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Teams at OHacks brainstorm in the morning period of the day.

High school students gain computer science skills at Oakland Hacks

on February 22, 2016

After much deliberation and banter, the four students finally settle on the name for their product: Drop Space. Seated at the end of a cafeteria table in a large auditorium on Oakland Technical High School’s upper campus, the team is just one of several that have clustered around the cafeteria, brainstorming names and formats for apps they are creating at the Oakland Hacks Hackathon. Posters are set up neatly atop purple tablecloths on the tables, with packs of Cra-Z-Art washable markers alongside them. Advisors from local companies float around in grey t-shirts reading “<Oakland Hacks> Mentor” in typewriter font.

Drop Space is the students’ idea for an online server that would provide more storage space for phones, tablets and computers. Like a step up from Google Drive, the team says to explain their product. They are in the brainstorming phase right now, and their poster consists of a one-sentence description of their app and three sketches of a computer screen with different log-in instructions.

“I also want a top that shows what’s been recently added,” says Kyuyoung Kim, a junior at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo. “Because for me, if I don’t see it, I’ll scroll down.”

“It would say ‘Drag files here,’” says Alejandro Sanchez, another junior at Arroyo and the group’s scribe, writing and drawing furiously.

Oakland Hacks, or OHacks for short, is the first hackathon run by high school students in Oakland. A hackathon is an event at which people come together to create something through computer programming, from apps to websites. Sometimes they have a theme, a specific topic like music or sports, or participants will create something to be used for their community or to help the environment. OHacks does not have a theme like this, but its workshop format, with many mentors supporting students, focuses on getting beginners interested in computer science. OHacks is scheduled from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., but other hackathons can last for 24 or 36 hours, or even a whole weekend.

OHacks is run by two students from Oakland Tech: senior Aura Barrera and junior Antonio Calbo-Jackson. Attending students from all over the East Bay join into teams of three to five to create some sort of computer-based program. Mentors from Make Schools and Chalk Schools, two organizations that focus on integrating technology, engineering and education, have partnered with OHacks for this event. In the afternoon, these mentors are leading workshop sessions on topics like web tools and JavaScript, and now during the brainstorming session they attach themselves to groups to serve as a sort of guide.

At 7:00 pm, student teams will pitch their products to their fellow coders and, more specifically, a panel of judges. And at 8:00, the judges will present awards to teams for special distinction and effort.

Calbo-Johnson says one goal of the day is “Getting people more practice [in] pitching their idea instead of just making it. ‘Here it is, have fun.’” That way, he says, “They know what it is.”

The idea for OHacks came to the two students in the fall of 2015 as they considering participating in Local Hack Day, a global event sponsored by Major League Hacking, a group that helps schools worldwide put on these computer science events. Calbo-Jackson and Barrera wanted to participate last October, but they did not have enough time to plan. Plus, they wanted to create their own guidelines, rather than having to follow those imposed by Major League Hacking.

Hosting the event in the East Bay is also important to the duo.

“We really did want to make the hackathon here in Oakland, because a lot of the opportunities for hackathons and for computer science education in general are in the South Bay or in San Francisco, which is quite a commute for a lot of people,” says Barrera. “So we wanted to make it way more accessible for people who are beginners, or who just have an interest in computer science.”

The two students met in their AP Environmental Science class last year and bonded over their interest in computer science. Barrera would occasionally make websites for her friends before she learned to code, but what really sparked her excitement in computer science was the group Girls Who Code. She attended the organization’s seven-week, application-based summer program, which took place at eBay’s San Jose headquarters, the summer between her sophomore and junior years.

“It was a two-hour commute each way,” says Barrera, laughing. “But it was worth it, because we got exposed to a lot of great things in the industry.” Being a part of this program and listening to speakers within the tech industry talk about their life paths, she realized, “Even if you haven’t been into computer science since you were 5, you could still bring whatever interests you had and mix them with computer science.”

Now Barrera runs a Girls Who Code club at Oakland Tech.

Calbo-Jackson first taught himself to code. Then, through a friend, he learned about a coding class at the UC Berkeley School of Information, and he has been going there every Friday. He started participating in other nearby hackathons too, which gave him a model to use when planning OHacks, though, he admits, it may have given him some unreasonable expectations for the turnout. About 30 students came to OHacks, while some of the big hackathons can have over 1,000 attendees.

