Innovating to Educate: Hackathons Coming to Early College STEM Schools

Spring STEM Launch “Aquabotics” with After School Matters and Columbia College

“So, what are we doing next year?”

Students from Lake View High School asked me this with an eager tone after Summer STEM Launch camp wrapped up on August 24th.  With high expectations of hearing something bigger and better, these students were excited to know what STEM enrichment programs could be anticipated for the upcoming school year.  If you’ve ever worked with students you quickly realize they observe everything, force you to stay sharp and hold you accountable for decisions that impact their educational experience.  They are consumers of educational products we supply and as a direct consumer of my enrichment program offerings, these students, whether they realized it or not, were pressuring me to innovate.  So, what are we doing next year?  Well, we’re going to level-up.

Summer STEM Launch camp robotics presentation at Robert Morris University

Over the past three years, students and teachers at the five Early College STEM Schools (ECSS) have enjoyed clubs that engage in robotics, app design, science experiments and tech challenges that take place after school.  Additionally, schools participated in a series of quarterly “STEM Launch” events in which we collaborated with college partners to engage students in hands-on STEM activities and expose them to college and career opportunities.  To give some examples, these day-long events saw students build pumpkin throwing catapults at the Illinois Institute of Technology during Fall STEM Launch, program Makey Makey’s as turntables to mix their own beats at Truman College during Winter STEM Launch, and build submersible robots at Columbia College with After School Matters during Spring STEM Launch.  The culminating event was the two-week long Summer STEM Launch camp at Robert Morris University where the student market forces demanded innovation. So what is STEM Launch version 2.0 going to look like this year?  In a name, Hood Hacks.  

Winning team Lake View H.S. at the Community and Safety App Hackathon with Chicago P.D. at 1871.

Winning team Lake View H.S. at the Community and Safety App Hackathon with Chicago P.D. at 1871.

Working at the intersection of technology and education, I am witness to the speed at which technology progresses and constantly challenged to provide relevant education.  In December of 2015 we collaborated with the Chicago Police Department to hold a Community and Safety App Hackathon. Held at 1871, approximately 80 students attended to design and pitch app prototype ideas to a panel of industry leaders.  This event proved so successful and received such positive student, school and corporate partner feedback that another hackathon was held this summer during the Googlepalooza event with equally high praise.  Following the success of both events, the idea and decision was made to design Hood Hacks. This will be a series of frequent, small scale hackathons and design think activities that leverage technology to address important and relevant issues and will be held at the schools themselves. Hood Hacks will be school-based in order to make it easy for students to attend and impact the maximum number of student possible.  Past events were held off school grounds on weekends making travel, safety and commitment a hurdle which limited participation. Each school will host up to 3 Hood Hacks per year may invite a nearby ECSS school to participate. The size, however, will be limited because it is logistically easier and more resource efficient to implement. Though not mandatory, schools will also be encouraged and supported in developing student led Hack Clubs to participate in Hood Hacks and other related events.  As a result of Hood Hacks, students and teams with advanced skills will be invited to participate in larger hackathons throughout the city hosted by corporate and community partners.  

While the 2-week Summer STEM Launch camp and the 4-day Spring STEM Launch camp will continue this year, the Hood Hacks will fill a growing area of interests and needs. Hood Hacks will carry the collaborative approach as its predecessor hackathons and act as a platform on which corporate partners such as Microsoft can engage schools and students and further build important partnerships.  I would like to personally extend the invitation to all organizations in technology who may be interested in collaborating with us as volunteers, mentors, or in-kind donors to reach out.  We are forever grateful to have the generous support and encouragement from corporate and community partners to ensure that our students receive valuable, educational and impactful opportunities to become the next generation of leaders and innovators.

james-headshotJames Richmond is a Project Manager for STEM Programs at Chicago Public Schools in the Office of College and Career Success.  An experienced educator and consultant, he has lived in Spain and Turkey and earned an M.A. in International Education and Development from New York University.  James moved to Chicago as an Education Pioneers Fellow where he fell into the nexus of technology and education and is happy he did.  Believing technology and innovative experiences improve student achievement, James is thrilled to work with teams and companies dedicated to making a difference in education. When he’s not working, you can expect to see James running the Lake Front Path, riding with his cycling team or checking out hackathons.

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