Meet the 16-year olds who brought the NASA Space Apps hackathon to Jordan

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Rasha Khateeb and Maram Abu Hussein
The pilots of NASA Space Apps Amman: Rasha Khateeb (left) and Maram Abu Hussein (right). (Images via Sam Wendel)

The countdown to Jordan’s very first NASA Space Apps Challenge began last summer when Rasha Khateeb and Maram Abu Hussein visited Washington, DC.

The pair had became interested in tech and coding languages at a young age, which eventually led them to participate in TechGirls, a summer exchange program between the US and the Middle East, organized by the US Department of State.

It was there that Khateeb and Abu Hussein were introduced to a NASA strategist who told them about the NASA Space Apps Challenge, a 48-hour hackathon that takes place in cities across the world - including several in MENA - where teams are tasked with producing innovative solutions for global challenges.

“When the strategist started talking, we were sitting next to each other, so we were like ‘why don’t we have this in Jordan?’” Abu Hussein told Wamda.

A first

After returning to Jordan in November 2015, Abu Hussein and Khateeb applied to host a NASA Space Challenge in Amman and were accepted. At the end of March Cairo saw their version of the competition.

To help fund the hackathon, they applied for a $3,000 grant from the US Embassy in Jordan, which was approved in March. They then got Zain Jordan to sponsor and host the event at the Zain Innovation Campus (ZINC) from April 21-23. 

A team pitches its creation to competition judges.
A team pitches its creation to competition judges.

The young innovators did this all as 16-year old high schools students.

Hackathons and startup competitions are a regular occurrence in Jordan and MENA and constitute an important way to foster tech innovation, create an inclusive community, and drum up excitement about entrepreneurship. Known industry players, including universities, telecoms, and incubators, often organize events such events.

That’s what has made Jordan’s first NASA Space Apps Challenge unique: it was conceived, planned and successfully hosted entirely by two individuals who weren’t even old enough to legally drive themselves to their own event.

“People around us are like ‘you’re 16, you can’t do such a thing,’” said Abu Hussein. “And we’re like, ‘no, we can.’”

And they did.

The US Embassy in Amman provided some operational assistance to the pair, but Khateeb and Abu Hussein were the driving force behind the hackathon - and, according to one of the event’s judges, this should be celebrated.

As executive director of the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship, Abdelraheem Abual Basal is an integral member of Jordan’s entrepreneurship scene, routinely attending events as a mentor and competition judge - as he was at the NASA Space Apps Amman hackathon.

“It’s great to see that at a young age people think at this level,” says Abual Basal.

According to its website, NASA prefers that hackathon hosts be attached to an organization or university. Khateeb and Abu Hussein are neither—but on the power of their extracurricular activities and their sheer interest in tech, they received NASA’s blessing anyways.

But they don’t plan on stopping there. Khateeb wants to study computer science in the United States and eventually work in programming. Abu Hussein is considering studying IT or medicine.

Winners and participants gather.
Winners and participants gather. (Image via NASA Space Apps Challenge)

In the meantime, they’re keeping busy by becoming active members of Jordan’s tech ecosystem.

“We’re hoping to inspire others to be entrepreneurs and help the community,” says Khateeb. “For example, we have so many doctors and engineers in this country, but what we need are entrepreneurs to create new projects and we need more events to help them do that.”

Launching NASA Space Apps in Amman

In the months leading up to the hackathon, Khateeb and Abu Hussein met every day after school to organize the event. The hardest part, they say, was selecting participants from the pool of applicants.

“When people hear the word ‘NASA’ everyone is interested,” said Abu Hussein. “Many, many people applied, and we only have space for 50.”

They were also responsible for finding mentors and judges to guide the event. This is where the local chapter of TechWomen, a tech mentorship program that, like TechGirls, is organized by the US Department of State, helped out, allowing the pair to tap into their extensive network to find candidates.

With the participants selected, judges and mentors found, and sponsorship and venue secured, Khateeb and Abu Hussein were ready to see the plan they hatched last summer play out.

Amman’s Space App winners

Amman’s first NASA hackathon attracted competitors of all ages, including students, entrepreneurs, developers, programmers, and more. In particular, the Eureka Tech Academy, a local organization that provides specialized tech education for youth, rallied a strong contingent of participants.

Teams produced everything from mobile apps to remote-operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), but the rules dictated that only three teams could walk away with trophies.

Ahmad Husam

First place went to Dronex, (right, image via Ahmad Husam) an app that enables small drone operators to discover specific weather conditions, local terrain and no-fly zones within a five-mile radius of their GPS location.

Second place went to Space Recycle Origami, a design and modeling concept intended to package space mission components in a way that minimizes their stowage volume while on a spacecraft.

Third place went to Reality Freaks, which developed a video game that simulates emergency survival situations for astronauts on the planet Mars.

The winning projects are now entered into a global competition that will be judged by NASA representatives.

To next year and beyond

Amman’s first NASA Space Apps Challenge may have just ended, but Abu Hussein and Khateeb are already planning to bring the hackathon back next year and want to make it bigger and better.

The pair intends to expand the event to include participants from outside Jordan by inviting people from Palestine and beyond.

“We want to be part of the regional scene and the community,” Abu Hussein told Wamda.

Not bad for a pair of 16-year olds. As Abu Hussein said: “age is just a number.”

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