Hackathon goes virtual amid coronavirus outbreak, finds new ways to connect students.
A good hackathon has a few crucial elements: a contagious atmosphere full of energy and fast-flowing ideas, a loud hacking area with hundreds of charging cables crisscrossing across the room, free snacks and swag items, and pizza. On Saturday, April 25, however, none of those things were part of the online hackathon that over 50 girls, ages 13-18 attended.
Instead, they joined the Zoom hacking room from all over the country, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Illinois, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia, Texas, and even California. Despite lacking the typical hackathon ingredients, students were motivated throughout the day to code.
The virtual nature of the event allowed peers from across states to work together remotely, putting a unique spin on the traditional hackathon. Approximately 20% of the girls were completely new to coding, 60% had only basic coding knowledge, having taken a couple of computer science classes in school, and 20% knew at least one coding language well or were more experienced coders.
The hackathon was run by MetroHacks, a technology education nonprofit, founded in 2015. “Our goal is to empower and inspire students with practical computer science education and opportunities,” says Shrunothra Ambati, Co-Founder and Chair of the Board.
In the past five years, MetroHacks has conducted ten large hackathons all across the country, gathering between 100 and 300 students together to create technological solutions to issues in the health, environmental, and social sectors.
This virtual women’s hackathon, however, was the first of its kind. The participants of this event sought to “hack” the Covid-19 pandemic by finding solutions for challenges that emerged alongside the crisis.
Students who attended Metrohacks Women Virtual acquired a deeper understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, learned about various technologies through several webinar workshops, and were able to collaborate and create projects with team members across the country.
Through running hackathons such as this, Metrohacks hopes to motivate more young women to pursue STEM fields and take their own creative ideas to the next level.
To inspire the creation of innovative solutions, workshops such as “Machine Learning in Medicine,” “Will Biotech Save the World? The Applications of Biotechnology,” “Am I Hacking the Right Thing, or Hacking the Thing Right,” “The Principles of Python, AI, and Medicine,” and “Data Analytics with Power BI” were held throughout the day on Zoom for students to attend.
Speakers included Dr. Francine Berman, the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor in Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who shed light on the role of digital technologies and privacy in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sue Cadiuex, Director of IT and Enterprise Architecture at Eversource Energy, who spoke about the challenges of mobilizing thousands of employees to work from home to continue providing power to millions of customers, and Ms. Amy Grace, a fellow of Applied Data Science at Collins Aerospace, who explored the data renaissance in the Aerospace field.
READ: A bottom-up approach to develop women tech leaders (September 29, 2019)
During the hackathon, Microsoft, a partner of the event, had several employees volunteer their time to guide teams through their coding projects. After 6+ hours of hacking, the teams, tasked with forming a solution to an area affected by the coronavirus, presented their solution through a 4-minute video submission to a panel of judges; prizes were awarded to the top 3 teams.
Final selected projects included a yoga app using machine-learning to correct posture and a Snapchat inspired workout app using groups. The winning team of the hackathon, CovidCheck, created a website that analyzed news sources to provide users with only the most credible information, by using a creative filtering system.
Ella Hough, from Texas, said, “This was an incredible experience and so special to hear from all the speakers!” MetroHacks hopes to conduct more of these virtual events during this time. The MetroHacks Virtual Directors who organized the wide-reaching event were high school students Amy Wang, Emma Ruccio, Jillian Krasusky, Julia Gardow, Kyra Donohue and Yubin Park.