The two students applied for and received a grant from Oakland Tech’s parent-teacher-student association, which provided the funding for the event. Then came the process of reaching out to nearby companies and other high schools in Oakland, which, they both agreed, has been stressful.

“You don’t realize how much work goes into one of these things as a participant,” says Calbo-Jackson, “but as an organizer, you have to have so much responsibility, so much communication.”

Claire Shorall, the manager of computer science for the Oakland Unified School District, served as a mentor for the students, as she had put together other hackathons in the past. She helped connect them with Make Schools and Chalk Schools, the primary partners of OHacks.

“I actually ran a hackathon last year at Castlemont with a co-worker,” says Shorall. “The two of us did all the planning. I have been so impressed by both Aura and Antonio and their extreme organization, because they have this one nailed.”

Hackathons, contrary to their name, are less about hacking, or breaking into data systems using a computer, and more about coding and getting students involved in computer science. “It’s not actually hacking per se, but you’re coding,” says Calbo-Jackson.

The Drop Space group, for example, is focusing on a very real problem for many people today: not having enough storage space on their cell phones. The group hopes to create an online server with unlimited space where people can store their phone files.

“My phone’s always running out of space and I’m always having to delete files,” says Tiffany Cai, a junior from Arroyo High School. “So might as well create something really convenient where someone can always go on and use it and find their own files on it.”

Another group, Green Print, aims to combat climate change with a website that tracks how much carbon emissions a user is wasting.

Rachel Walker, a software engineer at Chalk Schools, one of OHacks partner organizations, mentors the Green Print group. The students had already created a basic website, and Walker was able to use this template in order to teach them computer programming skills. “I was really impressed. In only an hour, hour and a half, they already learned three programming languages and made a form that we’re going to plug in the website,” she said.

The organizers and mentors have high hopes for the event as they look to the future of computer programming in Oakland schools.

It’s “really helping students get to get exposed to what’s out there in the real world, or just the professional world, around things that they can think about doing early, things that they can be more interested in,” says Sarah Chou, co-founder of Chalk Schools. “Just to have more exposure to things like that is really important.”

Shorall believes that while all students should “be exposed to a rigorous computer science education,” everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be able to code, and coding should not be equated with all of computer science. “Coding is one aspect,” says Shorall, “but really the outcome I’m most interested in is that students are creative agents and critical problem-solvers. Computer science definitely facilitates that type of learning.”

It’s 7 p.m., time for the students to present their products. When Barrera asks “Who wants to go first?” with an encouraging smile, her query is met with complete silence, as group members exchange glances and avert their gazes. Calbo-Jackson threatens, with a teacher-like authority, “We don’t want to have to call on anyone.” Finally, after more furtive glances and whispered, giggling deliberation throughout the cafeteria, a group of four stands up.

Each group brings up a laptop, connects it to the large-screen projector, and then takes the stage and the microphone. They explain the problem they want to solve and take the audience through the website or app they have envisioned. A group called Cheque has put together an app to solve procrastination: If users don’t complete a task on their to-do list, they donate money to a charity of their choice. Another program called Jail Time combats teen rebelliousness by allowing users to foresee the consequences of committing crimes. Users can click on drop-down menus for the categories of “State,” “Age” and “Crime,” and the site will process that information and show the consequences for that legal infraction.

One group, REKT, explains to the audience that they were missing from the morning’s activities because they had gotten into a car accident on their way here, to a chorus of sympathetic groans in the audience. But the four students used this experience as inspiration for an app that makes it easier for drivers in an accident to take down key information like witness contact information, insurance details and even photos.

When the group formerly known as Drop Space presents, their website depicts a background of swirling galaxy with the words “Welcome Drop Galaxy!” (At the last minute, they’d changed their name. “We call it ‘Drop Galaxy’ because it will stay in the ‘space’ forever,” says Cai, drawing laughs from the audience with the pun.) They explain the purpose of their website and what they hope could become an app, and fill in the blanks for what is still missing. When Kyuyoung Kim announces that this was the first hackathon for all team members, her comment is met by rousing applause.

Green Print wins the award for Best Effort, while Jail Time and another group who designed a music syncing web app win general awards. REKT gets the jackpot prize, with each team member receiving a new phone.

Barrera will graduate this year, but Calbo-Jackson intends to hold OHacks in years to come. “Now that I’ll have more experience, I’ll be able to expand it even bigger,” he says.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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