September 15, 2019

Hackathon challenges teens to think, act like a pro

The room is a flurry of activity. At each table is a group of 10 teens working on their projects. One group has a white board filled with a to-do list, ranging from pricing its product to establishing a user base. Another group stands around a laptop, as one member works on a virtual grocery store and the others take turns offering advice and criticism.

Welcome to the Israeli American Council Eitanim Summer Hackathon, held Aug. 3 at the American Jewish University. It’s a national program that strives each year to teach students professional skills to prepare them for college while providing a connection to Israel.

This year, more than 150 teens worked in groups to create innovative ideas with the help of professional mentors, leading to Demo Day, when the final projects went before the judges: Ilana Golan of Speaking Golan Ventures, Kfir Gavrieli of Tieks and Metuka Benjamin of Milken Community Schools.

The winning group designed an app to assist in Hebrew learning in school and at home. Second place went to a group that created a virtual reality experience for learning Israeli history.

“What we do here, and what we do throughout the year is give students the opportunity to engage in project-based learning with other American Jews and Israeli-American Jews,” said Orit Mitzner, National Director of Programs for IAC Eitanim. She added, “We want to give them real experience and we want them to learn about Israel not like they usually do, but through projects and innovation. We want them to lead, and we want them to innovate. And as you’ll see tonight, they already are.”

Each of the groups around the room was structured like a real company, with one student acting as CEO and the others serving in such roles as chief financial officer or programmer. The groups work on a business idea, then flesh it out. One group worked on an education game that could help students practice Hebrew language skills.

Mentors from various fields offer advice and critique the teens as if they were operating a real business. “It’s the kind of experience that you won’t get anywhere else” said Kobi Laredo, Cloud Technical Account Manager for Amazon Web Services. Like the other 14 mentors at the Hackathon, he moved from group to group, giving advice and feedback.

“It’s amazing seeing the ideas they come up with. I’ve helped one group with a virtual reality project, another with a social media application — it’s interesting.” Laredo said. “We [the mentors] bring in experience and background. But it’s [the kids] that get to shine and show their leadership and problem-solving skills.”

Although the teens’ projects won’t be developed, Mitzner said the skills learned along the way are just as important as a finished product. “We seek to engage these kids on four levels: through the self, technology, interpersonal level and mentorship,” she said.

“It’s really hard.” said Julian Wiese, the student in charge of software development for the educational game project. “We want to make a virtual space for kids to practice their Hebrew so they’re not just doing it through a book all day. It’ll be interactive.”

“It’s been a great but tough time,” said Cassidy Dalva, a student working as the chief operating officer of that same group. “The whole project has taught me a lot about working in business. And honestly, even though it’s a lot of work, we get some time to just hang out and make friends.”

As serious a program as the Hackathon is, it also enables teens to mingle with others who have similar interests. They socialize, listen to talks from other mentors, and dance.