Video made by kids at Hack for Western Mass 2013
This year at Hack for Western Mass, we’re including a youth hackathon. We will be making wildflower seed bombs, building robots, doing yoga and mixed-martial arts, building virtual worlds in Minecraft, hula-hooping, creating stop-motion animations, making worm composting bins, programming Scratch games, and more!
We work hard to have a local community focus, and we’re partnering with local organizations to work on issues of homelessness, literacy, and food security among other things. It’s an impressive (and still growing) list of challenges, and I’m really excited that so many people want to contribute their time to work on these projects.
Many of the talented people who come to volunteer their valuable time to build solutions for our local partner organizations have families and struggle with childcare while they are hacking on community projects. Many people tell me they’d love to come to the hackathon, but it’s too hard to figure out what to do with their kids. A whole weekend of childcare is expensive! Part of the impetus for organizing a youth hackathon comes from our desire to provide a way for these people to participate. We’re excited to be able to offer kids fun and interesting activities to keep them entertained while their parents are busy building things.
Even more importantly, the youth hackathon offers ways that young people can contribute. There are many smart, creative young people with skills and ideas that can be useful in creating amazing things. Many of these kids have been using technology all their lives and have a proficiency that is unmatched. They come with a unique perspective: sometimes they don’t know that something “can’t be done” and figure out a new way that it can.
Developing a culture of civic hacking is the most important reason to hold a youth hackathon. Many people feel that they can’t make a difference. There are many difficult problems that we face in the world; it’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed. One reason voter turnout in elections is so low, for instance, is that people believe their vote doesn’t really matter. Providing opportunities where young people can engage and contribute in meaningful ways is one way we can start to show people that they can make a difference. They can act to make their communities better.
We’re partnering with Girls, Inc. of Holyoke to bring some of the girls in their STEM program to work on challenges at Hack for Western Mass. Their mission to “inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold by providing them the opportunity to develop and achieve their full potential” fits in well with the kind of community we are aiming to build. We are working to prepare the kids for what to expect at the hackathon and to build useful skills for working on challenges and applying to future endeavors.
We’re also offering a multi-generational challenge to further encourage the development of this civic hacking culture. By encouraging adults and young people to work collaboratively, we hope to leverage their skills in a way that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. The Fish Lift Challenge partners young Scratch programmers with data analysts, web developers, and fisheries biologists. I imagine we’ll find that we have a lot to learn from each other and will create something unique together.
The most important hack at the hackathon is building community. Western Massachusetts will be a better place after we’ve built a “Food Finder App” and a “Homelessness Dashboard” and a “Literacy Network.” But it will be even better because we will have built a stronger community of people who believe they can make a difference. These kids who come to hack will grow into adults who will continue to believe that what they do matters, and they will continue to make a difference.