‘Hackademia’ Aims for Young Tech Devotees

Photo courtesy Hackademia La Cañada High School students Justin Hyon, Rucha Kadam and Kamyar Salahi have spent a year bringing to life Hackademia, the first high school hackathon in Southern California. The free event takes place July 28 at UCLA.
Photo courtesy Hackademia
La Cañada High School students Justin Hyon, Rucha Kadam and Kamyar Salahi have spent a year bringing to life Hackademia, the first high school hackathon in Southern California. The free event takes place July 28 at UCLA.

Kamyar Salahi, a rising senior at La Cañada High School, wished he could enter a hackathon for people his age in L.A.

The problem was that nothing of the kind existed in Southern California. Not yet.

Salahi is changing that. With help from classmates Justin Hyon and Rucha Kadam and a small nonprofit encouraging high schoolers to code, he will present Hackademia, the region’s first hackathon “by high schoolers, for high schoolers.” It will be held Saturday, July 28, at UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom — or the “(H)Ackerman” ballroom, as they’re calling it at the hackademia.io website. There is no cost to participate.
“The issue I had was that there was no high school hackathon in Los Angeles,” Salahi said. “So I would either have to go to a collegiate hackathon at UCLA or Caltech, or I would have to go up north, where they actually had high school hackathons. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have this in L.A.?’
“And then I decided, if no one’s going to start this, I should. So I got a few friends together and we did.”
Thanks to his team’s efforts over the past year, as many as 200 high school-aged participants will gather at Salahi’s historic hackathon, where students will have access to computer hardware and software as they collaborate to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems in a science fair-like environment. Participants will come from throughout Southern California, with a few traveling from as far away as Texas and Virginia.
They’ll go for 16 consecutive hours (less than a lot of the hackathons for older crowds, which can run continuously for 24 hours or even for a few days.)
“Sometimes these hackathons are miniature incubators, in a sense,” Salahi said. “If you wanted, you could take [concepts from the hackathon] and turn them into a miniature business.”
But that’s not necessarily the point of a high school hackathon, said Hyon, a rising senior who has handled marketing for the event while Kadam is directing the hacker experience and Salahi is responsible for finding backers to finance an event that he estimates will cost about $10,000.
“This is a great way to expose yourself to technology in a non-traditional way,” Hyon said. “If you’re at all into coding or computer science, everything is provided for you. Just come and try your best and we’re gonna hook up teams so people who have more coding experience can help out people with less coding experience.”
Hyon said he always wanted to enter a hackathon and hasn’t yet had the opportunity. As an organizer, he won’t compete in this one either, but he’s glad to be working with Salahi and Kadam to offer others the opportunity to expand their technological knowledge.
“It’s free,” Salahi said, “because we’re trying to empower as many people as we can’t who don’t normally have the opportunity.”
That includes attracting young women to what’s been a traditionally male-dominated field, Salahi said. As of last week, he said, Hackademia’s sign-up ratio was approximately 60% male and 40% female.
Zach Latta, founder of Hack Club, the nonprofit encouraging a growing number of high school coding clubs, said a hackathon can be life-changing. In 2014, he teamed with La Cañada Flintridge resident Ankur Jain and two other young coders to win a two-day hackathon at L.A. City Hall, where they were the only high school students participating.
“When you find your tribe, there’s something special about that,” added Latta, whose organization is among Hackademia’s diverse, growing group of 20-plus sponsors, which range from Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Jersey Mike’s Subs.
“For me, it was the first time I was with people close to my age who cared about the same things I did. That was remarkable. It’s one thing to be toiling away in isolation on something you love and another thing to learn there is a community out there — not to speak about the professional opportunities as well.”
Salahi said what he enjoyed most about the high school hackathon he attended in Northern California was that sense of community.
“The difference between high school hackathons and collegiate hackathons is that you’re dealing with people who for the most part have a lot more experience than you and it tends not to be as inclusive of an environment … and if you’re not as successful as some of the others there, it can be disheartening,” said Salahi, noting that many such events won’t even allow high school-age coders to sign up.
Salahi also launched the Hack Club at LCHS, where he and a team also designed the Spartan Connect app that delivers daily school-related bulletins digitally.
Hyon has been involved with both of those ventures, and now also with Hackademia, which he said has been a lot of work.
“It’s more challenging than we anticipated,” Hyon said. “There are a lot of things to address; we have to order food for 200 people, get 200 people to sign up, we have to update the website constantly with partnerships and get the venue ready to handle 200 competitors. It’s been constantly working to keep adding something else.”
Latta believes all their hard work will be worth it.
“I really think coding is the closest thing we have to a super power,” he said. “It’s one thing to have an opportunity to take a class, it’s another thing to find yourself part of a community as enthusiastic as you are. This is the event I wish I had in high school, and we’re so proud to be working with Kamyar and his team on it.”
For more information or to sign up, visit hackademia.io.

 

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