Try a Hackathon! Teens Create Tech Projects Together

Do you dream of creating a video game, designing a website, or developing an app? Would you like to learn more about how these products are made? Do you see a way to solve a particular problem using technology, but don’t yet know how? Participating in a student hackathon can be a rewarding way to develop your ideas and code them into reality—even if you’re new to coding. You get to immerse yourself in technology and learn new skills, all while working with other students on a hands-on, real-world project.

Hackathons have been around for a while for adults, but now there are events tailored just for students. You’ll work in a team (or solo, if you prefer) to create a project in a short period of time—generally a one-day event. Some hackathons are organized as a competition among teams; others are not. In general, student hackathons are high-energy, focused, and fun!

Why Participate in a Hackathon?

Hackathons have a boatload of benefits for teens. You can:

  • Develop your coding skills. Get first-time exposure to coding, or build on your existing skills.
  • Plan and build projects. Feel that glow of accomplishment (whether you finish the project during the hackathon or later, at home) and add it to your college application portfolio. 
  • Practice thinking like an entrepreneur. Brainstorming about product ideas or trying to solve a real-life problem is just what an entrepreneur does. See where technology fits into that picture and make it happen!
  • Work within a team. Designing, coding, and building as a team prepare you well for college and the working world.
  • Network, interact with mentors, and get career exposure. People from the tech industry often mentor teams at teen hackathons, and some hackathons include guest speakers who describe careers in technology and specific industries.
  • Enhance your resumé! Hackathon participation is a good addition to your college portfolio and can be helpful when you’re applying for scholarships, internships, and jobs. 

See projects created by hackathon participants in Hack3’s project gallery.

How to Find a Hackathon

Here are some great websites that keep a running list of in-person and online student hackathons. New events are always being added to these sites, so check often for upcoming events. Each hackathon has its own special theme (for example, health and wellness, game design, ethical AI, environment, and social justice) and unique offerings, so visit the hackathon’s page or website to see what interests you and might be a good fit!

  • Hack Club: Provides a curated list of in-person and virtual hackathons for high school students in the US and worldwide. 
  • Devpost: A platform that allows you to browse hackathons for all ages and search specifically for high school hackathons. You can also explore hackathon projects and host hackathons on the platform.
  • Major League Hacking (MLH): A student hackathon league powering over 200 weekend-long invention competitions. 
  • TechTogether: The organization hosts PreHacks, free one-day virtual learnathons for high school students consisting of workshops and activities led by the TechTogether team. The program focuses on beginners and is committed to serving people of marginalized genders.
  • CodeDay: Hosts worldwide weekend events that get beginners excited about coding. Students work together to build apps and games. 

Choosing the Right Hackathon for You

There are so many options today, and with many hackathons offered online, you can find one that fits what you’re looking for, whether it’s based on something you want to learn, a topic you’re interested in, or getting college and career insight and guidance. Hackathons are a great way to meet new people and network with other students! Don’t worry about the competition component if that’s not your thing. 

Hackathons are all very different, so go in with an open mind. You might not finish a project, but you will learn something. My daughter attended one in high school. She had some prior coding experience, and she brought two friends with her, one with coding experience and one who didn’t have much. They had a lot of fun that day working with HTML5 and CSS to make a zebra web page—just because they loved zebras! They ran into challenges—like trying to make the zebra move—but they had fun and learned a lot about CSS in the process. 

After the Hackathon 

Hackathons are time-limited one-off events, so they might not be long enough to provide a full experience of taking a project from idea to completion. If you want to continue to explore after the event is over, here are some ideas:

  • Keep working on the project at home
  • Take a computer class at the high school (many schools offer Intro to Coding classes and AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles)
  • Join a computer club or entrepreneurial club at your school
  • Take an online computer science class. Find a program here!
  • Attend a pre-college summer computer science course at a college or university nearby

Be sure to document your finished project, because it can be an excellent example to showcase in your college application or portfolio. Many students add their projects to GitHub, making it easy for others to view.

Organize Your Own Student Hackathon

It’s not surprising that many of today’s hackathons are created and run by students. If you’re interested in starting your own, here are some helpful resources:

  • Hack Club, a nonprofit network of 10k+ high school hackers and coding clubs, is a great resource if you want to run your own hackathon. It includes a Slack community, $500 grants, and marketing event support. Hack Club can also help you start a coding club in your school, library, or community center. 
  • Devpost is another robust resource for hosting a hackathon. Charlotte Law, the founder of Inspire2Dev, uses Devpost to post her hackathon events for middle schoolers. She says, “Devpost is a perfect place to post information about your hackathon and host project submissions.”
  • Major League Hacking. In addition to running hackathons, MLH is a resource for teens and others organizing a hackathon. They provide extensive support before, during, and after the hackathon and have a fairly rigorous application process to ensure quality.

Read my article about Charlotte, a teen STEM entrepreneur who founded a student-run volunteer organization that hosts free online hackathons and coding immersions for middle school students.

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