Making the Grade: Hackathon lets students test lessons in real world

More than a few folks were a bit taken aback when Alpharetta High senior Anthony Liu proposed the idea of a hackathon at the school. One of the first was AP computer science teacher Tom Hatcher.

“I had never heard of a hackathon before, and my first thoughts were people were going to be hacking — and that’s not a positive thing,” said Hatcher. “Apparently, there’s a subculture involved with solving problems in a positive light. Universities across the U.S. are putting these events on, and students show up to work in groups and collaborate to solve problems and create apps. And that’s very cool.”

Liu was inspired to host a local hackathon from others he knew of and attended, and he wanted to bring the concept to the high school level. But first he needed to convince school officials, including the Fulton County School board.

“A lot of people don’t like the word hack, but a hackathon is a bunch of friends getting together to hack away at a project,” said Liu. “They could be working on a common problem or creating something. For me, hacking means a way of expressing my interests and sharing them with others, but there aren’t a lot of places for that sort of interaction. But it was hard to get people on board. People thought we were going to hack the school.”

Liu was inspired to host an event after attending a 24-hour version during the summer at the Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead.

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“We wound up with 40 high schoolers who worked round the clock on different projects, and it was such fun, I wanted to do it again,” he said. “People brought in their sleeping bags, computers and chargers and had a great time.”

Liu enlisted the help of friends Aditya Sood, a freshman at the University of Georgia, and Sood’s brother, Nitish, to plan the event and win the school’s support to take over the gym for 12 hours.

About 100 students from Fulton County high schools brought their laptops, computer monitors, keyboards and other smaller devices and an interest in learning more about the creative uses of technology at a 12-hour event 9 a.m. on Oct. 10.

“We wanted it to be something high school students would be interested in, which is why we wanted it to be hosted by students, not a company,” said Liu. “They could come in and work on whatever they wanted, and we also had presenters discussing how to write code in Java, how to build a website and how to put data into Javascript. It was a day of learning and workshops.”

Among the projects worked on during the event was a mobile app to evaluate cars for purchase and another offer restaurant suggestions close to where friends want to meet up. But Liu’s goal is to host a 24-hour hackathon in the spring when students will have enough time to complete a project in one session.

“There really isn’t enough time in a half-day,” he said.

Hatcher said the hackathon was a great way to extend the work from lessons that take place in the classroom.

“It’s really taking programming to a new level,” he said. “And it was completely student-driven. After seeing the caliber of the students who were here that day, and the kinds of projects they were working on, I think it will be much easier to do it again.”

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