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How Can Hackathons Support STEM Learning and Girls?

The Learning Pathways Project, founded by high school student Satvika Kumar, supports STEM learning for elementary & middle schoolers.

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How Can Hackathons Support STEM Learning and Girls?

Imagine that you’re creating a mobile app. You’ve just met your team for the first time, and no one in the group has developed an app before. There are so many steps: choosing the app’s purpose, designing the layout, coding and testing the app. And to top it off, you only have a few hours to create a finished product. How will you do it?

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DC-area middle schoolers faced this question at the #firsthack hackathon in April. During a hackathon, people work together to code software in a matter of hours or days, often to solve real-world challenges. The #firsthack event was hosted by Satvika Kumar, founder of the Learning Pathways Project (LPP). Satvika is both student and educator—she just finished her junior year of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA. In 2013, she founded LPP, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting STEM learning for elementary and middle school students, particularly girls. Since launching LPP, Kumar has created a mobile app, written a children’s book, and started an afterschool club.

NOVA Education spoke with Kumar about the development of LPP, strategies for students to boost their own learning, and takeaways for educators.

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How did your school support the development of LPP?

Through my school, I had the opportunity to apply for a Jefferson/Overseas Schools Technology Institute (JOSTI) grant. My idea was to create an app that would scramble a series of items (e.g., the planets in our solar system) and allow students to reorder the items. The app’s goal was to improve long-term retention and study skills. I worked with my principal, Evan Glazer, to refine my idea. I received the grant and presented at the JOSTI conference in 2013 to an international audience of educators. I didn’t think people would be interested, but I got positive feedback from the educators. From there, I got the idea to create the Learning Pathways Project.

NOVA Connection: Do your students have great ideas, but don’t know to bring them to fruition? Explore NOVA’s Design Process Collection

for strategies about brainstorming, organizing ideas, and presenting.


The Learning Pathways Project encourages elementary and middle school students, especially girls, to participate in STEM. Credit: Christina Wei.

How have you collected feedback on your app?

At the JOSTI conference, I created a poll for the audience members. The poll asked questions about how educators would use the app, and it also asked for suggestions. On the poll, educators recommended adapting the app for different learning styles. Many of my classmates said they had trouble finding ways to learn, and they found out about my app through school. I’ve presented the app at elementary schools and have given out a poll, similar to the one I gave out at JOSTI. I just published a book called Little Pi and Peanut’s Adventures with Loops, Stacks, and Cues , which I’ll distribute to STEM leaders for feedback.

In April 2015, you hosted #firsthack, a hackathon where middle school students developed apps with the help of high school mentors. How was the event? What did you learn for hosting future hackathons?

The event was great! We had about 70 middle schoolers from the DC area, who came from diverse backgrounds. About 30 high schoolers from TJ volunteered as mentors. We used Code Academy and MIT App Inventor to teach the middle schoolers about coding. We had judges from Google Developers Group , Github , and Array Information Technology . The winning team created a “space race” app, but there was a wide variety. Some apps included photos or organizer functions. One app was designed like Candyland, where students progressed through to learn different subjects.

The event encouraged collaboration. Some groups had “leaders” and others didn’t, but everyone was able to contribute ideas either way. Collaboration around a foreign concept is the best collaboration, because everyone’s learning something new. Students brought different knowledge and skills to the group, so they had to work together to succeed. Going forward, I want to make this more of a true hackathon, where students use skills that apply outside of computer science. I’d also like to expand the event to include more students.

NOVA Connection: Introduce your students to coding with the Cybersecurity Lab . In this Lab, students can grasp the basics of coding, learn how to spot phishing scams, and practice creating strong passwords. The Lab also features the video “ The Secret Lives of Hackers ” which examines different types of hackers, including those working with good intentions.

Your app aims to help students study and retain information. How can students maximize their own learning?

The key is finding the strategy that helps you. There isn’t one strategy that works for everyone, because we all have different learning styles. Similar to that, studying different subjects requires different approaches. You can’t study math and science the same way, because you use different skills in those classes. It’s important not be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t understand something, you’ll learn much more by asking questions than trying to figure it out yourself.

NOVA Connection: If tests make your students tense up, the NOVA scienceNOW clip “ Interfering with Fear ” might help. The clip shows the brain’s response to pressure and how writing down one’s feelings can a alleviate stress response.


It is important for students to find study strategies that work best for them. Credit: K.W. Barrett/Flickr (CC BY).

What can other educators take away from LPP?

One big takeaway is to use strategies that will help your students—not just strategies that work well for you. Some teachers just call on students with questions, but students might need more encouragement and guidance before they’re ready to answer. Some instructional strategies, like self-paced assignments, won’t work for everyone either. Consider what your students need before starting something new.

NOVA Connection: Learning Pathways Project engaged students in authentic computer science inquiry during the #firsthack event. Authentic inquiry is a great way to instill key concepts and keep students interested. Molecular biologist and education postdoctoral associate Melanie Peffer shared strategies for authentic inquiry in a NOVA Education blog guest post.

What are your future plans for LPP?

Our goal is to build a safe space for students, especially girls, to explore STEM. We’d like to expand our reach nationwide, and we’d like to host more events like #firsthack. If you’d like to support our mission, email us at .

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