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Girls Coding: The International Women's Hackathon

on 21.10.2015 22:09
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Monday, April 28, 2014 by Lisa C. Kaczmarczyk ‚Äč

This past weekend I had the privilege to attend the International Women's Hackathon, held simultaneously at  50 universities around the world with approximately 2500 young women taking part. The San Diego regional contingent was held at California State University - San Marcos. Approximately 70 high school and college


students registered and then arrived from all over the region. My informal poll recorded 6 colleges and universities and 6 high schools. One set of students came up on a bus from close to 100 miles away and two high school students came all the way from Tijuana, Mexico. Many sleep loving students must have risen and hit the road well before dawn to arrive for the 8am check-in. 

During the welcoming and introductory portion of the morning some interesting information came out. For example, when asked, not one of the participants had heard of The Hour of Code. I was somewhat suprised, because here we had 70 girls who are interested in coding, yet none of the massive celebrity laden publicity had reached any of them.

Here is another interesting piece of information: only 2 students raised their hands to say they had participated in a hackathon before. I was intrigued. So later, I asked around about this. Some girls told me they had never heard of hackathons; one told me she had no idea what one was, thinking perhaps it was an opportunity to hack into computers - apparently one of her parents cleared things up on the drive over. Perhaps most telling, one 16 year old told me 

"if it [the hackathon] was both genders most of the women would not have showed up".

Considering that, though officially open to everyone, most hackathons are attended primarily by males, this may have been the most important response to my question. One worth thinking about by everyone who wants to make a positive difference for women in computing.
  
The range of prior computing experience on Saturday was huge. Some students had never coded at all and some, within a few minutes of gathering into their teams, were talking about appropriate uses of recursion 
and how different class hierarchies functioned. Some participants had formed teams in advance and others were helped to form compatible groups first thing in the morning. No one was left out. 

I trotted around, trying to pop in on every group of students (13 in all) several times during the course of the day. It was amazing to observe how events unfolded, the students' skills and confidence evolving and growing in tandem.  

For example, the first group I dropped in on, at about 9am, was a high school team with zero coding experience. They were clearly nervous and unsure how to get going (in case you worry they were completely on their own, 16 adult mentors circulated around all day, but were not allowed on the keyboard). These team members didn't know each other ahead of time. None of them had taken a computing class, none of them had plans to study Computer Science or a related field. So why were these girls there? One wanted to run her own business some day and thought it would be useful to know something about coding; one had taught herself about robotics from watching YouTube videos and had then joined a robotics club; one didn't know what a hackathon was but thought it sounded interesting. Interesting sounding enough to give up her entire Saturday. Talk about a motivated trio!

By 4pm, when I revisited them, this team was seated in the lab, each on her own computer, writing html code 
and confidently talking back and forth about how to integrate their individual web pages onto one site about  encouraging more women to go into STEM.  

At the other end of the prior experience spectrum was a team of college women, who told me they 
were 4 of only 12 females in a department of 500 Computer Science majors. How did they know? There were so few of them that they all knew each other; on the rare occasion when they saw they weren't the only woman in class they immediately gravitated across the lecture hall to meet their compatriot. This foursome was incredibly enthusiastic about the hackathon, and within less than 8 hours had created a complex web platform that blew even the judges away.

In chatting with them earlier in the day, one of the things these women told me was that they felt it was very important to to get the word out that women in Computer Science are intelligent, social, have a wide variety of interests, are attractive, have a fashion sense, and are equally as competent as all the guys (and a few other things I didn't write down fast enough). They were also one of several groups who told me they wanted to change the world.

As I circulated between PC labs and the Mac lab, up and down the hallways, I  was impressed with the nearly universal lack of overt competitiveness within groups or of jockeying for leadership position. Cooperation was the name of the game. Often, as I sat off to the side for extended periods of time, I observed an amazing dynamic in which these young women worked together, discussing ideas, deferring to one another, trying to bring others along when they had 
questions, dividing tasks based upon interests and experience. This is not to say the groups were unambitious; definitely not. They aimed high, worked incredibly hard and, once they had settled on a mutually agreeable plan, they focused, focused, focused on developing the best possible contest entry. Everyone had a part to play. Yet even then, the focus was on building the best app or web page or game to solve the task - I didn't hear anyone worrying aloud about what the other groups might be doing.

The day was incredibly inspiring. So many of these young women taught themselves to use platforms they had never heard of before. So many of them produced incredible results. They were energetic and enthusiastic and fun to be around. In fact, having watched all of the presentations made to the judges, I can confidently say that all of the hackathon participants were amazing. Every team had something concrete and unique to show for their efforts. 

We need more events like this. Lots more. And follow up to keep the ball rolling after the day ends. Lots of follow up activities to hold the excitement and enthusiasm and continue the unique dynamic that girls and women clearly bring to Computer Science.