Coding for Change
Cornell Team Brings Hackathon to PS/IS 217
by Briana Warsing
They came, they saw, they hacked. Well, they encouraged hacking – the good kind.
One day last week, bearing Google-donated Chromebooks and Verizon-donated MiFi hotspots, 30 Cornell Tech students met with PS/IS 217 middle schoolers. The purpose – to lead coding workshops in the Island’s first-ever hackathon.
The project was the creation of Miwa Takaki, who’s pursuing a master’s of business administration. She chose the day’s environmental/conservation theme because, as she put it, “It’s near Earth Day, so it makes sense, and most hack days have themes.”
In addition to her MBA from Cornell Tech, 28-year-old Takaki is also working toward a master’s degree in sustainability management at Columbia University. (She will complete that in 2016.) Her graduation from the inaugural Cornell Tech class is this spring, and she has accepted a job at eBay starting in the fall.
Of Takaki, Diane Levitt, Senior Director of K-12 Curriculum at Cornell Tech, said, “Miwa is the one who got all of the [Cornell Tech] students here. It was her project. Without her, this doesn’t happen.” Takaki is a recipient of the Fried Fellowship, awarded to five second-year students based on academic excellence. She explained that one of her fellowship obligations is to “put on a project that means something to you.”
In the session, there were two Cornell students for every three PS/IS 217 students, and they brought more than just the computing gear; there were snacks, and t-shirts featuring Cornell’s twisted-T logo. (Fashion note: Theirs were black. The PS/IS 217 students wore grey.)
Attempts by Cornell Tech students to disarm their group were successful. They started with openers like, "What’s your favorite class?" and "Do you like sports?" By the end of the first hour, the PS/IS 217 students were asking the questions. During a bandwidth snafu, instead of grabbing a snack, Cornell Tech’s Li Guo was interrogated by his group about his computing habits. “What kind of computer do you use?” one PS/IS 217 student asked. “I have a Dell laptop and a computer I built myself,” was the response. He confessed he never uses a Mac, and they were surprised; that triggered deeper questions.
The interactions were just what Levitt and Principal Mandana Beckman were hoping for. Levitt explained that, while the Cornell students don’t have education backgrounds, she had prepared them by explaining, "You are not only ambassadors for Cornell Tech, you are ambassadors for achievement. You have no idea what someone will take away from this day." “I told them to bring their best selves, and that’s exactly what they brought,” she said.
Of the Hackathon, seventh-grader Jadan Luna said, “It makes the students actually feel like they’re doing something. It’s more hands-on than a class where you just sit and listen.”
The PS/IS 217 students were given some information about recycling, and water use around the house. The project, to be completed that day within their groups, was to make a game by coding in the computer language called Python. At the end of the program, some groups presented the final games they created. (At www.codesters.com, you can see and play all the games that the students produced.)
Both Beckman and Levitt were very excited about the event and the possibilities that could emerge from it. Levitt said, “Imagine how great it will be when we’re right down the street. We could do this all the time.” She was buzzing with ideas about future tech partnerships between the two schools and mentioned, off the cuff, a parent night and a parent-and-child night. In a press release, Levitt was less specific but just as enthusiastic about the future. “This is just one step in our commitment to bring K-12 technology education to Roosevelt Island and across the city. We look forward to working with the community to build on this event and create more tech opportunities over the next few years.”
Later in the day, the Cornell volunteers worked with adults at the Senior Center on general computer literacy and basic online skills. That program for seniors was well-attended. Seniors practiced finding recipes, travel suggestions, health tips, and other vital information, including how to use Google Maps.
“It was great to see students and senior citizens interacting with technology and learning skills that they will be able to use for many years,” said Miwa Takaki. “Opportunities to volunteer with the Roosevelt Island community are part of what makes being a student at Cornell Tech so special, and one of the reasons that I look forward to staying in the city after graduation.”