Canberra startup HACT wants to engage kids in technology through hackathons

- September 14, 2015 3 MIN READ

If there’s one thing politicians and the startup world agree on, it’s that the key to positioning Australia as a leader in technology in the future is to not only teach kids STEM skills, but to get them excited about the possibilities of technology.

Canberra startup Hact is trying to do its part by running events to promote engagement with STEM and entrepreneurship among 10 to 17 year olds. The team runs two main events: the first is like a traditional hackathon where students come up with ideas and try to bring them to life over a weekend, while the second, In.Hact, is a ‘sampler’ event aimed at 10 to 13 year olds. It introduces kids to a range of different technologies, including mobile, game development, robotics, and virtual reality, to give them a broad experience and see what they enjoy most.

Matt Stimson, manager of Canberra startup coworking space Entry 29, came up with the idea for events aimed at kids after running hackathons in the capital for several years. Noticing there was a large group of students from one high school that would regularly attend, he wondered why there were no hackathons for students.

“I learned that there aren’t a massive number of students who felt confident enough to participate in a hackathon. But there was a lot of interest from students that wanted to get started making their own video games, apps, and sites. So our event offered both,” Stimson said.

The first event, held in April, came together in just a few weeks, funded through ticket sales, a crowdfunding campaign, and partnerships with organisations including the CBR Innovation Network, Cogito Group, and the NICTA Digital Careers Office.

120 students came to the first event, leading Stimson and his co-founders Blair Duncan and Glenn Grant to believe they were onto something. From there, they decided to leave their day jobs and work on building Hact full time.

“We saw an opportunity to work on this full-time and took it. I’ve created my dream role in tech and youth mentoring,” Stimson said.

From there, Hact applied to the Griffin accelerator program, and was accepted after “a lot of things came together at the right time.”

“I had been running Entry 29 for sixteen months and had some track record and connections to the Canberra startup scene. This helped me pull together some excellent co-founders in Blair Duncan and Glenn Grant. A few of the Griffin investors and mentors checked out the event itself; others heard feedback from their children who participated,” Stimson said.

“Griffin wrapped up a little over a week ago and I’m still processing it. It was a huge three months and some expert guidance and mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs is super valuable.”

Stimson has a big vision for Hact; as well as events, he wants to create a community that will encourage kids to stick with tech and develop their skills. Part of this will be partnerships with other organisations – Hact recently partnered with the Tech Girls Movement – as well as an online platform where students can showcase projects and collaborate with others.

“I think the magic to our events has been allowing students to make the projects they want, using real industry tools, and doing this alongside passionate people that are into the same thing. Hact events are what we wish had existed when we were in school,” Stimson said.

“The Hact platform we’re developing is the community we wish we could have belonged to. I feel we complement education providers, whether it’s formal undergraduate degrees, or online content producers,” Stimson said.

Referrals from teachers and word of mouth have been key drivers of growth for Hact. The winner of the last Hact event was a 10 year old boy who learned to design and use a 3D printer over the weekend, and by Sunday afternoon had made a device to store the blood testing strips he uses for his diabetes. A number of his classmates have signed up to come to the next event.

Hact is now also running one hour sessions in schools, and had its first team come on board to run an interstate event, with the goal for the next 12 months to get to the point of running 20 Hact events per quarter. Stimson said this is his “chief focus” as he looks to secure partnerships with corporates, educators, government, and other organisations to make it happen.

‘These early experiences will manifest in some awesome ways. If we as a nation want more inventors, coders, and entrepreneurs, early experiences matter.”

Image: Hact co-founders Matt Stimson, Blair Duncan, and Glenn Grant. Source: Provided.