by Tyler Hale
Watch any technology-focused movie from the mid-1990s onward, and it will feature a hacker. In these movies, hackers are the grungy, nervy computer geniuses who hack into government mainframes while chugging Mountain Dew. Or they are the sleek, slow-motion wizards as seen in The Matrix.
However, in reality, hackers are vastly different – but just as talented as their movie counterparts. These hackers – or coders – are in essence problem solvers. Through computer code, these individuals are able to identify problems, determine solutions and implement them.
Arkansas has made steady progress in its efforts to increasing coding education throughout the state. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made coding a pillar of his education focus since the beginning of his administration. In a May 2019 address, Hutchinson said that coding and computer science were key to the success of future generations.
“The increasing number of schools that compete each year and the caliber of their competitors shows that coding is catching on all over Arkansas,” he said. “Our students and educators understand that computer science is a key to a great future for themselves and for our state.”
Now, young coders will have another way to demonstrate their coding chops. The Conductor and the Arkansas Coding Academy partnered up to host the inaugural Arkansas High School Hackaton, an event that brings together students from central Arkansas together for a competition focused on coding.
The one-day event, held Feb. 21 at the University of Central Arkansas, was designed to promote coding in Arkansas classrooms and reduce barriers to entry in this field. Grace Rains, Director of Operations for Conductor, says the hackathon is not solely an exercise in coding skills but in promoting critical problem-solving skills and innovation.
“We wanted to provide opportunities for High School programming and coding students to compete in coding based challenges to encourage coding careers, but also innovative thinking around coding and technology in Arkansas. We want to get students excited about the opportunities in tech and computer science related fields, as well as all of the ways they can be innovative and solve problems through coding,” she says.
Teams from eight central Arkansas high schools are participating in the inaugural hackathon, which was free of charge for participating schools. Students will be given a written coding test and will have their skills tested with hands-on coding problems.
Rains sees the Arkansas High School Hackathon as an important talent development program in the state’s growing coding ecosystem. The skills that students develop in preparation for the competition, she says, will be the skills necessary to succeed in jobs that will be waiting once they graduate – whether from high school, college or graduate school.
“At its core, coding teaches problem solving skills by breaking up a complex problem into a series of steps. Additionally, coding and programming are both important life skills in a growing digital age,” she says. “By arming students with the ability to code, they have an opportunity to see a problem, innovate to find a solution, and then they are armed with the skill to code that solution.”
Although it is only the competition’s first year, Conductor and Arkansas Coding Academy officials are planning for the future of the hackathon. Growing the competition will be a priority – more students, more teachers, more schools and more mentors. The crux of the endeavor, for Rains, is the partnership between the stakeholders in the central Arkansas region.
“We’re definitely excited for future partnership! Through our partnership with UCA, we are able to work with many of the UCA outreach services, including the Arkansas Coding Academy,” Rains says. “Dr. Walker and his team have been a wonderful partner and we hope to offer additional talent development programming together.”
Arkansas students may not be the stereotypical hackers seen in popular entertainment, but they are developing the skills necessary to tackle real-world problems that are relevant today and will still be pressing in the future. Through the Arkansas High School Hackathon, these students will be able to develop these vital skills and have the opportunity to showcase their talent.