More than 90 students from 11 area schools participated in fourth annual SPARK! Hackathon on Jan. 26 & 27 hosted at St. Anne's-Belfield School. This year saw more student leadership than ever, including five student organizers who helped plan, market and run the event as well as 20 students volunteering their time as workshop facilitators and mentors.
"Last year I participated, so this year was really cool to have a helping hand in guiding the process. It's really a participant-driven event, so it's cool to step back and watch them to it," said mentor Olivia Strasburg '19. "I think it's a really cool opportunity for people to find their passion. It helped me get into computer science, and I hope some of these people will too."
The goal of the SPARK! Hackathon is to offer participants an unique opportunity to connect with industry experts and other students who are passionate about changing the world through technology. Helping bring this vision to life are SPARK! sponsors including S&P Global (SPARK! Hackathon Champion), WillowTree (Summer SPARK! Champion), CFA Institute and University of Virginia Research Park (SPARK! Supporters), and Explore Learning, Moonlighting, Perrone Robotics, Ting, i.Lab, and Brian Fox & Karen Brooks-Fox (SPARK! Fans).
"Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics go unfilled because there aren't enough qualified candidates," said Aleks Hagy, senior director of technology project, management, & business analysis at S&P Global. "This creates challenges for employers in government, academia and the private sector, like us. If businesses and organizations are going to succeed, we need diverse thought, an array of STEM skills sets and a fresh generation to embody both. Helping people develop the skills essential to this career track is a great first step to addressing the STEM job gap, and it starts with students. S&P Global is proud to help St. Anne's-Belfield School make computer science more accessible to more Charlottesville-area students."
The "learnathon" on Saturday included workshops and problem presentations that helped teens learn to create technology, solve problems and collaborate. Many workshops were led by mentors from the local tech community, like Design Thinking with Serena Gruia of Creative Might and GitHub and Git: Essential Tools for Development with Melissa Young from WillowTree.
"Encouraging the growth of under-represented groups in technology careers is a primary social initiative of WillowTree. Through our sponsorship of the SPARK! Hackathon and summer youth programs, we contribute to an organization that teaches valuable skills and provides experience with exciting new technologies to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity," said Christy Phillips, chief talent officer for WillowTree.
The problem statements provided by local organizations, including WillowTree, CFA Institute, and ReinventED Lab, centered on education, patient information, and privacy. The students came together in a dozen self-selected groups to create a tech-based solution to the problem in just a day. The results were amazing.
"It was great to see all these students come from different schools; it was really good to see people come together," said Emma Abraham, a senior at Albemarle High School who served as a student mentor this year. "When they were presented with the problem statements, they had a brainstorming session to see what could be feasible, and listening to them and some of the ideas they came up with and also how they got there was really great."
Working prototypes, mockups, and ideas were presented at the Demo Party Sunday night where the students got to both pitch and showcase their ideas. Projects included an app designed to connect those who live in rural areas with their physicians, an interactive website encouraging and better enabling student engagement, and a program that informs users about internet privacy and encourages transparency at the corporate level. The problem statements and final projects can be found here, and pictures from the event can be found here.
"CFA Institute understands that a critical skill for all future professionals, including those in Investment Management, will be strong computing skills. Engaging students early in using technology to solve hard problems is an investment worth making," said Elaine Cheng, managing director of information technology and global strategic design at CFA Institute. "I'm sure some of our Hackathon participants will someday be future Investment Management professionals using their coding skills to make a difference in investor lives."
The Computer Science Program at St. Anne's-Belfield emphasizes student-driven learning that empowers students to own their learning and solve real-world problems. The Hackathon and other SPARK! events such as Summer SPARK! and the Computer Science Institute offer students and educators opportunities to learn about technology and integrate it other areas of their respective curriculums.
Check spark.stab.org to learn more about upcoming programs.