Young Hacks Academy, a new computer programming camp for kids, wrapped up its first summer sessions last week at Colchester High School. The day camp offerred two week-long programs in July that attracted 58 kids, ages 10-12, representing 17 Vermont schools. The
goal? To show campers how fun it can be to create using computers, rather than just consume what others have already created.Computer

“The whole idea came from how our kids have so much," said Tom Bacon, Young Hacks director and founder of Colchester School District's advocacy group, Support Our Schools. "They’re
consumers of technology but they don’t have the technical literacy to become
producers and creators. What’s really important is for some of these kids to be
like ‘oh, a computer isn’t smart, it’s just a machine, we’re the one’s who make
it intelligent’. You kind of flip that switch where they’re like, ‘Cool! I’m
the one who’s going to make the games my buddies are playing.’"

Not only did these Young Hacks learn the basics of computer
programming, they spent the entire week solving daily missions and riddles,
building labyrinths outdoors and listening to guest speakers from COTS, Efficiency
VT, Lake Champlain Basin Program and Ben and Jerry’s Global Supply Chain. Former Governor Jim Douglas also dropped by for a visit.

The kids, aka: Young Hacks Agents, each received a badge for the week with their name and photo. They also carried "agent notebooks" to keep a running log of the week's activities and their ideas. 

Bacon did not work alone on designing the Young Hacks Agent theme. 

He joined forces with two educators, Katherine Grykien,
Champlain Elementary, and Nick Mack, H.O. Wheeler, along with a soon-to-be
educator, a junior at Middlebury College.

“I didn’t hire programmers, I hired teachers,” said Bacon.
“That was one thing that was critical — I wanted to hire educators that were
familiar with this age group. Think about it, these 10-year-olds, are learning
a program without any computer science background, they need people who know
how to work with them.”

The camp ended on July 19 with presentations in the Colchester High School library. During three, 12-minute sessions, parents crowded around kids and their laptops, while each presented an interactive game created using Scratch, a kid-friendly “drag
and drop” programming software. 

Each game focused on problem-solving and
covered topics such as natural disasters, freshwater access, vaccine delivery
in the Congo, genetic modification in agriculture, distracted driving, high
school dropout rates, air pollution and farm-to-school food programs.

Proud parents filed around the library's round tables in a hurry, trying to hear each group before the end of the presentations. 

TornadoAlex Polly, Williston Central School, created a tornado
safety game (photo, left). It involved moving the computer cursor throughout a house, shutting doors and windows, picking up a cat and infant to bring to safety — all while tornado facts popped up on screen.

Another group, consisting of Issac Mandell-Seaver, River Rock School, and home schooler Bridger Ellms (photo, below), designed an informational
slideshow on water shortage. The group focused on water projects in Africa,
such as well and filtration systems.

“I knew I wanted to work on this one because it’s such a big
problem,” said Ellms, who pointed to a slide stating 3000 people die each day
from water shortage.

Another group (and perhaps, one of the most entertaining) developed an anti-GMO foods game. Hoak and Victor Montanaris, both from C.P. Smith Elementary School in Burlington, designed a game that invited players to poke an over-sized corn husk with a horrific
looking syringe.

Montanari said he’s always wanted to be a game developer and
had a lot of fun designing the simple GMO game. He shared the notes he had taken about GMOs while researching for the game (photo, left). 

Gmonotes“Did you know all the corn you buy is genetically modified?" asked Montanari. “They add all different types of medicines and can even turn
apples into squares!”

Katherine Grykien, an educator at Champlain Elementary, said her favorite part of the week was watching the Young Hacks come up with ideas to solve world problems — it surely went beyond basic programming skills. 

“It is pretty obvious that kids are hungry for this type of
stuff,” said Bacon. “So it seems like a really good program that could be replicated
in other places.”