Twelve hours. Sixty students. Eight challenges.
On Jan. 17, Technovation club hosted MVHS’ first hackathon, MV Hacks, to test students’ problem solving skills and to foster an interest in technology among students. Open to both seasoned programmers and novices, the hackathon presented a series of programming challenges from its sponsors and asked participants to solve them.
The hackathon particularly targeted girls — a minority in the area of technology — who may have felt reluctant to participate in hackathons due to the gender discrepancy.
“We thought that having a hackathon at school would help with [our goal of increasing women’s participation in technology] because if you just go to [an outside] hackathon and you don’t know very much, most guys are reluctant to work on a team with you, just because of the stereotypes,” Technovation President Nupur Banerjee said.
In order to make the hackathon accessible to students with little coding experience Technovation also held a half-day training session the day before the hackathon to teach students the basics of coding.
“It’s wonderful,” AP Computer Science teacher Scott Deruiter said. “Students who don’t have any interest or don’t have any background can check it out, and students who have taken years [to study coding], have taken classes at De Anza [College] or they’ve gone to even larger hackathons can still participate.”
Technovation is an exclusively female club that teaches girls programming and business skills, preparing members to compete in regional and national Technovation competitions. The club began four years ago, and since then, it has held after-school programming sessions, as well as weekly coding lessons.
In June 2014, Technovation Business Lead senior Ruta Joshi introduced the idea of organizing a hackathon to the club’s officer team. Usually, hackathons are twenty-four hour coding marathons for college students and professionals, and Joshi wanted to bring that experience to MVHS, as a way to foster interest in entrepreneurship, creativity and technology.
According to Banerjee, the officers supported Joshi’s idea because it would help further Technovation’s goal of sparking girl’s interest in coding. After gaining the Technovation officers’ support, Joshi reached out to JAVA teachers David Greenstein and Debbie Frazier,who would act as advisors during the planning process. According to Frazier, she and Greenstein helped make Joshi’s idea more practical.
“We tried to add that dose of realism,” Frazier said. “I don’t think they saw how hard it was to feed that many people, or manage alarm codes, locked doors and supervision … We tried to get them to do something much more reasonable, so they could have a really positive experience doing this.”
At first, Joshi and the Technovation officers planned a twenty-four hour hackathon that would host around 1000 people from all schools in the FUHSD district. Frazier and Greenstein, however, encouraged them to start small and expand the event in later years, knowing how difficult it would be to arrange the event.
According to Technovation co-Vice President senior Sowji Akshintala, organizing the hackathon was a learning experience for all of the officers. During the process, they faced sponsors who withdrew planned donations, the dilemma of where to hold the event and Wi-Fi problems on the day of the hackathon. Despite this difficulty, Technovation eventually landed a venue, secured five guest speakers and acquired over 100 registrations for the event.
The club promoted the event by telling members about it, as well as reaching out to other clubs with similar interests, such as CSS club and JAVA club. Some students, like sophomore Ofek Gila, heard about the event through their AP Computer Science or JAVA teachers who promoted the event in their classes, while others discovered the event from their friends. Banerjee, however, notes that the club did not focus primarily on marketing the event.
“Our goal was to get 100 people to actually show up and we sold over 100 tickets,” Banerjee said. “We figured that was a good amount, so we didn’t need as much promotion as we initially thought.”
According to Deruiter, the ratio of girls to boys in his computer science classes is around one to three. He and Banerjee see the hackathon as an opportunity to get girls interested in computer science and hackathons.
“Generally if you go to a hackathon, there are very few girls, so that’s something we want to change,” Banerjee said.
Outside of hackathons, a gender discrepancy still persists in technology-related areas. Sophomore Surabhi Gupta was one of five girls in her JAVA class of forty students last year, and sophomore Oeishi Banerjee notes that she is one of only about five girls on the Robotics team. Both appreciate the gender diversity that the hackathon had — which was around 50 percent for each gender.
“It was surprising to me that out of so many people who showed up, women actually came too,” Gupta said. “It was surprising to see girls who are actually interested in code.”
Besides challenging stereotypes, Technovation hopes that the hackathon will allow members to experience competition in a setting that is not limited to girls. Because Technovation’s competitions are only open to girls, Akshintala believes that letting members experience a competition with an equal representation of both genders will be helpful.
