Lighting the Spark – Teen Innovation at the South Bay Hackathon

mbms hackathonIn its second year of funding, MBEF’s Teachers Driving Innovation (TDI) grant program continues to support our teachers to introduce innovative ideas in the classroom and beyond. Intended to enhance student learning by providing MBUSD educators the opportunity to exercise their passion for teaching and innovation, the TDI program connects the wealth of knowledge, expertise and talent within the MBUSD community.

At the start of this school year, over 20 TDI applications were submitted from a variety of campuses and grade levels. Thanks to generous donors at the 2016 Manhattan Wine Auction’s paddle raise, including Chevron, TDI funding doubled to $50,000 this year. While many of the approved grants are still in their beginning phases, a local Hackathon series is well underway under the direction of MBMS science teacher Rebecca Allen. Hackathons have recently evolved into a national phenomenon, bringing together proven and aspiring scientists and technologists for a day, or even a week, to collaborate intensively on software or hardware projects.

The concept of bringing this type of challenging environment to middle school students stemmed from Ms. Allen’s acceptance to Northrop Grumman Teacher’s Academy. As a participant in the Academy, Ms. Allen attended several nationwide conferences, and a two-week internship, with science teachers from across the country. Ms. Allen and three of the participants, teachers from other local middle schools, Dana, Jefferson and Will Rogers, considered ways to bring their students together to benefit from their experience in the Academy. Ms. Allen shared that the team wanted to encourage students to celebrate their passions, to be introduced to others students from different schools and backgrounds with similar interests and feel comfortable showing their excitement and enthusiasm. The South Bay Hackathon promised to do just that.

The MBEF TDI grant funded the second of four full-day events in the South Bay Hackathon Series in January at MBMS. 80 South Bay students from four different middle schools joined together for a full day of hands-on experience in collaboration and engineering. The day started with Ralph Ford, former MBUSD science teacher, amateur astronomer, and Ms. Allen’s father, reviewing scientific principles and mathematical concepts, such as angular momentum, that were expected to be incorporated in the challenges presented throughout the day. Students were then formed into teams of four consisting of one student from each middle school.

The mission for each team was to rescue figurative astronauts who had fallen into a dangerous crater on Earth’s Moon by building a trebuchet (catapult) and launching a package of rescue supplies. Students were provided with a kit of materials and a sheet of directions for building the trebuchet. However, much like engineering in real-life, the pieces did not all go together as planned, forcing the teams to evaluate, reassess, and then attempt to complete the assembly again.

A half-dozen volunteer engineers from Northrop Grumman, Space X, and other local high-tech companies circulated and asked questions, helping the students figure out how to optimize the three possible design variants. Northrop Grumman engineer and TDI Grant Committee member Elizabeth Kunkee was impressed by the grit the students exhibited when presented with the problem. She observed, “As the students began working, I could see that communicating was challenging, but after about 20 minutes, the teams pulled together and the students were working actively together.”

Once the assembly of the trebuchet was complete, the teams started catapulting the rescue supplies and measuring the distance the “supplies” were flung.  This presented another challenge for the teams. The instructions were to hurl the rescue supplies exactly 20 feet, but the teams were provided a tape measure marked off in centimeters. Over the next hour of the development cycle, the teams launched, measured, and then modified their trebuchet over, and over again. Ultimately, the event ended with success, and teams were rewarded for their efforts.

In all, the introduction of the Hackathon concept to middle school students was a success. According to Ms. Kunkee, the students were engaged and vibrant throughout the event, and were ultimately challenged in a more memorable way than typical lab projects in abbreviated science classes. The Hackathon not only promoted innovation and embraced failure, but also encouraged collaboration, creativity, communication – everything inspiring about project based learning. Exposing middle school students to engineering and the process of coming up with a plan, putting it together, and trouble-shooting a solution, teaches lifelong skills, skills Rebecca Allen is proud to encourage. Introducing students to these 21st century skills at an early age stimulates their passion for STEM fields that are rapidly growing and changing.

Investing in our students in such a way not only ensures a stimulating learning environment but sparks growth and collaboration among both students and teachers while directly involving the local engineering community in MBUSD’s math and science curriculum.

Just as the students adjusted to different challenges along the way, the Hackathon series itself may evolve. Ms. Kunkee observed that in groups with both male and female students, the female students tended to defer to the male students, so it is possible that experimenting with same sex groupings in the future may prove to be inspiring.

There is so much our district can learn from these innovations, for example, concepts like the Hackathon may prove beneficial in our approach to math and science curriculum and Next Generation Science Standards. Finally, programs like the Hackathon can be used to better engage parents and business partners. We need to work together to get the word out about these unique and inspiring learning opportunities.

Later this month, students will come together again in Torrance for the next in the series of South Bay Hackathon events. Here is a complete list of current Teachers Driving Innovation Grants funded by MBEF.

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