Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Adventures of the Mind

Public speaking has led to my different adventures for me. I gave an Ignite talk on hackathons at Google I/O 2012, sharing the stage with my former boss Peter Norvig. He was mentoring at Adventures of the Mind two years ago, which expanded to include a hackathon this year. He introduced me to the organizers to help run the hackathon, and that was how I got to mentor almost 200 brilliant high school students last week.


Kick off

I ran the hackathon with Mayank Jain, who has been organizing hackathons for high school students under Pilot. The Adventures of the Mind edition followed the same format as Pilot. Students can choose whatever language and platform they want, and go through with team formation, workshops, coding and pitching in 24 hours. I was not sure if that would work, especially since most of the students had no coding experience, and we only had 10 hours. Mayank assured me that previous events went quite well, and students were able to achieve quite a bit in a short amount of time. So we kept the Pilot format.

We started the hackathon with workshops. Cheston from mashery led an HTML5 one, and I led an Android one. We emailed instructions ahead of time asking the students to set up Xcode for iOS, Android Studio for Android, or a text editor for html/javascript on that laptop, and go through some tutorials. But naturally some people did not get a chance to do it, others struggled with installation problems. Many people had Java problems on their Windows computers, but I wasn't able to help them since I don't have Windows, and was not familiar with the failure cases.

After a while I made a radical decision: I switched to App Inventor. I was going to teach App Inventor the week after Adventures of the Mind anyway, so I already had a lesson plan. That went much more smoothly since the setup was much simpler: no install, no drivers. With that, the students were ready to write their own apps.

During the day the mentors went around to help the students, but we did not have enough mentors: only 5 mentors, and almost 200 kids. A batch of mentors dropped out last minute, and it was very difficult to find replacement on such short notice, especially since the hackathon was on a Tuesday. As a result I was only able to help a few teams, and felt very bad about the other teams that I could not help.

Despite all the struggles, the students really wowed us during the presentation. Here is a sample of their apps:

#feedtheworld: a website to direct recycling money to charities

Mind Scan: barcode scanner to exchange contact information

TravelPilot: recommend an itinerary for any destination

Overall the hackathon was rather well. A lot of students came up with wonderful ideas, learned to code, and demoed their app. But some teams could not finish their app because of technical hurdles, not knowing if their idea would be complicated to implement, and lack of guidance in general. If I were to do this again I would make sure we have a lot more mentors.


The hackathon was just one part of this week-long program. There was a lot of interesting sessions. Here are some highlights:

Danny Oppenheimer on perception

Jini Kim on fixing healthcare.gov

Jennifer Shahade playing chess against 15 students at the same time

Nancy Segal and her twin research


We also got to visit quite a few interesting places in Los Angeles:

Autry Museum

LA Zoo

Gamble House. I love all the different wood texture.

JPL: we got to see the mission control room!

My first summer camp

It was really cool to hang out with all these smart kids, visit interesting places, and also get to know the other mentors. Come to think of it, this is actually my very first summer camp! I made many new friends, just like the students :)

With Nancy Segal

With Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn

With Amy Tan, her husband, and their dogs.

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