Kids explore technology as they please at a roving hackathon
Hack the Future
Kenny Spade’s work at the Garage on Microsoft’s Mountain View campus gives him the chance to introduce fellow employees visiting that makerspace to a technology like 3D modeling. When asked how difficult it is to learn, he’ll sometimes say, “Well, I taught it to a nine-year-old last weekend…” That’s because a few times a year, Spade and other dedicated volunteers devote a day to sharing their excitement and love of technology with local youth.
Hack the Future (HtF) is a volunteer-driven venture to present all-day experiences for kids in 5th through 12th grade. A laptop and permission documents from their parents are all that’s needed to gain entry. There’s no fee, thanks to the generosity of companies and other organizations that donate hosting space, sponsor a pizza lunch, and provide event T-shirts. Microsoft has hosted HtF events regularly at its Silicon Valley campus since 2012. “Everything that I’m doing [at HtF] is informed by my time at Microsoft,” asserts Spade. “All of these skills that I teach I actually learned while working at Microsoft.”
“The atmosphere feels much more like a playground than a classroom, and that is by design.”
— John Hull, Co-Founder Hack the Future
A full day of fun and learning
“The atmosphere feels much more like a playground than a classroom, and that is by design …” says Jon Hull, a co-founder of HtF along with Joe Mathes. “We learn best through playing,” he asserts, and the HtF model supports that.
Approximately 10 tables placed around the venue introduce many different subjects, like Making Video Games, Robots, Soldering, Websites, and 3D Printing and Scanning—which is presented by Microsoft volunteer Spade. Attendees can spend as much or as little time as they want on any activity. Volunteer mentors staff the tables, and participants also help each other. Adding to the festive atmosphere, experienced mentors wear fezzes to differentiate them from less seasoned volunteers.
In the later afternoon, participants can choose to give a “lightning talk” to show what they’ve done during the day. “There are always creations which blow us away,” states Hull. His favorite among many wonderful examples was that of two girls who programmed a robot to play two separate characters in a 15-minute play they wrote and performed.
“Those girls had never programmed a robot before, and I don’t think they had ever considered it as a possibility. Not only did they develop an interest in a very marketable skill, but they did something with the technology that I haven’t seen done before.” The girls arrived at the next HtF session with a cape for the robot to wear in an interpretive dance performance they’d programmed for it!
HtF events happen all around the Bay Area. The average of 110 attendees are a mix of passionate returnees and new participants. Approximately 25 volunteers support every event.
Freedom within structure
Hull’s involvement with the SuperHappyDevHouse hackathons for adults and a youth summer camp experience of Mathes’ inspired HtF’s flexible approach to learning. The initial organizers of HfF experimented with various ideas and eventually settled on the current model.
“We all agreed that the event was a party first and educational second,” explains Hull. “We wanted it to be fun, and didn’t want it to feel too much like school. We also wanted the kids to be self-directed to the largest extent possible. Kids mentoring each other is our ideal outcome. We have also had several educational experts come to study our events, and they have told us that the level of engagement we have is unusually high for an educational event.”
“We do have a few places where we have a great deal of structure,” clarifies Hull. “Mainly check-in and -out of the kids and around bringing in new mentors. Having structure in those places allows us to be much more freeform with the rest of the event. We create a safe space where everyone can play and experiment.”
Evaluations by participants and volunteers guide planning for future events, and the group is excited by enhancements. At a recent event, Spade enabled part of a new level of engagement that exposes the young people to multiple types of technology and how they interact. Hull explained, “Kids were able to scan themselves in to a 3D model at the 3D scanning table, … then put that scan (as a character) into a game which they were making. They could also design a 3D model of a house at another table and put themselves in the house or put the house into a game. This means that they can engage multiple tables while working on a single project.”
“There are always creations which blow us away.”
— John Hull, Co-Founder Hack the Future
No volunteers means no HtF
Without volunteers, HtF wouldn’t exist. There are no paid staff associated with the group and no formal leaders, and it doesn’t have status as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Volunteers come from across the technology community and participate when they can.
Hull raves that “We have the fantastic Al Alcorn, who invented Pong, teaching the kids to solder, and Lee Felsenstein, who designed the first portable computer. We are lucky to have all of these great people, and because great people attract more great people, you get this explosion of quality over time.”
More volunteers means that more technologies can be shared, with more mentors to help. Spade explains that a volunteer doesn’t need to be a technology expert, because basic training is provided and experienced mentors are there for backup. “We need a lot more people to be able to help out … so if you just have a passing interest in any of this or just want to get involved, there’s nothing keeping you from doing so.”
HtF events take place up to four times per year, and according to Spade, “The catalyst for an event is that we find two things: a location and a butler.” The butler organizes volunteers and manages logistics on the day of the event to make it a success. Since there is no fixed schedule or enforced roles for HtF volunteers, Spade says that “every time that this thing comes around, it’s a joy. We don’t want to make it a chore.”
Microsoft volunteers don’t earn the matching funds and $25/hour of volunteer time for HtF that an official nonprofit organization would receive, but that’s okay with Spade: “It’s just something that I really love!”
A few hundred dollars or the use of a facility can sponsor an HtF event. Visit hackthefuture.org for more information about the benefits of volunteering and sponsorship, which include, “Retirement in a world full of magic future technology made by the hackers of the future.”
This issue of Catalyst is devoted to accessibility. Over 1.2 billion people around the world have physical and intellectual disabilities that hinder their access to vital services and resources. Many more people lack access due to “unseen” factors such as language, location, poverty, and lack of education.
Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. That mission is only possible because of partners like the six organizations profiled in this issue. These individuals and organizations are using technology, education and advocacy to tear down barriers and make the Bay Area a wonderful place for everyone to live and work.
I hope that you will be as inspired as we are by these organizations, and that you’ll consider supporting their work and championing accessibility in your own lives.
Sid Espinosa Director of Philanthropy and Civic Engagement