UCSD Students Host Campus’s First All-Women Hackathon

Connor Gorry / The Triton

UC San Diego students affiliated with SD Hacks hosted their first annual HackXX last weekend, a 24 hour all-women hackathon aiming to provide an inclusive space for anyone who identifies as a woman to compete and flex their skills with other women in the industry.

The event’s director, second year computer science major Kaylie Lu, said that she was inspired to host the event after her friend’s successful all-women hackathon at the University of Southern California, Athena Hacks. Lu emphasized that the purpose of this event is not to segregate, but rather empower women to learn in an inclusive space. Currently, the UCSD CSE undergraduate student body is only composed of between 17 and 18 percent women students.

“I think everyone feels uncomfortable when they are the minority in a field, and I think a women’s hackathon made women feel more comfortable working on tech projects, rather than at a regular hackathon, where they would only make up 20 percent of the population,” Lu said.

Several student mentors from SD Hacks and The Virtual Reality Club at UCSD assisted and taught competitors. Throughout the event, the mentors provided several tutorial workshops for Unity, Virtual Reality (VR), and web development for beginners.

“None of us are CS majors, and we had to learn everything,” said one the event’s participants in passing about her team. “We wasted 6 hours from the program crashing, but the mentor helped us out until 5 am in the morning.”

Although the hackathon only allowed women to compete, it also encouraged men to participate by mentoring.

“I thought it was pretty cool especially because the women that I got to work with were inspired and really wanted to learn, so it was really rewarding watching them go from not knowing almost anything on what they are working on to becoming a mini-masters at it after 24 hours,” said Spencer Fricke, a fourth year computer engineer major.

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Although the event was a hackathon consisting mostly of a competition, Lu emphasized that it was also an opportunity to collaborate with other inspiring women in the field. The hackathon hosted several professional workshops in order to empower and encourage women to network. Sponsoring corporations like Amazon, ViaSat, and Northrop Grumman also tabled during the event.

After 24 hours of hacking, the participants presented their projects to the panel of judges, which included Dr. Sarah Guthals, a professor of Education Studies in UCSD; Dr. Ndapa Nakashole, an assistant professor of the UCSD CSE; and Kristin Agcaoili, project lead for the UCSD VR club. The judges focused on the technicality, design, completion, and improvement of each team’s skills.

Escape the Wonderland, a virtual reality project inspired by escape rooms, won first place. The project, created by students Maggie Chan, Yimeng Yang, and Joyaan Bhesania, invites players to experience the childhood fantasy of Alice in Wonderland. “Just to familiarize ourselves with the program took roughly 4 hours, and by the end, there were still some rough edges we could not smooth out to the way we wanted, said team member Maggie Chan. “The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was to be selective with our ideas and narrow down our project into something feasible within the time frame.”

Sun Rises, a project created by Michelle Yang, Jocelyn Tran, and Si Wu that constantly measures a user’s body temperature to track their menstrual cycles, won second place. And Sustainability Image Classification, a project created by Ayat Amin, Alice Yepremyan, and Linda Wogulis that detects recyclables to differentiate between what is recyclable and what is unrecyclable, won third place.

Professor Christine Alvarado, an Associate Teaching Professor and Vice Chair for Undergraduate Affairs in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, said that events like HackXX are important in shifting the hackathon culture toward inclusivity.

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Connor Gorry / The Triton

“I think this event is particularly important for UCSD to give our women students a chance to participate in the hackathon culture, in an environment where they comprise the majority culture,” she said. “The most important aspect in achieving gender balance in computing is the culture of the department, and a large part of this is driven by the students themselves.”

Alvarado said that as the culture shifts on campus, it’s important to consider how we approach outreach and strive to be inclusive of a diverse set of people.

“Students, both men and women alike, can make the biggest impact in this change by openly welcoming people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests,” Alvarado said.