Makercamps, Hackathons and Equity: From Vision to Reality with Support from Microsoft

About six months ago, my superintendent presented me with the challenge of a lifetime. She asked that I dig into my creative hat and provide some form of innovative summer learning experience for our students. I may have researched and polled students for months before even expressing the first iteration of ideas…which have gone through a cycle of “rethinking” about ten times.

Then, I met the Pantherbots, our Lufkin High School First Robotics team and everything changed. I watched them work alongside mentors for months, building and programming a robot from basically a box of scraps. I watched them create parts that they needed by first designing those parts using CAD software (also requiring multiple iterations) or creating using our metal and wood shop areas. I watched students learn to write code (C++) from zero to 100 using youtube videos and as a group apply learning through every aspect of STEM.

When you are charged with planning a camp of innovative experiences, you can’t spend time with a FIRST robotics team and not be inspired by the pure joy of making.

I started asking different questions of kids and specifically our kids who were in robotics.

What do you know now that you wished you knew at 8? Their answered ranged everywhere from “circuits with clay” to “programming” and my favorite…”that I could make anything I wanted if I just tried”.

What would you like to learn? Those responses were deeply related to what kids had been exposed to in our community or experiences…most of which involved creating something to solve a problem.

What happened next can only be described as a series of fortunate events.

I visited Microsoft as a guest of their Education Underground and experienced “The Garage”…the internal makerspace for Microsoft employees…full of sewing machines, 3d printers, arduinos, raspberry pi, laser cutters and more. It was absolutely mesmerizing!

I got an email about Raspberry PiCademy, a series of training for teachers, coming to the USA. I applied and for the first time expressed interest in learning so that I could teach younger kids in a camp. I was accepted, learned and came back “Pi Happy”.

I knew that a Raspberry Pi was less than $40 and even with assurance that our district could pull off having a Raspberry Pi Camp with a small fee (around $50), I knew that this would still create problematic issues with equity. Our community is high poverty and even a cost of $50 would be too pricey for many families which would alienate kids who needed it most.

A few weeks later, I was invited to Microsoft’s Executive Retreat to briefly share our experiences as a school using Minecraft. Of course, anyone that knows me knows full well that this was also an opportunity to share some of our challenges as a rural school district, at the early stages of technological transformation and the impact of technology on our kids and community. (all in a matter of about 2 minutes)

While the retreat itself seems unrelated, the moment that has allowed us to carry on this vision of innovation happened in a 3 minute conversation during that retreat when I was asked about the camp that we planned to teach, which I didn’t even remember talking about in all of my nervousness. I shared our vision and challenges in a deeper context. The statements that followed changed everything…

“What if we provided you with your Raspberry Pi. Would that help? How many do you need? 150? Done.”


But wait…there is more. Through that same event, I also connected with the CVP supporting STEM integration through the Microbit and was offered to test the waters in our camps as well. In other words, Our kids will tinker with not only Raspberry Pi but also their very own Microbit…Not ours…THEIRS!

Of course, the skeptic in me didn’t believe. After all, I did also ask for a Hololens for our CTE program…because, why not??? However, within a week, the emails started. An engineer contacted me to learn more about what we wanted to do and inquire about how they could support us. She connected with our story and knew how the limitations of access could be crippling to students of great need.

The technology needs of our kids were ordered and handled through what we wanted to do but at no cost to our school district or students.

Our camp, that went from being a $50 experience to a $10 experience is now being offered entirely FREE.

Next week, June 13-16th, our kids in grades 3-8 will tackle invention literacy while tinkering with Little Bits, Raspberry Pi, Microbits and the world around them. Many of our Pantherbots and STEM program kids are volunteering throughout the week to support.

In July, our Pantherbots along with many more of our students in grades 6-12, will be challenged to “Hack Learning” through our student Hackathon. They’ll be able to use Windows IoT core, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, 3d printers and anything that they can make or find to create technology to rethink the classroom. They will compete as teams over the course of 4 grueling days.

We are giving every student (150) their very only Raspberry Pi kit with components and our June kids will also get a Microbit.

This is where it gets even more amazing. In the last week, we’ve also added our high school A/V program to the mix. They’re coming in to film elements throughout the week and interviews…working alongside Microsoft’s marketing team and film makers to share the story of this process.

When I was asked about sustaining this learning beyond the summer, while also building community awareness for future support of our efforts, my immediate thought was to do so through “Maker Clubs” for students and teachers to invent to learn as a community, which is also being created as an innovation project for TED ED. The reality is that if we want this type of learning in our classrooms, our teachers need to create too. If we want deeper learning centered on student impact, they can’t be left out of the process.

Which reminds me, hey LISD teachers, we’re hosting camps and if you want to come learn with us…the door is open…to you and every Lufkin ISD student…regardless of zip code.

students and teachers making together during our primary maker camp

A Few Thoughts…

I cannot express the importance of connecting and sharing your school or district story enough beyond this blog post. You never know who might be listening and inspired to act, either through learning from your or supporting your efforts. This is a critical piece of this work!

Hosting your own maker camp is a matter of deciding what your community wants to do. I had deep lofty goals but we could have easily hosted our camps utilizing the tools that we had…or even cardboard. Don’t let access to technology hinder the experiences of inventing for kids.

I will forever be grateful to Microsoft for supporting our “beginning” but it is up to our school and community to build upon this opportunity and sustain it beyond one single summer. Understanding this is key to moving forward.

Passion is key. Don’t ever miss this point!

If you see typos, please forgive me as I have written this entire blog post, while sitting in a car in our school parking lot waiting on a delivery of Microbits for our students. (School is closed on Friday)

One more thing…Kevin Dallas is a rockstar. That is all.

Comments 2

  1. Hello…will you be offering this camp in 2017? Is it only limited to LISD? I have a 6th grader who would love this!

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