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Hacking a Better Future

The Jean Hofmann Center for Innovation is bustling with student activity. Keyboards are clacking, cardboard and paper are being cut, and sugar is free flowing from the bottomless candy bar in the Kitchen Café. Outside guests stop by to provide feedback and support throughout the day. And at the very end, the pitch presentations and final products truly make you feel like this group of students is going to change the world.
by Karlina M. ’25
Mariella Cajina '24 and Ananda Jallepalli '26 put the final touches on their pitch presentation for the 2023 Teen Hackathon.
Mariella Cajina ’24 and Ananda Jallepalli ’26 put the final touches on their pitch presentation for the 2023 Teen Hackathon.

What is the Carondelet Teen Hackathon?

The annual Carondelet Teen Hackathon, sponsored and organized by the Carondelet Ventures club, is a day-long event where Carondelet students come together to collaboratively solve real-world issues. The purpose of a hackathon is to encourage innovation, creativity, and problem-solving by providing participants with the opportunity to work intensively and collaboratively on a specific task or challenge. At the end of the hackathon, teams present their projects and compete for prizes and recognition.

“I’ve followed the hackathon movement quite a bit and participated in a couple of similar experiences at the Stanford,” explains Chris Walsh, Director of the Jean Hofmann Center for Innovation. “I had a hunch that a hackathon could be a very powerful way for students to go through a user-centered design process, design innovative products, and pitch to real world experts.”

The theme of the 2023 Hackathon was “Hacking Our Future,” which emphasized the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each team of 2-3 students chose a unique goal to focus their final product on. The theme serves two major purposes. First, the theme is designed to give all participants a sense of connection, community, and commonality within the Hackathon. This is one of the tactics that makes the hackathon attractive to participants of all backgrounds and experiences. The second objective of the central theme is to guide the student products. With this year’s theme, the SDGs ensured diversity of thought in each team’s “hacks.” The theme also serves as an initial brainstorming point to give some purpose behind each product.

The Jean Hofmann Center for Innovation media wall displays the 2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon&#39...

The Jean Hofmann Center for Innovation media wall displays the 2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon’s theme and logo.

Student participants pitch their final product, which was based on the second SDG of Zero Hunger,...

Student participants pitch their final product, which was based on the second SDG of Zero Hunger, to a panel of judges.

How does the Hackathon work?

During the actual hackathon, participants engage in a variety of activities leading up to the product creation and work time. Such activities can range from scavenger hunts to brainstorming 100 different ways to use a pencil, and are designed to prime participants’ brains for the iterative design process. Designed to focus on defining the larger problem and honing in on a specific niche within it, the product brainstorming sessions occur after the introductory activities. Mr. Walsh explains that “it’s designed to be scaffolded chaos where we get as many ideas out there as quickly as possible without any judgment.”

After the brainstorming phase, things move very quickly into work time, which includes creating a product prototype, developing a sustainable business model, and preparing a presentation for professionals from the business, investment, product design, and other related worlds. “There were a lot of parts that went into the hackathon that I didn’t realize were going to be there,” says Rachel Kimball ’24, a hackathon participant in past years. “The hackathon is a very concise way to take an idea and turn it into a reality. It was eye-opening to see the amount of teamwork that it required.”

During the 2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon, one team created a product called SpongeRoads. Pictu...

During the 2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon, one team created a product called “SpongeRoads.” Pictured above is a portion of the brainstorming process they went through before settling upon a final product.

The prototyping and ideation processes are critical parts of the hackathon, as the products are always designed with the end user in mind. The sky is really the limit, as participants have free reign to create any product they can imagine. This creative freedom has led hackathon participants to delve into the worlds of web design, engineering, publishing, architecture, and even teaching. The tools at students’ disposal are put to good use, as popsicle sticks become water-conserving roadways and plants become cruelty-free medicines. Mr. Walsh describes how “it gets very real, really fast when you know that you’re showing your product to real users in just a few hours.”

The SpongeRoads team orchestrates their final product using a model made of paper, cardboard, and...

The SpongeRoads team orchestrates their final product using a model made of paper, cardboard, and popsicle sticks.

Meanwhile, a different team in the 2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon utilizes paper pamphlets and na...

