Toronto girls school hosts blockchain hackathon to inspire interest in STEM fields


What were you doing at 16?

The last few weeks have seen teenagers across North America make headlines as they continue to speak out on social issues, and it’s become abundantly clear that the future is in good hands.

Closer to home, a blockchain hackathon hosted by Toronto’s The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) on Mar. 27-29 showcased some of the incredible young talent the city has to offer.

While mainstream media and consumers have only recently become aware of blockchain and its potential use-cases, BSS students have already learned to code blockchain apps and apply them in real world situations thanks to an intensive two-day course put on by a company called Blockchain Learning Group (BLG).

“We wanted to do something like this because we knew this was an emerging tool that will be very disruptive to many industries. That makes it an important technological skill that we think our students should learn as they go on to further education and eventually the workforce,” Mary Anne Van Acker, the school’s assistant head of innovation development and technology, told IT World Canada. “We heard about BLG and how successful they were in teaching students about blockchain in Australia, and once we found out about their multidisciplinary, hands-on approach, we decided to bring them in.”

BLG facilitates comprehensive blockchain training courses with a strong focus on smart contracts and decentralized application development for developers – and the organizations they belong to. Its mission to grow the number of women developers in the global blockchain ecosystem has led it to also offer its combined theoretical and practical fundamentals training to highschool students as well.

“The first day is really laying the foundation, so looking at what blockchain is and then under the hood to see how it works,” explained Adam Lemmon, the vice president of technology and training at BLG. “We use the Ethereum platform because it’s one of the most advanced, open-source blockchains and not vendor-driven, so we go in depth with that and conclude the day with some smart contract examples. Then the second day is about going through use-cases for blockchain and building a decentralized application to interact with the smart contracts from day one.”

After the hands-on training session exploring blockchain programming, 17 students at the all-girls school split into three groups to each create and deliver blockchain-enabled apps over the course of the three-day hackathon. The girls were hand-picked based on their skills in coding/programming, business, and design.

“We have entrepreneurial business students, we have students in computer science and coding, we have others who are strong in math and analytics. Then we also included students with strong digital media and user interface experiences, and also ones with a strong passion for social innovation. The combination of all their strengths was incredible,” Van Acker added.

The ideas

At the request of BSS, IT World Canada is not identifying any students in this article. But here are some of the blockchain solutions these young women brought to the table.

The first group focused on the pharmaceutical industry, using blockchain to develop a closed ledger app between doctors, patients, and pharmacists to solve the flaws in Canada’s current prescription system. The idea for what they dubbed “Prescriptchain” came about when one of the students was studying the growing opioid crisis and its devastating effects in Canada.

The app hopes to reduce the number of forged prescription slips, overfilled prescriptions, and cases of medication misuse, which often lead to drug overdoses, by removing all human factors. On one end, a doctor will log into their account after seeing a patient and fill in a prescription form online. They will create a one-time secure password with the patient, which will need to be verified by the pharmacist when the prescription is being filled before any medication is dispensed. The pharmacist will then close the transaction so the prescription can’t be filled anywhere else.

The students said that because this process uses a transparent, secure blockchain, all data is safe and visible throughout the prescription-filling process. It only works when the three parties come together, and also adds a convenience factor, given that this will eliminate the need for paper prescription slips.

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting in February, the second group created a blockchain to better regulate gun sales and access to firearms. The app, titled SNUG (guns spelled backwards), aims to close loopholes in the gun purchasing system while also streamlining the process.

There are two sides to the app; one for gun sellers and the other for a prospective purchaser. The purchaser interface is where an individual’s medical history and criminal record would be stored, which would be inputted and updated by respective government agencies. Sellers would not be able to see all this information – which is where blockchain comes into play – but only whether the individual has been approved or denied to own a gun. The government would evaluate a person’s history, including the status of their mental health, to make this decision in an effort to reduce the number of guns in the hands of unstable people.

The girls in the group explained how much the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting affected them, and how excited they are to be learning things in school that could shape the “real world.” They have hope that an app like this could prevent future tragedies.

The third group tackled community needs and tax dollars allocation by increasing the level of interaction between the government and citizens. They devised a blockchain app called Allocatax that would allow property taxpayers to anonymously vote in an online survey on what municipal projects their tax money would go towards as a way to make government spending more transparent. The government would put together a list of community needs funded by taxpayer dollars, and individuals would have the chance to vote for or against specific projects. Once they completed voting, they would get a chance to explore what ideas were getting the most percentage of the votes.

Blockchain technology would verify users, verify their location so that they are seeing results for their respective areas, and restrict them to one round of voting. It would also maintain a voter’s privacy and anonymity in a secure manner.

The students said this would help put democracy back in the hands of ordinary citizens, and give them a say in government spending. They were confident this app could be used at any level of government, whether it be municipal like their initial example, or provincial/territorial or federal.

Bright views of blockchain

Feedback from all involved parties – the students, school management, and BLG – indicate that this hackathon was a resounding success.

“We were blown away by these girls and what they came up with in such a short amount of time. We were teaching blockchain to a corporate group at the Toronto Stock Exchange the week before, and while it’s hard to compare the situations, the beauty of these students is the fact that they still have an untarnished, non-skeptical point of view on the world,” Chami Akmeemana, CEO of BLG, told IT World Canada. “Their intellectual curiosity was refreshing, and they have no preconceived notions of blockchain; they were just there to learn and make something that could help the world.”

After presenting their ideas to three BSS alumni “judges” who now work in the tech industry, the groups are now deciding how they want to proceed with their ideas. Several students have expressed interest in starting businesses around their apps.

Van Acker raved about the three groups’ presentations, and mentioned how inspiring it is to now see the students thinking about moving forward with their ideas.

“I was very impressed by their presentations, their designs, and their understanding of the technology after just two short days studying the Ethereum platform. Their presentations were strong, articulate, and thoughtful, and they did a good job answering questions from our judge’s panel,” she concludes. “They were all so excited about the experience and them wanting to go ahead with the apps is exactly what we wanted to hear. We’re going to continue to have conversations with them about creating startups and give them all the support and resources they need to make something happen.”