Rutgers HackHERS Hackathon Encourages Women to Get Excited about Coding

Photo: Participants hard at work at the HackHERS Hackathon at Rutgers Photo Credit: Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking
Participants hard at work at the HackHERS Hackathon at Rutgers | Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking

Hackathons organized by university students or faculty have become standard fare at schools across the country. But on Feb. 7-8, three female STEM students at Rutgers ran a hackathon with a twist: HackHERS, which targeted women.

The students — Julie Duncan, Amanda Goonetilleke, and Jasmine Feng — organized the female-focused event in the hope of getting more women and beginners excited about coding.

"[W]omen can be intimidated when they enter an event and the majority of attendees are men," Duncan wrote in an email, "so we tried to change that by organizing the event in a way that would target women."

When it comes to the tech world, it is no secret that the demographic leans heavily toward white males.

Late last year major Silicon Valley companies started publishing "diversity reports," with demographic statistics on their workforces. The numbers only  reinforced the stereotypes: At Yahoo! and Amazon, only 37 percent of the employees are female; at Facebook, 31 percent; at Apple and Google, 30 percent; and at Microsoft, just over 29.1 percent.

A study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh  found that almost 40 percent of woman with engineering degrees either leave or never enter the field. Their reason? The work environment is unfriendly to women.

Based on the number (22) of presentations submitted by women and beginners (of both genders), "I think we reached our goal," Duncan wrote.

In order to make their event idea a reality, the organizers approached Douglass College faculty members Beth Bors and Elaine Zundl for support. Duncan said that neither professor had been to a hackathon before.

 "[W]e tried to make sure they knew what they were getting into," Duncan said. The three student organizers met with the professors multiple times to work out various aspects, such as the venue, talks, activities, and food. After discussing these details, they worked out a budget and sought sponsors, acquiring funds and prizes for the event from AT&T, Verizon, Goldman Sacks, UPS, Bloomberg, TATA Consultancy Services, Colgate Palmolive and Prudential. HackHERS used Major League Hacking’s  platform to run the event.

The closing ceremony took place at Rutgers’ Busch Campus on Sunday, Feb. 8, including roughly 40 bleary-eyed undergraduates who convened in a lecture hall after 24 hours of brainstorming, sketching and coding to demo their creations.

The winners received Dell Venue 8 tablets. Finalist prizes included portable shower speakers, moleskin notebooks, portable chargers and sombreros.

Photo: Winners of the sombreros.
  Photo Credit: Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking
Winners of the sombreros.   | Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking

The first prize (“best overall”) went to Elizabeth Bradley and Marisa Chow, who presented a Chrome Extension to demystify source code and to search and highlight HTML tags on any Web page. It also provides educational links with more information about tags.

There were also prizes for specific categories. The “best overall” winner for beginners went to “Flash Cards,” a math tutorial website that encourages first, second and third graders with positive messages.

Tied for best user interface design were Stephanie Hull’s “Travel Mood,” a website that helps users immerse themselves in the local culture with music and visual information; and  “h2gr0,” a Pebble Smartwatch app that helps users track their water intake with a growing-flower image that shows their progress.

Photo: One of the winning teams at HackHERS, Rutgers. Photo Credit: Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking
One of the winning teams at HackHERS, Rutgers. | Nikolas Rassoules, courtesy of Major League Hacking

The winner for best silly app went to "Am I Left Shark?" by Alyssa Plan and  Constantina Scoullis, an HTML file that allows you to be "Left Shark" from Katy Perry's 2015 Super Bowl Performance.

The winner for best Web application was Rosheen Chaudhry’s "FemInformed," a website where people interested in feminist issues can find links to articles from media outlets aggregated by topic.

Looking back, Duncan said the event served as a learning experience for her and those she worked with. "I learned how to be a better team player. Everyone's ideas count, and it is all of our responsibilities to understand each other, communicate our ideas effectively and help each other reach our goals," she said.

"In my opinion, this event was not led by a specific individual; everyone played an important role in keeping things running smoothly and maximizing our participants' enjoyment.”

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