“We never really have [our members] compete with guys, [but] in the real tech industry, there’s a lot of competition,” Akshintala said.
Fong also hopes that the hackathon will inspire girls to continue coding, especially as they enter the professional world.
“At Google, a diversity survey showed that only 17 percent of the technical staff were women,” former MVHS teacher and current Google K-12 coordinator Mo Fong said, “so there’s just not enough girls.”
CodeMV open to range of skill levels
Early in the planning process, Technovation officers agreed that the hackathon would have sessions similar to Technovation where beginners could learn how to code and experienced programmers could brush up their skills.
“We [wanted] to have sessions similar to Technovation where anyone who doesn’t know how to code, wants more coding experience or wants to learn new coding platforms could come in, learn to code and be ready for the hackathon on the same playing field as the people who might have had more experience in the tech world.” Akshintala said.
The workshop CodeMV was created out of this desire to prepare students before the hackathon. From 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, the day before the hackathon, students could attend any of the 14 CodeMV programming sessions scattered around six classrooms.
One to three instructors led each session, which always began with an explanation of the project that they would tackle or an overview of a new new skill that they would learn. The projects ranged from using timers with Android phones to creating Python Webapps, and instructors taught skills spanning from CSS to Github, a Git software hosting platform.
The after-school programming lessons also provided a place where students could meet new people, especially since students would have to work in teams to tackle the hackathon’s coding challenges.
Gila, who had been coding for two years, attended the event to learn more about Github for a programming project that he was working on outside of school. The majority of students, however, had limited programming experience and were underclassmen. According to Akshintala, CodeMV’s sessions were designed to cater to a broad range of skill levels.
“Our goal is to have people get as much exposure as they want to as many coding platforms as they can, so when the time comes, when there’s a challenge, they’ll have the tools in their arsenal to tackle it,” Akshintala said.
Hackathon tests creativity
The hackathon began with guest speakers, who talked about experiences working in the technology field. Speakers included Fong, Piazza employee Sunthar Premakumar, Codenvy founder Tyler Jewell and Hackerank marketing manager Lauren Maroevich, as well as senior Roshini Pal who spoke about her experiences working at her father’s Subway.
“I think it’s really impressive how far they’ve come, and it’s wonderful how they’ve come here because we don’t get these opportunities everyday,” Gupta said.
Along with telling motivational stories about experiences in the technology field, many speakers also offered internships to participants at the hackathon. Though many would require a programming test of some sort, Jewell emphasized that his company would needed a lot of interns and that the students had already showed great initiative by attending the hackathon.
Each speaker also presented a challenge from his or her company that ranged from reducing waste to creating a location-based sensor. In groups of four, students had to choose one or more of these challenges to tackle in six and a half hours.
When it came time to submit, students had projects ranging from an app designed to raise awareness of cafeteria waste to a game that motivated people to recycle. Though participants had varying levels of programming skills, judges were instructed to base their decisions off of participants’ creativity. Even projects that were not finished were considered.
“There are people who have gone the whole mile, and built something very, very complex, and there are people who have just built very simple things, but we are judging everything by creativity,” Joshi said. “It’s the thought that counts.”
Although most of the hackathon’s organizers are seniors, Banerjee hopes that the event will continue and grow on a larger scale, although she notes the possibility of a different club hosting the event.
“Our goal is to continue it in the years to come,” Banerjee said. “We’re still waiting for the juniors on the team to decide, and they’re really into it, so hopefully, they will.”
Fong believes that the hackathon will motivate students to learn programming — a field that correlates with many different ones. According to Fong, computer science is becoming a useful tool that people in various fields can use.
“[Even if] you want to be a writer or a politician or a dancer, I think that there are elements of computer science in all of them,” Fong said.
To Technovation co-Vice President Archana Simha, coding extends to different areas, but the unifying theme is creativity. She believes that coding is a way that people can make an impact on the world.
“You don’t necessarily have to be a genius to code anything. You don’t necessarily have to be a coder to make something creative and innovative,” Simha said. “[Coding] is using the skill set that you have to create something that benefits your community and eventually the world.”