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CU hacks: the first hack-a-thon for teenagers in a public library.


The terms hack, hacker, or even hack-a-thon are quite common terms in the digital age. Turn on the nightly news, and it's only a matter of time until a story covering cyber criminals (AKA black hat hackers) breaking into a computers security system scrolls across the television screen. Sadly, many individuals and businesses have fallen victim to network and computer hacking. Many have had their finances, personal records, and, in some cases, their own identities marred or stolen. Even in current pop culture and movies, there is always a laptop-wielding techy in the group who knows how to hack into mainframes and security systems within a matter of seconds. So, it's understandable that the word hack, or any variation of it, raises concern among those who hear it. I found this to be the case when I began telling others that I was organizing the first-ever, overnight hack-a-thon for teenagers in a public library. Upon receiving a fair share of suspicious looks and alarmed feedback, I went on to explain that the teens would not be violating security systems nor doing anything detrimental or illegal during our hack-a-thon. This is not what a hack-a-thon is. In fact, an event like this is quite the opposite. Simply put, a hack-a-thon is an event lasting anywhere between twelve and forty-eight hours during which programmers, developers, and tech enthusiasts gather together and form small teams to collaboratively address a problem statement or theme by way of creating innovative applications. These applications, or hacks, most commonly take the form of phone apps, webpages, and robots. In the coding culture, a hack-a-thon is where people come to turn their thoughts into things.


Three years ago, I began offering coding and app development workshops for teens at the Cupertino Library; the registration lists filled almost instantly. Junior and high school students alike loved the workshops, and I received a steady influx of phone messages and emails asking for more. It was encouraging to see how powerful these workshops were in providing the teens with the tools needed to effectively code in languages like HTML, Java, and Python. I found myself wondering what they were creating with their newly acquired coding skills. In early 2014, I read a newspaper article covering a hack-a-thon for adults; I began to wonder how the teen coders in my community would stand up to the challenge of being given a certain number of hours to create new and innovative applications. I also wanted to connect local teens with our library in a way that hadn't been tried before, and an event like this would serve as a great way to kick off our 2015 teen summer reading program.


Knowing it would not be realistic to close down the building for an entire day, my supervisors and I devised a schedule to start the event when the library closed at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, and conclude before we opened at noon the following day. It might seem that eighteen hours is plenty of time, but when supervising masses of highly caffeinated teenagers, time goes by very quickly. Thankfully, over thirty staff members from throughout Santa Clara County Library District (SCCLD) graciously assisted during the hack-a-thon and we were able to keep things structured and flowing.


Having an overnight event for teens inside the library always brings up questions about liability. My manager, Gayathri Kanth, worked at length with both city and county officials to obtain the permissions necessary to house the teenagers overnight. A liability waiver, permission slip, and photo release form were drafted and distributed--all teen participants were required to fill them out and return with a parent/guardian signature on the day of the event. Also, to ensure the safety of the teen attendees, everyone was required to wear a numbered wristband throughout the course of the event. This allowed staff to keep track of who checked in and out of the event.


How do you keep over one hundred teenagers focused and alert for eighteen straight hours? Providing gallons of coffee is one obvious answer, but the healthier alternative we chose was to offer a selection of appealing, teen-centric prizes to help fuel motivation. Depending on the size and scope of a hack-a-thon, prizes can range anywhere from cash to trophies and prestige to company internships. Also known as "incubator projects," some hack-a-thons even award start-up funding to help pay for further development of the application. For CU HACKS, the Cupertino Library Foundation graciously donated funding for prize packages that included video gaming chairs, quadcopter drones, Kindle Fires, and gift cards. All the top scoring and runner-up teams received engraved trophies.


A hack-a-thon is an excellent way to build and strengthen community partnerships with local businesses. The Cupertino Library's teen advisory board put in a lot of hard work contacting local restaurants, grocery stores, and tech companies to explain the event and how it helped develop programming skills and foster creativity among the community's teenagers. With gracious gifts ranging from cases of bubble tea to trays of slider burgers to USB flash drives, our thirteen donors showed their support for the teens and the library which greatly helped keep down the cost of the entire event.


