Teens Code While Traveling Across the Country With Shelburne-Based Hack Club | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Teens Code While Traveling Across the Country With Shelburne-Based Hack Club


Published July 28, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Hack Club member Max Wofford carrying out the box that holds the ZephyrNET portable server - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Hack Club member Max Wofford carrying out the box that holds the ZephyrNET portable server

The Hokum Brothers band was playing oldies when the busload of kids showed up at Hack Club headquarters, known as HQ, in Shelburne. It was July 16, the day before 42 teenagers were to leave on a cross-country trip. As they gathered for lunch and then a night in Chittenden County before starting the trip — by bus to New York City and then a train west — they were full of buzzy excitement and can't-wait-to-go energy.

The teenagers came from places including Los Angeles, Malaysia, Atlanta, Toronto and NYC. Until mid-July, they had known each other only online. Now, after a morning visit to Burlington, they were convening in Shelburne for pizza, music, and computer chitchat, high-fiving and hanging out in real life.

Hack Club is a Shelburne-based nonprofit that oversees a network of student-run coding clubs, and the kids were its guests and coders/makers on an all-expenses-paid, cross-country hackathon. The train trip that would conclude on Sunday in LA, was a mobile summer camp for computer whizzes. These campers would be sleeping in bunks, sightseeing, writing poetry and having sing-alongs — but also creating code for apps and websites. For eight days, the future would roll and click across the USA.

The students' overarching endeavor aboard the train was to build a network, the ZephyrNET, and load it with 500 onboard projects. Their individual plans ranged from making a music app to stream tunes for the ride, to taste-testing ramen in a whirlwind tour of NYC noodle shops and documenting the results. The train hackathon and the creations made during it would serve as a time capsule of the trip. But if the coders failed to complete 500 projects, their work would be deleted — and unrecoverable.

The day of the kickoff, Maya Farber, 17, arrived for the trip with her father, who dropped her off and hugged her goodbye at HQ — a Victorian house in the heart of town, beside the Shelburne Country Store. The two had traveled by airplane from Tel Aviv to NYC and then driven to Vermont for Maya's train adventure.

Alexey Farber, who runs a software company in Israel, expressed happiness for his daughter as she went off to meet "amazing, like-minded people with bright minds."

"I think it's quite exciting to travel across America with other children like her," he said.

Zach Latta - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Zach Latta

Bringing together kids based on their interest in computers and programming is the foundation of Hack Club. Zach Latta, now 23, founded the club seven years ago and is its executive director. He's a California native who moved to Vermont at the start of the pandemic.

Latta's interest in computers started when he was a young boy; he went online to teach himself to build a computer.

"I just couldn't pull myself away from computers," he said. "I felt like, if only I could understand how these magical devices work, I could unlock the secrets to the universe."

He dropped out of his suburban LA high school at 15 and moved to San Francisco at 16 to work as a software consultant at a rate of $80 to $100 an hour. He moved to that city, in part, because he was "so desperate for community."

Latta founded Hack Club to help give young people what had been missing for him.

"I didn't think coding and making things should be a solitary activity," he said. "And I was so desperate to find a tribe myself."

In developing this summer's program, Hack Club staff wanted to create a situation that would challenge student leaders to take risks and push themselves.

"America needs a generation of young people who are optimistic, rigorous problem solvers and have hard technical skills," Latta said.

There are a few hundred school Hack Clubs, Latta estimated, but about 13,000 kids are involved in the program through the organization's online Slack chat group. Teenagers run the clubs, where they develop and complete coding projects and then share them. Other Hack Club teens can see and use their work; they can also adapt or add to the projects — a practice sometimes called "forking."

In 2020, the nonprofit received a $500,000 donation from Elon Musk. Another donor has given $1 million to Hack Club, Latta said, adding that every donation is meaningful.

"Everybody at Hack Club is here because we want to try to create the space that we wish we had as teenagers," Latta said.

In riding a train across the country, Hack Club is "using the infrastructure that built this country 150 years ago," Latta observed. "Teenagers becoming more technical and building things with a computer — this is the infrastructure that's going to be building this country for the next 150 years."

  • Luke Awtry
  • Hugo Hu

One of the students on the trip, Hugo Hu of NYC, made a ZephyrNET project before he boarded the train. Hu, 13, is soon to enter eighth grade at New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math, a public school in Manhattan.

In June, when he was invited on the train trip, Hugo said he was encouraged by Latta to think about something he could make for the ZephyrNET. He decided to design and build USB hubs in the shape of trains.

Hack Club, which covered all trip expenses for all of the kids, approved the $320 cost of Hu's parts and equipment. But certain parts he needed to make the trains — each of which has four ports — didn't arrive until July 12, Hu said. That left him with about two and half days to solder and test 55 little model trains that serve as USB hubs. He completed the project.

"Hugo's a badass" was the word at HQ as the kids ate pizza and got psyched for the trip.

Claire Wang, 16, of Los Angeles, will be a junior at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts in the fall. She has started three Hack Clubs at different schools, the first one when she was in eighth grade.

Wang also organized two AngelHacks: LA-based hackathons in which people code together "and learn a lot," she said. (The first one was held at Snapchat headquarters.) Projects at AngelHack included building a decentralized voting system and using artificial intelligence to make a music generator that played "some really great tracks," Wang said.

On the train trip, which wrapped up on Sunday in her hometown, Wang was an intern, a Hack Club leader who got paid.

"I really enjoy coding because you have so much power at your hands to make a positive impact," she said in an interview several days before the trip. Coding doesn't require a lot of resources, Wang explained, and with flexibility and problem-solving skills, "anyone can take control of [their] own future."

"You have to not want to throw your computer at the wall the minute something breaks," Wang added.

Abby Fischler, 14, also from LA, got into coding because she really liked to type. So she'd started spending time in her school's computer lab in third grade. That led to playing Minecraft and then to taking classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I'm so looking forward to this trip," Fischler said at HQ in Shelburne. "I'm so excited to meet everyone and see the world."

Rishi Kothari, 15, of Toronto, was on the trip as an intern. Coding, he said, "fosters an ecosystem of constant creation."

"The really awesome part about code is, because code is so open, it can scale infinitely," Kothari said.

The Hack Club at his public high school had about 80 kids at its peak. "They give so much power to the leaders," Kothari said of the Shelburne HQ, "that it's really hard to have a bad Hack Club."

In Vermont, Shelburne Community School and Harwood Union High School in Moretown are the only schools with clubs, according to the nonprofit. Though portions of the state have limited broadband access, Hack Club leaders say Vermont is the right place for the nonprofit to call home.

"Vermonters are very deeply in touch with their creative side," said Christina Asquith of Charlotte, chief operating officer of Hack Club. "That kind of thinking needs to be involved in the next generation of coders. What we really need are artists who can code and environmentalists who can code and farmers who can code."

The train ride was stocked with creative types, including Woody Keppel, a musician, actor and vaudeville performer from Charlotte. Founder of Burlington's Festival of Fools, he served as the train's entertainment director, offering hours of music, theatrics and side gags with fellow performers as the train rolled west.

"This is the craziest thing I've ever done," said Keppel, who led the Hokum Brothers in "Secret Agent Man" and other oldies at the kickoff event. He noted that he'd bought a computer and an iPhone for the Hack Club gig "to show them off."

"I'm the oldest and the dumbest person on this trip," Keppel said the day before leaving. But he gave himself good odds for keeping the young folk entertained on their odyssey.

"They're into this coding computer world that is the future, and they just love it so much," Keppel said. "And they're so into creating something special on this hackathon."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Search Engine | Hack Club teens code while traveling by train across the country"