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  • Writer's pictureLaura Tavares

Wonderland at WPS


This past December, one of our student leaders from Newton North High School, came to us with a question: Would WPS be willing to host a teen-led hackathon in our Community Learning Lab? Could we accommodate more than 100 young people? And could this hackathon last for an entire weekend, with high schoolers eating, sleeping and hacking together in our building for nearly 48 hours? 

We said yes.


And on a cold Friday in February, 130 students, sleeping bags and computers in hand, descended on our Community Learning Lab from all over the world, flying in from Germany, Canada, England, India, and from all over the United States (not to mention driving from nearby towns in Massachusetts).

By Sunday afternoon--hundreds of bowls of ramen, a dozen bleary-eyed chaperones and one slightly overtaxed Wi-Fi network later--we saw how the values of learner agency, community, productive risk-taking, and playful creativity could come to life under the leadership of high school students. 

The hackathon was organized in collaboration with Hack Club, a global community of teen hackers who “make things with code.” Inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the event included a community-building tea party, rabbit-themed swag, and project "treasure chests."

Teenagers formed small teams and had 24 hours to create an invention using coding and engineering strategies, inspired by the diverse array of materials in their treasure chests (full of electronic toys, circuitry and other objects).

There was a choice of workshops to attend, including “make your own PCB board,” a VR game workshop, a design your own chat-bot session, and more. During meals, youth gave impromptu lightning talks on any topic of personal interest. A dance party after midnight on Saturday kept the energy high, and students celebrated their projects with a science-fair style peer showcase on Sunday morning.

For students, the hackathon was meaningful, memorable, and fun. For our WPS team, it was an opportunity to empower student leaders and to explore how out-of-school spaces and experiences can create transformative learning opportunities. We identified new lessons and insights to carry back into our work with school districts and community partners.

Here are a few learnings from the hackathon, illustrated with reflections from teen participants

Youth-led experiences create a powerful sense of belonging and connection. 

“I think that aspect where you're able to teach your peers, something that's not really for a grade I think, it’s really special, because the people who were teaching get to learn something about teaching, and the people who are learning are able to learn in a way that doesn't feel hierarchical, in a way. So I think that was a really great opportunity for people to just, like, learn and teach from each other.”

Building a real-world skill can help young people discover a sense of purpose.

“[I like] seeing people use and enjoy something I built. This role in serving others/solving needs definitely resonates deeply with my identity and why I want to be a builder.” 

Hands-on projects spark creativity and support risk-taking.

“[At a Hackathon] you're gonna have to learn new skills and figure it out on the spot---how to get what you're trying to build done. They help you learn by doing and you learn by just trying to figure things out in the moment.”

Traditional schooling can create habits that students need to unlearn, to build their sense of agency.

“[To be a hacker, I need to unlearn things like] completing only an assigned worksheet without exploring or asking real questions, or studying for tests that depend only on memorization…or viewing life as a series of classes to take/credentials to earn…Hacking helps me think more creatively and learn to solve problems.”

Now that we’ve cleaned up and caught up on our sleep, the WPS team is thinking about the implications of what we learned during the hackathon. We’re asking questions such as, "How might we take the 'grammar' of a hackathon---a combination of playfulness, community, experimentation, and full-throttle problem solving---and bring people together to design around other kinds of challenges?" Could we create a Civic Hackathon, for example?

And how might other young people, inspired by what they saw at Wonderland, create their own student-led events and learning experiences at WPS? 


The WPS Institute creates innovative programs and partnerships to transform learning. We advance models of schooling where learning thrives everywhere, in classrooms and beyond; where students and their families are empowered to shape their own educational journeys; and where entire communities contribute to the development of young people.


Laura Tavares WPS (Executive Director)

Carrie Wihbey (Director, CLL)


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