Jerusalem kids tackle lockdown challenges in ‘corona-hackathon’

PICO Kids works in over 60 schools across Israel’s capital, serving communities with a diverse religious and cultural background with the support of about 100 mentors as well as many volunteers.

One of the participants of the PICOrona Makeathon by PICO Kids (photo credit: PICO KIDS)
One of the participants of the PICOrona Makeathon by PICO Kids
(photo credit: PICO KIDS)
Could the solution for the growing sense of isolation of the elderly during the coronavirus crisis be a visit from their grandchildren in virtual reality? Or perhaps, a portable greenhouse that could be put up in grandma and grandpa's living room so that kids can be there without risking infecting them? And what about an emergency button that automatically opens and connects Zoom? Jerusalemite children who took part in the PICOrona Makeathon on Thursday came up with these ideas and many more.
Modeled after a hackathon, an event that sees the participation of a large number of computer programmers or experts working for a concentrated period of time to tackle one or more specific challenges, the PICOrona Makeathon was organized by Jerusalem-based nonprofit PICO Kids.
Established in 2012 as the social enterprise of Israeli venture capital fund PICO Venture Partners, the group runs programs for schoolchildren of all ages and especially for those in junior-high, focusing on both STEM subjects and soft skills such as public speaking.  
“I founded PICO Kids with the vision that Jerusalem and its children could use better access to 21st century education,” PICO founder Elie Wurtman told The Jerusalem Post. “We believe that creativity is embedded in every child and that we can help them become positive contributors to our society and problem solvers, so that everyone can join the table for a better future.”
The organization works in over 60 schools across Israel’s capital, serving communities with a diverse religious and cultural background with the support of about 100 mentors as well as many volunteers. About 4,000 students have taken part in the activities since its establishment.
“We are the largest privately funded after-school program in the city for STEM education. Participation is totally voluntary: children show up because they want to be there,” Wurtman added.
In March, when it became clear that because of the coronavirus pandemic, the country was on the verge of shutting down, PICO Kids quickly started to think what they could do in light of the national emergency.
Right before the isolation started, the volunteers delivered to 160 children currently part of their programs a box with a science kit and a t-shirt. But it did not stop there.
“We have an amazing team who showed their dedication to the children and the community,” Wurtman highlighted. “We wanted to do something meaningful. With the world and Israel facing the coronavirus, we told ourselves that we could get organized quickly so that our kids could work online in small teams of four each with a mentor to address the new challenges.”
Besides fighting grandparents’ isolation, other challenges presented in the Makeathon included tackling the problem of fake news, promoting indoor physical activity, supporting education outside classrooms, ensuring that everybody in the house can enjoy quiet and privacy in spite of the family being together at home and exploring new ways for entertainment besides for watching TV.
After two weeks of work, ideas to solve the problems ranged from an indoor mini-golf pitch adaptable to different room-sizes to an app to organize each person’s daily schedule from morning to bedtime in order to include all activities, from sports to cooking.
“Working and creating our application was a lot of fun. It has kept me busy in this corona school break and it is nice that we created something that can help grandma and grandpa,” commented Hallel, one of the participants.
“Some kids built a website, others a prototype of the project, others a video. The same thing that happens in our normal activities, the embracing of creativity to solve real world problems, happened here,” Wurtman said. “I was surprised, I did not think we would be able to create the magic online.”
After the children’s final Makeathon projects were submitted on Thursday, everyone is going to be able to check them on the organization’s website and vote for their favorite one.
Also the opportunity to share the work done with friends and families has proven to be another successful aspect of the initiative, because it helped creating a sense of community and of intergenerational connection in a time where social distancing and home confinement have made the necessity for them extremely strong, PICO founder explained.
To foster the sense of community and offer educational experiences, PICO Kids has also launched a “pajama-party” series of lectures every night at 7 p.m., which offers participants the opportunity to learn from one of the group’s mentors about something that they are passionate about. Moreover, some mentors created videos to guide kids through simple scientific experiments that can be carried out at home and are available to the general public.
“The kids might be some of the greatest victims of this period. Childhood is the time of freedom, of the opportunity to explore and engage and be outside and this is just the opposite,” Wurtman  concluded. “I think that this project in some small way has given children a way to engage, be connected and work with friends in a creative collaborative manner.”