6th graders win Startup Weekend with game that teaches pre-teens how to code

Fiona Brennan (left) and Semira Lacet-Brown (right). Photo by Rebecca Yeung.

GenerationCode founders Fiona Brennan (left) and Semira Lacet-Brown. Photo: Rebecca Yeung.

It took two middle schoolers to come up with a game that could teach kids to code — developing an approach that could revolutionize the way technology is taught in schools.

It’s called GenerationCode.

Seabury Middle School sixth graders Fiona Brennan and Semira Lacet-Brown and their team of nine professional adults took top honors at Startup Weekend at University of Washington last weekend.

Lacet-Brown has been learning to code for two years and she’s been having a hard time finding a tool that suits her level of skills, noting that there aren’t any coding games for middle schoolers.

The girls took the top prize at Startup Weekend, a 54-hour event where entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and developers all come together to pitch their ideas for businesses, form teams and build products. Each team presents their project to judges at the end of the event.

As Lacet-Brown was interested in coding and Brennan was interested in design, they sat down together and came up with a computer game that teaches young kids how to code. The game has levels and obstacles. Professor Gram, a character in the game, will show up occasionally to explain and teach a lesson that relates to programming. When the gamer comes across a “Code Monster,” they will have to apply what they have learned to defeat the monster and complete the level.

The game is targeted to 9- to 12-year-olds. The girls plan to partner with Code.org, a non-profit organization that works to bring computer science to K-12 schools in the U.S.

“This is our generation,” Brennan said.

“It’s overall pretty awesome. … Kids are just as awesome as adults,” Lacet-Brown added.

Not only did they lead their team to a win against 10 professional teams, prior to the Startup Weekend, Brennan and Lacet-Brown had already formed a company with six other sixth graders called Giggy Games, Inc. The company aims to create fun games for middle school and high school kids. Even though the company has not released a product yet, the girls are ready to take what they have learned back to the team to start creating games.

“What we really have to do is to go set a deadline,” said Brennan.

codegeneration1Team members were impressed with the knowledge and vision of the girls.

“Their determination and vision are so inspiring,” said Nathan Turner, the business developer of the team and a professional graphic designer. “They were providing input at every step of the designing and planning processes, and it was great to have their excitement and direction.”

Fernmarie Brady, a business developer on the team and a program manager at Microsoft, agreed.

“These young entrepreneurs had a goal when they pitched on Friday, and I was very impressed by their laser focus and determination throughout the weekend,” she said. “They worked really hard, were very coachable, and were fun to work with.”

As the winner of Startup Weekend, the team will get mentoring from Synapse Product Development and the girls won a scholarship to attend a CodeFellows bootcamp where they will have the opportunity to learn more about coding.

The team also plans to continue working together and create a final product.

“My goal for the project would be to refine a small working game demo,” said Turner, “to get a good, playable example out for use in gauging the excitement of our target audience: the kids.”

Reporter Rebecca Yeung is a student participating in The University of Washington’s News Lab program. 

  • Guestie

    “their team of nine professional adults..” Tells me all I need to know. Remarkable what adults can create these days. Adult work is our future and they are ADORABLE.

    It’s like that mother who actually created and designed the oscar knockoff dresses her 4 year old designed and made – being the 4 year old genius there. Got a lot of press earlier this year because it was a genius 4 year old designer. When pressed, the mother admitted she did the work.

    Reminds me of the time a dude created a startup with a fake woman CEO with a fake photo and fake bio because these types get press.

    • StartupSeattle

      Hi guestie-

      I’m guessing you weren’t able to attend the event, as the most important thing to know about these young women is not that they’re ‘adorable’ but that they are truly inspirational.
      Full disclosure: Startup Seattle sponsored the attendance of 16 youth (including Semira and Fiona) in order to connect these truly talented individuals with entrepreneurial experiences.
      As a judge of the event, I can assure you that we had a lively discussion and debate about the winners, and Generation Code clearly stood out in terms of business model validation and the product they developed. Semira duly wow’ed the judges when asked about her plans for future product development, as she explained that given the time, they’d move beyond “if=>then” statements to computational and mathematical expressions. No fake bio here– she’s the real deal, a combination of self-taught coder, who went on to hone her skills through the Technology Access Foundation, and then to co-lead this team to a well-deserved victory.

    • Rebecca Yeung

      Hello,

      Thanks for your reply. As a college student, I was really impressed with the knowledge and passion the girls had and the way they presented themselves. Yes, they are young, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a vision; age doesn’t necessary mean maturity or ability. The game was their original idea and they made it happen. If you have a chance to talk to either them, I’m sure they will gain your respect.

      • Fred

        They made it happen with a team of nine adults. I respect the adults for coding and doing all the hard work that required actual skill and design knowledge. This was bullshit. I think it was a photo opt where the team coached the girls on what to say and did all the work in creating and white boarding and coding. Show me an all girl team doing ALL the work. I don’t respect a game that has 9 adults doing the work to show “what 2 girls can do.” This award is not theirs, because what they could actually do would not be impressive enough for the story they wanted to tell. So they had to surgically enhance the truth. Why couldn’t they have a contest with actual kids competing and doing all the work? At least it would be honest and the winnings would actually be theirs instead of a silicone enhanced story. But apparently, that’s not good enough.