In compliance with SCCLD's behavior policy standards, the rules for CU HACKS were as follows: participants must range between the ages of fourteen and nineteen; only one to four people per team; create a working hardware or software application (hack) in twelve hours; film a ninety-second video demonstrating the application, no precoding allowed.


The prompt was a crucial element in giving our hack-a-thon direction. We wanted the teen hackers to bring their coding experience and fresh ideas together to develop applications that would assist other teenagers in their everyday lives in one of the following areas: homework help, stress reduction, SAT/ACT test preparation, physical exercises, family obligations, social commitments, or anything that would help add to the quality of life, health, and education of another teen. The major curveball I threw at the hackers was that I wouldn't release the prompt until the start of the event. This prevented people from working on projects ahead of time and leveled the playing field for coders of all skill levels.


Once a team decided on an area of the prompt they wanted to address, they were required to submit their project in one of the following four categories: Best Social Hack, Best Educational Hack, Best Game Hack, or Best Beginner Hack. Each project submitted would be evaluated and scored based on its originality, technical difficulty, user experience, and potential positive impact on other teens. The video demonstration submitted for each project helped our judges visualize the application and its functionality. The top two highest scoring teams from each category would move on to the final round.


One of the coolest facets on any hack-a-thon is an interesting lineup of learning workshops and live demonstrations. Anticipating that the attendees' coding experience levels would cover a wide range, I contacted several local high schools' academic clubs and invited their members to serve as mentors and coding workshop leaders. Over twenty members from Cupertino High School's Tinovation Programming Club assisted in presenting beginner, intermediate, and advanced programming workshops during the event. The Robotics Club from Homestead High School (Steve Jobs's alma mater) demonstrated how to operate their award-winning, six-foot robot, "The Undertaker." Our goal was to ensure that every teen who attended CU HACKS went home having learned something new and inspired to push the limits of technology.


Not only were the teens up all night, but if a team received a high enough score in one of the four prize categories, they had to go in front of the entire audience at 9 a.m. Sunday morning and give a live pitch presentation to our judges. Running on no sleep, each team had only two minutes to explain their hack and how it would benefit other teens. Judges determined the winners based on the clarity of the presentation and the effectiveness and practicality of each application.


One hundred thirteen teen participants (sixty-six male, forty-seven female); thirty teen mentors; fourteen community partnerships; fifty-five pizzas; five hundred seventy-six cans of soda; eighteen hours run time; thirty-one working applications built by teens for teens.



Refresh is a website that gives stressed-out teens healthy alternatives for handling tension. Depending on the source of the teens stress, Refresh will recommend a variety of relaxation techniques and activities ranging from music therapy to taking a walk or meditation.


Developed to improve teens' mental math skills, this phone app is a twist on the classic game Concentration in which the participant must solve math problems/equations within a brief time limit.


Create an impromptu "hang-out" within a matter of seconds. This phone application sends out notification to everyone in your phones contact list, letting them know your location and the start time of your gathering.


It's 1 a.m. and you still have multiple assignments to complete before the start of school tomorrow--how will you get it all done without falling asleep or drinking too much caffeine? The Nite Owl phone app is here to help. Simply create a "To Do" list and speak it into the phone. Next, attach the phone to your arm using an armband. If the motion sensor in the phone app detects immobility after a certain time period, it recognizes you are asleep and sets off a series of alarms and buzzers to wake you up. To turn off the alarms, you need to create motion by standing up and repeating your "To Do" list into the phone.

Matthew Lorenzo is the teen services librarian at Cupertino Library, a member of the Santa Clara County Library District. Lorenzo spent six years working in elementary and high schools before receiving his MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, he has worked in youth services departments for six different public library systems, including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville Public Libraries. Lorenzo is the current president of the Bay Area Young Adult Librarians (BAYA) organization and has been the lead developer of several large-scale, teen-centered projects including the Santa Cruz Public Library's Teen Battle of the Bands; Woodland Library's book club for teen guys, "Book Dudes"; and the Cupertino Library's Green Teen Garden Project. In early August, he was the recipient of the Santa Clara County Employee Excellence Award.
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Title Annotation:Cupertino Library
Author:Lorenzo, Matthew
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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