Two years ago, inspired by the viral Hour of Code video, we decided to learn Ruby on Rails. As two suburban middle school teachers with a liberal arts background, we weren’t quite sure where or how to begin, so we headed to New York City to explore our options.
As lifelong teachers, we assumed the place where we’d feel most comfortable would be in a traditional class setting, so after careful research we signed up for a Back-End Web Development course at General Assembly. While a lot of information was presented during the 10 weeks, what we didn’t anticipate was how important a variety of hybrid learning experiences would be toward helping us truly master the new programming language. After a mixture of classroom lessons, online tutorials, and tutoring sessions, we stumbled upon what many NYC programmers deem the Holy Grail: Hacker Hours.
Hacker Hours, a term coined by Aidan Feldman, is a place where programmers of all experience levels gather to help one another with their coding projects. We were so impressed by both the welcoming nature of the participants and the empowering process of intergenerational peer-to-peer instruction that we were eager to bring something similar to our own local community of teenagers.
Libraries offer the perfect setting for Hacker Hours since we consider them to be local incubators. We recently piloted a series of free Hacker Hours for teens at the Franklin Square Public Library on Long Island, New York. We organized our meetups over the course of two days in a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment and welcomed sixteen students. Pitched to children ages 13-18 in the Franklin Square community, the gathering welcomed anyone who wanted to learn programming basics and build a working web app.
Tips For Running Teen Hacker Hours
It’s Not A Free-For-All
Although Hacker Hours for teens might conjure images of an unproductive fracas among child prodigies, they are actually a thoughtfully designed, intentional approach to peer-guided instruction. While professional versions run like office hours or organic collectives, under the premise that participants have already dipped their toes into the programming waters, Teen Hacker Hours extend an invitation to those who have yet to enter the pool. In a beginning session, therefore, facilitators should provide some basic overview of computing for newbies and model ways to troubleshoot for all participants.
Stagger Session Dates And Times
Hacker hours are not school. They occur, by nature, in the evenings or on weekends. They should, therefore, not adhere to a linear template. The workshops should be staggered to allow for logical growth between the first introduction of coding languages and the subsequent genesis of ideas. Time is needed to let concepts sink in. Short, spread-out sessions will attract more thoughtful participation than extended, Hackathon-style sessions.
BYOD Can Be BFF
If your local community center doesn’t have a 1:1 device readily available for participants, don’t fret. Many of your attendees, even low-income participants, will have access to the Internet through their smartphones. Despite a common misconception that low income students do not have access to hardware, a recent study by the Pew Research Center finds a consistently high rate of smart phone usage among low income and young adult demographics. According to Significance Labs, 87 percent of low income New Yorkers own a smartphone. Our teen participants each brought his or her own device, the majority of which were phones.
BYOD Can Be OMG
The blessings of BYOD can quickly become curses—and not just because someone might arrive with a Dell running Ubuntu. Kids don’t distinguish between devices. If you ask everyone to arrive with a laptop or PC, you’re just as likely to get four kids with smartphones and two kids with Amazon Kindles. Remember, it’s a testament to their interests that they showed up at all. If you can, try to bring a few backup devices with you. Even if you hand over your personal laptop to a kid, it’ll be worth it. Children have a respect for know-how and can-do. They will treat your device like gospel.
Be Ready To Be Flexible
Hacker hours require a flexible and agile mindset particularly when it comes to the daily constraints of local Internet access. The routers of community centers can become clogged when a roomful of teens hits the same access point at the same time. Remember to be adaptable to the whims of both the kids and the Wifi.
Rapid Prototype To Produce
It may seem rushed, but try to push your teens to create something real by the end of the session. Even if it’s simple or modeled, a living web app will nudge students to share their creations on Twitter or Instagram. To be fair, in our experience, most kids wanted to build games. This sounded nice, but a little redirection was enough to tee up games as a long-term goal and a nifty GoPro video site as short-term aim to win the day.
Product Shouldn’t Be The Only Outcome
The next digi-preneur might be in your midst, but churning out mini Mark Zuckerbergs is not the end goal. Building relationships between unlikely pals and fostering a sense of pride in community centers is equally important.
We’d love to encourage other centers to offer this kind of program. Here is a link to some tools we created for libraries to kickstart a Hacker Hours program in their neighborhood.