Why schools should encourage students to go to Hackathons

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of mentoring at #AcornHack by Acorn Aspirations, part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. For those who haven’t heard of Acorn Aspirations, it’s a Social Enterprise that is provides mentoring for schools, hackathons and a crowd funding platform for school entrepreneurs. It was a fitting end to the weeks’ events.

There were 11 teams of eclectic ideas touching on wildly different subjects including the tough subject of Mental Health in teenagers by the Clione team who deservedly won the Social Enterprise Award. Most of the teams had never coded previously but even those who had or do didn’t necessarily have the skills for them to build a demonstrable product in 2 days so a team of voluntary developers were on hand to assist. There were a raft of practical workshops that covered different aspects of successfully building a startup including learning to code in python.

The immediate observation I made when I went round talking to the kids was that they were mainly from East London. So, at the end of the event I raised this with lovely @elena_sinel, Founder of Acorn Aspirations. There was a very simple answer, she found it impossible to engage with the schools, although she contacted 30+ only a handful actually responded. Ah, the perennial problem of nepotism. Those working in EdTech are all too familiar with how hard it is penetrate this sector if you haven’t work in it previously.

Bearing in mind that this is an enterprise that supports the schools however, you might expect them to be a little more responsive. Unfortunately, this is a deep seated cultural issue. My daughters went to, what was reported by Ofsted as an “outstanding” school yet when it came to alternative learning programmes especially things like Science, Maths or Engineering challenges, Dragons Den style business challenges etc targeted at Secondary school children, they simply did not get involved. I recall a Science challenge that we found out about, my oldest told her Science teacher who, it turns out, knew about the challenge yet it wasn’t been promoted to the students. She was nit impressed and needless to say, she didn’t take part she didn’t manage to put a team together.

As for anything coding related, the likes of Stemettes, Girls Who Code, Coder Dojo, Code Club etc have a limited impact in the bigger scheme of things on schools. It’s normally a teacher in the school who initiates a partnership, often in the face of much resistance. Online tools like Code Academy, Code Avengers, Udacity or even Khan Academy, these are normally self-discovered by the kids themselves, through family or friends. Scratch has successfully made into some Primary Schools though. I make it my business to teach my kids tech but I’m in the minority. The average parent use and touch technology everyday without even realising it much less be able teach their kids anything about it.

The UK is faced with a huge technological skill gap that will only get bigger as Software voraciously continues to eat the world. Whilst I accept that there is a lack of skilled teachers to teach ICT and Computing skills for the current world in which we find ourselves, the lack of support for opportunities that expose students to technology and entrepreneurship is inexcusable.

Schools in London have the huge advantage of been at the heart of UK’s startup hub offering a plethora of events, spaces, programmes, hackathons and groups for schools to take advantage of. These opportunities not present invaluable learning experiences for their students but is a potential short term resolution to the teaching skills gap currently experienced by schools.

For kids, Hackathons are more than just a competition. It enables them to view the world through different eyes, allowing them to think about some key societal, community or business problems that frustrates them or they are passionate about then create a proposition around this. Working in groups outside of the normal classroom constraints is a fantastic lesson in team building, communication and flexibility. Academic abilities have no place in Hackathons and for those who can’t code, it’s an opportunity to learn from tech mentors who do this every day (one of the girls stayed up until 2am coding a prototype having never coded before). The lessons they learn from talking to a wide variety of mentors who pick their ideas apart, force them to resolve challenges that they hadn’t previously considered, the discovery that they have a natural aptitude for this coding lark even though they’ve only been doing it for 24 hours, the realisation that there are a slew of career options that were not even on their radar before and that they now have connections that could prove game changing for them as an inner city kid, are things that only support the educational process.

A little anecdote from the weekend. When congratulating the @_NaturalNetwork team, one them said their deputy head teacher didn’t get the idea. Another girl said so nor did her mum. I responded when you go to school tomorrow, go to that deputy head, show him Mike Butcher’s profile emphasising that he’s the most authoritative voice in the European startup scene and tell him what Mike said. Not only did he say it was a brilliant idea but he joked that they probably wouldn’t make it TechCrunch Disrupt (they’ve been invited) because they’d be too busy IPO’ing by then.

To the naysayers and non-believers, Natural Network won the I Can’t Believe It Doesn’t Exist and Most Investible Idea Award.

Does your school actively encourage these kinds of activities? Have you successfully collaborated with similar organisations to increase tech skills in your school? Share your story