Cornell's Halloween Hackathon at PS 217

Written by Natalie Remor.

If you think computers can be spooky...

Last Friday 70 Cornell Tech graduate students headed over to PS/IS217 for "Let’s Code RI," a Halloween-inspired Hackathon. Cornell Tech’s student volunteers worked with selected PS/IS217 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students on spooky, Halloween-themed coding projects using the coding language Scratch.

This year, the hack took place in the school’s gym and the tee-shirts were white. According to Cornell Tech’s Director of K-12 Education, Diane Levitt, there was another big change. Levitt said, “This project is a Scratch project, a block coding language out of MIT that’s designed to facilitate creativity. We asked the Museum of the Moving Image, which does a lot of workshops with middle school students, to build the project and train our students on it. The last project was a Python project. We’re just trying different things to find out what’s most engaging to the students. We want to give them lots of variety so they have the opportunity to interact with tech in lots of ways, so they know they don’t have to do it just this way or that way. They have options because computing is a problem-solving set of tools in the toolkit.” Each PS/IS217 student was given his or her own laptop for the event. Levitt said, “Last time it was very important to the kids to be the ones with the computer, doing the work.

“We had wifi trouble last time, so this time we created a project that was entirely offline so we didn’t have to worry about internet access. That also meant our Cornell Tech students could use their own computers with the middle school students, which made everything much easier than using borrowed laptops. We shortened the time somewhat, and held the event in the morning, when kids are fresher,” Levitt explained.

Twice as many Cornell Tech students came this time. Levitt explains that Cornell Tech has grown, “We now have twice as many Cornell Tech students in the program.” The Cornell Tech volunteers were engineering, health tech, connective media, and MBA students.

Cornell Tech students Marissa Lowman (MBA) and Maria Shen (Master’s in Engineering) helped organize the event and designed this year’s tee-shirts. Both Lowman and Shen said they are interested in education and want to give back to the community, adding that they were very impressed by the Island and regret that they’ll never attend the new campus.

Lowman and Shen want the PS/IS217 students to understand that coding is not mysterious, but logical. Because there were so many more Cornell Tech volunteers this year, each middle schooler had his or her own mentor.

The organizers expressed the importance of having a personal mentor, both to answer questions and facilitate a deeper exploration of computer engineering. Cornell Tech student volunteer Sam Radabaugh said middle schoolers took advantage of having the ear of a dedicated mentor and said many of them asked how to change the program to customize their own game. (Maybe that will be the idea for the next hack?)

Middle schooler Saryah Lamb appreciated the one-on-one interaction. Her favorite part was making the whole game. She said, “I want to make games to help people and serve the community like my aunt.” Levitt said, “I saw one middle school student spontaneously hug his mentor toward the end.”

Levitt explained the purpose of a hack, “Our number one goal is for everyone to have fun. We use coding as a platform, but the reality is a lot of this is about the younger students having a nice prolonged exposure to the older students – to talk about technology or about themselves, their future careers, what they’re interested in… It’s the mentoring. But also, this is fun, this is cool, and this is real. This is an authentic interaction and it’s technology and that’s our other goal. I always say I’m looking for experiences for students that are at the intersection of rigor and joy.” She also explained, “We did it earlier in the year this time because we thought it would be great team-building for our graduate students.”

In this case, Levitt says, “I loved that when they were done, no two games looked the same, even though they started out alike. That told me that the middle school students really dug in there and built stuff. One student demonstrated to me that she figured out how to incorporate a picture of herself into her game – and it was her first time using Scratch. I saw a group at a table taking a selfie with the computer. PS/IS217 Principal Mandana Beckman said, Throughout the event, I noticed that students were using computational thinking skills and making subtle choices to enhance their games.”

And there was the added Halloween element. “Seeing all the kids working in their Halloween costumes was really special,” said Levitt. Principal Beckman echoed Levitt’s observation, “The middle school students at PS/IS 217 were transformed from just kids in Halloween costumes, to programmers designing innovative computer games.”

The Museum of the Moving Image (MMI) was instrumental in "Let’s Code RI" as well. The Deputy Director for Education and Visitor Experience at MMI, Chris Wisniewski, said, “It is a natural partnership since the museum is about technology and digital media and is right next door to PS/IS217.” He said that the Queens museum’s mission is to have kids in technology jobs and that the museum has been involved with Cornell Tech from the beginning. The museum participants helped teach the Cornell students how to use Scratch with middle-school students.

According to Levitt, “They actually have more experience teaching kids and teachers to build digital projects than almost anyone else in the City. So we asked them to work with us on this project. They came to Cornell Tech and spent an hour and a half walking our students through Scratch, the game, and the opportunities for the middle school students to change the design and mechanics of the game. Christopher Wisniewski brought a team of people there for the day of the event to make sure everything went smoothly – which it did! I’m so grateful to them.”

Wisniewski said that it can be intimidating on both sides – for Cornell Tech students to teach the middle school students, and for the middle school students to learn technology. Parenthetically, Levitt shared that PS/IS 217 is using their CASA funds (Cultural After-School Adventures Program, through Councilmember Ben Kallos) to bring MMI to PS/IS217 for enrichment this year. Principal Beckman says, “We look forward to more opportunities such as this as we partner with Cornell Tech and the Museum of the Moving Image.”

Other upcoming manifestations of the partnership, according to Levitt, are a focus on professional development so the PS/IS217 staff can gain an understanding of computational thinking and computer science in the K-8 classrooms, including some from MMI. Levitt shared that, “We’ll be bringing our Cornell Tech students back in the Spring for tech events with the third and fourth grades, probably in their classrooms rather than a large open space like the gym. We’re hoping to host a field trip here at Cornell Tech and Google as well. And we’re hoping to bring upper elementary grades at PS/IS217 down to see our campus and learn about the exciting environmental technology we’re using in our new buildings.”

Of the Hack, Beckman said, “Everyone was extremely pleased with this coding event that Diane Levitt, Cornell Tech, and the Museum of the Moving Image planned. I enjoyed playing the Halloween games coded by our students, along with their graduate student mentors from Cornell Tech.” Levitt commented, “You know, as a field, we’re still learning about what works and how to do this.We’re really lucky we have a school like PS/IS217 who’s willing to partner with us and we’ll figure it out together.”

Tags: Cornell PS/IS 217 education Natalie Remor

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