Hackathon opens students' eyes to possibilities

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Logan Scott, of Noble Central School at far left, is focused on the challenge during the Southwest Alberta Hackathon at Picture Butte High School.

PICTURE BUTTE – The fact the Southwest Alberta Hackathon didn’t prove a breeze for Logan Scott wasn’t enough to scare him away from a possible career in the field of computer science.

The event at Picture Butte High School saw about 110 students from Palliser Regional Schools and three neighbouring school jurisdictions receive some computer coding guidance before digging into a challenge involving problem-solving scenarios using real-life data.

While the Grade 9 Noble Central School student wasn’t entirely new to computer coding and is contemplating a related post-secondary education, the exercise proved challenging to say the least.

“I failed a couple of parts (initially), but I was able to get back on track,” said Scott during a break. “It is pretty stressful and hard, but once you finish something it feels good to succeed.”

Computer ‘hacking’ may carry a negative connotation for some, but Callysto Alberta Ambassador David Hay said that’s likely the result of stereotypes perpetuated by mass media and Hollywood.

Hacking isn’t the unauthorized accessing of computer information for nefarious reasons, but using publicly available data for purposes outside its original intention. One of the hackathon scenarios saw students use City of Lethbridge data on its urban tree inventory to come up with a solution to restore the forest after a zombie invasion devoured all the greenery.

The goal of the event wasn’t to increase student proficiency in computer coding, said Hay, an elementary teacher on sabbatical to promote and develop Callysto’s free learning platform.

“I think one of the best ideas that we have here, is to introduce students to things they don’t know they love yet. Whether it’s a career path they want – with data science or programming – or just the realization that these are the things they can do, either with their jobs in the future, in their school right now, or as a hobby,” he said.

The Southwest Alberta Hackathon was also an opportunity for students to cross a potential career choice off their list, which is also a valuable exercise.

Leanna Friesen was a novice at computer coding but signed up for the event because she thought it sounded like a fun experience. Although she kept plugging away, the Grade 9 student at Huntsville School was quick to admit she had trouble catching on.

“I could look at it (as a possible career), but I don’t think it really interests me that much that I would go into that,” said Friesen.

Both students did agree that hands-on learning experiences like the hackathon provided were definitely more engaging than reading a textbook or watching a video.

Principal Mark Lowe said PBHS was quick to jump on the role of host for a number of reasons, including the fact it checks off so many boxes that Alberta Education asks of schools.

“This is exactly the type of opportunity and exactly the type of challenge we should be giving more of to our students,” he said. “So to be able to host an activity like this and watch them actively try to work on those problem-solving skills, it’s amazing to watch.”

Lowe was also anxious to provide his students with greater awareness of the skyrocketing job opportunities in developing computer software.

It wasn’t only the students’ attention that Callysto was hoping to capture with the hackathon. Hay said they also wanted the teachers who accompanied those students to see the possibilities ahead of them.

“These are things they can do within the regular curriculum,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a separate event, or something in a computing science class. Within their social studies class, or math or science, they can do some data analysis or programming and introduce that to a larger group of kids…”

The winning team in the Southwest Alberta Hackathon – made possible through the involvement of Cybera, a not-for-profit organization promoting economic growth through digital technology – came from Willow Creek Composite High School in Claresholm. Along with Palliser Regional Schools and Livingstone Range School Division, students also represented the Lethbridge School District and Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.