Learn by Hacking

by Catherine Hillman on March 4, 2013

There is a major assessment of student learning that every senior graduating from Cal Poly will encounter, called The Real World. At that key moment of a student’s life, she will discover whether the University Learning Outcomes have been achieved in her studies, and whether they truly reflect the skills and requirements needed to succeed Out There.

Before graduation, however, students receive many formative assessment opportunities to evaluate whether they are on the right path. Sometimes those opportunities occur outside the classroom, and are life changing events, such as the Evernote “Hackathon” that took place in February at Cal Poly. This was a cross-discipline weekend event set up by Lorraine Donegan and the Evernote company programming team, where students spent over 36 hours in collaborative learning groups, applying their skills in programming, user interface, and graphic design, to create beautifully designed computer and mobile applications. Students were encouraged to form diverse teams, and they brought their respective pre-knowledge levels to the table, then took on the challenge of creating and solving some real-world problems.

See some of the prizes and winning entries here!

Serving as a judge for this contest, I wasn’t around for the students’ development time: hours of sleepless discussion, fervent searching to be sure ideas were unique, collaborative coding and design, drawing, discarding, retrieving and arguing, then running the ideas past the team of programmers brought in from Evernote. I did have the privilege of  hearing and seeing, close up, the series of two-minute “elevator pitch” speeches from the students, where they showcased the wonderful programs that they had created – many were actually fully working programs that the students were demonstrating live. One student spent a night learning the python coding language in order to deploy their application. Another brought his expertise with social networks. Another integrated her love of web interfaces and organization skills to produce an award-winning combination.

View Lorraine’s photo gallery here!

And speaking of awards, there were many well-deserved gift cards and notebooks handed out that day; but I suspect the greatest awards were intangible. This formative assessment showed these young entrepreneurs that they are on the right track, they can produce viable products, and they can work effectively in teams using technology and shared resources. They are problem solvers, and they convinced outsiders that their ideas and deliverables are solid. The Evernote team was not only there to help, but to hire (although they discovered to their chagrin that several of their top candidates are already being courted by the likes of Google and other top companies.)

Our students proved that in real-world problem solving situations, they have what it takes to innovate and succeed. My hat is off to Ms. Donegan and the Evernote team for providing this remarkable learning and achieving experience for Cal Poly students!

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