Kids Create the Darnedest Things

Tim Knight

Written by Tim Knight
on Thursday, December 15th, 2016
in Culture

Not Every Kid Owns a Computer

Technology moves so fast that it’s tough for most schools to maintain a curriculum which addresses current trends. At least a reasonable curriculum that would extend what a student could learn themselves with a bit of passion and ingenuity to succeed. But not all kids are so lucky. Many students don’t have the luxury of a home computer. In Sarasota, there are plenty of students in low-opportunity settings with an unexpressed passion for technology.

I was lucky to be invited to participate in a recent community hackathon, with exactly those students, organized by the Education Foundation of Sarasota. What’s a hackathon? Essentially, it’s an event where a group of people, who in many cases have never met, get together for a short period of time and create something or solve a problem using technology. In this particular case, the goal was to solve a local community issue as determined by the students.

The participants were divided into teams, each containing designers, developers and innovators – leaders in technology and business. Students provided the concept and it was up to the adults to mentor and guide them through the creative process. Be that through programming or product design; whichever direction the team felt was the best fit to communicate the solution for their problem.

Sometimes Kids People Just Surprise You

I was lucky enough to choose my team after their topic was selected. I walked through the auditorium to hear the pitches of each team’s project and found something that I connected with. A job-search mobile application, targeting kids aged 14-19, which they called “ResuME”. The team held four students, all from different schools, different backgrounds, and with different experiences in technology.

Each student assumed different roles within the team, “The Pitch Person / Market Researcher,” “The DBA / Developer,” “The UXer” and “The Designer.”

I spent most of my time with the student who I’ll call “The UXer.” He immediately shocked me. This boy had no experience working with web code, but had been playing with C and Java for school projects using Arduino boards. He was brilliant. We worked together to create high-fidelity prototypes and outline the functionality of each of the screens, finishing our portion of the project within just a few hours. I guided him through the process even after the prototype phase, so he could understand how User Experience and Product Design are required throughout the entire process of product development.

Each of these kids saw opportunities to learn something new over the course of the exercise. “The DBA” student admitted to having never really used a computer, but the team had him creating SQL architecture and modeling a database on the first day. Our “Designer” had a passion for design and color that she learned to better express using technology. And our “Pitchman”? Not only did he learn to use his passion for communication, but he learned that you don’t necessarily need to be a technician to have a hand helping the lives of others.

The Big Reveal

After roughly two and a half days it was time for the students of each team to present their idea. Even the shyest among our team were coached through the presentation process, communicating their product’s market benefits, technical feasibility, and financial viability. They did so without any of the mentors on-stage with them, aside from an assistant to operate the computer as a demonstrative visual aid.

Our students presented a fully-functional prototype, taking judges through the primary features, future parental notification options, and roadmap features for augmented reality. The judges pressed with questions and every kid was on point, confidently stepping up to answer. A clear demonstration of their ability to think on their feet.


One of the initial prototype screens for the application presented in the browser.

I have so much respect for all of the kids who worked through their various problems. There were so many thoughtful applications presented that I knew the judges would have a tough time deciding. Then the time came to announce the winners. “Would we place?” you could hear both the students and mentors of our team question. Third place was announced. Another of many creative apps that wasn’t us. Then second place. Still… not us. The doubts grew. “We didn’t make, it did we?” Our team leader later admitted she kept saying in her head, “Oh please, don’t let these kids walk away empty-handed.”

Then he said, “And first place goes to ResuME!” We all jumped up screaming. Students, mentors, it didn’t matter. We knew that these kids just made a significant difference in their lives because there were no doubts what they could accomplish by working through a problem. As they were all asked how they felt, “The UXer” that I worked so closely with pointed to me in the audience and said, “I want to thank my mentor Tim for everything he taught me.” I nearly lost it.

From left to right: The DBA, The Designer, The UXer, and The Pitchman

From left to right: The DBA, The Designer, The UXer, and The Pitchman

I was more then a proud mentor that day. I was a proud friend. I couldn’t be more impressed and impacted by the work these kids did to put everything together. I know we, the mentors, learned a lot too. As a product designer, I was inspired by their passion and drive and I know they’ve got a lot of opportunities ahead of them. I met “The UXer’s” mother, and gave her my business card. “I want you to call me. I want you to bring him to my office one day when he’s available and I’ll mentor him through more of this type of work for the real world if he’s interested.”

And I hope to do just that.

Congratulations to everyone involved for bringing new opportunities to the youth of Sarasota and giving them a real sense of what they can accomplish.