Another hackathon team utilizes paper pamphlets and nature to realize their vision of environmentally-friendly medicines.

The Hackathon and Carondelet

The hackathon has become a fan-favorite event at Carondelet both because of the ideals it represents and the experience that participants gain. Carondelet faculty and administrators also love the creative atmosphere and diverse thinking that is cultivated at the hackathon.

One of the best parts of the event is the mentors, who range anywhere from newly-graduated college students to experienced professionals or even faculty/staff members. Mentors offer unique insights to their teams, which is particularly useful for helping teams move past conflicts and overcome challenges. “It’s definitely a wonderful opportunity for all of the girls to be able to learn about ways to be more creative and think outside the box,” says Kimber Powers, mentor of the 2023 Hackathon’s winning team. “As mentors, we get a chance to connect with students and explore bigger ideas outside of school.” The mentors truly make the Hackathon a magical experience for the students.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the hackathon is the final pitch presentations, where participants have the opportunity to present both their products and business plans to a panel of judges. This is a chance for students to showcase their creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as to demonstrate how their product could be used in the real world. The products vary widely in scope and complexity, and utilize a large variety of mediums. Some of the projects presented this year included water-conserving SpongeRoads, a plan to convert unused office spaces into low-income housing, and a food aid shipping project to aid Ukrainian refugees.

Students pitch their product and business plan to a panel of judges, who have relevant profession...

Students pitch their product and business plan to a panel of industry experts who evaluate the products and provide constructive feedback.

Each team is evaluated based on a standardized rubric. Judges then confer to come to a consensus about who the event’s winner is. Winners of the competition receive prizes such as gift cards and the ability to receive specialized mentorship to submit their project to larger competitions.

Though there is ultimately one winning team, participants find the experience itself very rewarding. The hackathon provides a platform for students to explore their interests in technology and design, meet like-minded individuals, and gain valuable skills that will serve them well in the future. Many participants report feeling inspired and motivated after the event and go on to pursue careers or further education in tech-related fields. Rachel describes how she participated in the hackathon because she enjoys “trying new things at Carondelet.” She “loved the hackathon so much” that she came back the next year to give user feedback on the student prototypes, relive the novelty of the experience, and reconnect with the can-do mindset.

2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon winners pose with their mentor, Ms. Kimber Powers.  Pictured left ...

2023 Carondelet Teen Hackathon winners pose with their mentor. Pictured left to right: Christine X. ’23, Ananda J. ’26, Ms. Kimber Powers, Mariella C. ’24

Real-World Impact

Hackathons are designed to be condensed so that the sense of urgency and competition is elevated, but one day is still not a lot of time to take an idea and produce a fully-formed product. Participants in Carondelet’s Teen Hackathon are true idealists and imagineers. Not only do they gain valuable experience in perseverance and collaboration, but they also come away with a unique idea and product. Following the hackathon, each and every team has a solution that can help change the world, and it can serve as a spark for future projects.

In recent years, there has been a growing push to get more girls involved in sectors where women have been historically underrepresented, such as the tech industry and business world. “I think all the stats are super clear that we still don’t have enough women entering STEM fields,” says Mr. Walsh. “There’s just not enough women represented, and there’s probably a lot of cultural stereotypes around that. Our hackathon helps break down the barriers, so that everyone can see themself as a scientist, engineer, or entrepreneur.” Through the hackathon, young women prove to themselves and to the world that they are capable of anything they set their minds to do.

Looking ahead, Carondelet Ventures is already planning for next year’s event. The goal is to continue to expand the reach of the event and to attract even more participants from a wider range of backgrounds. The group is also exploring new partnerships, such as a collaboration with Junior Achievement that would provide an elevated level of competition.

The hackathon is an inspiring event that provides a unique opportunity for high school girls to explore their interests in technology, engineering, business, marketing, and public speaking while gaining valuable skills in collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. Through a combination of mentorship and hands-on project work, participants have fun getting to design real-world products and explore new career possibilities. The hackathon has had a significant impact on the school community, and, as the event grows and evolves, it promises to be a powerful force for inspiring young women to change the world.

Special thanks to Valeria R. ’25 for her amazing photos.


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