Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Reflections on PD Hackathon 2023

Today I’ve had an opportunity to participate, facilitate, and volunteer as a judge in our fall 2023 Hackathon at our school, Providence Day School of Charlotte, North Carolina. This is the second time I’ve been able to be part of the Hackathon, and in this post I’d like to reflect a little about some of my takeaways, especially as they relate to the media literacy and STEM skills I’m teaching my own middle school students, and ways we can work together to reduce poverty and help those in poverty in our communities.

PD Hackathon 2023” (CC BY 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

Hackathons take different forms. In our case, they are offered twice per year, and provide opportunities for area students to practice a wide variety of skills. These include collaboration, communication, “design thinking,” coding, web development, problem solving, divergent thinking, and presentation skills. The primary organizer of our school hackathons, Dr. James Edge, was interviewed on our local WBTV television station last week, sharing more information about our PDS Hackathon and how area students (not just those enrolled at our school) can get involved.

Our PDS Hackathon is open to elementary, middle and high school students in the Charlotte area. The “prompt” this year focused on addressing poverty in our Charlotte, North Carolina, area. The specific prompt was:

“One of the most pressing issues Charlotte faces today is extremely limited economic mobility. A 2014 study infamously placed Charlotte dead last (50th out of 50) for upward mobility, meaning that any child born into poverty in Charlotte was more likely to remain in poverty than any other location in the analysis. Social networks, transportation, career readiness, education, power and resources, child and family stability, property values, and food access are all deeply connected to this issue, and the future of Charlotte will largely be defined with how the city’s population attempts to address these matters. While some people disregard this issue, your goal today is to produce a solution to one aspect that affects economic mobility in Mecklenburg County. You may choose, for example, to focus on raising awareness for a new transportation initiative, partner with a local organization that aims to push educational efforts, engineer a new program for career training, or even monetize a service or create a good where the profits will go towards directly supporting an organization already addressing this issue. There are unlimited opportunities for you to design, innovate, and establish an entrepreneurial plan to address this issue. Participants must use data to support their solution, and this data should come from the sets we provide or reliable sets found by competitors. Priority will be given to participants who support their solution with programming, technology, and coding. Please do your best!”

Initial Data Sets

How We Rise

Charlotte Family Housing

Leading on Opportunity

Crisis Assistance Ministry

Upward Mobility

Charlotte Opportunity Initiative-2020 Report

Charlotte Works

Charlotte Regional Traffic Data Program

Charlotte, NC Education Data

Mecklenburg County Demographics

United States Census Bureau-Mecklenburg County

I served on a panel of three judges for our middle school division, and we heard 23 different student groups “pitch” their ideas. It was both inspiring to see the skills and abilities of participating students on display, and also informative to me as a media literacy and STEM teacher, to identify some gaps and opportunities for skills which students can further develop.

Here are my primary reflections.

1. App Development

The judging rubric we used this year placed more emphasis on programming and coding. The score teams earned for programming and coding in their “pitch” was multiplied by a factor of two. Other rubric categories included:

  • Effective oral communication
  • Curiosity and imagination
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
Fall 2023 PD Hackathon Rubric” (CC BY 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

Some of the coding platforms middle school teams this year used in their Hackathon pitches included Scratch,, and Website development platforms utilized included Google Sites, Wix,, SquareSpace and Some students used to create interactive, animated mock-ups of mobile apps they proposed as part of their pitch. was identified by one team as their proposed mobile app development platform for their project.

Of these tools, I have not used Canva or very much in the past on my own or with students. Both of these platforms are VERY powerful and extensible, and deserve more of my time and attention as a middle school STEM teacher. I particularly would like to help more of my students develop some basic applications using the “App Lab” specifically.

2. Presentation Skills

The ability to effectively present and communicate to an audience is so important! One of the primary skills which students not only have an opportunity to practice, but also WATCH and learn from in the Hackathon “Finals” (in which 5 teams from each competition category “pitch” their solution) is presentation skills.

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds was one of the most influential books which shaped my own design philosophy as a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, and teacher of both younger students as well adults. Some of the presentation design concepts Garr teachers include:

  1. Avoid large blocks of text, use minimal text with bulleted texts
  2. Use large images which relate to the presented topics
  3. Don’t read text from your slides!

Most of our student presenters today used Google Slides, but some teams also used and In addition to teaching my media literacy students about presentation skills, watching today’s Hackathon pitches also reminded me about the importance of teaching students about effective visual communication, different resources to find images to use in presentations, as well as generative AI platforms which support “text to image” creation. Padlet is the primary platform I’m using for AI image generation currently, using its new “I Can’t Draw” feature.

When I was in high school back in the late 1980s, “Speech” was a graduation requirement. I took a semester of cross-examination policy debate as a senior, which encouraged me to participate in competitive speech and debate for four years in college at the Air Force Academy. Watching and judging student Hackathon pitches last spring and today reminds me of the importance of speech and presentation skills, and the value of having speech as a GRADUATION REQUIREMENT for all students.

