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Hack club!

High school students have started taking charge of their own computer science education. One of them, Zach Latta, an 18-year-old who was named to Forbes' "30 Under list for 2016, has helped to create a network of coding groups ("Hack Clubs") that have spread to 16 states and seven countries so far. The purpose: to get kids coding regardless of background or prior technical knowledge.

WHILE THE FAMILIAR "maker movement" tends to focus on manipulating three-dimensional objects, the burgeoning "hack culture" is making its mark primarily in 2D. Also known as "coding," the act of "hacking" is merely solving a problem through the use of any and all computer programming languages.

High schools in the technology-rich Silicon Valley have long nourished a variety of computer science courses, but coding is making its mark in the school club category. Instructors looking to encourage students to start coding clubs can point toward entities such as San Francisco-based Hack Club (hackclub. com), a nonprofit that helps high school students start coding clubs with pre-built curriculum, free of charge.

Zach Latta, founder and executive director of Hack Club, has grown Hack Club to 69 schools so far, and he is intent on continuing to grow that number. The success of Hack Club comes in part from its quick-start mentality that engages students from the first meeting.

"If you're a new club member, by the time you leave the first meeting, you have your first Web site online," explained Latta, an 18-year-old who was named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 (Education Category) in 2016. "By the second meeting, you've built a Web site that can call and text your phone. By the time you've left the third meeting, you've built your first game, and it's online, and you can show your friends."

Getting Started

A Hack Club starts like any robotics team or chess club, with most schools requiring a "teacher sponsor" to donate a classroom after school, generally twice a week for 90 minutes. "Once you have a physical space, all you need to do is recruit students," said Latta. "Generally we see about 40 people at that first meeting."

Hack Club has a sizable online presence, and students typically lead the way in on-campus club formation. Brent Smith, an AP Computer Science teacher at Los Altos High School (LAHS) in California hosts Hack Club in his room where computer equipment is already set up and ready to use. "Students started with simple things like HTML, then CSS," he said. "Then they want to start working with JavaScript in the second half of the year. It has been a good progression."

Classes devoted strictly to coding are few and far between at this point, but Smith said he sees students using what he calls the "conceptual aspects" of computer science (JavaScript and more) in club projects. "I could see how some kids would want to just get out and apply things," said Smith, who also teaches mathematics. "They get interested when they can do stuff that they play with every day like the games or apps. We've been just starting to talk about a course where they can go and program. It does not exist right now."

Over at Mountain View High School in the same district as LAHS, coding is instead given its own event. Dubbed the "Hour of Coding," the occasion comes every October as part of the Northern California school's STEM Week event.

"We work with the math department in setting aside one hour of class time to introduce students to what it is like to write computer code," said Ly Nguyen, a 12-year teacher of computer science. "The goal is to break any misconceptions and fears that students may have about computer science. Without this, many students may never experience what it is like to write their first computer program. We have trained our current computer science students to act as peer mentors. Through the 'Hour of Coding' experience, we hope to inspire students to pursue classes and careers in STEM-related fields."

Only a Brain Needed

The terms coding, hacking and programming are interchangeable these days, but Zach Latta maintains that "hacking" is favored by Silicon Valley professionals currently working as coders/programmers. It's one of the many reasons he uses "Hack Club" as the name for his venture that touches more and more lives with each passing month.

Matt Hesby, a teacher in the Summit Public Schools of California and Washington, is part of an "expeditions team" that teaches electives to students. Hesby rotates between three high schools and one middle school, teaching Intro to Computer Science. He has seen the Hack Club phenomena first hand, primarily as a way for students to apply what they are learning.

"Programming in general is a great idea for students," said Hesby. "It helps them focus their other skills; it lets them build things and get excited about using the skills and knowledge they learn in other classes; and it's something that will be part of their lives in the years to come.

