USM hosts "Hackathon" to teach African-American girls coding

USM hosts "Hackathon" to teach African-American girls coding
Published: Apr. 7, 2017 at 2:35 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 8, 2017 at 11:18 AM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi hosts its first iD8 hackathon competition Friday and Saturday to teach African-American high school girls computer coding.

"USM decided that we wanted to do a hackathon, and serve high school students in the region," said Julie Cwikla, director of Creativity and Innovation in STEM at USM. "I decided that I really wanted to serve female students and African-American female students in particular because there's just such an extreme shortage of African-American females in coding and in computer science."

Twelve teams of four students each will learn to code and build a mobile app, and will present their finished product to judges Saturday.

"Zero coding experience (is needed)," Cwikla said. "We're going to walk them through the entire process, so they don't have to be enrolled in calculus. They don't even have to be enrolled in science. They just have to say, 'Yeah, coding. What is this about? I want to check it out.' We're going to hold their hand in the beginning, and then we're going to watch them fly."

Along with hands on work, a panel of African-American women in STEM will share their stories and experiences with the teams.

"This gives them an opportunity to really get a taste of what coding is all about, and almost more importantly to meet women in the field who are thriving," Cwikla said.

Mary Moore, aviation engineer at GE and executive director of STEM community outreach in Laurel, is one of the panelists and wishes she had an opportunity like this when she was in high school.

"I do wish it was something that I had," Moore said. "When I was coming along and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, there was no one that looked like me doing what I wanted to do, so it was hard to imagine myself in that role. So that's another good thing about this event. They go there, and they see these powerhouse women on the panels, and they get to see and imagine themselves in that position. (They can) say, 'Hey, OK I see somebody else doing this that looks like me, so maybe that can be something that I can do because I really like this. It's a possibility for me.' So yes, I really wish there was something like this when I was coming up."

Jasmine Bender, a junior at Laurel High School, said she already helps run the websites at her school, but said she's excited to design her own app.

"I'm glad it's a great learning experience that we get to do and get to see speakers who have created apps and everything," she said. "We get to make an app, so that's kind of cool."

Moore said getting to be the role model for others she wishes she had is rewarding.

"It's a good feeling," she said. "There are questions that only a young lady can ask another woman. You know, what she encounters in STEM. This event and the panel that's going to serve on it, these young ladies can ask. It's something that they don't even know. It's an invaluable experience for them."

Bender said, "I see people who are successful in it and who can do it. That makes me want to do it because it's going to be successful."

Cwikla said event also offers a more real-world application of computer coding than many schools are able to regularly offer.

"A lot of high schools aren't able to offer computer science or coding or these types of opportunities," Cwikla said. "Some schools are doing the day of code or maybe they have some summer programs that can be provided, but for the most part, a lot of students graduate high school, and they don't realize the immense variety in high-tech fields and really now how easy it is to just create a mobile app literally from your phone."

Moore agreed, saying when she judges science fairs or speaks at career days, many students don't know a lot about careers in science, engineering, technology and math.

"What I find is, those kids, they don't know a lot about STEM," Moore said. "They don't know the real world application of it. They don't know the magnitude of how far STEM reaches in our everyday life. They know that they have a phone in their hand, but they don't know what makes that phone work. This program - this event that they're having at USM, the iD8 program - it's all about teaching them how to code and the basics of mobile apps, what their looking (at) and using everyday. It's a free event to get a group of girls involved in this, and hopefully, they'll go back and tell other girls at their school or in their community, 'Hey, this is what I learned at this event. You should check it out,' so it'll spread like wildfire just by bringing these four core group of girls there."

Although Bender is already interested in web design, she said she didn't a lot about coding before Friday.

"I knew of it, but I didn't know how to do it," Bender said. "So I'm happy that I'm learning what they mean and how to do it also."

Cwikla said hosting this first-of-its-kind event is exciting, and hopes holding the event on a university campus makes attending college a reality for the girls.

"This feeds my soul," Cwikla said. "I love, I love bringing scholars to campus, and it's so important to me to help young people, men and women, to realize what's possible. I think a lot of kids grow up, and it's hard to figure out 'What am I going to be when I grow up?' So helping to open the doors for them, allowing them to see this could be you, and just letting them experience a little bit, so that they can dream bigger dreams and maybe go down that STEM path."

Moore agreed, saying, "The event itself is good, but it's the fact that they're hosting the event on a college campus. There are some of the young ladies that are there (who) never in their mind thought that they would be able to attend or see a college campus. So one, you've got them going there, and they're seeing women in STEM. That opens a new possibility for them. Two, they're on a college campus. They get to see and experience what it is to walk around a college campus, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it smells like. I mean, that's far off reaching, but you know, it's all about putting them in a position where they can see, 'Yep, I can do this. This is for me. It's not a far off dream. This is a reality, and I'm experiencing it. I'm doing it, and I see it. I'm going to be here one day.'"

Bender said, "That influences me, like, 'Hey, I can go major in whatever I want, and then make an app for it.' This is something I can take with me in my future and my senior future. If someone wants me to do something, I can create websites and apps for the school and things."

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