Solving a complex problem with limited time and resources can seem daunting, but as members of Le Moyne’s Stempower program recently demonstrated, with skill, imagination and teamwork, big challenges can be met and new opportunities can be created. The students recently participated in a 24-hour Hackathon hosted by the Rochester Institute of Technology in which they divided into teams to design two distinct apps. The first, BrainTech, was crafted to aid individuals in learning more about the increasingly critical field of cybersecurity. The second, WellU, was designed to help address the mental health crisis now affecting many college students. As they huddled together in a lab on a lab in the Le Moyne campus, collaborating with one another and working on their designs, the students discovered that they weren’t just developing an app. They were learning firsthand what it means to identify a need, to make a critical decision, and to put an idea into action.
“Our inspiration simply came from being four women who are about to enter the tech industry as cybersecurity professionals,” said Ashley Green ’23, a dual major in cybersecurity and criminology, who was part of the BrainTech team. “None of us came into college with a tech background, and we won't be leaving college knowing everything there is to know about cybersecurity. This field is ever-changing and sometimes intimidating, but with a community of other women to support you, anything is possible.”
Hackathons like the one the Green and her peers took part in provide participants with the opportunity to create an app, game, website or other piece of software in a condensed period of time. These “hack marathons” first originated a little more than 20 years ago. Since then, they have grown exponentially and been credited with revolutionizing computer science education. These events spur teamwork and creativity among participants, allowing them to write code and troubleshoot problems in real time. In addition, they allow engineers and other leaders in the tech field to recruit employees who will lead their organizations into the future.
Events like this one could play a critical role in expanding the number of women in computer science. That is critical for the field moving forward, said Terri Mitchell ’85, creator and facilitator of the Stempower program, which provides educational and mentorship opportunities for women studying science, technology engineering and math on the Heights. Studies have long shown that diverse teams arrive at better decisions than homogeneous ones. They tend to focus more on facts, to process those facts more carefully, and to be more creative in their thinking. Yet women are awarded just 19 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States. Events like the WICHacks could help open the door to the next generation of computer scientists.
“Hackathons provide critical experience to students interested in pursuing a career in technology,” Mitchell said. “They give participants real world exposure to collaboration, innovation, deadlines and technical communication. Hackathons are résumé-worthy engagements that are important today, and will continue to equip students with valuable lessons in designing and delivering software.”
The students who participated in the Hackathon acknowledged that it did indeed provide them with valuable training for the careers they plan to build in fields such as digital forensics, risk management, and information security. Yet what they enjoyed most about the event was that it presented them with the opportunity to spend time with their peers outside of the classroom, working to build something that has the potential to do real, tangible good in the world. Yes, they agreed, for some people a Hackathon can sound technical and remote. But, as Green noted, at its core a Hackathon is about aligning what you want to achieve with what you already know how to do, using a team’s combined strengths to create something great.
“You don’t need to be a coding expert,” she said. “All you need are good ideas and great teammates to put a project in motion.”
The students who participated in the Hackathon are: Arcela Balungaya '22, Marcella Christensen ’22, Alexis Ess ’22, Ashley Green ’23, Jade Lazuardi ’23, Jesenya Olivas ’23 and Ainek Rijo ’23.