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Hackathon Inspires Young Women to Try Coding

By David Ogul

Tala Ilaian has been able to draw since she first picked up a pencil. A master of anime, the CSUSM freshman has posted tutorials on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter and has sold several of her colorful prints online.

So when friend and fellow freshman Zena Nuhaily asked Tala to take part with her in the International Women’s Hackathon—an October 11 computer programming competition aimed at encouraging young women to pursue computer science careers—Talia wasn’t sure what to think.

“I had never done anything like that before,” she said of the all-day event at the Cal State San Marcos campus. “I was just there to have fun. But we ended up winning the competition and now it’s inspired me to maybe do some programming or software engineering. It’s made me more confident in working with computers, that’s for sure.”

Being crowned Hackathon champions gave Tala, Zena and the third member of their team, Raffdazzel John, two months to refine their project—a video game dubbed “Ice Hoppers,” aimed at educating young players about the challenges of climate change—before submitting it to Microsoft Research to be showcased with winners from other Hackathon events.

Their win illustrates exactly what Hackathon organizers are on a mission to prove: computer science isn’t just for nerds, and girls can do anything at least as well as their male counterparts.

“These are three girls, two of them art majors, who took top honors,” said Dr. Youwen Ouyang, a professor in the CSUSM Computer Science and Information Systems Department who helped organize the competition on campus. “That carries a powerful message that excelling in computer sciences for girls is something that is attainable, and you don’t have to be geeky to do it.”

Zena, the only member of the team they dubbed the `PC Gang’ who is studying computer science at CSUSM, agreed: “I think the Hackathon will have a large impact for women not necessarily just to enter computer science, but more so it will encourage women to incorporate programming and high-level problem-solving skills in any other field of study they may choose. As for me, the Hackathon was very encouraging since I came in with little experience and no idea what to expect, but now I am inspired to further my studies in computer science.”

In fact, the event has inspired several students to help launch an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Women in Engineering chapter at CSUSM.

Empowering Young Women to Code

The International Women’s Hackathon is a network of concurrent events designed to empower young women leaders in computer science, says Microsoft Research, which developed the idea. “By providing a fun and safe environment in which to explore computing, the Hackathon encourages and supports 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 of 2014. The recent October competition brought together 58 students from 20 high schools and colleges to work in teams to create—within eight hours—a website, app or video game tackling the issue of climate change or disaster response. Some 20 mentors, most of whom are computer science professionals, were on hand to help guide the contestants, who also had access to computer-programming tutorials such as Scratch.

Ten students from CSUSM participated. Michelle Salem and Remington Rimple worked with two high school students who won the Originality & Impact Award for the Climate Change Challenge. Elani Labo, Sara Adra, Brittany Dibble, Eik Hallgrimsdottir and Quincy Sharp worked with a team that won the User Experience & Functionality and Originality & Impact awards for the Natural Disaster Challenge.

PC Gang took the overall award in the Climate Change Challenge. Members of the team said their lack of computer programming experience actually provided an advantage.

“We had a wide range of backgrounds and a lot of artistic background, and I think that helped us come at the competition from another perspective,” Zena said.

“The International Hackathon isn’t only for women interested in the field of computer science,” said Talia. “It allows for a wide variety of women with different interests. There's a lot of freedom to include what you love. I thought you had to be really knowledgeable about this specific field in order to be successful, but the Hackathon made me realize that being creative also plays a big role.”