A cooler summer camp: Austin Spark League throws kids into startup environment

Written By Caitlin M. Ryan

“The larger movement to teach kids coding is awesome and very much needed. But, we found that coding camps were just that: coding,” Nick Hahn of Austin Spark League tells Wearables.com. “Austin Spark League is focusing on the broader picture of educating around product development as a whole.”

Kicking off its inaugural year, Austin Spark League (ASL) is a “startup style” summer program for teens that goes beyond a “coding for kids” curriculum, run by Hahn and cofounders Ben Littler and Justine Tan. Over the course of two weeks, a team of instructors will lead 15 to 20 kids between the ages of 13- and 18-years-old towards finding their “spark” — “that path leading them to the intersection of passions, paychecks, and proficiencies,” as Hahn puts it.

We spoke to Hahn a few weeks before the session kicks off about his motivation, the program’s relationship with Pebble, and the future of wearable tech.

You’re a grown adult with lots of things to do, why do you want to spend your summer teaching kids?

I have always had a passion for sharing the knowledge that I’ve gathered through the years — especially the knowledge gained through making mistakes.

I’m an optimistic futurist and have strong faith in humanity. I think we should each be trying to make sure those who are coming after us don’t have to stumble the same ways we did. I’ve spent time mentoring adult students in the user experience and interactive design fields and saw how much help I could be by even sharing a little.

Austin Spark League is grander vision of this style of hands-on mentorship. I hope to help as many students possible explore paths in the technology and creative fields.

Coding camps are not uncommon nowadays, so what makes ASL unique?

To make a successful product you need a whole lot more than the skills to code — even if that is your primary role. It’s important to understand that when creating something (through code or otherwise), that in essence you are solving a problem. . . it’s your duty to understand the problem that you’re solving, to be a broad thinker, and not just build something as directed.

Ultimately, we’d love to be able to help students make a more educated choice about what path they might take after high school. What major to pick (or not) and what career path might make them successful and happy in the long term.

Tell me about the startup mentality you conduct this summer camp with?

In a startup environment, founders have to wear so many hats. We want to show our students what each of these hats are — from sales, strategy, account management, project management, UX design, visual design, research, and of course, programming responsibilities.

What’s the most challenging part of a program like this, for instructors and for the kids?

ASL is truly focused on bringing what it’s like to work in the real world to our students. We push our students to be accountable to themselves, their team, and to the greater good. To respect the motivations and feelings of others and try to operate in a way that makes them proud.

The biggest challenge for them (and our facilitators) is to help them learn to collaborate successfully. Be transparent, build horizontal accountability (don’t let one person become the kingpin, but still keep everyone on task), and learn how to respect everyone’s ideas and evaluate them on an objective basis.

Notice I haven’t even talked about coding skills here. We’re not setting out to make everyone the best coders possible. We think everyone should have the fundamentals of coding as it empowers them to be literate about the digital world around them.

What do you imagine the arch of the experience to be over the 2 weeks of the camp?

We have a pretty good idea of how this will go, but like any startup, we’re keeping things nimble and will pivot as we go. But because we believe in empowering the students and treating them like adults, the very first activity for them will be to design the space.

The event area is a large open space with modular furniture, all of which will be piled in the middle. The students will be told what our plan is for the first two days, and then be allowed to design their own space.

We’re also using this opportunity to observe their individual and group behaviors. We want to learn quickly who are those that are natural leaders and who might need help building confidence to get there.

Why did you decide to make ASL’s focus about wearable technology?

Technology on and in us is the future. Wearables are something that will be so prolific that people won’t even realize they’re a class of technology — they will be something that just is. Right now we’re in the infancy of what that space will look like.

More tangibly, smartwatches — the Pebble, specifically — offer an awesome platform to learn on. We’re allowing the students to tackle a problem that matters to them. Since a wearable like the Pebble is small in scale and scope, it helps keep their options a bit more limited. We knew that saying “here’s an iPhone – you can go make anything” is way too broad of a scope-of-work for a high school student (or really almost anyone).

Also, Pebbles are just awesome piece of tech that do things people don’t realize are possible. The excitement of the kids getting their very own Pebble on day one and going home having custom-programmed their first watchface. How cool will it be for them to show that off to friends and family.

Any thoughts on the future of the wearables industry and how these kids will eventually play into it?

Wearables provide an on-body platform for technology. They have extremely unique use cases and allow us to explore solving problems in new ways.

As wearable technology becomes more about augmenting human abilities, we need more people thinking about how to do this best, which problems can be solved in unique ways. This is more than just software too. I hope some of our students get excited about the possibilities of the hardware of wearables as well.

A few spaces remain at ASL, head over to the website to sign up.

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