by Amy K. Lavender

On Saturday morning, the halls of the Education Center at the University of West Georgia were all abuzz with student activity; however, this crowd of students wasn’t the building’s usual occupiers. Instead of college students preparing to be the next generation of educators, local teens between the ages of 13 and 17 filled two classrooms preparing to participate in UWG’s first Hackathon.

Two students at a deskAn extension of the university’s uCode program, which encourages young children and teens to learn how to code, the Hackathon was organized by a partnership between the College of Education’s Fusion Center, UWG’s College of Science and Mathematics, and local software company GreenCourt Technologies, LLC.

“We’ve had computer science outreach activities before with the informal programming club called uCode here at UWG,” explained Kim Huett, assistant professor in UWG’s Department of Education Technology and Foundations. “But this year we took a different direction.”

When Huett and Professor of Computer Science Dr. Anja Remshagen put their heads together with Fusion Center Director Lindsey Robinson, they came up with the Hackathon: an event with a focused purpose that guided students through a specific project. This weekend’s project focused on poverty.

At the beginning of the day, students were given their “assignment,” which challenged them to either create an app that provides resources for people who live in poverty or an app that raises awareness about the challenges people face when living in poverty.

“We tied it to the community and presented them with a problem to make the work more real,” Huett said. “[Executive Director of Literacy for Today and Tomorrow] Laura Miller was nice enough to come here today and talk to the students before they got started to give them some insight into how they can make a difference.”

Remshagen said the goal wasn’t just to have students practice coding but to also gain some real-world insight.

Laughing students standing around laptops“We want students to see how technology goes into all these different areas,” she said. “Programming is a great skill, but to see how they can use it is important. There are really two main goals today: one is for them to see the overall picture of the web development process; the other thing is to show them that they can use technology to affect change.”

Throughout the event, professional and student mentors were on hand to aid the multiple teams in their app developments. President and COO of GreenCourt Ryan Roenigk was one of those mentors. He said he was excited to help provide a valuable experience for local teens.

“Coding and technological literacy is just as vital as literacy of the English language,” he said, “and I think that, by and large, the jobs these kids have when they graduate will be knowledge jobs. Jobs that are about adding value to information. To give kids a view of how you can use a couple of clicks and a couple of characters to manipulate information is great. And to have the problem story that Laura talked about is really wonderful.”

Students also gained hands-on experience in teamwork and collaboration throughout the day as most attendees did not know each other when they arrived.

“Walking around, every one of these teams is going through the same things that we do on a daily basis,” Roenigk explained. “These young people are experiencing the conflict and celebration, the puzzles and solutions. Very little about this is actually about technology; it’s really about communication. This is truly workplace oriented education that they are experiencing today.”

Student shows work on laptopParticipants admitted they were definitely learning a lot from the event, both about coding and their community.

“I learned about how much this affects the community,” said sophomore Genesis Jimenez. “I mean, common sense tells you that there is poverty out there, but I didn’t realize how many people we had just in our community who are affected. It honestly changed my perspective.”

Sophomore Jordan Carr said he was excited to learn more about coding and to take action to benefit his community. His team spent the day working on an app that would help people in the community find places to donate food or clothes and help those in need find a shelter.

“I started coding two years ago, but I wanted to expand my horizons and work toward something that could do some good rather than just tinkering,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot today, especially about block coding, which I didn’t know much about before today.”

The day wrapped up with app presentations from each team and awards for computing excellence, best design, highest impact and best pitch.

“It was so inspiring to see the talent of our youth and the passion they have for making Carroll County's community a better place,” Robinson said. “The Hackathon competition did a remarkable job at drawing in bright middle- and high-school students to engage in teamwork and creativity while focusing on their coding skills. Thanks to the expertise from both colleges and our community partners, the Hackathon event was a huge success!”

Posted on March 24, 2017