3. Awareness About Khan Academy

Many of our student presentation teams today at the Hackathon proposed tutoring programs for students, but none of the elementary or middle school teams mentioned Khan Academy. In tackling a problem as big and complex and poverty in our community, the importance of exposure to existing programs and solutions was highlighted repeatedly to me today. I’m not sure that most of our students who proposed creating tutoring programs for students, or providing video tutorials for students, are aware of Khan Academy.

Particularly as Khan Academy continues to integrate AI technologies into its offerings, with the goal of providing each student with a “personal AI tutor,” it seems important to share Khan Academy and help students of all ages know and access their free resources.

4. Awareness About Poverty

I really love the focus on addressing community poverty in our Hackathon this year. It was clear in listening to so many student groups talk about poverty, however, that a wide variety of stereotypes and misconceptions about poverty exist.

Many student groups proposed “solutions” to the prompt that involved providing people in poverty with more information and access to resources. Some suggested that AI powered mobile applications would be able to provide customized information to help those in poverty get help and assistance. Lots of students proposed tutoring programs, and many suggested doing a variety of local fundraising initiatives to support these tutoring programs as well as other nonprofits serving the needy.

Only one group I heard today talked about the chronic UNDERFUNDING which we see for public schools today in our area, and the need to address these issues. They proposed some local educational exchange programs, in which students and teachers from more affluent schools (like ours) would trade places with peers in local public schools which receive comparable lower levels of funding support. That student group suggested that these exchanges would highlight disparities in educational opportunities in our community, and could lead to positive changes in educational outcomes.

I LOVED this proposal and line of thinking, but would have liked to see this group talk about how these exchanges could lead to advocacy campaigns for higher levels of funding for public education in North Carolina. Our teachers not only need to be paid more in North Carolina, but we also need to build and grow our cadre of professional teachers so we can reduce class sizes and improve the educational experiences for students as well as teachers.

Poverty is VERY complex, and simple solutions are (unfortunately) inadequate to significantly change societal economic trends. That said, today with our access to generative AI tools as well as other algorithmic approaches to problems, it’s possible to study and analyze very complex situations using multi-variate analysis which would have been difficult or impossible for many people in the past.

I have a LOT of thoughts and reflections on this, but overall am emerging from this Hackathon experience wanting to find ways that our students as well as faculty and other community members could have opportunities to learn more about the realities of poverty in our community. It’s great to have access to data sets and to use them for analysis, but understanding poverty (and constructing empathetic, effective strategies in partnership with those experiencing poverty and homelessness) requires experiences, conversations, and relationships between those in different economic circumstances.

I’m thinking it could be helpful to offer a “pre-hackathon prep workshop” for students, focused on the overall theme of the semester’s prompt / challenge. How do we address stereotypes and assumptions which many more affluent people may have about people experiencing homelessness, or poverty, and deepen that understanding?

In our Sunday School class at our church currently, we’re reading Kevin Nye’s book, “Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness.” Kevin advocates for the “Housing First” approach to addressing homelessness and affordable housing. My own understanding of these issues suggests that being exposed to and understanding these ideas are key to addressing poverty in our communities today. I didn’t hear anything about “Housing First” in today’s Hackathon, and I’m wondering how this awareness could be promoted in our community in the future?

5. Teacher Professional Development

I would love to see a professional development day at our school in which we, as faculty, engage in these exact challenges of the Hackathon with our peers. Hackathons (as our school offers them) are phenomenal opportunities for participants to access, use, synthesize, and communicate ideas with analytics. Like cross-examination policy debate, and perhaps other forms of competitive speech events (like “Public Forum,”) our school Hackathon provides a great opportuntie for participants to intersect with “wicked problems” and take on the challenge of proposing specific solutions or strategies to solve or improve those complex situations.

As teachers, we need to be stretched in our own uses of digital tools to access, analyze, and communicate ideas. A “Hackathon PD Day” would be an engaging, fun, and challenging way to stretch our skills as professionals and citizens, and also learn a great deal about important issues. It also could lead (as our student hackathons have) to follow-up activities and initiatives which move beyond theoretical proposals. Hackathons like ours are inherently empowering, and it’s exciting. to both see how participants have been empowered in the past to take the ideas they’ve cultivated out into the world… as well as how future participants may. be similarly empowered in the future.

6. Provide Detailed Feedback to Hackathon Participants

In competitive debate tournaments, participants receive details feedback from their judges in both preliminary as well as elimination rounds. As a parent volunteer on the debate teams of our own kids. in the past decade, I learned about and. the way debate judging has “gone digital.” Today and in past hackathons at our school, we’ve used paper rubrics to assess and evaluate student team “pitches.” I’m thinking it would be good to use an electronic format for judging, mainly to provide each team with specific feedback they could use to reflect on their work and performance, and improve in the future.

Overall Conclusions

I am so thankful our school offers Hackathon challenges for our students and students in the Charlotte community! I’m also thankful for the chance to volunteer and participate, since it not only provided opportunities to work with and get to know students in different grades / divisions, but also many of our parents. The skill sets cultivated by our Hackathon are FANTASTIC, and it definitely challenges me to think about the lessons and units I’m teaching to my own students as a middle school STEM teacher.

Long live the PDS Hackathon! 🙂

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