Second SPARK! Hackathon Draws 66 Regional Teens

On Saturday, Jan. 28 more than 60 students from 12 regional high schools came together as participants and peer mentors at the Learning Village Auditorium for the second annual SPARK! Hackathon. They joined 35 community mentors from more than 20 local and global organizations for two days of workshops and making, all with an eye towards building skills, making new networks, and solving real world problems posed by sponsoring organizations Mozilla, U.Va. Biomedical Engineering, WillowTree, and Locus Health.

Partnering with the event this year was Mozilla, which also brought together six "Mozillian" mentors from across the country and Canada. Mentors helped attendees problem-solve with this year's theme, the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is made up of all the "smart" devices around us that transmit data from one connected device to another .

"Mozilla was thrilled to partner with SPARK and St. Anne's-Belfield School to invite a diverse group of teens to work on real-world problems that help develop their web literacy and let them practice open innovation by inventing new IoT devices with inexpensive, widely available tools," said Mozilla curriculum developer Chad Sansing.

"We know that the diversity and imagination young people bring to the Web are key to promoting a healthy Internet open and accessible for all."

On Saturday, students enjoyed the opportunity to select two workshops led by community mentors, with Mobile Apps and Design Thinking being the first to fill. Introduction to GitHub, Social Media for Entrepreneurs, An Introduction to Coding for the Web, and User Story Mapping were among 10 other options led by volunteers from Center for Open Science, Code/Interactive, Mozilla, Perrone Robotics, PsiKick, ReinventED, Lab, Sellers Smith, SmartCville, Spirit of 608, St. Anne's-Belfield School, and WillowTree. St. Anne's-Belfield School alumnus Soren Olegnowicz '10 was among those assisting students.

For Henrique Harmon of the Center for Open Science, participating as a mentor was a personal decision.

"I wanted to help because I wish I had the chance to start getting involved in programming a lot earlier in my life," he said. "I want to encourage these students to start and continue working on their coding skills."

Following the workshops, students self-selected into twelve groups to create and present solutions to the problem statements culminating in unveiling their prototypes at a Sunday night Demo Party attended by a further 100 local community members.

"In Fluvanna, saying you went to SPARK! Hackathon is kind of a big deal because it's selective," said Fluvanna County senior Owen Leitzel.

For Samhita Pendyal, a Deep Run High School junior, traveling to Charlottesville for the weekend was well worth the experience.

"In Richmond we don't usually have things this big," she noted. "It was nice seeing so many kids with the same interests all in one place."

At the end of the weekend, the "Mirror Mirror" team that designed a smart mirror to display information needed in the morning garnered the most votes from community members attending the open Demo Party. Despite the friendly competition, all participants knew they should be proud of their accomplishments. For example, the mentor favorite Cloud Hugs project used connected devices and the Internet of Things to help people suffering from mental illnesses to communicate their needs to support networks.

"We were super happy that all of you could join us this weekend," computer science instructor and SPARK! co-coordinator Zach Minster, who worked with Kim Wilkens on the event, told the students. "There's not a single project here that I didn't love!"

Photos from the SPARK! Hackathon are now available on the St. Anne's-Belfield School SmugMug account. To hear Robert Friedman of Mozilla speak about the event, please view the NBC 29 story Hackathon Teaches Students How to Solve Real World Problems.

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