What I learned from a hackathon for teenage women

Acorn Aspirations
8 min readSep 18, 2016


When I was initially asked to help out and support an event being run by Acorn Aspirations, I was apprehensive. The event, a hackathon aimed at young women who want to get into technology careers seemed like a wonderful an important thing to focus on, but me teaching teenagers?!. I’ve had a career working for large organisations and big brands in corporations. I’ve presented and run hackathons with design teams at John Lewis, but teenagers?! I’ve not been around as many young people since I was at secondary school.

In preparation, I dropped in on WOW talks day an event that one of the hackathon organisers Aga was speaking at for teenagers. I was struck at the energy buzzing around the room and how only a skillful speaker would be able to keep and maintain the audience’s focus. A little intimidated, but inspired, I signed up to help.

Myself, Aga and Naomi from Acorn Aspirations, had a brief Skype chat a few days before to outline the event and align our thinking. The challenges in working for the startup and education sector varies from large enterprise. There is less preparation time, but more freedom to be really creative, and spontaneous responding hour to hour to different needs as they emerge. Learning to go with it, react and pivot on the day would be essential.

Day 1

About 40 teenagers, arrived at 10am on a sunny saturday morning at Entrepreneur First‘s trendy warehouse style office/studio. We kicked things off with a brief overview of the event followed by an introduction from teenagers who had bought an idea that they would like to develop.

These ideas varied from photo finders for photographers and film location hunters, homework revision apps and fashion outfit finders. The remaining participants, were invited to jump on the idea that inspired them the most.

The Mentors

Vital to the success of the event was the mentors these were slightly older teenagers who had volunteered their time to support each team. Hot from their #acornaccelerator2016 experience this summer their experience showed, and they demonstrated a familiarity with this rapid way of working. They helped guide the team through each sprint, leaning a variety of skills from strategy, graphic design and coding.

The brief

Their brief was to design, develop, test, validate and pitch their concept as well as what they believed the next steps would be, by the end of the 2nd day. It was important that they learn about Agile and Scrum principles, some useful tools and all in an interactive fun way.

Acorn Aspirations kicked off with workshops covering how to pitch, ideate, run design critiques and basic coding skills. We stressed the importance of ensuring they are solving an identified problem rather than just creating a fun solution. Whilst it would take a few moments to get their attention, they would listen intently and with surprising focus.

After lunch, we structured the teams into 1 hour sprints, with each sprint having a focus and expected outputs. This ensured they were able to effectively manage their time and be walked through a healthy design process.

Day 1 Agenda

9:45am — 10:00am
Welcome and Introduction
10.00am — 10.10am
Ice-breaker and team formation
10:10am — 11:00am
Teams pitch and mentor allocation
11:00am — 11:30am
Ideation workshop
11:30am — 12:30pm

12:30pm — 1:15pm

HTML/CSS workshop

1:15pm — 2:00pm
SPRINT 1 — Problem
2:00pm — 3:00pm
SPRINT 2 — Solution
3:00pm — 4:00pm
SPRINT 3 — Testing
4:00pm — 5:00pm
End of day 1

We issued each table with test cards, value cards and design brief templates. Their output for sprint one was to complete the the design brief and validate the idea they had using a test card.

The design brief
was a template we used in an earlier workshop to help focus the team on what they were creating.

The test card ensured that teams would have to articulate their hypotheses and determine what they were going to measure. It was great to see how creative they were in terms of validation. Most of the teams would run tests in the room, asking questions from friends and other participants with short surveys.

Test cards is a tool I have adapted and used in the industry taken from strategizers’ value proposition design.

A test card, is a tool that helps articulate your hypothesis and how to measure it

Whilst not a truly scientific approach, they were learning about the principles of validation and evidence based reasoning. They would soon harness social media, crowdsourcing opinions and testing ideas out to their wider network.

It was amazing to see how some of the teams started to evolve, with wall space, post-its and sticky tape flying up.

For the next sprint, the teams articulated their insights onto a value card.

