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.
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.
recent kids' hackathon — its first and entirely online version —
shows how this can be achieved.
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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:
functions (input, print, len and range);
while loops and loop control;
operations and methods
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
submissions were these standouts:
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
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
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,"
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
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
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