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How coding can boost kids’ emotional intelligence

Group of children in a classroom learning about robotics and technology

At a glance

  • A 2020 dissertational study from University of Phoenix revealed a correlation between computational thinking at hackathons for kids and emotional intelligence.
  • The data gave rise to Hackathon Jr, a nonprofit organization that facilitates events that require children to use technology to solve a real-world problem.
  • The hackathon platform shows promise as an educational model for teaching both computational thinking and emotional intelligence to children.
  • University of Phoenix offers the opportunity to make a positive impact in the world with five doctoral programs in business, health administration, education and nursing.

“I am an educator,” says Deby Ranft, EdD/ET. “And I think that emotional intelligence of children is probably on all educators’ radar.”

Ranft, who teaches sixth grade and an online master’s-level tech course, may be right, but her approach to understanding emotional intelligence in children took a turn for the esoteric when she began to view it through a lens of technology.

This happened while she was pursuing her doctoral degree in education at University of Phoenix.

“I decided on the program of Educational Leadership with a specialization in Educational Technology, because I knew that technology was the future of the educational field,” Ranft explains. “At my first residency, I met three other students who changed the trajectory of my life. … [We] created a group project called ‘Got Tech?’ that we presented to the class, and it has eventually morphed into what we now call Hackathon Jr.”

Discover online doctoral degrees at University of Phoenix!


What is a hackathon?

For the non-coders of the world, a hackathon brings together a group of computer programmers to develop a software solution for a specific need. It’s social coding at its finest, in other words, and it’s usually time sensitive: Most hackathons wrap after 24 or 48 hours.

That’s all well and good for career programmers, but how does it apply to kids? For Ranft, it’s personal. “My youngest son got involved in the LEGO robotics program when he was in fifth grade,” she says. “I saw how engaged the students were while working to code their robots and participating in creative competitions.”

This informed Ranft’s decision to pursue the doctoral degree program she chose, and it also laid the groundwork for Hackathon Jr. Ranft’s son’s experience proved there was a market for kid-centered hackathon experiences. Ranft and her colleagues, including serial entrepreneur Rose Lorenzo, PhD, just needed to figure out what that would look like.

And Hackathon Jr. is …

Over time, Hackathon Jr. morphed into a more focused and condensed version of a traditional hackathon. Instead of one or two days, they last eight hours. Instead of catering to career programmers or adults in general, they welcome children ages 9 to 13 who may have none, some or lots of programming experience.

The most important way in which traditional hackathons and Hackathon Jr. are similar, however, is in their goal — and the potential roadblocks to meeting it. In Hackathon Jr., children are tasked with using technology to solve a real-world problem. They work in teams to identify a problem, design a solution, draft a prototype and pitch it to the judges, all within what is a typical workday period for most adults.

“These kids sometimes show up unwilling to collaborate with a group or unsure of how to communicate with each other,” Ranft observes. “However, in traditional hackathons sponsored by companies, these are the skills recruiters are looking for most! This has led us to really focus on encouraging those skills at our events.”

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Computer science skills to put on your resumé

The gold behind the code

Lorenzo likens Hackathon Jr.’s lessons on leadership and collaboration to sneaking vegetables into cookies. Kids like technology and solving problems. That’s the fun part. Working together and communicating ideas, those are the “veggies” they swallow alongside the thrill of tech.

“Coding is not really what we do,” Lorenzo says. “It’s the platform that we use.”

As Ranft outlines in her dissertation, “Hackathons for Kids: Looking Closer at Computational Thinking,” the three overarching themes of computational thinking at Hackathon Jr. events are:

  • Collaboration
  • Programming choices that lead to a digital solution
  • Communication

While creating a digital solution is a valuable hard skill for tech careers, collaboration and communication can be just as important.

“Computational thinking at hackathons and emotional intelligence are directly tied to each other,” Ranft explains. “My research supported the idea of a hackathon being used as an instructional strategy to integrate computer science across any curriculum with kids as young as third grade.”

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What is teacher leadership?

A prescription for the future?

For Ranft, her doctoral research has directly impacted her day-to-day experience in the classroom. Her instructional methods reflect what she’s learned through Hackathon Jr, whether that’s tasking sixth graders with building a video game about an ancient civilization, teaching graduate students how to use technology purposefully or coaching other educators.

“Often, I think that teachers are hesitant to attempt this sort of approach for younger students, but Hackathon Jr. has shown that younger kids have the best ideas!” Ranft says. “I believe that hackathons could be used as authentic assessments for computer science curriculum.”

They could even be used outside of computer science. “The world needs people who know how to communicate, collaborate, be creative and think critically, but it all begins with emotional intelligence and purposeful technology use,” Ranft says.

This idea of collaboration, communication and “purposeful technology” goes beyond the classroom and the field of tech. In Ranft’s view, hackathons combine three elements that can change the world.

“Good computer science instruction should encourage students to see the potential in their ideas when shared with the world to make it a better place for everyone.”

Hackathon Jr. might not be a utopia — but it can offer a pathway to a version of one.


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