AthenaHacks 2020 University of Southern California. MARCH 7 - 8, 2020

AthenaHacks was founded in 2016 by a group of USC seniors, led by computer science student Kelly Lampotang, with the idea of creating a friendly hackathon event to inspire more women coders and engineers to work together.

"We are striving to reduce the often male-dominated, intimidating and competitive nature of hackathons. We think we can do this by creating a beginner-friendly, all-female environment,” said Aliya Petranik, a senior organizer of AthenaHacks.

“Overall in the nation, the percentage of women in STEM is about 20%. But only about 10% of hackathon participants are women."

AthenaHacks has come a long way: From humble beginnings—with a handful of students in the basement of the Leavey Library—to hundreds of coders and dozens of sponsors filling up the Bovard Auditorium and TCC Ballroom at USC.

Now entering its fourth year, the beginner-friendly hackathon attracts more than 200 hackers on-site, and many more attend remotely, during International Women's Day weekend.

This year, participants came from universities all over Southern California, with some people traveling from the East Coast to take part in the event. More than a quarter were first-time hackathon attendees.

Keynote Speaker: Ruthe Farmer

Ruthe Farmer is chief evangelist for CSforALL, an organization dedicated to making computer science an integral part of all K-12 education in America.

Farmer also helped run the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and in 2012, chaired the global Computer Science Education Week. In 2016 she became the senior policy advisor for tech inclusion at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy under the final year of the Obama administration.

"You being here today, being in this field, putting your toe in this water is so important...

...It's important for your future because you're going to have a great salary and a great life and make great things. But it's important for the world. We spent most of our time in a built and engineered world, which is why it's so important that it's built and engineered by everybody, men and women equally."

Ruthe Farmer on the importance of diversity in the technology industry.

After the opening ceremony, hackers broke into groups to begin working on their projects. They had about 20 hours to build their project from ideas all the way to deliverables.

Many attendees were first-time hackers, including many freshmen and sophomores. Some participants were not registered in computer science programs, but just wanted to learn coding. With such a variety of passions and backgrounds, attendees were placed into different groups tailored to their skills levels and goals. Also, mentors and the organizing team were there to help as needed.

Besides coding, hackathon attendees could also participate in different technical workshops, a professional networking event and social activities.

Due to the growing threat of the COVID-19, many participants had to cancel their trip and attended the AthenaHacks events virtually via Slack and online streaming.

"I’m looking forward to attending workshops, meeting new people and networking. I want to learn as much as I can and hopefully make something cool."

Jess Zhu, a senior in Computer Science (Games).

Leslie Hwang and Gitika Pahwa are both freshmen in the USC Iovine and Young Academy. Although they’ve only had brief exposure to web design and coding, they decided to join AthenaHacks to learn more real-world computer science skills.

Their project was a mockup of an app that allows you to automatically text people when you arrive home.

"As we were brainstorming the app, we were thinking about daily challenges we personally experienced,” said Pahwa. “One that came up time and time again was when you tell someone you’ll text them when you get home, then failing to do so."

Smriti Shreya, Nandita Yelamanchili and Neelavasha Mohesh are all computer science master’s students.

Their app — Trash Talk —calculates the amount of trash a person generates every day and returns a score with suggestions to better handle everyday waste.

"AthenaHacks is definitely a more encouraging environment because it's all-female and the hackers are all very supportive of one another," Shreya said.

Annie Lieu (UCLA), Jeannie Huang (UCLA), Nivedita Singh (USC computer science) and Youngeun Lee (USC computer science) are all first-time AthenaHackers.

Having understood the severity of the COVID-19 global threat, they decided to dedicate their efforts this weekend to building a comprehensive website to track real-time cases and deaths throughout the country.

Photos & Video by Haotian Mai. Podcast created by Josue Gonzales.

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Haotian Mai


Haotian Mai