This past weekend, I decided to try something new: I participated in a hackathon. I had heard about this event through my IML class and when I learned that you didn't need any coding/programing experience to apply, I thought it would be great to just see what these events are all about. So, I recruited two fellow educators to join me (Christopher Perez & Sharla Berry) for this 2-day event sponsored by the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab called: CRUNCH Hackathon - Urban Connectivity - Mobile Apps & the Internet of Things.
My colleagues and I really had no idea what we were getting into. We were the first ones to arrive at the WeWork Hollywood building around 10:30am on Friday. We had never been in a "makerspace" before, but the atmosphere alone felt welcoming and creative. Soon after, the rest of the hackathon participants arrived, many of them communications, engineers, and computer science majors/backgrounds. And then there was us. We then realized that even though not everyone had come in with a fellow team member for a project, everyone had arrived with a project in mind. Our group, however, had no idea what we would want to work on. Although we do have extensive backgrounds in education-related topics, we had a hard time thinking about what we could produce for this event.
Andrew Schrock, one of the event organizers, presented on our two options of what we could work on during our hackathon time. One option was to develop a mobile app that centered on urban connectivity, while our other option was to repurpose and/or reimagine an LA Times newspaper box. Once the general presentation was over, he let us loose and we all went to our respective corners to start brainstorming (but for most groups, to continue brainstorming!). It was about 1pm when we started talking about possible ideas, and after discussing a number of them, we decided to focus on the newspaper box as a wifi hotspot and integrating consumer deals/coupons and local news and community events---basically we were all over the place but in that moment we felt so creative! Two hours into our creative session, Andrew came over to our group to see how we were doing, and well...he gave us a much needed pep talk and we hit the drawing board again. While we were re-brainstorming, Kurling Robinson, a USC alum and hackathon supporter, approached us to give us additional feedback, helping us think more like entrepreneurs, which is something none of us were used to. Kurling suggested that we first identity a problem and work our way backwards to developing a product that can serve as a solution. By the end of Friday night, we had an idea that each of us were incredibly excited for, which combined our passions for college access, connectivity, and supporting underserved communities who could use such a digital tool. We left around 8pm, completing the rest of the work on our own. We had a lot to do given that we were going to present our idea to a team of judges the very next morning!
Saturday morning came, and our team was back at WeWork Hollywood by 10:30am putting the finishing touches on our PowerPoint and prototype. We presented on our mobile app prototype aimed at connecting local higher education resources to local students/families in need of such services. Six teams presented in total. The judges ranged from USC professors to LA Times representatives.
The USC Annenberg Lab twitter account was documenting the presentations as they happened Saturday morning. Seeing what everyone came up with was exciting, especially in how creative each team was in reimaginging and repurposing the LA Times newspaper box. We ended up presenting last due to technical difficulties, but to present our idea and get such positive/constructive feedback (despite not winning) and seeing how people saw a need for our product was such a great experience. Had we won the competition, it would have been such a wonderful ending to a weekend spurred by simple curiosity. We met great people and had great conversations, and I look forward to participating in another one! However, it made me wonder why we don't have these types of events in our department (i.e. Education). The space created by the hackathon felt like a great place to practice both giving and receiving feedback in addition to the practice of sharing ideas. It has been my experience that spaces like these are hard to find in academia, so participating in this hackathon was such a breath of fresh air.
I feel that participating in this event was especially meaningful for me given that I have dedicated the last 5 years to exploring ways technology can facilitate college access for underrepresented students. I have thought about how digital spaces such as social media or more dynamic digital tools such as video games could possibly be used for college access purposes (such as creating a prototype mobile game called FUNancial Aid in my master's program). There aren't very many researchers/educators out there looking at the intersection of these two fields, so it has been quite a challenge. Our team is hoping to move forward with our idea, which is why I have said very little about it in this post. But I hope in the coming months, I will be able to share our idea more fully as an actual application! Wish us luck!