Smith’s First Hackathon Aims to Close Gender Gap in Computer Programming

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Veronica Brown '17

Associate Editor

Smithies in CS, a campus organization dedicated to the promotion of computer science, recently hosted its first annual hackathon, Hack@Smith: Closing the Gender G(app). Julia Edwards ’15, founder of Smithies in CS and organizer of the event, answered a few questions about the experience:

Could you give me an overview of the event?

Hack@Smith: Closing the Gender G(app) was Smith College’s first-ever hackathon.  Sponsored by Smith’s new Computer Science club, Smithies in CS, the goal of the event was to support women in computer science and encourage women to learn how to program. Students from schools all over the East Coast arrived on campus on March 28 for 24 hours of creative coding. 88 percent of our attendees were women, which is far above the national average for college hackathons. Several students had never programmed before, and these first-time coders used Hack@Smith as an opportunity to learn how to write their very first programs using the first time coder guide, written by two members of the Hack@Smith committee for the event. The winning project was a virtual reality program that used the Oculus Rift to transport people to beautiful places all over the world. Overall, the atmosphere at the event was fun, relaxed and supportive, and everyone had a really awesome time.

What inspired you to host this event?

Karen Chau, the events chair of Smithies in CS and one of next year’s organizers, listed “hosting Smith’s first hackathon” as her big goal for this year. Before that, I hadn’t really considered trying to do something as big as hosting a hackathon, considering that we are such a young club. Smithies in CS is just over a year old now. Her ambition really impressed me and made me think about what might be possible. When she went abroad, I spoke with her, and we decided that I could take on the organizer role so that Hack@Smith could happen before I graduate.

Why are hackathons important to the women’s college environment?

They provide a unique space for programmers to work collaboratively and channel their creativity in productive ways. The hackathon environment is really inspiring — people are working side-by-side, making amazing apps and programs, and the productive energy is contagious. But oftentimes, like in the tech industry, these hackathons are male-dominated, which can be intimidating, discouraging and downright unappealing to women hackers. So we thought, as a women’s college and as a club that is devoted to increasing the number of women in computer science, it would be a perfect opportunity to challenge the status quo of hackathon culture. We decided to throw “a hack to close the gender gap” to show that women are both welcome and vital members of the hacker and computer science community.

What did President McCartney address in her speech at the event?

She spoke to the fact that the gender gap in tech is a real issue today, and we have actually gone backwards in terms of gender equality progress since the 1980s. She said that we need to get more women, especially Smith women, pursuing computer science and becoming code-literate. At Smith, over 40% of our students are STEM majors, so we definitely could turn Smith into a key producer of women computer scientists and a key contributor to closing the gender gap in the tech industry.

What do you feel like you learned from the event?

The biggest thing I learned from Hack@Smith is how capable my Smith peers are at programming. The first-time coders absolutely blew me away, and the students who competed for hackathon prizes amazed me with their creativity, skill and general awesomeness. They were so fun to hang out with all weekend, and I hope to come back next year as both an alumna mentor and as a representative of my future company, Box. I also experienced just how much Smith alums love staying connected to campus and helping current students out in big ways. We had four incredible alums come up to mentor at the event, and two even stayed overnight in the venue. They were vital in helping our hackers, and they added so much to the experience because of their great attitudes, intelligence and generosity.