WARREN, NJ - Some 80 students, including more than 20 from sending district middle schools, participated in the first-ever “hillsHacks” event, Sunday, Jan. 21, at Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS).






In addition to WHRHS students, hillsHacks attracted students from Warren Middle School, Watchung’s Valley View Middle School, Long Hill’s Central Middle School, and Green Brook Middle School. There were also students from the Pingry School, and J.P. Stevens High School in Edison Township, among others.

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With the event’s full title being, “hillsHacks: Coding the Classroom,” the event was about broadening student awareness of, and understanding about, a working knowledge of computer coding, and how it will likely be important, not just in computer classes, but in their various classes up and down their curriculum schedules.

A second hillsHacks event, which organizers hope will again attract both high school and middle school participants, is planned as a follow-up to the first one. The second one will likely be held in the Fall instead of January.

One of hillsHacks speakers, a student at Rutgers University, brought with her several fellow-members of the Rutgers University Computer Science club, who were encouraged to interact with the high school and middle school students, and provide their insights into broadening the use of computer skills as part of the standard student learning toolbox. Organizers hope to continue including some local college computer science student partnering with future hillsHacks events.

WHRHS approaches all events such as hillsHacks, as opportunities to encourage heavy student involvement in organizing and leading the event. Virtually every school event, and HillsHacks was no exception, are seen as multi-discipline living learning experiences that include ancillary tasks such as catering, graphic design, social media usage, supportive financial and business tasks, understanding learning in context,and more.

This supports one of the stated goals of the 2015-2020 Strategic Goals: The WHRHS District will provide the resources, technology, and organizational change to achieve, among other goals: “To integrate creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary learning throughout the district to empower and inspire students to succeed in a changing global community.”

Guest Speakers

Among the featured guest speakers was a 2012 WHRHS graduate, Matthew Carbone, who grew up in Millington and came to WHRHS through grades 6-8 Central Middle School in Stirling. Carbone went onto to earn in 2016 concurrent bachelor’s degrees, a B.S. in chemistry, and a B.A. in physics, from the University of Rochester. He is now pursuing a doctoral degree in chemical physics from Columbia University.

He joined with all the guest speakers at hillsHacks to explain that, the thrust of event’s theme -- to develop more mastery incomputer coding -- is not necessarily designed to develop more computer coders, per se. Rather, workshops such as hillsHacksa are designed to better include broader understanding and mastery of coding in all students’ standard toolbox of computer skills. These are skills that will likely become beneficial to achieve a broader mastery of everything else students are expected to master up and down the typical 21st century curriculum, according to the speakers panel.

That broad discussion was about the growing importance of a working understanding of broader building-block computer skills. The panel took turns weighing in on various topics raised by the student participants. True to its nature as a day to broaden mastery of computer skills, workshop organizers invited participants as they assembled, to electronically shoot questions to the event organizers, who would then relay the questions to speakers in real-time during the speaking program. Each speaker took turns, weighing in on the issues raised by the questions. Each gave rich examples on how they had as much as backed into mastering computer skills as they had to develop the skills to use computers in their studies, in their research, and in their respective quests for theoretical and applied breakthroughs.

Each speaker seemed to add to a consensus of opinions about the state of computer science today: It’s never too late for everyone to start to learn or to continue to learn more and more about using computers in all their varied applications. Students today are wise to have a thirst to learn something new every day. They should wake up to the reality, if they are not already fully aware, that the speed with which computer science has grown during the last 10 years will no doubt be matched and probably surpassed during the next 10 years, five years, even one year.

When Carbone graduated in 2016 from the University of Rochester, he did so with a magna cum laude level cumulative average, and inductions in Sigma Pi Sigma, the Physics Honor Society, and Phi Betta Kappa. 

Carbone said he is continually thankful to WHRHS for helping to prepare him for his career in higher education and beyond.

“I owe a lot to this school,” he said.

When asked later during a break-out workshop when he had encountered a computer tool that had just been explained on the smart board in front of the eager-to absorb-hillsHacksparticipants, he chuckled and admitted: When he was a Ph.D. grad student at Columbia. Not in high school, he implied, or in some of the cases for some hillsHacks participants, in Middle School. 

Joining Carbone on the panel was Adam Michlin, who is an adjunct faculty member of the Mathematics/Computer Science department at Drew University, Madison. He works at Golda Och Academy, West Orange, where he is responsible for the grades 6-12 computer science curriculum. Prior to his current assignments, he was a computer science teacher at Pope John XXIII High School, Sparta, where he founded a “Girls Who Code Club,” which has since grown to 51 members. He also currently serves as the President of the Central Chapter of the N.J. Computer Science Teachers Association.

Also on the panel was Jeremy Reich is the N.J. Project Coordinator of Future Ready Schools New Jersey (FRS-NJ), a certification program designed to promote digital learning readiness in schools throughout New Jersey by providing guidance, support, direction and resources for schools and districts. He is based out of the College of Arts and Sciences at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology), and he works to raise awareness about educational technology, and to implement Future Ready guidelines in school districts across New Jersey.

And rounding out the panel was Sara Ann Stanway, a junior at Rutgers University. She is a software engineer and computer science diversity advocate. She said that this year, she launched an outreach program to “excite and educate underrepresented groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) through classroom Skype calls with computer science undergraduates.”

The hillsHacks Team

Organizers of HillsHacks include: Lead Organizers, WHRHS students Kevin Huang and Neelay Trivedi; instruction leaders, WHRHS Supervisors Dan Twisler and Mary Ellen Phelan; Financial Directors, Dianne Kurtz, Foram Vaidya, Alison Cabrera, and Tristan Chau; Outreach/Marketing, Elaine Chesebro and Isabella Zhou; Food/Catering, Connie Situ and Katie Morris; Graphic Design, Zachary Young; hillsHacks Web site, Zachary Young and Peter Linder; Photographer, Neil Yang; and Workshop leaders, Dan Twisler, Kevin Huang, Matt Carbone, Neelay Trivedi, Zach Young and Sean Coleman.

For more information about hillsHacks, go to www.hillshacks.com.