A value card, is a tool that helps articulate your value proposition

The teams began to ideate in team based in co-design, having learnt some basic techniques in the earlier workshop.

Using paper prototypes, the teams ran subsequent tests, to further validate and gain insights on their ideas. In parallel their mentors were busy starting develop, in css, html or creatively using powerpoint to make more hi-fidelity interactive prototypes. Their ‘homework’ and final test for the day, was to write a test card hypothesis that they could validate at home, with friends/family.
Phew day one over!

Day 2 Pitch day!

There was a more calm, focused energy on day 2, and everyone seemed to want to get their heads down. On the first day the tasks were fairly group based, brainstorming, ideating and testing. By day 2, ideas had started to mature and prototypes were being iterated based on tests.

What was coming out as the teams moved into a convergent phase, was that they would need to coordinate themselves effectively. We set each team up with mini Kanban boards of tasks and ensuring each team had delegated work to everyone for the next sprint. This helped give them focus and ensure they completed everything they needed, and started to prepare them for the pitch.

Day 2 Agenda

SPRINT 4 — hacking/testing

10.00am — 11.00am
SPRINT 5 — hacking/testing
11.00am — 12.00pm
Pitch training
12:00am — 1:00pm


1:00pm — 2:00pm

SPRINT 6 — finishing prototypes

2:00pm — 3:00pm
SPRINT 7 — preparing the pitch
3:00pm — 4:00pm
4:00pm — 5:00pm
5:00pm — 5:30pm
5:30pm — 6:00pm

Pitch preparation
As the day progressed we had to shift the team’s focus from building, testing and on towards the final pitch. Aga and Naomi gave a quick pep talk on pitching and what judges would be looking for. We allocated the final sprint for pitch preparation. The teams broke off, finding a quiet spot to rehearse their pitch. The excitement was starting to build and that wonderful buzz in the air as you could feel the passion and focus of everyone actually creating something together as a group.

The judges arrived and the pitches begun. Each group took to the stage, to make their pitch. They would outline the problem they were trying to solve and what their proposed solution would be. They explained how they had validated it using various tests, and demo’d a working prototype.

Judging was challenging, as each group had overcome very different challenges and had their own merits.

It was impressive to see how much work they had done in such short space of time. There were no arguments, no clashes, just beaming faces that felt proud of what they had achieved.

The Judging Criteria

We outlined a few criteria that judges would use to judge, for teams to keep their pitch focused.

  • Team Collaboration
  • Great Design
  • Learn and Apply
  • Innovative Application
  • Traction

The team that eventually won was ‘Revise it’ . The team had created an app that made it easier to find revision resources on a topic at school. They outlined the opportunity and market, how they had successfully tested and validated the idea via social media as well as next steps towards a larger test.

The prototype was viewed on web as well as an android app for download. I was pretty gobsmacked as i’ve seen professional teams of designers take months to ship something very simple. These teenagers were calm, polite respectful and really hardworking. They managed in 2 days to create a concept, develop a prototype, test, validate it, and finally pitch it.

Hackathons as a tool to educate

Watching all the passion, excitement and creativity over the past few days made me reflect on my own experience of education. I recall it as a binary experience, with a teacher, chalkboard and notepad, the purpose being to simply ‘shut up and learn’.

I believe that using the hackathon format as a tool for education is a really powerful way of teaching.

During the event, these young women, were practicing in collaboration, drawing on each others strengths and weakness and creating something they all believed in. They were exposed to the principles of scrum and agile, using techniques I’d gleaned straight out of some of the best design agencies.

I believe that using the hackathon format as a tool for education is a really powerful way of teaching. The students can feel like they are in control, can do want they want within a certain degree of criteria. They are able to be creative and shine together as a group. This is so far away from my experience at school, and something I feel the educational and academic world could learn a lot from.

- Danny Hearn

I am a Digital Experience Consultant who helps e-commerce companies with their strategy, design leadership, training. I also offer design & speaking services learn more.

Originally published at Acorn Aspirations.



Acorn Aspirations

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