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.
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.”