Jugend Hackt: Mentoring the Next Generation of Tech Stars

Throughout my career in tech, I’ve met so many people who have helped me learn the skills I needed to be a better engineer and entrepreneur. From the first class I took in C programming at community college as a 12-year-old, to building my first startup, I’ve made good friends and mentors and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support. I’ve always wanted to give back, and joining the November Jugend Hackt event in Berlin, as a mentor and sponsor on behalf of DCMN, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

What Jugend Hackt is All About

“Jugend Hackt,” or Youth Hacks, is a yearly event in Berlin with satellite events in several German cities. With the motto of Mit Code the Welt verbessern (‘Use code to make the world a better place’), the aim of the project is to support kids who are interested in technology, with a vision for a better society and a strong focus on the responsibilities engineers have in a world that is becoming more and more digitalised.

The event started with a brainstorming session on Friday afternoon, where the kids developed ideas together and presented them to their peers. Then on Saturday, the teenagers grouped themselves together and developed a software or hardware product collaboratively until it was time to present their final result at noon the next day.

CC-BY 4.0 Jugend hackt, Foto: Leonard Wolf

Learning as a Mentor

The main role of the mentors was to help the kids with technical problems, help keep them focused and ensure all kids got an equal chance to be involved. We had some typical “camp counselor” jobs as well, like making sure the kids got from the hostel to the event location safely (the Betahaus coworking space in Berlin) and getting them registered.

On the first day, the kids came together in groups and started to present their first concepts and  brainstorm new ideas. As mentors, our job was to mediate the brainstorming – balancing out the loud and quiet kids and helping them to get presentable results out of their ideas. It was important for everyone, including the younger, more shy kids and the absolute beginners, to be included in the development process.

One thing I underestimated was the importance of social skills as a mentor. Making sure to include shy and quiet kids was a new task for me but ultimately a very rewarding challenge to overcome.

Awesome Kids, Incredible Results

My team of nine kids, ranging in ability from beginner to quite skilled, sat together in a room and started planning their project and coding it. I was available for questions and made sure each kid had something to do and were included in the development process. From the beginning I was impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge level. The project they worked on was called “getGrades();” a web-based system to manage students’ grades and give them access to see their own records.

CC-BY 4.0 Jugend hackt, Foto: Leonard Wolf

It was quite interesting to me that several projects dealt with issues the kids face at school every day. I thought it was really cool to see that kids aren’t apathetic about their education, but instead have concrete ideas to help fix what they see is wrong (and care enough to find solutions).

I also walked around regularly and visited the other teams, just to see what they were working on and if they needed help. It was quite fun to come to a project you have no idea about and help the kids fix problems that were blocking them.

The richness of ideas was impressive. From the team that designed a 3D-printed smart clothespin, which connects with your phone to tell you when your clothes are dry, to the team that trained a neural network to identify different German dialects and analyse how heavy the accent is, to another team that prototyped an app for vibrating shoes, which connect to navigation software and get you around town without staring at your phone, I was floored by what they came up with and were able to build in just one and a half days.

Preparing the Next Generation

It’s great to see that kids interested in engineering and technology now have so many opportunities and resources available to them. In addition to events like Jugend Hackt, initiatives from Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms help channel the next generation’s enthusiasm for coding. When I was younger, gaining access to these types of resources was so much harder.

Overall, it was a great experience to meet and mentor an up and coming group of tech superstars and I’m certain that younger-me would have really enjoyed being active in a community of like-minded kids who code. It took a lot of energy to keep up with the kids, but it was definitely worth it. I hope to join again in 2018 to see what amazing projects they come up with next!

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