Tuesday, April 16, 2019

HackXX 2019: code – the future of women in STEM

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

Students swing into gear an hour into the hackathon.
Photos by Xochitl Rojas-Rocha
On Saturday, April 6th, young coders from universities across southern California gathered for the third annual HackXX, a 24-hour, women-centric hackathon at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. HackXX has doubled in size each year since its inaugural event in 2017. This year, more than 200 students bundled themselves into the university’s Price Center, clustered around their laptops, and got to work.

Striving for Change

Jiazhen Rong, a fourth-year bioengineering and biotechnology student, said that while no one ever actively discouraged her from pursuing computer science, the way the field was portrayed left her with the impression that coding was “for boys.” That lack of representation took its toll, at least for a while; Rong didn’t explore programming until her junior year in college.

At HackXX, she has sensed none of that former pressure. “I really feel like this event values women,” she said. She and her two teammates, Haihao Sun and Sid Limaye, created an application that allows the user to combine an original photo file with a famous art piece for a fun, new image. Their idea, they said, was to build on what Snapchat achieves with simple filters.

Rong’s teammates, Sun and Limaye, were two of many young men who participated in the hackathon. The event is open to students of all gender identities, backgrounds and disciplines. Attendees traveled from multiple universities throughout California, some with project ideas and teams, some without. The only requirement was that they treat their fellow coders with respect.

“The goal of TESC is to empower engineering students to grow and succeed throughout their college lives and careers. We constantly seek new opportunities and ways to achieve that goal, and celebrating womxn in STEM at HackXX fits perfectly with our mission,” said Colin Feeney, president of UC San Diego’s Triton Engineering Student Council (TESC). TESC hosted the 2019 HackXX.

C: \>code -- The History and Future of Women in STEM

Students present their project, "Safehouse," to the judges.
After what was literally a sleepless night for some, the hackers had their projects judged according to general performance and presentation. In first place were cognitive science freshman Yana Pyryalina (UC San Diego) and computer science senior Sara Kazemi (CSU Monterey Bay), with a project called “The Callout.” The two coders designed a virtual reality simulation to train and prepare women to respond to misogynistic microaggressions in the work place. In one simulation, a male supervisor encouraged the viewer to “wear [her] hair down” and “wear something tight” for an upcoming meeting with potential investors. The simulation then offered the viewer a series of responses, all focused on drawing the supervisor’s attention to how his comments made his employee feel.

In second place, a team of coders created a role-playing game called “Maze Rescue.” With cute, Undertale-esque graphics, the game challenges the player to save their friend, a female researcher who has been kidnapped, along with her work, by a mad scientist. The player must solve a maze filled with trivia questions on notable women in STEM to save their friend.

The third place winner was “Safehouse,” an application that sends out a call for assistance when a woman feels like she’s in an unsafe situation. The application is volunteer-based, with the team sending out requests for people to sign their homes or apartments up as “safehouses” where a woman can take shelter until help arrives. The team was inspired by UC San Diego’s safety escort system, which calls a Community Service Officer (CSO) to a student’s location from sunset to 4:00 a.m. daily if they feel unsafe.

HackXX sponsor Northrop Grumman challenged students to find a
way to program a small robot car and successfully remove a hair tie
 from its stand without knocking the stand over, and transport
it through a maze.
While not every team placed, others did reach the final round of judging or took home awards from HackXX sponsors such as Northrop Grumman and iTradeNetwork. One such team won “Best Women in Hack” for devising an application that helps pregnant women identify foods that they can eat, and assists them in planning meals in advance. Another finalist team created a virtual reality simulation of a women’s history museum. By using the virtual reality headset to interact with different exhibits, a visitor can travel to the moon to learn about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, or transport to the cockpit of aviator Amelia Earhart to listen to a recording describing her life and achievements.

For HackXX co-directors Alice Lee, a fourth-year cognitive science student, and Bilguun Bulgan, a graduating computer science student, that moment was more than half a year in the making.

“It’s been really rewarding to see everything come to life, and to see how involved all of our team members are,” said Lee. Some students, she said, see hackathons as just a way to connect with corporations and find a job. With HackXX, it’s different. “Everyone on this team actually cares about what HackXX stands for, and I thought that was really cool.”

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