St. Anne's-Belfield School first SPARK! Hackathon Credit: St. Anne's-Belfield School

Charlottesville, Va., Feb. 2, 2016 – St. Anne’s-Belfield School hosted more than 45 students from seven area high schools for the first SPARK! Hackathon on January 30 – 31. The event led to ten final projects including prototypes of wearable tech, live websites, app interfaces, and more.

“What you have done this weekend is amazing, inspiring, humbling, and just a little bit terrifying,” Head of School David Lourie told the assembled participants ahead of their final presentations.

Teams comprised of students from Albemarle High School, Western Albemarle High School, Charlottesville High School, Monticello High School, Murray High School, Louisa High School, and St. Anne’s-Belfield School worked collaboratively with mentors from a variety of organizations to tackle real-world problems including how to track warning signs of a diabetic hypoglycemic attack, protect the Open Web, and fulfill a community need.

Mentor Chad Sansing was on hand representing the Mozilla Foundation for both the Saturday “learnathon” and Sunday hackathon. His Build It: Web Literacy workshop drew a crowd, and he worked with two teams of students to plan ways to fight for the Open Web – both teams choosing informative, interactive games modeled on Minecraft. 

“We want to help youth learn about the importance of online privacy and freedom in ways that make sense to them, and they co-design,” he said of Mozilla Foundation’s participation in the event.

Also teaching workshops were representatives of WillowTree, U.Va.’s graduate management in information technology program, LeadingAgile, LLC, Center for Open Science, SNL Financial, and Girl Develop It. These expert sources helped participants increase their skills in animation, Sketch, design thinking, Scrum, Web literacy, gamification, GitHub, project management, software testing, and Web design.

“One of our hopes for this event was to connect high school students interested in computer science with the Charlottesville tech community, and we could not be happier with the results,” said Kim Wilkens, co-coordinator of computer science at St. Anne’s-Belfield School and co-organizer of the event.

“We were so impressed with and inspired by the enthusiasm, collaboration, and creativity we saw from all participants who gave up their weekend to be part of the SPARK! Hackathon.”

For the students themselves, the opportunity to increase skills was a common reason for attending the event.

“I wanted to learn more about coding and have a fun time,” said Reagan Powers, a freshman at Monticello High School.

Her teammate Nathan Saxe, a senior at Albemarle High School added, “I expected to learn programming language I had not learned before… its been unexpectedly good.”

The presence of community mentors and judges was another motivation for student participation.

“The hackathon presents a great opportunity for students to connect with tech companies,” said St. Anne’s-Belfield School sophomore Johnny Lindbergh. “Even if I don’t go into tech, this has still been beneficial for collaborative skills.”

The Sunday evening panel of judges included Fatma Alali, U.Va. computer of engineering Ph.D. student, Jason Brewster, director of U.Va.’s iLab, Courtney Christensen, a software developer at Linden Lab, Elizabeth Pyle, associate director for technology entrepreneurship at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Jeffrey Spies, co-founder and CTO of Center for Open Science.

The judges asked insightful questions and offered practical advice and enthusiastic encouragement throughout all teams’ presentations, which included a website to better access Charlottesville parks information, wearable tech to detect trembling associated with diabetes, an interactive game to promote healthy lifestyle choices among young people, and an app to remind released hospital patients of when and how to take medication.

“All of this learning will be extremely valuable no matter where you end up,” Pyle told the students, who also mentioned that the work presented that evening rivaled that of U.Va. fourth years.

While co-organizers Kim Wilkens and Zach Minster area already looking forward to SPARK! 2017, they remain interested to see and hear about the creations and collaborations that were started during the event.