with what you can accomplish when you have an open mind and a project goal for yourself. If you can find the time, dedication and effort to just do it, I guarantee you’ll be rewarded.

Educational Technology

This quarter I’m taking an educational technology class that focuses on developing new technologies for child development. It’s been fascinating learning about how much tech there is out there to help children in all stages of development, from toddler to teen. It’s also startling to see how much content parents have to sift through, and knowing what constitutes as “good” or “bad technology. What, for example, makes a “good” storytelling iPad app? Can Neopets teach your child about economics? Does FanFiction instill a sense of authorship and creativity in children? There have been so many uses of technology that we have explored in my class, and I’m hoping to share the best metrics for each tech category.

iPad Apps

Many iPad apps nowadays are geared towards helping improve child literacy. There are apps that read aloud to children, that highlight words or provide simple dictionaries. Even classic books, such as Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” and the Sesame Street “The Monster at the End of this Book” have been upgraded with interactive pages and engaging animations. While there are many features packed into these apps, there are a few things to look out for when trying to find the cream of the crop.

  1. Look for apps that promote guided participation. Research has shown that parents who actively interact with their child while reading help improve their child’s literacy rather than if the child were left reading on their own. Not only is this good bonding time, but the parent can help keep the child on task, explain new words or correct mispronunciations, not all of which an app can do.
  2. Make sure the app doesn’t have a “TV” feel. Some apps just seem like a mini TV show with subtitles. Stay away from these. Ideally you want to have words highlighted and the ability to turn pages freely when navigating the book/app.
  3. Look for age appropriate content. Some book apps are made for slightly older children. Just make sure that the book you want your child to read fits in with their attention span (isn’t incredibly long or too low-level).

These are my personal top three pieces of advice when sifting through reading apps. And remember, it’s always good to limit screen time as well. You don’t want your child to navigate away from the app and use “reading” time for game time!

Tech Toys

Think Goldiblocks or Lego Mindstorms. Kits or electronic toys that promote digital education are on the rise. Children ages 5+ can now find some sort of way to engage with electronics in casual play, which exposes them to relatively complex concepts at a young age. When looking for tech toys, keep a few things in mind:

  1. How reusable is it? Is there one configuration to build a device, or can the tech toy be modified or rearranged to be something else? The reusability factor not only encourages further use, but also helps develop creativity.
  2. How much tech is there? A toy that only offers one circuit for a light bulb decoration isn’t really a tech toy. Make sure there’s enough material and content to keep your kid learning!

Online Websites

Believe it or not, there are actually some websites that are better for your children’s development than others. But it all depends on how they end up using these sites. For example, Neopets, Webkinz and Club Penguin are great sites to engage your child in social play, responsibility and commerce understanding. is a great place for tweens to develop their writing and creativity skills. However, as a parent you have to keep tabs on your child while they play. I don’t have metrics really for this category, but here some suggested sites that are better than others for kids of all ages.

  1. PBS Kids – this is a great site for younger users looking for fun games with an educational component. Minimal advertising and popular characters make this site a go to for many parents.
  2. – this is an online version of the popular Scratch programming environment. Kids can create their own games with visual programming, and then share their creations with others online.
  3. Pottermore – if your kids like Harry Potter, then this site is fantastic. There are community elements such as house competitions and forums, interactive stories from the book, and fun mini games that tie into the original series. Definitely a fun way to get your kid to explore their favorite books from an interactive angle.
  4. National Geographic Kids – all kinds of cool articles, activities and games for your kids to browse, relating to the natural world around us and vetted by National Geographic.

These are just a few sites I’m aware of. As with any technology, it’s important to limit screen time and make sure to monitor your child on whatever site they end up using.

There are tons of other educational tech tools around, and if you want to add to this brief list, feel free to leave a comment!