Youth Hack San Francisco

Libby Falck
5 min readFeb 13, 2015

Three Lessons from SF’s First Youth Civic Hackathon…

Last month ChangeMaker Education hosted San Francisco’s first Youth Civic Hackathon at TechShop SF. We had 26 teenagers ages 15–18, 16 adult Coaches, a $50 budget per participant, and 14 hours of access to the excellent tools at Tech Shop.

Here’s what we learned…

Lesson 1: Six Ways youth civic hackathons are different from adult civic hackathons:

  1. Not a single participant had ever heard of civic hacking. Some participants weren’t familiar with the word “civic” either, so a thorough intro was important.
  2. Although some participants came with impressive technical skills, they had little experience independently conceiving projects and workflows.
  3. We closed up shop at 6pm — pretty early, as far as hackathons go.
  4. We nixed the beer (hopefully this is an obvious one) and doubled the food. Feeding the crew was our biggest budget item, in fact.
  5. We needed to make a tradeoff between productive project time and technical skill development. Keeping the event more on the low-tech side (cardboard and foam style) may have enabled us to focus more on project prototyping and testing.
  6. Amazing coaches were crucial. We had 16 outstanding volunteers with skills in programming, electronics, fabrication, 3D printing, 3D modeling, design, filmmaking and much more. Even if you focus on running a more low-tech event, the Coaches helped teams effectively meet their project goals throughout the weekend.

Lesson 2: Youth Have Awesome Ideas

Check out the weekend’s original civic hacks:

Project Bright Night

The Project Bright Night team explored the possibility of lighting streets with bioluminescent paint.

The Eco Bumper

The Eco Bumper team built a working prototype of a digital license plate that can display a car’s C02 emissions.

The Peace Pod

The Peace Pod prototyped how structure can be used to reduce ambient noise in busy public places.

Project Gaia

Project Gaia prototyped a sensor that could measure weight in garbage receptacles. They hope to reduce C02 emissions by limiting the frequency of garbage truck stops.

What Would Mother Nature Say

Our all-girl team coded a program that pulls #WWMNS-tagged photos from Instagram. Their idea is to display these images on a digital billboard to promote positive civic action.

Pies for Lives

The Pies for Lives team proposed a vending machine that would deliver a meal to homeless shelters when you purchase a pie.

Lesson 3: Youth Are Looking for Innovative Opportunities to Contribute

At the end of the event 100% of our survey respondents said they’ll come to our next event and bring friends. The bottom line: youth hackathons work.

Here’s how the full weekend went down:

Setting the Stage

First thing on Saturday morning we gathered in the main conference room at Tech Shop SF. After some orange juice, waiver-signing, and coffee, the day began with an ice breaker to put us in the “fail fast” mindset.

Danny from The Tech Museum ran the “Number Circle” icebreaker.

Next, myself and Sam Lamott (educator extraordinaire at Tech Shop) laid out the ground rules for the weekend with:

  • an intro to “Civic Hacking”
  • coach introductions
  • safety rules for tool use in Tech Shop
  • pump-up talk by climate warrior Shana Rappaport
  • challenge guidelines:
Each participant received this overview with project guidelines and a list of four local challenges to address.


We split into four groups for rotating brainstorms at 4 stations:

  • Digital manufacturing and 3D Printing
  • Microelectronics and Arduino Programming
  • Media and Design
  • Fabrication

At each station, coaches had 10 minutes to introduce their technology area before running a 10-minute brainstorm to generate ideas that address the four challenges.

(there were a lot of ideas)


After lunch the kids pitched their favorite ideas to the room and formed teams. Each team then chose a Coach to be their point-person for the weekend and sketched a timeline for the goals they hoped to accomplish by presentation-time on Sunday.

Work Time!

Final Presentations

On Sunday afternoon we gathered once more in the (now packed) conference room at Tech Shop for final presentations. Each group had five minutes to share their project with parents and the community.


Get involved!

If you’re excited about what we did here in San Francisco, please join our mailing list or email me. We’re building templates to help roll out more of these events and are looking for civic hackers around the country to help lead the charge.



Libby Falck

User-centered approach to #progressive #digitalstrategy from an educational game designer. Alum @MIT_cmsw & @UWMadison | Founder @ForwardLabs |