Hack To The Future I, 11.02.12

I have to admit, when I first shared the idea of Hack To The Future with friends, work colleagues and family, I received a fair amount of ridicule – many of them told me I was completely crazy even thinking about organising a computing unconference for 250 children. Now that the event is safely behind us, I can stand proud, look those non-believers squarely in the eyes and say “Well, there you go – you were absolutely right!”

When asked if I would ever consider doing it again? – The answer, without a shred of doubt is definitely yes.

You may well ask me why – Allow me to explain: for 9 short hours on a freezing Saturday in February, 365 children, parents, grandparents, software developers, games designers, hardware hackers, linux supporters, teachers, computer scientists and more all got out of bed at what must be an unfamiliar hour for a Saturday morning. Even though many were complete strangers to each other, they assembled together with one common vision in mind – to inspire the digital creators of tomorrow. There was a unique buzz in the atmosphere as adults and children sat down side-by-side to learn about coding games, hacking hardware, and building apps all with computing science at the core.

Back in January 2012, it was clear to me from Michael Gove’s speech at BETT2012 and the subsequent publication of the Royal Society report on the teaching of computing in schools that the curriculum was certain to change. This would allow more children in the UK to not only discover the power of computing, but learn how to harness this power through understanding how computers work and then learn how to program them. However, curriculum change can be a tediously long process – so I am glad that back in October 2011 I decided to do something that did not require government approval, parliamentary process or vast sums of money to make it happen.

It first started when we held a hack day on Wednesday 26th October with 30 children and 6 adults. We then held a Coding evening on 4th November with 50 children, parents, teachers.  The feedback from adults and children was so positive from these events that it spurred me on to scale things up for our next event, by a factor of 10! I had found these two events so exhilirating that I wanted to share these with other teachers, pupils and communities around the UK – one way I could do this would be to invite them to our next event. As news quickly spread of the successes of the October and November events, interest in future events and support grew massively.

My aim for H2DF was always clear from the beginning – to inspire the next generation of digital creators. I believe that many children do not understand exactly what ‘computing’ is, as a result they do not perceive computing as an interesting choice for further study or career choice. I regularly encounter developers in their 40s and 50s who tell me that they only discovered computing, programming & software development late on in life. With the Hack To The Future event I wanted to change that – I wanted children to engage with real-life developers and digital creators first-hand in the hope that this would leave a positive, lasting impression on them and help these children make informed choices for their future lives. Hence the title ‘Hack To The Future’.

The initial plan had been to invite 200 children and 50 adults. As interest in the event gained, this swelled to 230 children and 135 adults. The night before the event, we still had 101 children and 37 adults on our waiting list for tickets. It upset me that we could not easily accommodate a larger capacity crowd – 500 attendees really would have stretched us. It is typical when running events of this nature for around 20% of the registered attendees not to show up on the day – we experienced the opposite, additional wellwishers, reporters, parents and teachers turned up on the day to show their support.

In the hours preceding the event, we transformed our school building into an un-conference centre – we attached new signs to doors of all the rooms, making use of names that were relevant to the subject of computing, eg. ModernWarfare 3, MarioParty 8, Windows 7. We issued and displayed maps which no longer included stairs, but instead used teleports to transport our hacklings from Level 1 to Level 2. We erected a 4metre wide ‘session grid’ for speakers and ‘hacklings’ to register for sessions and we recruited some wall watchers to manage the running.

Throughout the event, our kitchen maintained a steady flow of pizza, curry, chocolate and fruit all day long to ensure energy levels were kept to the max.

At 10.15 all our hacklings and hackers were ushered into our ‘Hall of Fame’, we filled all 250 seats and very soon it was standing room only. There was a clear buzz of excitement in the air. The lights were dimmed, followed by silence and then a countdown as a video from London Fireworks New Years Eve 2012 (watch here) was projected on the large screen. Please watch if you have not seen this, it is an incredible piece of footage that clearly demonstrates the power of computing in an unexpected application. At this point, walking on to the stage I welcomed every one and explained the aims and structure of the day, which would culminate with our own computer controlled pyrotechnic finale.

Following the welcome and introduction, Sam Bail a computer scientist from the University of Manchester gave an inspiring keynote, titled ‘The Y’ encouraging children to discover the power of computing for themselves. Then Jon Howard, a games developer from Children’s BBC shared some of his journey into his chosen career during his keynote. Following the keynote presentations, hacklings and hackers were dispersed to the breakout sessions they booked themselves on.

Breakout sessions included – Build an HTML5 Game, FIGnition – build your own 8 bit computer, Come & Code with the BBC, Build Browser games with Play My Code, Build an App That Runs on Web & Android, Extreme Papa Programming, Non-Transitive Dice, FLASH BANG – Computer Controlled Pyrotechnics, Pretty Colours – Lighting Control in the Events Industry, Ask a Professional Programmer Anything, The Language of Computers, PovRay – Persistance of Raytracer 3D coding, How Computing Won The War – and why you should study it, Wernce Appen Uh Tahm – The Quiz, How To Hack A Country – a professional hack, Games & 3D Printing Changing The World, Making a Game, How Is The TARDIS Like a Computer?, How To Make A Podcast, Building Fun Things With the Nanode, Programming IOIO, Who Needs Graphics – Creating Text Adventure Games, Future Tech on TV, How Computers Work, Creating iPhone & Android Apps, Games & Rules, Text To The Past – Adventure Game Creation, Hama Beads – Make 8Bit Characters, Should I Go To University?, History of Everything, Word Up, Build Your Own Facebook – an intro to HTML, Build A Digital Camera with .NET Gadgeteer.

In the middle of the day, to give session leaders a break we had organised two more keynotes. The first of which was given by Dan Hardiker, ‘the man who knows your password’. Hacklings and hackers were given advide on how to protect themselves online. The second keynote was given by Freaky Clown (identity protected). He described how early in his life he ended up on the wrong side of the law, but now he has a legitimate career in the tech-security industry.

More breakout sessions ensued for much of the afternoon, until our final keynote given by Dr Tom Crick, Cardiff Metropolitan University.  Dr Tom called on the audience to take their newly developed skills, insights and talents back to their friends, schools and teachers to inspire others in the power of computing. After Dr Tom’s presentation – we gave out 100s of prizes in a draw to our hackers and hacklings.

As 5.00pm approached we moved all 365 of our attendees into our Sports Hall. We also included some parents that had turned up early to have a sneak peek before taking their children home. There in front of around 400 we launched our Hack To The Future finale, featuring pyrotechnic sequences programmed previously in the day by some of our junior hacklings. Of course all of this was under strict supervision by our pyrotechnical experts.

Without the huge support of all of our hacklings and hackers this event would not have been possible. A special thanks go to Les Pounder who helped bring a lot of the attendees along. We also owe a great deal of gratitude to our sponsors YOUSRC, Microsoft, Computing at School and Interactive Opportunities Ltd. In addition we thank the following who provided us with a great many prizes or other items – Testled, The BBC, Metaswitch, Zoe Ross, Freaky Clown, O’Reilly, The National Museum of Computing, Google .

Here are links to some blogs, photos, podcasts – Linux Outlaws episode 252, Daniel Stucke’s blog post, Musings of Josette Garcia,   Edugeek , Proactive Paul’s movieMichael Sparks’ blogpost, Haroon’s photos, Les Pounder’s blogpost, Nick Jackson’s blogpost, Lee Stott’s blogpost, Kevin Moore’s blogpost, Collette Weston’s photos, Audioboos, Jon Howard video BBC Protected Video

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