It’s 8:00 am on a Sunday and a sleepy teenager walks into MaRS pulling a dolly loaded with a desktop computer, a monitor and a keyboard.

“Where can I plug this in?” he asks me. “I need to get to work.”

It’s Day 2 of EdAppHack, Canada’s first hackathon led entirely by high school students. Kids like these ones don’t need cajoling to show up—they’re arriving early so they can get to work on apps of their own creation, solving problems that they have personally identified.

While hackathons have long been a favourite way for tech companies to quickly prototype new ideas, the model is not well known to educators. It’s a shame, because hackathons are an ideal way to model the elusive holy grail of inquiry-based learning or connected learning, where student interests drive the learning process.

Two Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teachers, Brandon Zoras and Joe Romano, saw the potential of the hackathon model to show teachers the power of a different learning environment. In October, alongside MaRS facilitators and advisors, the pair hosted EdAppHack, an experiment in hackathon-style learning.

High school students and teachers from TDSB schools were joined by mentors from Humber College’s School of Media Studies and Information Technology and wider developer communities, like HackerNest. The wireless network was powered by ORION, a fibre-optic backbone that allows innovation centres like MaRS to connect to hospitals, colleges, universities and kindergarten to Grade 12 schools across Ontario.

The students were quickly coding apps that solved problems they experience at school, from organizing notes to getting to class on time to keeping track of assignments. The winning pitch on Sunday afternoon was an app called SwitchOn, a web app that allows administration to post daily announcements, transforming school announcements from unintelligible mumble over a PA system into clear prose in multiple languages.

Check out the winning pitch here.

During the two days, we would periodically hold scrums in one corner of the auditorium, where interested participants could drop in to learn a new tool. These sessions ranged from how to use Mozilla Appmaker (for novice coders) to how to sketch out paper prototypes using Sticker UI or AppSeed. We also shared tools from MaRS’ Entrepreneurial Thinking Toolkit for K-12 Educators, including templates for interviewing customers and creating a team with a good mix of skills.

We also took the teachers aside for their own scrum, to dig deeper into their feelings about the learning they were witnessing. It was important for them to experience the hackathon model first-hand and to then discuss its strengths and weaknesses and how it might fit into their classrooms. Many teachers were nervous that they didn’t know enough about coding to be able to bring hackathons to their classrooms. They soon realized that they didn’t have to be the experts—they just needed to be able to guide the students to a place where they were motivated to teach themselves.

It’s tough for teachers to try out new or experimental methods of teaching. They’ve got report cards to produce, assignments to grade, behaviours to manage. Often the appetite for risk-taking is very low.

With the help of the Mozilla Foundation, we were able to document the design process of EdAppHack and turn it into the Youth Hackathon Playbook. Created as a resource to help educators to plan their own hackathons and idea jams, our hope is that the playbook will nudge educators in the direction of connected learning and will encourage them to not be afraid of experimenting with new tools.

As we think about how to best prepare our students for a rapidly changing economy, events like EdAppHack must be given space to flourish inside classrooms. Student concerns, desires and interests (rather than textbooks) should be used as fuel to drive the learning process forward.

The Youth Hackathon Playbook is a step-by-step guide for educators who are interested in hosting a two-day inquiry-based idea jam or hackathon. The format allows students to solve problems quickly by creating and testing prototypes of apps or non-technical products. Activities include:

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Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…