Last April’s wildly successful Hack TJ event, profiled in the May/June 2013 issue of this publication, was billed as the largest high school hackathon in the world. Event organizers, Mayank Jain, TJ ’12, and Alex Sands, TJ ’12, elated after the success of the TJ event, co-founded Pilot, an organization dedicated to bringing similar events to high school students all over the US.
Already Pilot has held overnight competitions modeled roughly on HackTJ in San Francisco, Philadelphia (U Penn), DC, Boston, and Portland, OR, with plans in the works for Michigan, Atlanta, New York City, Raleigh/Durham (Duke), and Los Angeles.
Pilot’s 24-hour events are hands-on and educational; high-school students form teams, brainstorm ideas, and then work together to bring their apps or websites to life. In order to reach all students who are interested, the events are offered free and mentors are on hand to assist inexperienced students so they can participate fully in the overnight event. As the press release for PilotSF stated, “No matter what skill level students arrive with, each will be given the tools and guidance to take their idea from concept to reality before pitching their product to their peers and a panel of judges to win a variety of prizes.”
The organizers encourage students new to programming to learn the basics online ahead of time at sites such as Codecademy, Khan Academy, or Processing.org. They then host workshops in iOS, Android, and Web at the beginning of the event to get students up to speed on those specific frameworks. But according to Jain, it’s the mentors that are most crucial to making their events accessible to novices (at right, PilotDC mentor Eyong Nsoesie is pictured assisting students). “Our mentors point students to the right tools and in the right direction at the beginning, and help them quickly tackle bugs or explain concepts that would otherwise cost them a significant amount of time,” he said.
Beginning with HackTJ, where Facebook and Palantir provided prizes and mentors, the group has been able to attract high profile sponsors. SAP hosted and co-sponsored PilotSF, for example, and Microsoft hosted and co-sponsored PilotDC. Without sponsors, the events would not be possible, since each runs about $5,000, including facilities costs, food, and prizes. Of course, the companies also benefit. “They love the fact that participants are probably going to be some of the top students entering the workforce in about four years, and they’ve had the opportunity to make that happen and get access to them before everyone else,” Jain explained.
Jain (right) and Sands’ (left) Pilot team includes several TJ grads and one current student: Gabe Boning, TJ ’12, Brand Director; Helen Hastings,TJ ’12, SF Regional Rep.; Ben Hsu, TJ ’13, Philly Regional Rep (center).; Shriram Sundararaman, TJ ’12, Outreach Director (second from right); and Peter Andringa, TJ ’16, DC Regional Rep. (Also pictured above is Serena Tsay).
The group’s vision is to take Pilot’s unique style of hands-on learning to as many cities as possible, eventually applying it to different fields that could benefit from the approach. According to Jain, there’s no great mystery to coding, and once students are fully engaged in an exciting hands-on project, learning becomes enjoyable. “Twenty-four hours is a lot longer than it seems, and it’s really not as hard as it looks.”