Several months ago when my friend and colleague, Victor Rajewski, suggested we organise a school hackathon, I was ambivalent. I thought it was a good idea, and I was happy for him to organise it, but I didn’t see it as particularly relevant to me or my teaching. Having never been to a hackathon myself, I couldn’t really see the point.
Last week as the big day approached I was even a little miffed that I had signed up to go. I had had a really tough week and I was exhausted. I didn’t want to go to work all day on Saturday as well. But this morning when I woke up I realised I was going to have the chance to code. All day. No curriculum to cover. No interruptions for meetings and admin. Just time to hack around and try to get one or two of my “pipe dream” tech projects off the ground. And best of all, I was going to get to do it with a bunch of other people all interested in the same stuff. I still had no idea how it was going to go – I was even a little nervous about it – but I was suddenly excited as I began to realise the potential.
I arrived a whole 3 minutes after the scheduled start time, and there were already quite a few people ready to leap into something – anything! – techy. I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect, but we were excited and we were keen. As more people arrived and I looked around the room I realised that we had alumni from all but one of the graduating years of JMSS, together with quite a lot of current students from year 10 to year 12.
Victor kicked off the day by explaining the projects, and we arranged ourselves into groups according to what we were interested in. Some, like me, wound up working on solo code projects, some in teams working with hardware. One student casually knocked up a facial recognition program capable of learning and identifying faces. You have to be a bit of a tech head to know how extraordinary that is for just a few hours of coding, but trust me, it’s astounding.
A couple of students built a prototype of an LED clock to place around the school (we don’t have clocks, or school bells, so this is a pretty useful thing to have), for a fraction of the cost of the off-the-shelf versions. One student built a lost property tracker. Another built a web server to gather data from weather stations around Melbourne, while a different student worked on a prototype station. Some were working with a 3D printer to design and print cable hangers for our interactive whiteboards, and others were building a cell-based simulation system in Python.
There was a random student picker app for teachers asking questions, and a chrome extension for students to signal their confidence level to the teacher, so that we can look at our class lists and see at a glance what proportion of the class is confident with the current task, and who needs extra help, or harder work. There was a control system for our projectors.
There were so many projects that I’ve probably forgotten some, but what struck me as far and away the best part of the day is that whether we were working on individual projects or hacking away in teams, we were all in this together. There was a huge amount of support and encouragement flowing between the teams, and everyone was interested in what everyone else was doing.
This was not the lone hacker in a darkened basement with pizza and coke. This was teamwork at its finest. There was time throughout the day to catch up with former students, and lunchtime was hugely social (ok, so there was pizza). I was blown away by the generous and empathic way the more experienced students shared their expertise. And everyone was invested in everyone else’s success. When I finally nutted out a particularly tricky problem I stood up and shouted “it works!” and even though we were scattered through 4 different rooms, everyone burst into a spontaneous round of applause, and came to see what I had done.
There were no antisocial nerds in evidence, and I wonder, in fact, if that stereotype ever really dominated the tech industry, or if it was merely a hollywood scarecrow. That scarecrow has done a lot of damage. It has persuaded the world that if you are a people person, then the tech industry is not for you. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. The best projects, the best products, the best tech comes from teamwork by really extraordinary teams. From people who bounce ideas off each other, troubleshoot each other’s work, and take each other’s work to amazing symbiotic highs.
Today’s hackathon made it very clear to me how social tech actually is. Tech problems are really hard to solve alone. Every one of us has, at some point, needed someone to peer over our shoulder and point out the key thing we are missing. And the design process is brilliant when it’s shared.
Tech is only antisocial in Hollywood. In real life it’s a creative, social, and incredibly fun field to be in.