• Abigail Hall

Students host OU's first hackathon, encourage gender diversity in computer science

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Originally published at OU Daily April 5, 2018

OU economics senior Shreya Patel spoke to a crowd of 250 students from across North America at the closing ceremony of Hacklahoma, the university's premier hackathon.

Patel stood on the second level of stairs in Devon Energy Hall while speaking to the students, teachers and sponsors who had gathered there. She thanked all who were involved and announced the winners of the 24-hour event.

After a year of planning and building interest, the dream of Patel and co-executive director John Tran — establishing Hacklahoma — came to fruition.

Patel instantly fell in love with hackathons, which are invention marathons for technology, after her first experience at a hackathon at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall of 2016. She soon attended a second hackathon that semester in Austin, Texas. Upon her return to OU, Patel began talking to people about starting Oklahoma’s first hackathon.

Patel shortly discovered Tran, a computer science junior, who was working with the computer science department to start the first hackathon at OU. In spring 2017, the duo came together and began the yearlong process of organizing Hacklahoma. A small group of students, which grew to more than 30, began paving the way for future innovators in Norman and the surrounding areas.

By fall 2017, Patel had attended four Major League Hacking hackathons. Major League Hacking is a student hackathon league which aims to teach computer science and technology skills to students around the world.

Attending her first hackathons led her to pursue a new career path: data science.

Patel said attending hackathons altered her career in positive ways, allowing her to gain hands-on experience for her resume.

“Hackathons are the reason I got my first internship in the first place. It’s helped my career a lot,” Patel said.

After her experience with hackathons, she has earned four internships in the area of data science. Her current internship is with Sonic Drive-In, working with data learning systems to update Sonic Drive-In’s app that recommends food to users based on what they previously ordered. This specific project involves searching through large sets of data to create a functioning, interactive app.

Patel also works for Major League Hacking as a coach, which she equates with a teaching assistant program. As a coach for Major League Hacking, she travels to hackathons in the North America region in places such as California and Montreal, Canada. She also helps the organizers facilitate the event in a variety of ways.

During March, Patel traveled to two hackathons as a coach. She traveled to San Francisco State University for SF Hacks. She also traveled to LA Hacks, which was held March 30–April 1 at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Although Patel did not begin her journey at OU pursuing data science, she has a long history within the field of technology, including web design and robotics competitions when she was in grade school.

She first learned to code when she was 7, when her father, a software engineer, decided she needed to have basic computer programming knowledge.

He valued technology and recognized coding as an important skill everyone needed to know, Patel said.

Once she discovered hackathons, she realized data science was the path she wanted to take. She began to pursue data science on her own time, spending money on attending hackathons across the nation and researching online groups and communities.

As a woman in the science, technology, engineering and math field at OU, Patel said she has been questioned about why she chose to pursue that career path.

“(When I get negative feedback), it’s if I meet a guy who’s also in tech, and he’s like, ‘Prove that you know how to code,’” Patel said. “Why should I have to prove it when (they) don’t have to?”

However, Patel said she also receives positive responses to her career path. She has been told her pursuit of this field is impressive, but to her this compliment doesn’t sit right.

“Impressive kind of gets me. It’s not 'impressive' if a guy is, it’s 'impressive' if I am,” Patel said.

According to National Girls Collaborative Project, as of 2016 women make up half of the college-educated workforce. However, only 29 percent of workers in the science and engineering workforce are women.

While there has been an increase in women pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields over the last two decades, there is still work to be done.

Katy Felkner, a sophomore in computer science and letters, and Adrienne Peak, an engineering junior, attended Hacklahoma. Felkner and Peak are members of Alpha Sigma Kappa, a sorority for women in technical studies, and worked in a group together.

While at Hacklahoma, the group created Study Buddy, an Amazon Alexa skills app that works with Canvas to organize students’ schedules. Felkner said the Study Buddy beta was posted on GitHub, a website for sharing inventions, and will stay there as free open-source software for anyone to use.

Neither Felkner nor Peak had attended a hackathon before but said they loved their experiences at Hacklahoma.

“I love programming. I love that you get your hands on a whole problem and you can really grab every part of it and make things work,” Felkner said. “I had so much fun. Hacklahoma was an amazing experience.”

Joann Lee, computer science senior, founded OU's chapter of the Association for Women in Computing three years ago to create a better community for OU’s women in computer science.

When she first began studying computer science, Lee found it difficult to voice her opinion in class and be taken seriously by her male peers. She said it was only when she proved herself to these male peers that her opinions were respected.

She wanted a place for other female computer science students to build a positive and encouraging community. She and a friend decided to start a club solely for the purpose of bringing together female students in the computer science community.

Today, the Association for Women in Computing has 88 members.

Lee said her supportive teachers and educational environment shaped her passion and her belief that she was capable of pursuing technology.

“(My teachers) definitely shaped what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Lee said. “They made me think, ‘Hey, there’s nothing different in you just because you’re a girl.’”

Lee said earlier education about women pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics would bridge the gap, ridding all genders of unhelpful stereotypes about women and their ability to pursue science and math careers.

Lee, who was involved in the early stages of organizing Hacklahoma, said the hackathon helped promote computer science and women in the field, “showing they can actually code as well.”

Looking ahead, the organizers of Hacklahoma hope to continue including women in coding and providing a space for all genders to pursue tech, Patel said.

“Hacklahoma is a safe place for all genders to learn and compete,” Patel said. “In the coming years, doing more event publicity geared toward women is a goal to draw an even larger number of female hackers.”

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