Using design thinking to create a hackathon planning guide

This blog post was written by Callysto team member Dr. Verena Roberts. Dr. Roberts is a teacher with Rocky View Schools (Alberta) and a Callysto Education Specialist.

The week I joined Callysto, the team was running an online data science hackathon, “Colonizing Mars” (which ran June 3-5, 2020), for Grades 9-12 students across Canada. Participants were given three days to complete their data science challenges. 

As an experienced K-12 teacher, and former Technology Specialist from an Alberta school district, I anticipated would be prepared to participate in that hackathon. I recruited my two teenage children to join in.

My family and I approached the hackathons from multiple levels of experience. While both of my kids participated in the hackathon, only one completed their challenge. I had a lot of questions about the design and planning process for future hackathons. I wondered how we could increase participation and completion rates, and enhance the overall hackathon learning experience while encouraging a love of data science and computational thinking. 

Creating a hackathon planning guide

I chose a design thinking process as a framework to lead our hackathon learning design revamp. Design thinking is a process for creating content that makes sense for learners. The goal of the hackathon learning design revamp was to ultimately create a hackathon planning guide that meet students’ needs.

There are five stages of the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize 
  2. Define
  3. Ideate 
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. Sourced from:

How I used the design thinking process to create our hackathon planning guide 

The “empathize” step happened as I took part in the Colonizing Mars hackathon. Following that event, I used the other steps (define, ideate, prototype, and test) to create the learning experience for our next hackathon, “Sustaining Mars” (August 5-10, 2020), as well as the hackathon planning guide. 


  • Participated in the Colonizing Mars hackathon and observed how the Callysto team ran it.
  • Observed and supported my family’s involvement in the hackathon.
  • Participated in a Callysto team debrief about the Colonizing Mars hackathon.
  • Researched online learning design practices to help with the upcoming Sustaining Mars hackathon. 
  • Interviewed other organizations that run youth hackathons to learn more about their processes.


For the Sustaining Mars hackathon, I worked with the team to define what problems students could have with attending online hackathons. 

The potential problems identified included:

  • A lack of Python programming knowledge.
  • A lack of understanding or familiarity with Jupyter notebooks (the tool Callysto uses to create its hackathon learning modules).
  • A lack of time to participate (the Sustaining Mars hackathon was in the summer). 


After I defined some of the problems, I brainstormed solutions with the team.

For the brainstorming, I:

  • Asked colleagues to describe their hackathon facilitation experiences.
  • Created a first draft (visual model) of the hackathon planning guide.
  • Implemented feedback from the Callysto team on the draft guide.
  • Created a second draft (visual model) of the guide.
  • Implemented feedback from Callysto and K-12 teachers about the guide. 
  • Used the second draft of the guide to plan Sustaining Mars


  • Used feedback from the Callysto team, as well as student and teacher participants from the Sustaining Mars hackathon, to update the second draft. 
  • Created a final draft of the hackathon planning guide and gave it to the communications team for edits and review. 


  • Asked for K-12 teachers for feedback on the guide. 
  • Shared the guide on social media.

The result of using our hackathon planning guide

We used a draft version of the hackathon planning guide to steer our efforts for the Sustaining Mars hackathon. 

As a teacher and parent, I felt the Sustaining Mars hackathon was a success.

  • I understood the event roll-out process.
  • I understood why the activities were designed the way there were. 

For Sustaining Mars, we offered beginner and advanced activities, as well as more ways for students to get support. 

In the end, we found more students completed their challenges (versus the previous hackathon), and there was an increase in positive feedback about their learning experiences. 

It is my privilege to share the final draft of our online hackathon planning guide. It’s our hope that K-12 teachers across Canada will be able to use this tool in multiple contexts.