High school hackathons are overrated*

As someone who organized HackMIT for multiple years, I wanted to talk about our high school hackathon Blueprint and the weird spot hackathons are for high school students. On the one hand, hackathons provide amazing opportunities for high school students to learn computer science early. However, some students take it too far in the number of hackathons they participate in. The cycle of ideation, scaffolding, and presentation of hackathon projects can make it hard to learn the problem-solving skills needed to do successful personal projects and become a better coder.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hackathons. I love the energy you get from working with other people over a short burst of time. It’s great for beginners and veterans. But on the other hand, personal projects and other coding endeavors are much more rewarding and beneficial to personal development. It allows you to make your own and other people’s lives better. It gets you to problem solve, go from 0 to 100, and touch every part of the process. AND you get really good at googling. Personal projects give you a taste of the real world: the struggles and the excitement of supporting real users.

Hackathons are an amazing resource for high school students.

I loved organizing Blueprint. Running the high school hackathon was more rewarding than the college one. Students are incredibly excited to learn computer science, and the ideas that they came up with were unique! We could focus and tailor the hackathon for beginner participants and get people excited to work on projects. We’ve seen people who even participated in Blueprint that went on to join our organizing team!

There are many mentors and online resources that high school students can ask for advice and guidance.

The build once and forget cycle feels off.

However, high school hackathons can present an interesting challenge for hackathon organizers. As an organizer, we want to maintain a level of fairness for prizes, which implies that projects shouldn’t be started beforehand. On the other hand, we want students to write code and build their projects beyond setting up a starter template. But high school hackathons run on limited time. Bringing high school students on campus without adult* supervision (technically, college students are adults) presents logistical challenges. Providing housing for an even longer hackathon would be almost impossible. College hackathons usually run from 24 to 36 hrs, but high school hackathons can really max out at 6-8 hours. I can’t possibly imagine only having half a day to fully flesh out a project. 

This means students spend a nontrivial portion of their time ideating and cleaning up their project for presentation. Unfortunately, many students will spend only a few hours working on the technical aspects of their projects.

Working beyond the hackathon

I wish I vocalize to the students to continue working on their projects after the hackathon. I’ve viewed countless GitHub profiles with dead hackathon projects: barely functional and nothing more than a React website with a few text fields and pages. The ideas are great, but alas, nothing ever happens to them.

All in all

When I see a high schooler’s resume, and I notice they have a 1st place hackathon winner on it, I am impressed. But, I am even more amazed when I see a high school work on a project from beginning to end, all the way to publishing. Because to me, that showed amazing dedication and perseverance of the coder. I still think high school students should participate in hackathons. However, just not only participate in hackathons.

I understand that most people won’t come up with great ideas at hackathons. Sure there are prizes, free food, and great speakers. It’s good to win a prize or two (I have never won any prizes, and I’m kinda jealous of those who have). But like most things in life, hackathons should be done in moderation. :)

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