Kavita Kapoor MBCS talks about running a hack and inspiring young people to code.

A fellow ISG committee member recently talked about the importance of young people learning to code. I completely agree with him, as do my new friends at Micro:Bit who think in the future every child will be an inventor. In their presentation at Bett last month they discussed a government report that says:

  • 22 per cent of IT equipment in schools is ineffective;
  • Just 35 per cent of computer science teachers had a relevant qualification;
  • Only 70 per cent of the required number of computer science teachers have been recruited.

For sometime these types of report have troubled me and I have been trying to figure out what I could do to make a change without becoming a teacher. I think I might have part of the answer: Run a hack - an intense period of time coding in teams with a single, shared goal, ideally with some nice young people.

I thought running a hack would be horribly hard, but took on the challenge when the charity CORE (where I am trustee) were asked to stage a technology outreach programme for their sponsoring partner (a very well known global investment bank). The bank supplied the technical volunteers and we had to do the rest, i.e., creating the format, finding the schools and running the event. What follows is our journey and practical advice on creating your own hack event.

Set a hack day goal

The hardest part turned out to be corralling everyone’s high ambitions into a manageable mission statement. We settled on two aims. Firstly, to fulfil the bank’s objective, namely imparting technology skills to children. The secondly, to promote new healthcare software applications, tying into CORE’s mission to be a radically innovative health charity. Once we had our aims we could set the goal - a hack to create a health tech product.

Setting a goal allows you to talk about the day quickly, which helps in attracting the right participants: young people, schools and mentors who share your purpose.

Finding those young people

You might have a few hanging around the house and it makes sense to organise them and their friends. Our charity has been working with Hackney Council for a long time and they kindly introduced us to a range of local secondary schools.

Working with schools can be tricky. Your key contact is often in the classroom and will just have an hour for email, calls and chats at the end of the day. Schools also have holidays. Our biggest learning was to be openly flexible about time frames as it took us several attempts to lock into the school calendar. Eventually we did.

Choose the duration

Part of locking in a date was based on determining how long the hack would last. The best hacks I have attended have been overnight; not very productive, but a lot of fun. By working with children you open up all types of complications including CRB checking. Also children are every busy and they can’t skip many days from school. This meant for our hack we were limited to a single school day.

Choosing the technology

Having such a short hack makes choosing the right technology paramount. Thanks to the changes in the curriculum in recent years school children have been learning to program. They tend to use visual programming languages with drag and drop feature such as those found in Scratch. To decide what technology to use we simply asked the school and got the following list:

JSbin https://jsbin.com/?html,output
Codeacademy https://www.codecademy.com/
code.org https://code.org/
Micro:bit https://www.microbit.co.uk/
Blockly (Usually to introduce logic steps) https://blockly-games.appspot.com/?lang=en
Tynker https://www.tynker.com/

What jumped out at me was the BBC Micro:Bit. As a British child I am indebted to the BBC Micro and spotted an opportunity to play with its current incarnation. A device that fits in a child’s hand and has the following features:

  • 5x5 LED display;
  • can be battery or usb cable powered;
  • holes for banana plugs, and pads for crocodile clips;
  • a magnetometer;
  • an accelerometer;
  • a reset button.

I pulled in a couple of connections and two emails later had a promise of 25 Micro:Bit’s. As the BBC has distributed one million of these devices we knew the schools had a few hanging around. As a backup I asked my local Maplins to keep me a stock.

Work with the technology you are given, but if you get a chance to pick, then go with something that you passionate about. It goes without saying if you are excited then your hack day audience will also be fired up.

Creating some examples

It is important to go into the hack day armed with some great examples. You will need to refresh the young people’s memories and you may have to teach the adults in the room how to code the device.

Micro:Bit have a great website. My demo consisted of showing how the online IDE can be accessed, how to pull in an example compile, and deploy the code onto the device. We turned the Micro:Bit into a step-o-meter using the accelerometer to count steps, which became the basis of the hacks on the day.

Coming up with hack idea on the day might be daunting so make sure you have some ideas to get people started.

Get some great volunteers to create a great team

Again we had a head start as the sponsoring bank sent us their Java developers and product owners, all of whom were eager to have a day of work. None of whom had used a Micro:Bit. We asked the room to self organise into teams and insisted that each team had an adult; after that we didn’t treat the volunteers any differently to the young people.

I was surprised by how many of my day-to-day co-workers were keen to volunteer and could easily have staffed the day with adults. If you find the idea of leading 30 children then it is sensible to get some other knowledgeable adults in the room to help you.

Location, location, location

You have to run your hack day in some kind of space. Here is the checklist of what that space needs, something I wish I had known before I started planning.

  • Great wifi
  • Lots of power
  • Access to out door space
  • A big screen for presentations
  • Catering and space to eat
  • Good transport
  • Accessibility

This list might seem simple but as we looked for possible locations it became apparent that really only the school could supply the whole list and they did so without charging. In addition, the school provided CRB teachers that allowed us to avoid a lot of additional paperwork for the day.

Have an inspirational speaker

Another part of unplanned genius was inviting some friends and co-workers to come speak. Karen Sandler (executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy) happens to be a cyborg. She talked eloquently about her pace maker and how having code control her heart had changed they way she thinks about open source. Our audience were completely receptive.

I strongly recommend getting in someone who is inspirational and can bring together the themes of the day. It saves you from doing all the talking and being solely inspirational. It may help to show some the young people diversity in the industry. It is your main opportunity to talk about the merits of learning to code and the places that it can take people in life regardless of their starting point.

Go all ‘Bake Off’

Once the teams are set up, the example shown, the inspirational talk done, and everyone knows where the loos are, it is finally time to get coding. You will want a presentation to get you and the audience to this point.

For the rest of the day I suggest that you borrow from TV. There is a reason why competitive TV shows are compelling and by borrowing the format you can certainly energise the room. We had our key individuals circulating the room, interviewing the teams, taking photos and every so often announcing the count down; creating a tension in the proceedings while keeping the fun.

Be judgemental

Borrowing from the TV format we also had a formal presentation and judging panel. We kept our inspirational speaker and paired them with a formidable head teacher from the school. This meant we followed the TV format of having a lovely and a tough judge.

The results

The first event was held at Hackney New School in October last year. The winning idea was a working posture corrector, using not one but two Micro:Bit’s. Incredibility clever.

Several of the children approached us on the day to say that they could see themselves working in technology and asked about mentors and how much money they could earn. Equally the school’s heads and other local schools have been in touch asking if we could run the event again.

Go do it.

Read this far? Thinking of running a hack day? You should absolutely do it. It is incredibly rewarding.
Find Kavita Kapoor Bcs(Hons) Msc MBCS at kavitakapoor.org