Middle School Hackathon Helps Fuel Interest in Engineering and Design

4/25/24 Pratt School of Engineering

The Outreach Design Education program’s recent hackathon helped engage students from Lowe’s Grove Middle School with the world of engineering and offered hands-on opportunities to tackle real world problems.

image of students and faculty in the design POD for a hackathon
Middle School Hackathon Helps Fuel Interest in Engineering and Design

The 5,000-square-foot design and learning lab, known as the Duke Engineering Design POD, is what initially drew Aaron Kyle, professor of the practice in the department of biomedical engineering, to the university. “[The POD] was one of the things that attracted me to coming to Duke,” he said. “The first time I saw it and the resources available to students I thought wow, this is the sort of lab in which I want to be teaching.”

Coupled with Kyle’s passion for design is his commitment to community engagement. The Outreach Design Education (ODE) program he leads focuses on engaging students in Durham Public Schools with resources available at Duke to ignite a deeper passion for and understanding of engineering.

Included in ODE’s initiatives are the annual Middle School Hackathons, events that span two days and get students hitting the ground running on solving design problems, with lessons led by Kyle and exercises that follow. This year, 26 students from Lowe’s Grove Middle School participated, with graduate and undergraduate Duke students providing support throughout the event.

Ultimately, it’s not that there’s some finished or refined product at the end, but more so that students are able to learn some technical skills and research methodology, as well as hands-on engineering practice, in this space.

Aaron Kyle Professor of the Practice in the Department of Biomedical Engineering

The first day of the Hackathon focused on six projects where students refined “problem definitions”, crafted need statements and began brainstorming potential solutions for those projects. They were broken up into teams that worked on low-fidelity prototypes to visualize their solutions, with some teams even creating prototypes using Arduino microcontrollers and rapid prototyping tools.

For ODE, problem solving remains at the core of these Hackathons. “We actually took a “needs finding” trip around Lowe’s Grove,” Kyle shared. “We explored their gymnasium, their cafeteria, and they’ve got a community garden where we looked for problems that might warrant engineering solutions.” There were also technical workshops where students learned microcontroller programming, CAD (computer-aided) design, laser cutting and other skills relevant to engineering and prototyping.

The teachers whose students participated in the event walked away feeling proud of their classes for how much they accomplished in such a short time. “For me it was a pleasure to see this opportunity offered to our young students,” said Laverne Ellis, an 8th grade science teacher at Lowe’s Grove. “The team effort between my students was really astounding and seeing them share in getting the job done was one of my biggest takeaways.”

Aaron Kyle worked with students directly to help them navigate the hands-on features of the hackathon

Kyle hopes students understand that a finished product isn’t the end goal here–understanding ways to identify and solve engineering design problems is what’s actually top of mind. “Ultimately, it’s not that there’s some finished or refined product at the end, but more so that students are able to learn some technical skills and research methodology, as well as hands-on engineering practice, in this space.” Kyle said. 

ODE’s focus on empowering students to find out how engineers tackle complex problems is an important core part of the program. Happi Adams, ODE’s new director of educational programs, says the Hackathon allowed students to explore issues that arose organically. “Part of what made the Hackathon so successful was our focus on authentic problems generated by the students about their environment,” she said. 

The Duke Engineering Design POD provided ample space for students to explore problem solving by design

“Dr. Kyle created a container for students to pay attention to and critique their daily experiences, then empowered them with a way of thinking and some technical skills to make improvements. Our hope is that this experience deepens their sense of agency and self-perception as engineers.”

With the Pratt community serving as the backdrop to ODE’s initiatives, Kyle acknowledges how important the relationship between the school of engineering and outreach programs are for future success. “It’s always nice to be embraced wherever you are,” he said. “And Pratt in particular has been incredibly supportive of all the work we do and will continue to do with Durham Public Schools.”