San Marcos,
13:03 PM

Young Women Use Code to Solve Real-World Problems

By Christine Vaughan

More than 65 young women took on the challenge of solving real-world problems through computer coding at the third semiannual Women’s Hackathon, a CSUSM-sponsored competition aimed at encouraging women to pursue computer science careers. The event, held on April 25, brought together high school and college students from 17 schools and colleges to design and develop websites and mobile applications that spark awareness and change consumer behavior.

Working in student teams, hackers had just eight hours to build their prototypes before presenting their projects to a panel of five judges from prominent tech companies in the region. Student projects focused on issues of water conservation and bone health.

A departure from the stereotype of a lone programmer, the Hackathon emphasizes a learn-collaborate-create approach to computer programming that stresses the importance of collective problem solving and teamwork. Skill levels run the gamut from computer science undergraduates to novice programmers learning code for the first time.

“Students learn from each other and from their mentors as they work together to identify project scopes and create solutions for real-world problems,” said Dr. Youwen Ouyang, professor of Computer Science and Information Systems, who organizes the semiannual competition on campus. “Several of our students have programmed alone in the past, but at the Hackathon, this is their first time collaborating on a programming project.”

Team Code Ninjas, comprised of six students from MiraCosta College, designed an android app called Calcium Catcher, where skeleton gamers devour calcium-rich foods and avoid calcium-depleting foods to earn points and advance to the next level. High schoolers from Martin Luther King created MyAgua, a computer game that challenges players to balance five household tasks like flushing a toilet or watering the garden before running out of daily water allowances.

Inspired by Microsoft Research, the Hackathon "provides a fun and safe environment in which to explore computing, and encourage and support university women around the world to become producers of future innovations in technology and help solve challenges in the world today.”

Ouyang brought the first Hackathon to CSUSM in April 2014 as part of Microsoft Research's International Women’s Hackathon, a network of concurrent competitions that take place annually at university campuses across the globe. Since then, and with the support of the top technology companies in the region, the Women's Hackathon at CSUSM has empowered nearly 200 young women to design and develop software applications that address real issues from climate change to emergency responses during a natural disaster.

Exposing More Women to STEM

Open to young women 16 and older and provided at no cost to the registrants, the Hackathon is designed to introduce more women to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as the STEM discipline. Of the 1.4 million computing jobs expected by 2018, it is estimated that only 29 percent of those positions will be filled by women. Hackathon organizers and supporters hope to change that statistic.

“Few high schools in California offer computer science in its curriculum – and when they do, few girls take such classes,” explained Ouyang. “As a result, many young women do not know what computer science entails or how it offers exciting interdisciplinary opportunities. Studies have shown that women are attracted to careers that have human impact yet computing had long been depicted as isolated work. Through the Hackathon challenges, students were able to see how knowledge and solutions in STEM have a direct impact on our lives.”

CompTIA couldn’t agree more – which is why the nonprofit global trade association generously donated $5,000 for the Hackathon. As a provider of professional certifications for the IT industry, CompTIA is committed to seeing more underrepresented populations pursue STEM careers.

"Information technology remains one of our fastest growing industries, but we're struggling to fill the demand for workers," said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. "In the first quarter of 2015 employers posted more than 850,000 IT job openings. Expanding and diversifying the IT workforce is a high priority for CompTIA and our member companies. That's why we're pleased to support the Women’s Hackathon at CSUSM. It's programs like this that are building awareness about technology as a career option and preparing the next generation of tech entrepreneurs."

With three competitions now under their belts, Ouyang and her team hope to expand the Hackathon and enable students to further develop their prototypes into formal applications with sponsorship support.

For more information on the next Hackathon at CSUSM or to view the winning student projects, visit