Hacking Alexa at Gillingham school

We teamed up with Aga Gajownik of Innovation and Integration Ltd to run a ‘hackathon’ event at Robert Napier School in Gillingham. Following Aga’s SCRUM Educational Experience framework designed to turn traditional hackathons (which focus on coding) into educational tools aiming to inspire young people into tech careers.

Aga set a series of 5 short sprints for the 29 Year 12 students to work through. Students worked in teams of 4 to 6 to think about how technology might help to make Gillingham a great place for teenagers to live. Teams had mentors from industry helping them to keep on track through the challenging tasks they were set.

We are really grateful to Paul Grenfell, Arron Woods, Shathish Navaratnam and Ann Patterson for their brilliant support throughout the day.

Students worked through six ‘sprints’, fast-paced work sessions, each with five or so minutes of introductory planning (what do we need to do), a period of working on an idea or solution and then five or so minutes of retrospective discussion (how did it go). These were followed by a pitching session where groups presented their ideas and business plans to a panel of judges. The judges included two volunteers from Amazon, Derek Cullen and Jamie Grossman and the founder of online Alexa skills development platform, thestoryline.io, Vasili Shynkarenka. Vasili joined us by video link from California, where he had got up early to take part in the judging.

Sprints covered problem identification, ideation, prototyping, coding, business modelling and pitch preparation. Students identified a diverse set of problems experienced by teenagers in Gillingham, from lack of things to do to lack of access to relationship advice that might help to reduce teenage pregnancies. They considered who was affected by these problems and developed outline solutions.

Students learnt how to use thestoryline.io, an app created to help make Alexa skills without coding. Two groups managed to get a fully working prototype app to demonstrate.

In a very limited time period, the groups prepared their pitch presentations, and were ready for questions. It is always amazing to see how much can be achieved in such a short space of time. These students really rose to the challenge.

The winning team were Lauren, Kane, Harry and Thomas. Their app was Echo Run Smart, which could help Gillingham teenagers to participate safely in free running activities. A very close second were Yusuf, Furqan, Theo, Ryan, David and Jan whose app, Advice for You, could be interrogated for advice on sexual relationships.

We ran this as pilot event for Aga’s framework, which schools can learn to run themselves with some training from her team. Future ‘hackathon’ events will be run in a very similar way with Aga’s team running the day and futureCodersSE setting up the event, liaising with the schools and recruiting the volunteers.

We are so grateful to all the volunteers who helped on the day and to Space Between and to the Amazon Alexa team who donated prizes and goodies for the students and the school.

We could not have run this event so successfully without the hard work of Tim Smith, Head of ICT and Business at Robert Napier School. He put all the systems in place to ensure that the day ran smoothly and we are so grateful to him for his enthusiasm and support. That enthusiasm reflected in the students and was a pleasure to see.

We are ready to move on from the pilot stage, working with Aga to deliver a great one day experience for students, to inspire and to educate. We would love organise a similar, one day, event in any sixth form or college. Contact us for details karen@futurecoders.org.uk.

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