Teen Hackathon 2018

Washington County Library had their first Hackathon yesterday, November 3rd. It started out with being a small team project and ended up becoming a huge endeavor. Our administrative team helped a lot with the logistics of planning the actual event and setting up for it the day before/morning of. They also took care of the social media marketing and created signage, schedules, and maps for the staff and mentors.

We reached out to a CoderDojo club in southwest Minnesota, who sent us both participants and mentors. Although they were not involved in the planning of the event, they were extremely help during it.

We reserved most of the spaces available at our central library. We had 15 groups, each with a mentor and 4-6 teens. The mentors that were not sent by CoderDojo had responded to an advertisement on social media, were friends of employees, or were employees themselves. Before the event, we designated places for each group to work. Our main public area was reserved for a couple weddings, so administration let us use their work space. In the main area, we had booths set up. We had a booth for clothes and devices, office supplies, sewing and clothing markers, and power supplies.

The theme was Wearable Technology. The teams were instructed to make a piece of clothing that could solve some kind of problem. One team’s idea was to make “pick-pocket proof pants.” Another made a watch for cyclists to listen to music while still being able to hear their surroundings.

To make these, participants would need to add code to a central piece, connect the central piece to at least one sensor, and connect to a power source. They could connect each of these using alligator clips, wires, or conductive thread. The hope was that these designs could be taken apart so the equipment could be reused.

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The participants ranged in expertise. I worked the power station, and I was anticipating having to measure the needed voltage for every project with a multimeter. Most teams just came up to me already know how many volts they needed. I had a spreadsheet of how much power each device could take, which helped. The only time I used the multimeter was to determine if a piece was broken. A couple teams came up and asked to use the multimeter themselves.

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One of the adults from CoderDojo was not mentoring, and she ended up helping me with the power station. That gave me the opportunity to walk around and help teams who needed it. The teen librarian who organized the event spent the entire day running around trying to help. Our librarian who has an engineering background did the same.

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We ran into a number of issues, including the computers not responding to the Arduino devices and the SD cards for the mp3 players not working. Only a couple teams got their mp3 players to work, out of the ten total mp3 players we had. A lot of the teams did not seem interested in sewing or just never got that far in the project, so they used primarily alligator clips, which we quickly ran out of.

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I was impressed with the innovation of the teams. A lot of pieces ended up being soldered together (which apparently can be undone) and a lot of wires were cut. We definitely did not have all the pieces at the end.

Overall, everyone had fun. We received generally positive feedback. Most teams ended up having to abandon their first (very ambitious) projects for simpler ones. But they enjoyed getting to play around with the equipment. One participant expressed his delight at being able to work with something he couldn’t afford to buy himself.

At the end, we gave teams the option to present their projects, and we were pleasantly surprised at the number of teams who wanted to. Parents were discouraged from spending the entire day at the event, but were welcome to see the projects for the last hour.

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If we recreate this next year, I think it would be better to create a simpler prompt that allows both beginners and experts to create something they are happy with. It would also help to have more experts working the event to help troubleshoot.

See my previous Hackathon post here.

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