Online data science hackathons: Re-imagined learning during COVID-19

Nov 25, 2020 · 5 min read

How the re-imagining began

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a seemingly overnight shift to online learning for many students and teachers across Canada. We also experienced this shift at Callysto.

For us, this shift meant pivoting in-person data science hackathons (geared towards Grades 9-12 students) to an online format. In our data science hackathons, students solve a problem by “hacking” or analyzing open, freely available data.

Running online hackathons helped us learn how to structure our content for remote learning. We also wanted to provide a free, virtual learning experience that would support teachers and students with developing data science skills – coding, data analysis, and computational thinking.

If you’re a Grades 9-12 teacher interested in teaching data science using online hackathons, this post will go over:

  • How online data science hackathons can be beneficial for students.
  • How we re-imagined our hackathons for online learning using instructional design and constructive alignment (Callysto’s online data science hackathon, Sustaining Mars, is used as an example).
  • The stages involved in planning an online data science hackathon (check out our hackathon planning guide).

Some background

How are data science hackathons beneficial for students?

In our experience, students benefit from data science hackathons in the following ways:

They practice curriculum-based skills
  • Mathematics classes throughout Grades 9-12 explore problem solving methodologies. Hackathons allow students to practice these skills by analyzing datasets, and creating math-based conclusions.
They develop data literacy skills
  • “Literacy” refers to the ability to communicate meaning (descriptions of how we perceive or think). Students in hackathons learn how to find, interpret, and visualize data to communicate their understanding of a given topic.
They learn workforce skills
  • Python programming, which is used in the hackathon platform, is also a popular programming language used widely in the workforce.
  • Students also develop the ability to work in teams to find a solution, including coordinating roles, building a workplan, and setting targets to work towards.

Hackathon example: Sustaining Mars

Callysto ran our Sustaining Mars hackathon from August 5-10, 2020. For this challenge, Grades 9-12 students were asked to determine how to make Mars habitable for humans.

The hackathon featured two tracks:

  1. Curiosity (beginner): In step-by-step Python programming exercises, students analyzed an open dataset about pets to determine which animals to take to Mars.
  2. Amal (advanced): Students chose their own question to answer about sustaining life on Mars. They also had to find their own open data set to analyze and support their conclusion.

*Curiosity was named after NASA’s 2011 Mars rover; “Amal” was named after the United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s recent mission to the red planet.

What is instructional design?

Instructional design is a methodology for developing educational content to fit the learner’s needs and goals. This includes developing and testing new learning materials or activities. The goal is to help the student and acquire and apply a specific set of knowledge and skills.

What is constructive alignment?

Constructive alignment involves designing learning outcomes before teaching begins. It is a system of working backwards: figuring out what you want the students to learn, and then developing classroom activities and assessments that align with those outcomes.

Re-imagining our Sustaining Mars hackathon for online learning

Instructional design

We published a hackathon prep website
  • Through this site (pictured below), students could learn data science basics, and assess their current data science knowledge to pick a hackathon track (Curiosity or Amal). We also published details of the challenges, and how to get support during the hackathon. Previously, all of this would have been delivered in-person.
We developed the Amal and Curiosity tracks
  • The tracks allowed students with different  levels of programming skills to comfortably participate. We determined the students’ skill levels by asking them questions when they registered online.
We held an online “launch event”
  • The virtual launch event allowed students to connect with Callysto experts — the goal was to make students feel comfortable asking questions.
We offered students several ways to get support
  • Students could send questions via email, an online form, or through online tutorials.

Constructive alignment

We determined the learning outcomes for the hackathon tracks


  • Learn basic Python programming commands
  • Learn basic data analysis
  • Use critical and creative thinking
  • Practice spelling and grammar


  • Use correct Python programming to analyze open datasets
  • Use critical thinking and creative thinking
  • Practice spelling and grammar
We designed activities within each track, to meet the learning outcomes


  • Learn basic Python programming commands (pictured below). The Curiosity track used artificial intelligence to support this function. Each time a student entered a wrong programming command in the step-by-step exercises, a hint and an encouraging message appeared. This gave them a built-in teaching mechanism to learn, while keeping their morale up.
  • Use critical and creative thinking. Students answered reflection questions about why they would or wouldn’t bring specific pets to Mars, based on their findings in the step-by-step exercises.
  • Learn basic data analysis. The step-by-step exercises produced many graphs. The goal was to get students comfortable with looking at data visualizations and thinking about them critically.
  • Practice spelling and grammar. Students’ use of spelling and grammar was assessed in their reflection questions.


  • Use correct Python programming to analyze their open dataset. Students needed to use programming commands to create data visualizations. The accuracy of their coding was then assessed.
  • Use critical and creative thinking. Students chose their own question to answer, and also sought out an open dataset to back-up their conclusion about sustaining life on Mars. They also answered a variety of reflection questions about their findings.
  • Practice spelling and grammar. Students’ use of spelling and grammar was assessed in their reflection questions.
We designed a rubric to assess the learning outcomes of challenge participants

The rubric had four main categories:

  1. Communication
  2. Use of data (this was more applicable to the Amal track)
  3. Innovation and impact
  4. Technical functioning (for the Curiosity track, we looked at the number of attempts to get the coding correct)

Create your own online hackathon

From our experience, there are five key steps to create an online hackathon:

  • Stage 1: Determine if a hackathon is feasible
  • Stage 2: Brainstorm with your team
  • Stage 3: Plan the hackathon
  • Stage 4: Run the hackathon
  • Stage 5: Evaluate the hackathon with your team

For more details, read our hackathon planning guide.


If you have questions about designing your own online student hackathon, please reach out to us at