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Creative Problem-Solving One “Hack” at a Time

Hack·a·thon, /ˈhakəˌTHän/
Noun, informal.
An event in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative problem solving.

The first-ever Providence Day School Hackathon welcomed over 170 PD students to campus on a Saturday last October. Small groups of participants in the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools had fewer than three hours to answer a prompt, provided the morning of the Hackathon, which challenged students to produce a solution. The problem to solve: a specific underlying factor that contributes to homelessness in Mecklenburg County.

Students gathered outdoors across campus to begin brainstorming - or ideating in Hackathon terminology - with their teams about the myriad opportunities to design, innovate, and establish an entrepreneurial plan addressing the issue of homelessness in Charlotte. The success of the school’s event, with its large volunteer turnout and support, immediately led to plans for creating another Hackathon open to the greater Charlotte community this spring.

“I would have considered it a success if we had 20 or 30 people because it was our first Hackathon experience,” says Dr. James Edge, the Hackathon organizer and Upper School Social Entrepreneurship Coordinator, English Teacher, History Teacher, and tennis coach. “The school community has shown that there’s not just an interest, but an obligation to make sure we feed that interest and continue bringing really thoughtful people to campus who are attached to trying to solve some of these problems.”

Edge was impressed by how hard-working the groups were. “Every time I walked around campus, I saw that students were dedicated to arguing through their points and making sure they found an example to clarify them.” During the initial Hackathon experience, the age of entry started at fourth grade, and the younger students were often the most dedicated to the task.

The pilot program provided learning to build a larger and better experience for the Charlotte-wide Hackathon on April 30. For the first Hackathon, “we were lucky to have people tied into helping the homeless to try to solve this problem, but one of the biggest gaps was that we should have included people who had also experienced homelessness and had their circumstances altered,” Edge says. “It would have been a really useful perspective for our students to get someone with firsthand experience to say, ‘This is why I might not have pursued what you are talking about or thought through five years ago.’”

Ultimately, judges crowned 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams in each of the Lower, Middle, and Upper divisions. Students' answers to address various root causes of homelessness included educational partnerships and vocational training; transportation support to address immobility; addiction treatment partnerships; school-supported community aid drives; community kiosks and monitors for booking nightly lodging; business clothing drives, distribution, and interview workshops; and one-to-one shoe drive partnerships with national organizations.

In the second Hackathon, team sizes were capped at groups of three - smaller than the first experience - to give students more leadership opportunities. Organizers streamlined the schedule with lessons learned from the first event.

Moving forward, PD plans to have one Hackathon each semester. The fall event will be open to PD students and the spring event to schools across Charlotte, with an eventual goal to open the Hackathon to other schools in the region and nation, making PD the destination for determining solutions to important problems. “It’s not just about getting money in your pocket [as a business], but solving a social good and making an impact providing a larger benefit to your stakeholders or to other people in the community,” Edge says.

Parents often ask Edge how to prepare for Hackathon events. From a curricular standpoint, the Lower School Tech Tank opens the door to innovation for the youngest students on campus. Beginning in the fall of 2022, Middle School will offer a course that is a series of short “design sprints” that act as six mini-Hackathons over the course of the semester. Students will receive support material and texts that facilitate more effective ideation with plenty of time to practice for the culminating pitch. Moving forward, students in both Middle and Upper schools will have the opportunity to take a growing number of courses that offer a social entrepreneurship approach.

After completing this class, students will have a solid knowledge of startup methods that may result in stronger ideas. “Or,” says Edge, “they might decide they want to go back to the third Hackathon they did in Middle School, think deeper, and put that into practice now.”

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