"Hack Club is great because it can be difficult as a teacher to create a class that fits the requirements of being a class, such as grading and assignments, but also is open enough to allow students to explore and learn and build at their own pace," continued Hesby. "Hack Club is creating a space for students to explore and learn in a way that focuses on making and building, which can really draw in students who would otherwise be turned off by the intensiveness that programming classes normally require."

Bogdan Vitoc, a 17-year-old senior and leader of a Hack Club at Cherry Hill High School East, Cherry Hill, NJ, has long been attracted to the creative nature of coding, and he met with Latta and Hack Club co-founder Jonathan Leung during a trip to the Bay Area in February 2015. Latta and Leung stressed the lack of technological barriers and the sheer potential of the virtual landscape.

"All you need is a computer and some ingenuity to solve computer science problems and create tech businesses," said Vitoc. "Hack Club is great at creating resources to get beginners excited about programming. Unlike lots of other online tutorials, Hack Club's workshops are great at teaching beginners how to teach themselves, rather than blasting them with information. I'm on the curriculum design team with Jonathan Leung, Harrison Shoebridge and a few others. We strive to make the workshops very self-paced, and emphasize the importance of finding solutions on your own."

The self-starter mantra is echoed by Cindy Zhang, a 16-year-old junior at San Mateo High School, San Mateo, CA, who said she likes coding because it offers the freedom to try what she wants and the satisfaction of getting her code to actually work. Zhang already knows R, C++, JavaScript and HTML/CSS but occasionally struggles to effectively put them all together. "And the minimum technology that you need to start coding," she said, "is nothing but a laptop, a brain, and a desire to learn."

"One of the coolest things is that the entire 'virtual tool box' for coding is almost completely free," adds Latta, a recent winner of the Thiel Fellowship. "Anyone from a student with no money, to a professional at Facebook, has access to the same tools. Ultimately, hacking is about using all the tools at your disposal to build a solution to a problem."



Eighteen-year-old Zach Latta, executive director of San Francisco-based Hack Club, is a 2015 recipient of the Thiel Fellowship and one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 (Education Category) for 2016. He led the Engineering Team at Yo, and was a developer on Football Heroes.

THE Journal: How long have you been working on Hack Club?

Zach Latta: It has been about a year now. We've been really intent on growing, and this past year we've expanded into 69 schools.

THE Journal: How involved are students in starting Hack Clubs at their schools?

Latta: Hack Club is built almost entirely by students, for students. The clubs themselves are run by students, not teacher or Hack Club staff, and our club leaders are an integral part of building new curriculum from the moment we start on new content. We've even had many club leaders create entirely new content for the organization on their own.

THE Journal: What happens after a student applies?

Latta: We set up an interview, talk to the student a little bit about his or her experience, why he or she wants to start a Hack Club, and if it's already started, what the existing club looks like. We're looking for leadership ability and for people who take initiative. If we decide to move forward, the next steps are finding a teacher sponsor at the school and working with the club leader to plan for the first two meetings.

THE Journal: Do you look for new applicants, or do students find you?

Latta: Students find us. Everything is through applications with us. We will be at events [like hackathons], and we'll say, "If you want to start a coding club or a Hack Club, go to our Web site, apply, and we'll talk to you."

We also have a large online presence, specifically in the high school and college community. There are a lot of Facebook groups that people talk in. I run a Facebook group for high school students that has about 6,000 high school students in it that are all really into programming. And we've been driving applications through there, and through the collegiate equivalent. The Facebook group I run has high school students from every single state, more than 100 countries, and over 1,000 high schools.

THE Journal: Is hacking, programming, coding all the same thing?

Latta: Within our community, hacking, programming, coding--all of these really mean the same thing. To us, all it means is creating. If you're hacking on something, you're creating something. If you're coding something, you're creating something. The thing is, you're doing it all with code.

THE Journal: How technologically equipped are today's high schools to start Hack Clubs?

