Hackathon: As a learning experience for young people

When I was initially asked to support an event being run by Acorn Aspirations, I was apprehensive. The event, a hackathon aimed at young women who want to get into technology careers, seemed like a wonderful and important thing to focus on. Still, me teaching teenagers?! I’ve had a career working for large organisations and big brands in corporations. I’ve presented and run hackathons with design teams at John Lewis, but teenagers?! I’ve not been around as many young people since I was at secondary school.

In preparation, I dropped in on WOW talks day, an event that one of the hackathon organisers was speaking at for teenagers. I was struck at the energy buzzing around the room and how only a skilful speaker would be able to keep and maintain the audience’s focus. A little intimidated but inspired, I signed up to help.

Myself, Aga and Naomi from Acorn Aspirations had a brief Skype chat a few days before outlining the event and aligning our thinking. The challenges in working for the startup and education sector varies from a large enterprise. There is less preparation time but more freedom to be really creative and spontaneous, responding hour to hour to different needs as they emerge. Learning to go with it, react and pivot on the day would be essential.

Day 1

About 40 teenagers arrived at 10 am on a sunny Saturday morning at Entrepreneur First‘s trendy warehouse studio. We kicked things off with a brief overview of the event, followed by an introduction from teenagers who bought an idea they would like to develop.

These ideas varied from photo finders for photographers and film location hunters, homework revision apps and fashion outfit finders. The remaining participants were invited to jump on the idea that inspired them the most.

The Mentors

Vital to the success of the event was the mentors. These were slightly older teenagers who had volunteered their time to support each team. Hot from their #acornaccelerator2016 experience in the summer, their experience showed, and they demonstrated a familiarity with this rapid way of working. They helped guide the team through each sprint, learning various skills from strategy, graphic design and coding.

The brief

Their brief was to design, develop, test, validate and pitch their concept and what they believed the next steps would be by the end of the 2nd day. They needed to learn about Agile and Scrum principles, some useful tools and all in an interactive fun way.

Acorn Aspirations started with workshops covering how to pitch, ideate, run design critiques and basic coding skills. We stressed the importance of ensuring they solve an identified problem rather than just creating a fun solution. Whilst it would take a few moments to get their attention, they would listen intently and with surprising focus.

After lunch, we structured the teams into 1-hour sprints, each with a focus and expected outputs. This ensured they were able to effectively manage their time and be walked through a healthy design process.

Day 1 outline

Agenda Registration
9:45am – 10:00am

Welcome and Introduction
10.00am – 10.10am

Ice-breaker and team formation
10:10am – 11:00am

Teams pitch and mentor allocation
11:00am – 11:30am

Ideation workshop
11:30am – 12:30pm

Lunch
12:30pm – 1:15pm

HTML/CSS workshop
1:15pm – 2:00pm

SPRINT 1 – Problem
2:00pm – 3:00pm

SPRINT 2 – Solution
3:00pm – 4:00pm

SPRINT 3 – Testing
4:00pm – 5:00pm

We issued each table with templates that would help guide their activities.  These consisted of test cards, value cards and design brief templates. Their output for sprint one was to complete the design brief and validate their idea using a test card.

The design brief was a template we used in an earlier workshop to help focus the team on creating.

The test card ensured that teams would have to articulate their hypotheses and determine what they would measure. It was great to see how creative they were in terms of validation. Most of the teams would run tests in the room, asking questions from friends and other participants with short surveys.

Test and value cards;  tools I have adapted and used in the industry taken from strategizers’ value proposition design.  These tools help you frame your hypothesis or articulate your idea.

Whilst not a truly scientific approach, they were learning about the principles of validation and evidence-based reasoning. They would soon harness social media, crowdsourcing opinions and testing ideas out to their wider network. It was amazing to see how some teams started to evolve, with wall space, post-its and sticky tape flying up.

For the next sprint, the teams articulated their insights onto a value card.

A value card is a tool that helps articulate your value proposition.

The teams began to ideate, having learnt some basic techniques in the earlier workshop. Using paper prototypes, the teams ran subsequent tests to further validate and gain insights into their ideas. In parallel, their mentors were busy developing CSS, HTML or creatively using PowerPoint to make more high-fidelity interactive prototypes. Their ‘homework’ and final test for the day was to write a test card hypothesis that they could validate at home with friends/family.

Phew, day one over!

Day 2 Agenda

SPRINT 4 – hacking/testing

10.00am – 11.00am

SPRINT 5 – hacking/testing

11.00am – 12.00pm

Pitch training

12:00am – 1:00pm

Lunch
1:00pm – 2:00pm

SPRINT 6 – finishing prototypes

2:00pm – 3:00pm

SPRINT 7 – Pitch preparation

preparing the pitch 3:00pm – 4:00pm

PITCH

4:00pm – 5:00pm

Judging

5:00pm – 5:30pm

Winners

5:30pm – 6:00pm

 

There was a more calm, focused energy on day 2, and everyone seemed to want to get their heads down. On the first day, the tasks were fairly group-based, brainstorming, ideating and testing. By day 2, ideas had started to mature, and prototypes were being iterated based on tests.

What was coming out as the teams moved into a convergent phase was that they would need to coordinate themselves effectively. We set each team up with mini Kanban boards of tasks and ensured that everyone had delegated work for the next sprint. This helped give them focus and ensure they completed everything they needed and prepared them for the pitch.

As the day progressed, we had to shift the team’s focus from building, testing, and the final pitch. Aga and Naomi gave a quick pep talk on pitching and what judges would be looking for. We allocated the final sprint for pitch preparation. The teams broke off, finding a quiet spot to rehearse their pitch. The excitement was starting to build, and that wonderful buzz was in the air as you could feel the passion and focus of everyone actually creating something together as a group.

The judges arrived, and the pitches began. Each group took to the stage to make their pitch. They would outline the problem they were trying to solve and what their proposed solution would be. They explained how they had validated it using various tests and demoed a working prototype.

Judging was challenging, as each group had overcome very different challenges and had their own merits.

It was impressive to see how much work they had done in such a short space of time. There were no arguments, no clashes, just beaming faces that felt proud of what they had achieved.

The Judging Criteria We outlined a few criteria that judges would use to judge teams to keep their pitch focused.

  • Team Collaboration
  • Great Design
  • Learn and Apply
  • Innovative Application
  • Traction

The team that eventually won was ‘Revise it’. The team had created an app that made it easier to find revision resources on a topic at school. They outlined the opportunity and market, how they had successfully tested and validated the idea via social media, as well as next steps towards a larger test.

We could view the prototype on the web as well as an android app for download. I was pretty gobsmacked as I’ve seen professional teams of designers take months to design and prototype simpler concepts. These teenagers were calm, polite, respectful and really hard working. In two days, they managed 2 days to create a concept, develop a prototype, test, validate it, and finally pitch it.

Hackathons as a tool of education

Watching all the passion, excitement and creativity over the past few days made me reflect on my own experience of education. I recall it as a binary experience, with a teacher, chalkboard and notepad, the purpose being to ‘shut up and learn’. 

I believe that using the hackathon format as a tool for education is a compelling way of teaching.  During the event, these young women practised in collaboration, drawing on each other’s strengths and weaknesses and creating something they all believed in. While it focused on tech, the real magic was in the behaviours and collaboration they developed. They were also exposed to the principles of scrum and agile, using techniques I’d gleaned straight out of some of the best design agencies.

I believe that using the hackathon format as a tool for education is a compelling way of teaching. The students can feel like they are in control and can do what they want within certain criteria. They can be creative and shine together as a group. This is so far away from my experience at school and something I feel the educational and academic world could learn a lot from.