The third floor of the Pittsburgh Project buzzes with excited energy. In the art room, middle school students hack ugly sweaters to create a holiday quilt, complete with loud plaids and glittery buttons. Around 4pm, they migrate down the hall to the computer room, settling in for a session with the Remake Learning Digital Corps.

“Ok, who has heard of the New York Times,” asks mentor Erin Oldynski. Chanele Williams, who is almost 12, whispers that she has not. Nobody in the class reads the Times.

“We get our news from Channel 11,” they laugh.

Erin is unphased. “Well today, we’re going to hack the New York Times website and create our own news.”

The previous week, the students used their new coding skills and some Hummingbird kits to design robots from cardboard. Erin and fellow mentor Shani Banerjee challenged the students to create a moving robot by the end of class.

Chanele took initiative, asked questions, and quietly built a cart that rolled across the table to win the challenge. Her friends built “Karate Chop Joe,” whose arm movements demonstrated the function of their servomotor, and took him for a ride in Chanele’s cart. As he chopped across the table, Chanele thought about how she could put headlights on her robot for next time.

The sixth grader at Allegheny Traditional Academy finds digital literacy projects interesting. When her math teacher brought in a similar project for the class to work on, Chanele embraced the chance to demonstrate her skill set. “My teacher wasn’t sure how to set it up,” she says, “So I showed her how to plug in the wires and use the motors.”

Photo: Ben FilioErin and Shani have developed today’s hacking exercise as a preamble to web design. The students used webmaker.org’s X-Ray Goggles tool to examine the code blocks on the Times’ website and create their own headlines or images.

Most of the students choose silly fake headlines. “Amoni Eats 1,200 Bricks in Record Time,” types one student, referring to her neighbor, while another student has dead celebrities returning as zombies. Chanele writes a headline about her upcoming 12th birthday and scours the Internet for the perfect rainbow birthday cake. Highlighting the code she needs to replace the existing, boring image of a woman crossing the street, Chanele sticks a giant slice of cake on her hacked website.

To introduce the students to javascript, Erin and Shani demonstrate a program called Hey French Toast!, where they could replace all the images on a website with pictures of French Toast. As students become more familiar with the code, they soon replace all the images on the Times page with pictures of French toast.

Chanele, who likes French toast but not as much as birthday cake, continues the exercise by filling her Facebook profile with pictures of the breakfast treat. As the Digital Corps sessions continue, the students progress to creating their own websites, where they now know they can code anything from pastries to the zombie apocalypse.