'Hackathon' uses competitive collaboration to change education tech

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by DAVID SCHECHTER

WFAA

Posted on September 22, 2012 at 12:46 PM

PLANO, Texas -- It's not finals that has a room full of super-smart people pulling an all-nighter at AT&T's innovations center, called The Foundry. It's a Hackathon.

However it's not nerds competing in the event.

It's people with great ideas, people who can collaborate, and people who can execute.

Like Highland Park's Blake Copeland, a freshman at Baylor.

"True innovation comes without features, it comes with thought," Copeland said. "It comes with an idea."

At this 24-hour event, participants get free food, free software and free access to orange-tie-wearing professional developers. AT&T's challenge to entrants: build an education-based app that helps kids and teachers.

But, contrary to what you might think, the hardest part of making an app isn't hammering out code on a laptop. It's refining ideas on scraps of paper and crowded white boards.

"They usually use Friday night -- that first night -- to figure out what they want to build," said Michael Pacholec with the AT&T development program. "How it's going to look, what it should do."

Copeland, who's passionate about education, is working with a group of eighth graders. They want their app to help at-risk students stay in school by letting embarrassed kids ask questions, anonymously, in real-time.

Still, even though most teams plan to stay up late, eighth graders can only push so far.

"They have gone home because they're tired," Copeland said. "I like staying here and working."

By the next afternoon, the programming is about done.

"Oh my gosh, it's been a long 24 hours, but a fun 24 hours," Copeland said.

And by evening, it's time to present.

Alex Donn, AT&T Development Program, "That's part of the process," said Alex Donn with the AT&T development program. "As they get used to this, they get smoother in their presentation style."

It's a competitive field of ideas made real, but Copeland's team comes in second.

"It's so exciting to create a product in collaboration with other people," he said. "And know that it works. And that it can help others."

Good to know the secret to building successful new technology is the same old formula: Great ideas, great execution.

It's only the tools that change.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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