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At HackSchool, students use technology to solve real community problems.

At HackSchool, students use technology to solve real community problems.

Courtesy Nathan Pai Schmitt

At Denver after-school program, students make gadgets that make a difference

At HackSchool, students don’t just make gadgets for the sake of creating something cool and high-tech. The whole idea behind the after-school program that’s taken root in a Denver charter high school is to make things that matter.

That means working to create a “smart cane” with an earpiece that warns blind users about obstacles. Or a smartphone case that’s also an affordable solar-powered phone charger. Students use technology such as 3-D modeling software and 3-D printers to create products to help solve real community problems.

The concept has begun to capture attention beyond Denver. This week, organizers of HackSchool were finalists in a competition in Indianapolis that sought to reward new school designs that fit the realities of life and work in the 21st century.

“I want to be something in this world,” Edgar Campos-Escobedo, a student in the program, told judges in the competition for a $50,000 prize. “But I feel like education system today is making it hard for me to succeed.”

HackSchool co-founder Nathan Pai Schmitt is a former Teach For America corps member who now teaches at STRIVE Prep Excel high school in northwest Denver. The other co-founder is Wisdom Amouzou, a teaching fellow at the African Leadership Academy who previously taught for the STRIVE charter network, which primarily focuses on educating low-income Latino students.

The duo raised more than $35,000 through Kickstarter — twice the goal — for a pilot project that’s been underway since January.

Thirty students, about half of them girls, spend two hours after school four days a week in part of an art classroom that Pai Schmitt has converted into what he calls a “socially conscious maker space.”

At the competition, Pai Schmitt pitched an idea for a HackSchool high school.

HackSchool students would make weekly schedules on their own, either choosing coursework teachers offer or working independently each morning. In the afternoons, they would do intensive study — advanced work, electives or extra help for those who are struggling — and internships with partner organizations.

The Denver proposal was one of four finalists in the competition staged by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization known for incubating charter schools and offering fellowships to educators with ideas for creating new schools.

Scott Elliott reported from Indianapolis and Melanie Asmar reported from Denver. For more about the competition — including details about the idea that won the cash prize — read this story that appeared on our sister site, Chalkbeat Indiana.