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