This past Saturday, October 20th, 2018, I had the opportunity to volunteer at an all-girl middle and high school hackathon. This small event was put on by the H.E.R. Academy and partnered with Columbus School for Girls, resulting in the turn out of 11 girls – one 7th grader, six 8th graders, and four 9th graders.
The hackathon went from 10 am until 5 pm, with a break for lunch, and was not a typical hackathon, as it focused on physics concepts with an introduction to Java, where the girls that attended were familiar with Scratch and Python. The day was split up into many sections: the first being a ‘Hello World!’ exercise and focused on a ‘Move the Blob’ program. The second was an extension of the ‘Move the Blob’ program, which was now an ‘Accelerate the Blob’ exercise. Next, guest speaker Rachel Ferst talked to the girls about what it meant to be a women in the tech industry, primarily in the competitive environment of Silicon Valley, and choosing where she wanted to live, then finding a job.
The next task for the girls to complete was a project of their choosing – either ‘Pong’ and ‘bonk.io’, ‘Planetoids’, or ‘Estimation of Pi’. After doing so, they split off into pairs and had an hour to work on a new project, or an advancement of an existing project. After this, the girls gathered for a ‘Family Feud’ themed cyber-security game, where they learned the importance of safety on the internet and social media.
Finally, each team presented their projects, and the rest of the group voted based on three categories: creativity, sophistication/difficulty of code, and originality. The teams that were awarded the most points in each category received a prize, and everyone got a t-shirt. All of the different projects were unique and creative that these girls created in an hour. When I was 13, I could not imagine coding something – anything, for that matter, but these girls were so smart and curious and capable and made the effort to put themselves out there, knowing that it was okay to fail. Many of the pairs decided to implement their projects in a language they already were familiar with – Scratch, Python, etc. However, one of the pairs challenged themselves to use their newly-found Java skills. Their end product ended up not working, but the fact that they tried something new and explored a concept was very impressive.
My job as a volunteer was to help coordinate these activities, making a smooth transition between them, and also to help explain concepts to the girls if they got stuck on part of a problem. The fact that there were fewer than 15 attendees made it so that there was a lot of one-on-one help for issues that arose, and a lot of flexibility since it was the nonprofit’s first ever configuration of an event like this.
It was heartwarming and very gratifying to see the girls so interested and motivated to succeed with a brand new language. I overheard them discussing the creative different ideas that they had for the project they would build themselves – hearing them get so excited over computer science really made me feel like I was making a difference and further reinstated my beliefs that it is important to spark tech interest in young people.
This event was so important to me because it was the first event that I have helped organize for HER Academy, and I could not have asked for better results. I learned a lot in the process of how to run a successful event, as well as the level at which young girls are at in computer science.
In the future, I hope to help plan more events like this with even bigger turnouts, so that the organization can reach as many young girls as possible. The planning of other hackathons is in the works, so I’m excited to see how those turn out and to make an even larger impact on my community.