Hackathons Are for Everyone

K.Park/ February 20, 2021/ 0 comments

ISTE Student Standard 4 

What are ways in which students can use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions? 

  • 4a –  Know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems
  • 4b – Select and use digital tools to plan and manage a design process that considers design constraints and calculated risks
  • 4c – Students develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.
  • 4d – Exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.

ISTE Coaches Standards

  • 4a – Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.


Hackathons are often associated with technology, but they’re really events that bring people from multiple disciplines together to work intensively on resolving an issue. A few years ago, I had the privilege of taking one of my student employees to the University of British Columbia to participate in a Learning Analytics Canvas Hackathon and then assisting with some administrative tasks at a workplace hosted hackathon for women. It was exciting to see students choose an issue that they felt strongly about and then work to design, build a potential solution, and do a presentation or pitch for their project. So why participate in these intensive activities that have nothing to do with grades?


My question for this post is: How does a hackathon help students tackle real world issues and design and develop solutions?

I think answering this question will help us understand why students participate and why educators should create and encourage more students to participate in a hackathon.

Preparing for the Real World

According to Steve Weston,he writes that hackathons do the following for participants:

  • Hackathons allow participants to try riskier projects without any repercussions.  
  • Participants are guaranteed to learn new technical skills and enhance their soft skills.  Since there are workshops and mentors, you naturally are able to build new skills and since you’re working in a group, your team and leadership skills are further developed too.
  • Hackathons help participants gain experience turning ideas into actions.  Sometimes at work or in school, it’s not possible or easy to see how each step in a process is connected and impacts the other steps, until you have hands-on experience.
  • Participants create networks – whether they become personal learning networks or business networks for future career opportunities, you’ve become more connected and you have more people who can help give insight and feedback when needed.
  • Participants are exposed to different disciplines, through this exposure you get to see how others may tackle issues and develop ideas.  
  • Since hackathons are intense situations, participant’s problem solving skills are naturally stretched. You have to work fast, be agile and flexible, and you really get to understand the root or core of an issue.

All of this helps develop and refine skills that students need for the workforce, but more importantly, connects networks of students with the various industries nearby. According to Walden, “Hackathons are ideal hunting grounds for companies looking to score top talent straight out of school. They are often more appealing than a traditional career fair, as companies can send their engineers to an event and get a first-hand glimpse at potential candidates and their skills.”

Design Process at a Hackathon

Design thinking 101 process by nngroup.com

There are many different design processes that participants can employ at a hackathon. According to Leong, Cs, he writes that “Design Thinking is a creatively structured approach that helps an individual or a team to identify the real problem and ultimately solving it. The reason to use this in a hackathon because it needs to generate ideas fast but most teams are actually suffering from finding out the true problem before diving into solving it. Design Thinking will help structure our thought processes and help us identify what problem that is most important to solve.”

While participants may employ other strategies, Design Thinking seems to fit most naturally due to the condensed time that Hackathons provide to work and the need to create many ideas quickly. It may help to have participants identify a process up front that they want to try to use and work within and create reflection points.  

Technology at a Hackathon

Depending on how the hackathon is run, the designers of of the event may want to provide participants with examples of tools that can be used to help organize their materials or set expectations for the format of presentations at the end of the event, but ultimately, it’s best to let participants choose the technologies and tools they want to use throughout the entire process. Student agency is a big part of student learning, even when it comes to choosing what tools are used to create their materials.  

For example you may want everyone to create a video presentation at the end, and the institution may have a tool that allows this to happen, but you may have participants who have never used the tool but are very familiar with another or have never made a video presentation before. Event organizers should be prepared to support and help every participant.

Supporting the Process

Since participants also have to prototype and test as part of the design process, they’re bound to run into issues that may not be easily solved or they may run out of time and not be able to test iterations of their prototype. 

For Saravi, it then became important to also keep in mind the following:

  • Location – a venue that allows participants to focus, but also relax.  A space that also has collaboration tools available, like whiteboards and large tables for group work.
  • Keep participants on track – limit talks or other activities that could disrupt the flow of progress.
  • Co-operation vs competitive – this relies on intrinsic motivating factors.
  • Peer review – allowing external participants to ask questions or be asked about specific points of interest. 

These points will help participants with perseverance and ambiguity, because the environment is supportive and there are opportunities to interact with experts who can help answer questions and provide direction or feedback.  One thing I would note about the co-operation vs competitive is that it’s likely with students that some sort of reward or recognition would be appropriate and encourage more students to participate, unlike in a work situation, which is what Saravi’s article is about. 


Hackathons are a great opportunity for students. Educators should consider creating one at their school or across their district and teachers and faculty should encourage students to participate in local or online hackathons too.  They’re not just for techies or coders, but for everyone in every discipline.  I especially like the exposure to different thoughts and ways of problem solving that hackathons provide. 

While I didn’t directly participate, I was able to watch my student employee and team work together to create something amazing in one weekend, that otherwise would never exist.  If I have another student employee who wants to participate in the Learning Analytics Canvas Hackathon, I would love to take them again, because the experience was so great.


Leong, C. 2019. Design Thinking and process in a hackathon — a UX case study. https://uxdesign.cc/design-thinking-in-a-hackathon-4bc0806c38 

Saravi, S., et al., IEEE Access. A systems engineering hackathon – A methodology involving multiple stakeholders to progress conceptual design of a complex engineered product.  vol. 6, pp. 38399-38410, 2018, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8399740 

Walden, S. 2014. Hackathons are the new career fairs. https://mashable.com/2014/04/12/hackerhub-hackathon/ 
Weston, S. 7 Surprising ways a hackathon will boost your employability. https://social.hays.com/2017/07/10/ways-a-hackathon-boosts-your-employability/

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