Meet Maple Lawn's underground hackers

For Howard Magazine
Beneath the shops of Maple Lawn, there's an underground group of hackers -- and most aren't even 13 yet.

In Maple Lawn, beneath the Pearl Spa, the Smallwood Re/Max team and Ranazul, is an underground group of hackers — but not of the NSA variety, as most of them aren’t even 13 yet.

“I have to warn you, this space isn’t very pretty,” Prasad Karunakaran, a former architect and the Hackground club founder, says as he leads the way to his club’s meeting space.

For the past 11 months, this mostly unfinished basement has served as headquarters for Hackground, the science and technology enrichment club for middle schoolers. Hackground began as an outlet for students with an affinity for science and technology. Although the club has been using the basement space, donated by Maple Lawn developer Greenebaum Enterprises, since last September, Karunakaran has been the unofficial STEM ring leader for nearly five years.

“It started with my children,” he says. “There wasn’t a club at school, so in my basement with their friends we got started with FIRST Lego League [an international robotics competition].”

As time went on his sons’ age differences started to get in the way. “The middle schoolers were fighting with the high schoolers,” says Karunakaran. “It was time for their own club.”

Hackground, boasting 70 kids on six Lego League teams (two of which made it to the statewide competition), meets twice a week for an hour and a half. With the help of mentors and parent volunteers, the club offers diverse programs, including Java programming courses and competitive robotics. New this fall is a curriculum centered on building drones. Past courses have included coding 3-D printers.

“Prasad has done especially well in singling out those kids with a real interest,” says Andy Weyland, whose son, Austin, has taken two courses since the club began last fall. “It really sparked an engineering interest in [Austin].”

Like the fields of science and technology, Hackground is evolving. The way Karunakaran sees it, the current nonprofit model precludes the club from reaching its full potential. Despite having a donated space, Karunakaran absorbs the majority of expenses. Ideally, he hopes to recruit for-profit technology partners to further enrich the program. “Otherwise, I’ll always be dependent on volunteers and I won’t be able to offer the same level of classes over and over,” Karunakaran said. With the current model, “I will always be here in this basement.” 

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