With buzz building like a baking soda-vinegar volcano at a science fair, this past September, nearly 100 high school students packed into the eBay Innovation Center in New York, NY, for the 2nd annual Space Apps Next Generation hackathon. I found myself surrounded by dozens of young civic hackers – most too young to even vote for the next U.S. president – brazenly exploring how they can harness publicly available open data in the name of NASA’s out-of-this-world data innovation efforts.
“The kids were motivated to attend because the event provided a nurturing environment, in which they could learn to build something awesome with their friends,” says Justin Brezhnev, Executive Director of Hacker Fund, one of the event’s partner organizations. “Teens like to get involved because hackathons provide a learning experience that has low barriers to entry.”
The event’s most impressive quality? Its ability to generate a level of attention from teens that any teacher would envy. While participants exchanged stories about the stress of standardized tests, homework assignments and college applications, they lit up with excitement for the hackathon’s challenge areas, which encouraged them to utilize NASA’s open data, to create hardware hacks and to build their own video games.
“I think a hackathon shows that their dreams are possible,” says New York University alum and data science analyst Vinicius Granja, on why he thinks the event is able to keep kids’ attention, despite a growing list of on-and off-line distractions. He added that, when given access to the data and tools to achieve, the most curious and resourceful young, civic hackers wouldn’t be able to resist engaging.
Following Space Apps Next Gen, I connected with Eva Snyder, a Mount Holyoke computer science undergraduate student and founder of the HackHolyoke hackathon, currently in its fourth year. HackHolyoke strives for a 1:1 gender ratio and has successfully engaged a growing, diverse community of first-time hackathon attendees each year.
“People are really intimidated to go to their first hacks, and it can be scary for people who have never programmed before,” shares Snyder. “We provide a lot of experience, supplies and workshops, so people can come and work with friends, artists, designers, English majors and history majors, across different disciplines. We want people to collaborate and create hacks that are truly disruptive.”
Brezhnev, known for sporting a fun, non-intimidating cat onesie to capture the attention of the youngest students while inspiring them to engage in tech, shares his own advice for organizations looking to engage this next generation of data innovators: “Be cool. Be fun. Be patient.”
One thing is certain: There’s no perfect formula for inspiring young minds to change the world. Thankfully, the civic tech community at Space Apps Next Gen, as well as the folks at Hacker Fund and HackHolyoke, are willing to experiment.