At Hackasaurus Jam, Mozilla Encourages Young Programmers to Change the Web

 
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Teens use paper prototyping and Web X-Ray Goggles designed to introduce them to HTML tags -- the most basic components of website programming -- during a Hackasaurus jam at Grand Concourse Library in the Bronx. Photo via NYCLN.

2.17.11 | On a recent Thursday afternoon in New York, a small group of 12- and 13-year-olds gathered in a classroom on the third floor of the East 67th Street branch of the New York Public Library. After a little goofing around, they each took seats behind individual desktop computers and got down to business.

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“What do you think of when you hear the word ‘tag’?” asked Jessica Klein, creative director of the New Youth City Learning Network.

“The game tag,” one kid ventured.

“OK,” Klein responded. “What about a graffiti tag?”

This got the kids’ attention. “It’s like your mark,” one said.

“Exactly,” Klein responded. “A tag is like a mark.”

Klein, who stood before the group with Atul Varma, labs engineer at Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox browser, and the NYPL’s Jack Martin, assistant director for public programs and lifelong learning, and Christopher Shoemaker, young adult programming specialist, was not there to teach kids how to write graffiti, but she was trying to help them make a mark on the world.

Welcome to a Hackasaurus Jam, a gathering of educators and technologists out to show kids how to interact with the web in a new way—namely by developing skills that might change the way they view information and giving them a new creative tool for expression.

Hackasaurus— the name was chosen by a group of kids in Chicago—was created to introduce kids to coding in way that takes advantage of young people’s instinct to take things apart and put them back together. By introducing kids to HTML tags—the most basic components of website programming—the Hackasaurus team hopes to spark interest in technology creation, turning kids from passive media consumers into engaged developers.

By learning to use these digital tools, both in and out of the classroom, kids can begin to reshape their media landscape, making it less top-down and more personalized.

“Our message is that the web is Lego, something we can all shape around us,” says Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, a partner on the Hackasaurus project. “With a very tiny amount of programming skills, you can change it.”

And speaking of programming, here’s some future programmers having an eureka moment during a summer program in San Diego at FabLab.

Hackasaurus was born in the summer of 2010 at Mozilla’s Drumbeat Festival, a gathering of technology and culture innovators held that year in Barcelona. The idea was to create a tool set and curriculum to open up the web so that young people can see how it works and build web pages themselves.

“My generation, we built ham radios,” says Jack Martin, a Hackasaurus curriculum developer from the New York Public Library. “Now kids can take apart a website.”

One of the tools Mozilla has developed to enable this is the Web X-Ray Goggles, a plug-in that exposes the code behind a given website’s slick exterior.

“It’s kind of like a web inspector,” says the NYCL’s Klein, the creative lead on the project. “It lets you look at the different kinds of elements that are on a web page and see what the code is behind that.”

Martin compares the Web X-Ray Goggles to the Visible Man, the ubiquitous classroom teaching tool that reveals the size and placement of human organs through the transparent outer layer of a 3-D model.

Back at the Hackasaurus Jam on 67th Street, Klein asked the kids to name a website they visit often. After some conferring, the kids suggest Ninjakiwi.com, a site for free casual gaming. Using the Web X-Ray Goggles, the guts beneath Ninja Kiwi’s shiny surface are revealed.

Suddenly, the gaming site seems less like an enticing Wonderland of distractions and more like something technical, the result of a lot of programmers’ time and efforts.

“The Web X-ray Goggles are the toe-in-the-water moment,” says Surman, adding that he hopes that by looking under the hood, kids will say, “Ah, ha! I love the internet, and I can change it!”

To make those changes, kids can use another Hackasaurus tool called Mixmaster to rearrange elements on the page, restructuring it as they wish. The tool doesn’t actually change the public site, but rather a locally cached version. A kid might not be able to rename Google or rewrite the lead story of The New York Times to be about Justin Bieber, but imagine how empowering it would be for a kid to create mock-ups that do just that.

“I remember the first time I used one of these developer tools,” recalls Varma, Hackasaurus’ technical lead. “I used it to remove an element from Google’s web page, and I was blown away by the sudden realization that the web is all about how I want to see the world, not about how other authorities want me to see it.”

According to Varma, the seed of the Hackasaurus idea can be found in a September 2009 post on his personal blog headlined “Kids And The Open Web.” In that post, Varma looks back at how his lifelong interest in computer programming grew out of childhood experience.

It all started when Varma’s parents bought him an Atari 400 when he was 4 or 5, and his mother helped him key in a BASIC program to draw a triangle.

“I had no idea exactly what the code was doing,” he told Spotlight, “but it gave me this feeling of immense excitement. The fact that I just created something on the screen that, you know, somewhat approximated video games instantly created this connection. I look back on that memory very, very fondly.”

It will take a few decades to know whether the Hackasaurus Jams or tools such as the Web X-Ray Goggles and Mixmaster will create a new generation of programmers, but Mozilla’s Surman is hopeful.

“Certainly [kids will] gain skills to express themselves or get a job because they can do web programming,” he says. “More importantly, we’re hoping their critical thinking skills and problem solving skills are improved. That creativity—a hacker attitude—goes through the roof because you see that everything around you is malleable and shapeable.”

“There’s an infinite amount of learning opportunity in web development,” Surman continues. “You can spend your whole career being a lifelong learner.”

“Hackasaur” illustration above by Jessica Klein.

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