July 21, 2015

Mehackit takes robots to high school

In the spring, Mehackit organised an event for elementary school children that taught them programming and robotics.
In the spring, Mehackit organised an event for elementary school children that taught them programming and robotics.
Dora Cheffi-Arab

Mehackit’s goal is to enable high school students to get to grips with new technology, robotics and programming. In future, the Finnish concept may be heading to other Nordic countries.

At Mehackit’s Helsinki office a battery-operated robot zooms around on the wooden table, bumping into coffee cups and milk cartons.

Any high school student could, in practice, build one of these robots. But why would anyone want to build a robot? And why is it so important to build one?

“The idea is to encourage young people to actualise their ideas using technology,” says Henrietta Kekäläinen, founder of Mehackit.

Rails Girls protégé

In November 2014, Kekäläinen stood on the Silver Stage at Slush, dressed appropriately in a silver jumpsuit, to talk about Mehackit, the organisation she had established. At the end of her talk, Kekäläinen revealed some big news: Mehackit’s new partner would be the electronics giant Samsung.

When released, the vibrating robot draws patterns on paper.

When released, the vibrating robot draws patterns on paper.

Dora Cheffi-Arab

Before stepping out in front of the audience at Slush, she had done a multitude of things, such as working in India and studying business in Vienna. Upon returning to Finland she worked at the Foreign Ministry and the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society.

“I worked with Linda Liukas [founder of Rails Girls] on a project. Pretty quickly I got involved in Rails Girls,” Kekäläinen says.

Rails Girls is a workshop designed for women that teaches coding. The event began as a project between friends and accidentally grew into a worldwide phenomenon.

Kekäläinen was there to witness how teaching coding spread around the world. A couple years of intensive work sparked her interest in doing something similar.

Coding leads to robots

Early on, the concept did not have a clear shape. To begin with, Kekäläinen organised workshops for 6–12-year-old children in which volunteers helped to introduce them to all types of technology. The list included 3D printers, motion detectors, electronics, robotics, coding, but also art.

The next step was to draw a clear line.

The problem was inequality. It was the parents who were themselves interested in technology that brought their kids to the workshops. Kekäläinen felt that everybody should be able to take part in the courses, even the children whose parents were not into technology. They decided to target high schools.

Kekäläinen and her team organised an after-work event for high school teachers curious about the idea. Those who were interested got to try coding and building a mini robot.

Today, Mehackit offers Finnish high school students two elective courses: “Electronics and robotics” and “Introduction to the world of programming”.

In 2015 and in spring 2016, teachers trained by Mehackit will be holding courses at more than 25 schools in eight Finnish cities.

The idea is to get one student from each city’s university of technology to teach one course of programming or robotics to high school students. Mehackit takes care of training the teachers and coordinating courses.

The Mehackit course is free for the schools and does not require them to commit long-term.

The course involves open teaching material and open source-code software and applications. Teaching equipment and small material purchases, such as electronic components, are considered separately at each school.

The purpose of the course is to function as an inspiration for future career choices. Young people notice how easy it really is to code their own website or build something real using a 3D printer, for example.

Striving for Mehackit-free future

Will all children become coders based on a single course? Or robot manufacturers?

Kekäläinen compares coding to playing the piano. Nobody becomes a pianist after just one month of practice, learning is a never-ending journey.

“With at least one coder at every workplace in the future, it is important to understand exactly what they are doing. You need to speak their language,” she says.

“I want to see how kids are building their futures and we are trying to bring new influences from the technology and startup fields to those who might consider these areas difficult to approach.”

In the future, Mehackit wishes to offer courses of varied duration to people of different age groups. Kekäläinen’s goal is for Mehackit to become obsolete in the future.

“I hope that these things will be taught in schools without our help,” she says.

That may, however, take a while. In the meanwhile Mehackit is heading to Stockholm’s Tekniska Museet where it will hold an after-work event for Swedish teachers. The aim is to get the teachers excited about the coding and robotics.

Henrietta Kekäläinen (left) runs Mehackit with the help of Reetta Heiskanen, Otso Sorvettula and Ida Honkanen.

Henrietta Kekäläinen (left) runs Mehackit with the help of Reetta Heiskanen, Otso Sorvettula and Ida Honkanen.

Dora Cheffi-Arab

Text: Karolina Miller