Ideas unleashed by Dorchester ‘hackathon’ for kids

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BOSTON – Ask a bunch of pre-adolescents to come up with solutions to some vexing issues and they’ll likely deliver some surprising answers, just as a group of students in Dorchester did.

For example, one team developed a car engine that consumes carbon dioxide, burns methane and emits oxygen as a way to combat climate change. Another group designed a homeless shelter run by robots, to cut the costs of helping the down and out.

“We figured there was a lot of homeless people in Dorchester because we see them on the streets, and we wanted to give them a chance to start over,” said Patrice, a fifth-grader whose Robo Shelter team came up with the idea. Their presentation featured a three-dimensional model and a website showing what it would be like to have a robot to welcome shelter guests, which could include house pets.

The inventive students displayed their sometimes novel ideas Tuesday on the fourth floor of the Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester. The kids from grade four through eight had participated in an 11-week program that included the first-ever #HackDorchester Challenge, an after-school activity in which they worked with local mentors. Each group got a budget to design and build a prototype. They sought solutions to such challenges as providing housing and jobs to education and public health.

Onyja, a sixth grader whose team came up with a fundraising idea based on keeping fit said their goal was to keep it simple and easy.

“We all had a lot of ideas and we put them together,” Onjia said. Joined by teammate Kayla, they both said their app will become a working reality one day.

Another idea presented at the event would place first-aid kits in boxes placed around the city in publicly accessible areas, for use in emergencies.

“We had a lot of good learning moments,” said Danielle Olson, the president of Gique, a nonprofit organization that strives to inspire young people with science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“Working in teams can be difficult,” Olson said. “I work in the tech industry and I have to deal with these difficulties every day. I think it’s amazing that they are learning these skills now.”

Ashli Davis-Polanco, Gique’s executive director and a full-time graduate student studying chemical engineering at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said the students surprised her with their creative ideas. She said they were given only basic topics and a few sample ideas before they were let loose to exercise their imagination.

“I want to follow these kids and see where they go,” she said. She added that the organizers may expand the program to other cities, such as Atlanta.

Gique may be brought to other schools in Massachusetts, according to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who noted that it’s an example of an excellent after-class program.

“I just met you guys and I am a fan already,” Chang-Diaz said, adding that her husband works in a technology-based industry where jobs go begging. “The things you learn here you can take to any career.”

But for the kids, job skills weren’t necessarily the foremost attraction.

“Gique is a very fun program,” said Analisa Martins, a fifth-grader who hopes to participate in it again.  “It helps me express who I am.”