On Saturday, June 2nd, I ran my first hackathon. Not just any hackathon, a hackathon for highschool aged women, dedicated to Arduino work and robotics. 20 students signed up, and 5 showed up. At first, I was disappointed with the turn-out, but throughout the day and the few days following, I feel like I’m the one who learned the most.
It all began with Bike Day, an annual day here at Intersect where we build bikes for children who wouldn’t otherwise have them. I was inspired by the charity my office had to offer, and thought, how can I leverage this altruism AND the technical expertise of our company while doing what I love best, teaching. I talked it over with my mom, Tracy Lee, a long time professional event-planner at a foundation, and together we came up with the idea for a hackathon for highschool students. I wondered, what would I have benefitted from had I been exposed earlier? My childhood love of robots sprung to mind, as did my struggle going through school as a female engineer amongst what often felt like more experienced and qualified men. Thus, the Ladies & Robots Summer Hackathon was born.
The first thing I did was build a team. I first spoke with my coworker Amber and got her onboard, and rapidly learned that building the right team is harder than I thought. I needed a designer for the posters, marketing, donations, pizza bought and coordinated, kits, education, volunteers to set up and work with the students, and a seemingly endless supply of other responsibilities. Here, the Intersect altruism came to play, volunteers jumped up to help with their specific skill sets, and donations began to flow in.
Next, I had to relearn the technology. In engineering, I learned the basics of circuits and coding Arduinos, a programmable chip that allows you to control systems like sensors, motors, and LEDs. In order to do this, I made a test project within a day to use as an example that I like to call GarbageBot. This was a car that used an ultrasonic sensor to sense obstacles in front of it, and would then back away and turn before continuing on, avoiding obstacles along the way like a Roomba. During this time I also, with some help, ordered the parts I needed to build kits for the students and built the initial tutorial slide deck for the students to use. This included information such as the components on their kits and example code for them to use for their projects.
Then, the day came. My volunteers show up promptly to set up, door duty is tackled, and everything is ready to go. We stand outside, waiting. 9:30 passes, the start time of my event, and still no one arrived. Then, finally, my first student, a grade 8 student, arrives. Finally, a few more students arrive around 10 am, until we had a total of 5 students. At first, I was disheartened. I had put months of work into this project and was ready to accommodate many more students. Extra volunteers who gave up their weekend time off just for my hackathon were sent home. I felt personally responsible for wasting their time.
Then, I set up my presentation, took a deep breath, and started my lecture and tutorial on the basics of using the Arduino. The students also seemed to realize that there was supposed to be a bigger crowd and the mood was a bit tense. But, when I handed out their carefully crafted kits, gave them sensors, and a volunteer sat down with each team to personally help, I saw some smiles. As the day progressed, smiles turned into excitement. Project ideas flew in every direction as the students experimented and began to put together some really neat projects. A security system, an electronic mood ring, a car that delivers chocolate. At the end of the day I had happy faces, now started in their lives in the world of robotics, who had accomplished something good and were delighted to take home their very own kits to practice with. Suddenly, it didn’t matter so much that I only had 5 students. I had done a good thing and made an impact on some young women’s lives.
Among the personal learning experiences this offered, I also learned some of the technicals of event planning. For starters, holding a hackathon in June for high school students right near the end of the school year isn’t a great idea if you want a large volume of students to attend. Timing matters. Secondly, it’s important to get your word out sooner than later. Several groups and individuals offered their social presence for us, but some of that exposure came a little too late. Thirdly, and the most important of all, if you have 1 or 100 attendees, it is worth it to put in your all, because that 1 person just gave you the opportunity to make a difference in their life, and that is the greatest gift a stranger can give you.
I’m excited to say that a second Ladies & Robots hackathon is underway for October, and I can’t wait to see where this event will go from here!