How We Ran a Student Hackathon Online

This education provider that teaches students to code ran its first hackathon virtually and drew more than a hundred young participants in a two-day event.

The Coronavirus-induced lockdown has not only made the classroom go digital, but also onsite events too, such as hackathons that are adapting to the situation and switching to an online format. YoungWonks' recent kids' hackathon — its first and entirely online version — shows how this can be achieved.

YoungWonks, an after-school coding program headquartered out of California, has always used technology to come up with solutions for real-life problems. That approach isn't just part of the curriculum being taught to the students who go through the program, but it has become a motto of sorts for the staff as well. Which explains why YoungWonks didn't hesitate to shift during the pandemic to entirely online events.

In June, we hosted our bi-annual CCI ("Code Create Innovate") Fair, essentially an online project fair similar to a school science fair. That event saw participation from 100-plus student exhibitors showing off their engineering and coding projects. Students and parents from around the world could check out the exhibits and ask the presenters questions in real-time on video chat.

So it only made sense that we would also host our first-ever hackathon entirely online. Called "HackDay July 2020," the hackathon took place on July 25 and 26, 2020, drawing more than a hundred students on both days.

Hackathon Basics

A hackathon is a coding marathon — typically spanning a weekend — where people collaborate to create projects. At student hackathons, not only do students get together to build things, but they also often attend workshop presentations that can help them hone their programming skills and have fun at the same time. While hackathons include the word "hack," that doesn't mean students are "hacking" servers. The word hack here denotes coding so as to build apps, games and websites. These hackathons are safe, supervised and educational.

In our case, YoungWonks' teachers, with support from the company's software development team, have always pursued superior student engagement, be it one-on-one or group online instruction. We wanted the same for our first hackathon. The two-day event consisted of a coding challenge and a theme-based project segment. We opened it to YoungWonks students across three age groups: below and up to 9 years; ages 10 and 11; and ages 12 and above.

The Coding Challenge

Aravind Athreya, instructor and developer at YoungWonks, had clear directions for the software solution he was going to create: The platform would be an extension of the student portal, which would act as the interface for the Coding Challenge component of the hackathon. (That portal is built on school management software developed by EdOptim, which is owned, alongside YoungWonks, by technology company WonksKnow.)

"The idea was to have an interface that would allow an instructor to post questions one-by-one," he explained. "After each question, students would have to submit their answers within a certain deadline. Students would be able to share multiple answers and everyone on the portal would see the number of lines of code posted by each student until the time ran out, after which all the answers would be displayed on the screen."

To test the interface, we did a dry run a few days before the hackathon and asked several students to answer coding questions in real-time.

The Questions for the Coding Challenge

Rohit Budania, also an instructor and developer at YoungWonks, was entrusted with the job of coming up with questions for the coding challenge.

"While drawing up the questions, no priority was given to students from any one age group. This is because some students are young and yet they know a lot. Keeping this in mind, it was decided to have all students answer the same set of questions," he explained. The main objective: to test students' basic programming knowledge.

Rohit came up with five questions covering fundamental computer science programming concepts, critical thinking and computational logic. We based these on the same concepts that are taught to students at YoungWonks:

  • Data types;

  • Built-in functions (input, print, len and range);

  • Data type conversion;

  • Operators;

  • Conditional statements;

  • Random module;

  • For loops, while loops and loop control;

  • String operations and methods

  • Lists;

  • Dictionaries; and

  • User-defined functions.

As he noted, "I chalked up questions that even merged key concepts together. The main focus was on Python since it is a popular coding language and is also covered extensively in our curriculum. The emphasis was not so much on syntax but on solving the problem itself."

How the Event Unfolded

On day one of the hackathon, 195 people — including 122 participating students — joined a Zoom meeting. The event kicked off with the coding challenge, where students had to log on to the YoungWonks student portal.

