How to Put Together a Hackathon for Your Students

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to put together a hackathon since they saw the news clip of students and teachers at EE Taylor Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina. Hosting the hackathon was a wonderful opportunity to expose students in my district to something new.

Based on all the questions I got, I put together this quick “how-to” guide on how other educators can put together their own hackathon.

What’s a hackathon?

First off, don’t be daunted by the word “hackathon.” People might hear the work “hack” and have negative thoughts, but this type of “hack” is awesome. While it’s a word that used to have a bad rap, it’s now used to identify any kind of collaborative event where people come together to creatively problem-solve an issue. In other words, it doesn’t need to involve computers, coding, and technology – but the one that I hosted did.

Our fourth graders, who were currently studying the solar system, created games based on their favorite planet. They had to draw their planet, list everything they knew about it, and then create five multiple choice questions for a Speed Up activity (a game-based activity in SMART lab). Because they did so well, students got to create a Fill in the Blank and Rank Order activity, too (also in SMART lab).

Our fifth graders demonstrated what they knew about adding and subtracting fractions, and what they knew about mixtures and solutions. Similar to the fourth grade students, they had to list everything they knew about their topic and then create five multiple choice questions for a Speed Up activity. At the end of the three days, each grade level had the opportunity to present to the other students in their grade level.

If you’ve never hosted one before, here’s what you need to know to get started:

Hosting a hackathon is pretty basic. There are really no special skills needed. The biggest thing is having the idea and being comfortable with the software/program you are going to use, if you’re using any. Remember, the ultimate goal is having students collaborate to create something.

  • Set out the goal:

    • Identify what you want the students to accomplish.
  • Invite the participants:

    • We collaborated individually within the school, but hackathons can be done globally (SMART Learning Suite, Skype or Google Hangouts, are all great tools to connect and collaborate with others).
  • Demonstrate:

    • If you’re using software (like in my instance), show your students examples so they can get started.
  • Set the timeframe:

    • I would recommend having a clear timeframe in mind. Don’t try to take on too much the first time. Less is more!
      • Our hackathon lasted three days. But ultimately, it is up to the educator. Hackathons could run over a period of several weeks where students are working on projects a little each week. Or they can run several days in a row with students working on the project each day.
  • Identify the tools needed:

    • This really depends on what you are doing. In my case, we used a computer lab with SMART Notebook loaded on each student’s computer.
  • Throw out the rules and the grades:

    • Let your students decide what they are going to do and let them have at it. This is where 21st century learning really kicks in. Students use their critical thinking skills to problem solve, work together, and present what they learned. For instance, they might need to research to get more information in order to complete the task at hand, as well as communicate and collaborate with other students and the adults running the event.
  • Present:

    • Even if you aren’t doing a technology-focused hackathon, remember to include time to do a demonstration or presentation at the end. It’s your chance to discover what your students learned as they present their topic to others. It’s almost the best part of the whole event. We used Notebook for presentations at the front of the room. Everything was saved on one flash drive.

One of the main reasons I was so passionate about bringing the hackathon to Columbia is because it directly relates to my district’s technology initiatives. We have currently rolled out laptops to all students in grades 3-12, in all 52 schools in my district. We are also in the midst of a Digital Learning Cohort at several our schools to transform how the technology itself is actually being used within the classroom. The hackathon itself tied directly into this.

So if you’re at work on transforming how technology is being used in your school or district, host a hackathon! You’ll be glad you did. Due to the success of ours, we look forward to bringing it back to Columbia next year!

Transform how your school uses technology. Put your hackathon together with SMART Learning Suite

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Jennifer Thornsberry
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About Jennifer Thornsberry

Jennifer Thornsberry is a Technology Integration Specialist in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s a SMART Exemplary Educator and SMART Certified Trainer, as well as a Discovery STAR educator, Class Dojo Mentor and Renaissance Place Extraordinary Educator. It’s one of her greatest wishes that every child has the opportunity to learn in a safe environment.

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6 thoughts on “How to Put Together a Hackathon for Your Students

  1. This is AMAZING! I”m so glad that the SMART people were there to SEE it and you got such great coverage of it. Great job!!

  2. This is AMAZING! I’m so glad that the SMART people were there to SEE it and you got such great coverage of it. Great job!!

  3. It is a great way to engage students, allow them to learn together and from each other as well as to differentiate and stimulate all levels.

  4. Sounds great. As a science classroom activity, I had several simple topics and allowed students to create notebook presentations about that topic and then present them to the class. Students enjoyed the interactive smart notebook files. They enjoyed learning and creating and presenting.

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