“Technology is the great equalizer”
It’s a phrase that has been used hundreds of thousands of times, in almost as many different contexts. For people with disabilities, for people across language barriers, for people stuck in poverty, and for whole cities. Today that was again confirmed for another previous distinction: age.
Just today, the MHacks III college hackathon was won by a group with three high-school students and a freshman at MIT. The team — Conrad Kramer, Veeral Patel, Nick Frey, and Ari Weinstein — beat out almost a thousand other participants to win the top prize for their iOS app, Workflow.
MHacks isn’t the first hackathon to be won by a high school student. The winning team of the PennApps Fall 2013 hackathon included a high schooler (Conrad, actually), and likewise, a team of high schoolers won second place at HackRU in fall of 2013. These aren’t the only examples either: there are many many cases of high schoolers’ projects doing well at college hackathons.
High school students have won hackathons even above the college level. At the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 hackathon, the Best in Show prize went to a team of high school students with their app “Spruce”, defeating almost 250 other projects made by mostly professional developers.
How is it that high-school students — who’ve had less experience and less classroom education than their competitors (mostly college CS majors) — were able to create the winning hack at so many hackathons in the last 6 months? Additionally, how do so many of the largest prizes go to the smallest segment of the attendees?
I believe that it comes down to motivation. Many of the high school hackers I’ve met are hands down the smartest people I know, but there are plenty of really smart college students out there too. The difference between the two is that the high-school students winning these events are out there to prove that high schoolers can do anything. They’re motivated by the fact that they are the youngest ones there and they want to show the world that high schoolers can do literally anything they put their minds to — that age does not matter.
This is where that clichéd phrase comes in. In these cases, technology has once again leveled the playing field, and high schoolers are able to compete with just about anyone in the world. One of the beautiful things about Computer Science is that 90% of the learning isn’t done in the classroom, but rather by individuals in their own time and by their own motivation. It doesn’t matter that these students haven’t gone to college, they’ve taught themselves all they need to be able to compete against — and win over— student hackers from some of the top colleges in the US.
Many high school students today are out to break the stereotype of the lazy, immature adolescent who only cares about texting friends, going to the movies, and playing XBox. Many incredibly motivated — and incredibly bright — students are out there ready to change the world. These students are going to be the future of tech, and the ones winning hackathons today are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m not trying to put down college students — there are many, many talented college students who are both really smart and incredibly motivated. However, college students are often expected to have big dreams and big ideas; they’re that much closer to having to go out and join the real world. High-school students, on the other hand, have an cultural stereotype and expectation of laziness put upon them which is so often not true.
All in all, the lesson we can learn here is that technology does not discriminate. Age, race, gender, nationality: nothing matters when you have the motivation and the inspiration to create something cool. High-school hackers can do just about anything, no matter what other people may say about their age.
The question then, is what’s next? If you’re reading this as a high-school student, I encourage you go pack up your laptop, text a friend or two, and go to a hackathon. Pilot events are a great place to start learning, as are other similar events like CodeDay, HackBCA, and HSHacks. Your first hackathon can sometimes be a little bit intimidating, but once you start going you’ll be hooked, and the skills you’ll learn at these events will be helpful for the rest of your life.
If you’re not a high school student, you should go out and find ways to help. Pilot events always need mentors and sponsors, and if you know how to code (lets face it, you’re reading this on Medium), you can be a part of the movement that’s changing the lives of high school students across the country. Hackathons are one of the best educational experiences out there, and by helping out with them you’re making them an even more powerful force for teaching students to make their ideas come to life.
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