Making the Case for a Makeathon

TechHive is the YOUmedia Learning Lab based out of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. During the last weekend in May, TechHive’s staff and teen interns collaborated to plan, develop, raise funds for, and run a Makeathon. The idea for this event came from a shared desire to experiment with an alternative to the popular hackathon event. Hackathons have developed a negative reputation for often being male-dominated and sexist events. Writers and critics have drawn similarities between the lack of diversity in hackathons as a reflection of a larger lack of diversity both in Silicon Valley and in the field of technology jobs. The teen interns in TechHive had many conversations about this with each other, mentors, and staff at Lawrence Hall, and with the support of the Hall were encouraged to address this issue head-on. They conscientiously planned every aspect of what became TechHive’s Makeathon held at the Children’s Creativity Museum. The Makeathon offered an alternative to the hackathon—created by and with teens— as an example of what communal, collaborative making and learning could look like.

“The most negative thing that I feel happens at tech events, specifically at hackathons, is that there is a lot of sexual harassment that goes on… For example, I went to High School Hacks, and a lot of guys saw it as their opportunity to try out their pick-up lines… That is something that I see a lot when I’m doing tech things besides TechHive.” said Ming, one of TechHive’s teen interns during a YOUmedia Learning Labs Network google hangout where she was joined by TechHive staff AJ Almaguer and TechHive’s Director, Dr. Sherry Hsi. Other female teen interns who had tried their first technology hackathon shared both positive and negative experiences with Lawrence Hall’s staff. Ming wanted to be able to provide an environment that still had the excitement of competition and immersion in technology, but with more female peers. Another female intern found hackathons favored experts and were unwelcoming to both beginners and young women. Participants with no background in robotics, computing, or building would be placed at an immediate disadvantage. As Dr. Hsi commented, “It’s hard to measure, but it’s this notion that there’s a chilly climate and an atmosphere that’s a bit hostile towards girls and women… And there are subtle interactions, and subtle ways of framing activity, ways of organizing groups that would cause girls and women to feel less welcome.” These observations and conversations between teens and staff were instrumental in shaping the Makeathon.

According to Ming, TechHive’s YOUmedia space has a more diverse representation of women when compared to other teen tech programs she’s experienced in the Bay Area, “There are a lot of girls in TechHive, which is unusual for a place that has to do with tech, because when you go to things like hackathons you may see one or maybe two other girls.” That stark contrast was one of the things that motivated Ming, along with Ilona, another teen intern, to develop this two-day, ten hour/day intensive that included technical training, as well as training in crafting, building, and construction. The end goal of the makeathon was to finish with a tangible product. “Our goal wasn’t to build the next future app or startup,” said AJ Almaguer, “it was to make a cute pet that will bring joy to the [young visitors to the Children’s Creativity Museum] and showcase it in a collaborative event.” This “petting zoo” aspect, paired with the introductory tech and crafting workshops, set the foundation for a communal experience and skillshare rather than competition.

The teens and the TechHive staff deliberately set out to have a 50/50 ratio of female/male when recruiting participants for the Makeathon from across the Bay Area. One of the teen interns, Sam, a recently-graduated senior who has been volunteering at the Lawrence Hall since he was in middle school, led a team of other interns to develop, test, and lead the tech and crafting workshops for participants. These introductory workshops got the participants using the programming language Scratch with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit, and taught basic physical crafting and tool use, such as learning how to cut safely with an Xacto knife. But before even picking up a blade, the teens were led through a session based on an Agency by Design protocol called Parts, Purposes, Complexities. The participants were given some prototype pets and told to examine, talk about, and take notes on everything they observed in the prototype. This protocol was particularly useful because it seemed to eliminate anxiety around learning and creating something entirely new. Instead of seeing a complex robotic turtle that moved its head and responded to movement, that turtle got broken down into identifiable parts: different kinds of motors, a proximity sensor, wires, a microcontroller, zip ties, etc. After the teens completed the morning workshops and intro sessions, they divided into teams and set to designing and prototyping their pet.


TechHive’s programs and workshops aren’t solely about teaching and learning new technology. Time is dedicated to communication and community-building during each session, and the Makeathon involved these same practices. The pluses and deltas protocol enables participants to give constructive feedback that goes beyond simple criticism, and allows the workshop facilitators time and space to improve their workshop. In this situation, it gave the teen participants a way to help the teen interns improve the Makeathon. The shout-out session protocol is rooted in Native American sharing circles where the group gathers in a circle and each person goes around and gives compliments to someone or multiple people who have helped them or done something positive that they noticed during the day. This short activity seemed to make a huge difference amongst participants, and it gave teens the opportunity to acknowledge other teens or mentors for doing something positive. It reinforced the Makeathon’s sense of community and purpose that the teen interns wanted to create.

During the hangout, Ming brought up the Gamergate Controversy and the resulting inundation of death threats and rape threats as a result of Anita Sarkeesian’s public outcry against sexism in the gaming industry. “I’ve had people come up to me and say Gamergate was a good thing,” said Ming. TechHive’s Makeathon was a response to this culture, and a contribution towards a constructive event about how hackathons can be, if they’re thoughtfully designed. Ming, along with twelve other TechHive interns, will be starting college in a couple of months where she’ll be “staying in tech” and studying Human Centered Design and Engineering. How will this experience developing TechHive’s Makeathon change the way she talks and thinks about hackathons, gender, and diversity? What happens when an institution is willing to engage teens in a conversation about events that are designed, intentionally or not, to be exclusionary? The Makeathon would never have gone beyond a Gamergate conversation if it hadn’t been for the TechHive staff listening to Ming and the rest of the teen interns, encouraging them to clarify their thoughts and develop an alternative. It has the potential to be an incredibly powerful and affirming moment when teens are given a voice, and given support to make a tangible change in the world.





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