One by one, coding questions were posted on the student portal, and students were given 10 minutes to write their code in response. The students had to answer in real time under pseudonyms assigned by the portal. They could even improve their code and post it again. While the answers remained hidden for the entire 10 minutes, they were displayed on the portal when the time was up, allowing students to discuss them at the Zoom meeting.

According to Rohit, finalists were chosen after all five questions had been shared and answered. "During our assessment, we kept an eye out for not just correct code that would run, but also for correct code that was written in the least number of lines and in the minimum possible time," he explained. "For instance, where students shared multiple answers within the 10-minute time limit, we went through all their entries to get an understanding of their grasp over the relevant concepts."

The coding challenge was followed by the "thematic project" segment, where students were asked to come up with interesting projects on recycling and/or global warming. Students had to submit their projects by 10 p.m. Pacific Time, giving them about 10 hours to do the work. By the time the deadline had arrived, more than 100 projects had been submitted.

Finalists from this round were announced on day two, and each finalist went on to demonstrate his or her project.

Instructors had a tough time picking the finalists. The submissions spanned multiple topics covered in the YoungWonks curriculum: video game making and general-purpose input/output (circuits), data science and machine learning, web development and mobile app development.

Criteria included alignment with the theme, successful implementation, presentation (how the product looked and felt), originality, code review and optimal use of concepts that students had learned in their classes.

Among the submissions were these standouts:

  • One impressive data science project used free data sets from Kaggle and the Matplotlib graph on Tkinter to track global warming in any given city over a designated period.

  • A web development project used Flask in a web app to help people donate their used items to reduce manufacturing and consumption of new stuff, thereby decreasing carbon footprint.

  • Another web page project, titled "Save the Planet," allowed people to register, create an account and calculate their daily energy consumption; it also included ways to reduce one's energy consumption.

  • In the mobile app development category, one of the projects submitted used Google's user interface toolkit Flutter to create an Android and iOS-friendly game app. The player in the game needs to drag and drop as many items as possible into the correct recycle bin — organic, plastic, metal, ewaste, glass, paper etc. — within the given time. The app included a built-in guide to show a range of items and the recycling bins each of them belongs to.

  • On the circuit side, one student developed an Arduino light sensor/detector that would go on and off in a shoebox when the lid was opened or closed.

  • And another student created a GPIO video game controller for a space game — complete with "Recycling Man" as the superhero.

  • There were several video game submissions. One 3D mission game made with Unity game engine provoked notice for its hand-painted assets, as did a PyGame bottle collector game and a Unity/Unreal trash sorter game.

Barna De, parent of a 13-year-old finalist, was impressed by how well thought out the projects were. "The projects were high quality with some bigger goal in that each could be expanded for some real-life application," she said.

Added Amit Kumar Sarwal, whose 12-year-old son was also a finalist, "The problems and challenges selected were age-appropriate and sufficiently challenging for the kids. It was good to see a large number of participants. I really enjoyed the presentations on the second day. I feel that this event has helped my son become more interested in programming, and he now has some nice ideas on what he could do."

Emphasis on Maker Culture

While most hackathons encourage a culture of winning, YoungWonks' HackDay July 2020 put its emphasis on maker culture and learning from each other. For this reason, finalists were announced, but not winners. A total of 15 finalists were chosen out of 122 participants in the coding challenge, and 27 finalists were shortlisted from the theme-based project submissions.

"At YoungWonks, our instructors do not just focus on teaching kids professional-level computer science concepts, but they also make sure that their students can work with those concepts to create products based on their own ideas and imagination," said Vishal Raina, CEO, founder and senior instructor at YoungWonks. "Getting the kids to grow that kind of innovative and entrepreneurial mindset will only equip them to become successful inventors and entrepreneurs in the future. Seeing these students use their computer science knowledge to create professional-level projects within hours during YoungWonks HackDay offered teachers, including me, a preview of that future and it left us with this feeling of satisfaction that is a reward unto itself."