Why students love ‘hacking’ – as Introduction to computers

Whenever I use the word ‘hack’ or ‘hacking’ in class , eyes widen, some smile, a few get super curious. These are often 4th and 5th graders! They’ve heard the word in many contexts, and are not sure if there will be an upcoming class on it. Today, when one asked me if one could hack into Wi-fi, I realized some of them may be ready for more than learning about how to use preloaded software, or understand hardware. After all, to “hack” (apart from the dry dictionary meaning) means “to find a workaround,” a DIY project, or to reverse engineer.

Or to put it in STEM parlance, to problem-solve.

As New Yorker writer Ben Yagoda explained, it used to refer to “a relatively benign sense of “working on” a tech problem in a different, presumably more creative way than what’s outlined in an instruction manual.”

This is the second week of classes, when I introduce Hardware and Software, and how it is part of the eco-system of the Internet we now know. Just like grown-ups, kids have a hard time explaining what the Internet is, or the difference between a web browser and a search engine. But definitions aside, they are in tune with what might be possible, and are open to being in a computer class that lets them peer beyond the hardware in front of them, and into the ‘boxes’ that make cyberspace come together.

Speaking of hacking, I wish I could start a different sort of hackathon here. Maybe not for programming per se, but in the ‘Life-hacking’ sense, for finding alternative, creative ways to use computers and related devices. After all, if governments (examples here and here) run hackathons, shouldn’t schools?


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