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Hackathon teaches students innovative problem-solving skills

John Avery (standing with hands on his hips), project manager, Supplier Performance, was one of the AABE members who worked with teams from W.J. Christian School to come up with solutions to energy efficiency challenges.

More than 100 Birmingham middle schoolers offered their solutions to some difficult energy problems during a Hackathon this month at the Energy Center. The event was sponsored by the Birmingham chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE).

Seventh graders from W.J. Christian School were divided into teams, then worked with two AABE members to develop answers to challenges or problems in areas such as energy efficiency, smart neighborhoods and electric vehicles.

The students had an hour and a half to brainstorm, research their ideas and put together a presentation. A panel of judges then selected a winner based on the solution and the process of arriving at that solution.

“My team had to come up with energy efficiency ideas for 30 low-income homes,” explains Anntwinette Ragland, senior engineer, Fleet Equipment Reliability, and one of the SNC employees modeling high standards to the students. “Initially, they said, ‘We don’t have the answers, we can’t get this done.’

“But we encouraged them not to give up,” she continues. “They learned that even if something looks impossible, if you work together as a team, you can come up with a solution. And some of their ideas were pretty good. I was impressed.”

“The Hackathon helped train the students in critical thinking,” says Phillip Coffey, chairman of the education and scholarship committee of the AABE Birmingham chapter, and a market specialist in Alabama Power’s Birmingham Division.

“That automatically broadens and increases their options for the future because these skills are transferable to any area of the students’ lives. The skills are going to go with them, not only through school, but on their jobs and in their personal lives.”

Ragland said the students weren’t the only ones who were affected by the event. “I went to W.J. Christian, and I was very proud of my school. It was encouraging to me to see the kids’ abilities.”

“Since this was the Birmingham chapter’s first Hackathon, we weren’t sure how it would turn out. But the students were very engaged. It was a great experience.”

Editor’s note: Click here to watch a video from Alabama Power’s NewsCenter about the event. For more information about the AABE, visit

Hackathon Volunteers ( Left to right) April Sibley, Alabama Power employee; Glenda Thomas, manager of Supplier Diversity and president of the Birmingham chapter of AABE; and Anntwinette Ragland, senior engineer, Fleet Equipment Reliability, all volunteered at the Hackathon