Latta: In 2009, there was a survey done by the National Center for Education, and they found that 97 percent of teachers had one or more computers in their classroom every day, and 93 percent had Internet access. And I can only imagine that number has gone up in the past six or seven years.

To start a Hack Club, you need a classroom, computer, and internet access. Generally clubs take place at computer labs or in a regular classroom with school provided computers, like Chromebooks (though sometimes club members are expected to bring their own laptops). All of our tools run in the Web browser on any computer, so you don't need to install anything special, and you can leave off where you want because it's all on the internet.

THE Journal: Are there any major road blocks to creating a Hack Club?

Latta: When we do see hurdles, it's generally getting the school administration on board.

Sometimes the word "hack" can be a little scary, and one school actually banned the word "hack" entirely. Other than that, starting a club is usually a pretty smooth process, and it's much faster than starting a computer science class at a school.

THE Journal: What is your opinion of the mindset that banned the "hack" term?

Latta: It's completely understandable. The media paints this picture of hacking being intrusive and breaking things on the Internet. That's certainly a correct use of the term. The reason we like to use the word hacking, for both our name and inside of our clubs, is because this is a term that's used in the software industry to mean building things with code. We want to show students what it's actually like. It can be a little bit difficult at times to explain it, but generally after a quick explanation that we're not using it in a malicious way, schools are on board with it.

THE Journal: What is the biggest misconception about starting a coding/ Hack Club?

Latta: People think you need to learn the fundamental concepts of programming first and only then you can do real things such as building apps, games and Web sites. One of the most powerful things about coding is that you don't need permission from anyone to do whatever you want. As long as you have Internet access, you have coding at your fingertips. It's always frustrating when people think you need to learn the fundamentals to get going. In our clubs, the members are building real things from the very first meeting.

THE Journal: What type of student shows the most talent for coding?

Latta: One of the really unfortunate misconceptions is that certain people have this inherent ability to be better at coding. I firmly believe that anyone can learn to code, no matter what their background. We have one club leader that literally had never written any code before she started her club, and her club is now one of the most active in the entire country. It's hard to say that a specific type of student makes the best coder. If you want to set out and be a successful coder, all it takes is dedication and willingness to keep going even if you fail and your program breaks.

THE Journal: What type of guidance does your organization offer?

Latta: First and foremost is the community. When you start a Hack Club, you're not just starting a single chapter at your school; you're going to be working with about 100 to 150 club leaders from 16 states and seven countries as of today. We just started one in Zimbabwe.

You're part of this community of people who are really creating what you want to see at your school. We find that when people run into problems, they're not just left being stuck. They immediately have a supportive community of other students who have faced the same problems, and are there to help.

The second thing that we do is provide a curriculum that we build, to bring club members from little or no experience to a point where they are comfortable building things on their own.

THE Journal: What is fundamental goal of Hack Club?

Latta: Our goal is to bring the amazing culture exhibited at hackathons, where everyone is constantly building things, back to high schools and make it something that high school students can experience every single week, and not just once or twice a year.

Right now, if you start a coding club, what it's probably going to look like is you're going to be able to get a room and advertise your first meeting. You'll probably get 30 to 50 students to come to the first meeting, and you'll be left with this problem, which is, okay, we have 30 to 50 people here, but very few if any have ever coded before. You may want to work on projects together, but not be sure how.

THE Journal: What are some of the main aspects of your curriculum?

Latta: We've designed an introductory curriculum that completely focuses on building things that we provide to all of our clubs. So if you're a new club member, by the time you leave the first meeting, you have your first Web site online. By the time you leave the second meeting, you've built a Web site that can call and text your phone. By the time you've left the third meeting, you've built your first game, and it's online, and you can show your friends and family. The same concepts that you use to build your first game, you can use to build things like Flappy Bird, or other apps that you use every single day on your phone. Those are the two main things--community and curriculum.

Greg Thompson is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, CO.


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Title Annotation:FEATURE: STEM; student association for learning to code
Author:Thompson, Greg
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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