May 17, 2012

'Hackademia': Course harnesses the spirit of old-school hacking

News and Information

It started at 2 a.m., when participants at a 2006 Mindcamp conference were burning hard drives to see if they would blow up.

Beth Kolko had heard about the event from a former student. That evening led to an invitation to visit a hacker space in Seattle’s Sodo district. Over time, she discovered a vibrant research community that existed completely outside the university where she’d spent the previous 20 years.

“It changed my world,” said Kolko, a UW professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering. “I thought, it would be great if that energy could be in the university.”

Beth Kolko with two 3-D printers built by past classes. She made the course sign herself, and came up with the class motto as she was programming the design.

Mary Levin, UW Photography

Beth Kolko with two 3-D printers built by past classes. She made the course sign herself, and came up with the class motto as she was programming the design.

Now it is. Kolko’s experimental research course, Hackademia, brings the hacker spirit to campus. Its mission: “Building functional engineers, one blinky LED at a time.”

After two years developing the course, Kolko recently gave talks in Berlin and at Harvard University, and will present it next week at the International Conference on Collaboration Technologies and Systems and at a summer participatory design conference. Seattle’s Awesome Foundation just gave $1,000, and Microsoft gave $10,000.

Initially, Kolko’s interest in hacking was extracurricular. She’s no stranger to adventure – she studied technology adoption in central Asia and is developing low-cost ultrasound for midwives in Africa.  Kolko learned to solder, and about circuit boards and batteries. She went on to build a sensor that detects flooding in her basement and sends her a text message (and one to her neighbor, in case she’s out of the country).

The class emerged more slowly. In 2009, Alexis Hope, then an undergraduate, described feeling a gap between more and less technical students in the College of Engineering.

Kolko wondered again, this time more seriously, if she could harness the hacker ethos – and use it to study how informal research communities develop.

Students in the Winter 2012 course.

Students in the Winter 2012 course.

In winter 2010 five students, including Hope, signed up to help build a 3-D printer from a kit. Thus was born Hackademia. Its goal is to guide students to become makers, builders, tinkerers. In other words, old-school hackers.

The lab is a small room on the third floor of Sieg Hall, filled with tools mostly scavenged at garage sales. Kolko’s hoping to expand to accommodate the current 30-plus students.

“We need an interdisciplinary space where students can work on tangible things,” Kolko said. “If you’re doing soldering on a board, you dont want to put it in your backpack.”

This quarter, for the first time, the focus is on software rather than hardware. One student is making a visual tool for Wikipedia edits. A few art students are building online portfolios. A group is building a light for a campus dorm that changes color in response to posts from the UW Alert Twitter account.

At a recent class meeting, students huddle over laptops in small groups. Instructors circulate to offer advice.

“What’s your biggest obstacle right now?” Kolko asks a group.

“Code,” answers one student. “Code,” agrees another member.

“Did you ask the Internet?” Kolko prods. Then she gets some specifics, and suggests a starting point where the group might find answers.

The atmosphere is non-hierarchical. In many cases, the students teach one another. In one case Kolko suggests that students look for a primer on YouTube then watch it together so they can ask each other questions.

Beth Kolko and master's student Alexis Hope together conceived of Hackademia. They hold a student-built 3-D printer and an octopus that was created with it.

Hope has helped to develop the course. She is coordinating this quarter’s offering with fellow Human Centered Design and Engineering master’s students Behzod Sirjani and Nikki Lee.

Each quarter begins by teaching the students basic skills, technical terms and standard processes for building things.

“People talk about science literacy as being really important,” Kolko said. “I would say that engineering literacy is the same way.”

Kolko is careful to distinguish Hackademia from other programs that encourage students to major in science, math and engineering.

“There’s a huge cohort of people doing fabulous work in that area,” Kolko said. “The unserved population that I see is people who are a little bit older, don’t necessarily want to make engineering into their career, but still want to have some skills to be able to participate in what the knowledge economy has become – which is, you know, messing around with hardware and software. And you shouldn’t have to be an accredited expert to do that.”

Kolko envisions the course as a place where a student of any major can get a taste of electrical engineering or computer programming, and leave feeling empowered and connected to resources to learn mo
re.

Former participant Jarman Hauser, a professional master’s student and assistant program director at Washington Mesa, testifies to its success.

“I went into the class thinking that I wasnt very technical because I wasnt into computer programming, so Id probably be taking a back seat or be more of a passive learner,” he said. “But the way that the class was structured, everybody brought something different, and we combined all of our thoughts and ideas and tools to make a project.”

Hauser’s still working on a couple of things he started in the class, and has borrowed techniques for his outreach work with local schools.

Hackademia is now recruiting students for an autumn quarter offering focused on 3-D printing and computer-aided design.

With the new grants, Kolko also hopes to bring her hacker evangelism outside the university, to senior centers and immigrant community groups.

“This is the most fun thing I’ve done as a professor,” Kolko said.

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For more information, contact Kolko at 206-685-3809 or bkolko@uw.edu.