        So since reality didn’t match, they took a phrase or two from the girls and “said” it was their product. As we all know, there’s a great deal of difference in the adult world between thinking you could invent velcro and actually having the ability to do it. These girls are being set up to expect that they are capable of things things that are not possible without 9 highly experienced adults doing it for them as they just sat around a snack table and offered a phrase or two. This is not “doing it.” Perhaps their parents can go to college for them too.

        • KM

          If you’d ever been to a Code Day, you’d be impressed with the level of coding ability and vision from young students. My middle school student has been competing in Code Days for the past year. He learnt to code from other students (apparently regarding his geeky parents as too old to understand how to build game engines using python).

          • JVM

            That’s not the point. These girls only know Scratch, which is a useless language. It is solely for the purpose of teaching kids. What makes good products is the actual programming, which these kids did not do. Ideas are s***, everyone makes ideas. This is why I don’t believe in Startup Weekend. These girls had an idea, but didn’t do anything else.

          • Brian Issleb

            I have been developing software for more than 15 years and I can honestly say that you are completely wrong. Good code does NOT make for good products on its own. Put some developers in a room by themselves and more than half the time you’re going to end up with a well-written, poorly-designed application that works the way THEY want it to without consideration given to what users want or real use cases.

            Good products are developed by multi-disciplinary teams. Just because the girls didn’t write the bulk of the code doesn’t mean they weren’t an integral part of creating the application. I wish more applications were created with the involvement of the target audience, especially if it’s a to hard-to-understand group like middle schoolers.

    • Yegor Nadvornyy

      I had a pleasure to work with girls and have several comments. Guestie, you would be right if not the fact that Semi already knows html, css, java python and ruby. If I’m not mistaken Bill Gates started to code when he was 13?! Semi is 11.

      Fiona (12) lead the whole customer validation process including the interviews. Game scenario, character choices, and everything else related to the actual game was done by the girls as well. Talented designer and dedicated developer were thrilled to make the whole thing happen while constantly asking for feedback from 11- and 12-years old.

      Perhaps you are missing the actual point, there is a huge need in educational games including the once to teach coding skills. The fact that 6-graders showed up at UW Startup weekend and asked for it could not be ignored, and sure enough there were people in almost 100-people audience that decided to join and help.

      The whole team was inspired by Fiona and Semi and put tremendous amount of effort to is as well, developing a business model that can go beyond the Weekend format. Also, do not underestimate amazing work of other teams, and remember that winning the Weekend is not the end of the story. Some products were actually near the final stage of development and ready to generate real revenue and satisfy customers.

      Finally, our team continues to work on the project and is currently actively looking for mentors, educators, developers and designers and has a real desire to create a valuable product.
      We are also hoping to establish partnerships with organizations such as code.org, codeacademy, kiki and others.
      Once again, the goal here is not to make billions, but to educate millions.
      Help of any kind is welcome. Will be happy to chat if you have any doubts: write2yegor@yaoo.com

      • Fred

        “The whole team was inspired by Fiona and Semi ”

        Why not get hamster in a ball to be inspired by and then take pictures after on how the hamster won the contest? Of course, be sure to get photogenic hamsters. All the better for the faux story for fundraising for people who are pimping out their love of girl code to get a salary of their own. It is possible to have 12 and 13 year olds do a hackathon without adults doing the work for them. But this is not about that. This is about your fundraising.

        Do we have Dads running down on the field and playing for their kids? the kids play a junior high level of game, not pro adult level, but the point is it’s what they are capable of doing. The win is theirs. Here, the win is a rig.

        Ask Semi to take the Oracle java certification test without adult help if you are so confident of her mystical coding abilities, which do not at all require a team of 7 guys to code it for her.

        I bet at this point, the girls expect 9 adults to follow them through life and do all the hard parts for them.

        You know, if Semi is so impressive, why did she need 9 adults to complete the project? Why not have a team of all kids without adults and see what they can do? Because you have no confidence it would be so photogenic and their abilities would not tell the story you wanted to tell. It would be honest though.

        I think adults who are seasoned professionals can do amazing work. They can create whole universes. And lies. And press releases.

        • Brian Issleb

          Yes, much better to call them liars and doubt their accomplishments. That’s the way to motivate the next generation of innovators.

          • JVM

            They are not liars, but they didn’t do much. They had an idea, and had a team of developres build it for them. If they were so good, they wouldn’t need a team of 9 to build it for them. Ideas are worthless. They need to pain up kids like this: http://fusion.net/modern_life/story/michael-sayman-16-release-9th-app-17837
            This is proof that you can actaully build stuff.

        • JVM

          This is exactly what I’m trying to get at

  • Erica

    Middle school is an amazing age and hearing that these 2 girls are using their powers for good is not that surprising! Glad this conference and the sponsors are putting their money to good use, I’m sure all the attendees were impressive! Good reporting as well!