Innovating for the future: second annual International Women’s Hackathon

Well, here it is: I am pleased to announce that our second annual International Women’s Hackathon will take place on university campuses around the globe from April 24 to 27, 2014. Last year’s event spanned 14 campuses in seven countries, with more than 600 university women participating. We’re anticipating even bigger numbers this year!

Women in computing matters—International Women's Hackathon

We launched the International Women’s Hackathon to encourage, support, and retain women pursuing the computer sciences at the university level. This event, largely promoted by word-of-mouth, empowers young women to become leaders in computer science, informatics, and electrical engineering. By providing a fun and safe environment in which to explore computing, the hackathon encourages and supports young university women around the world, preparing them to create technology innovations that will help meet worldwide challenges in such areas as improving healthcare, protecting the environment, and upgrading manufacturing.
The presence of women in technology is essential to innovation. When confronted with a problem, we each encode our perspectives and then apply our particular heuristics to explore new and better resolutions. Diverse teams often outperform homogeneous teams (even those composed of high-achieving individuals), because diversity of perspective and problem-solving approach trumps individual ability. Research has identified the diversity of work teams as one of the key influences in the innovation process—and without question, a diverse team needs women.
As I travel around campuses, I hear the same concerns repeatedly from women in computer science courses:

  • Male classmates underestimate their technical abilities and relegate them to project management roles in group projects.
  • There is a lack of women on the computer science faculty, which leaves them feeling that they have no good role models.
  • They question whether they can fulfill their desire to solve big challenges by working in a field that seems to discount their talents.

This is why the International Women’s Hackathon is so important. It provides an opportunity for female students to demonstrate their technical chops and unique problem-solving approaches. To ensure that this year’s hackathon meets the needs of university women, we have enlisted the help of recent winners of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. These gifted young women have helped us organize the challenges, reassess the rules and regulations, and upgrade the toolkit. So here’s a big thank you to the leads and planning committee members:
Leads:

  • Halie Murray-Davis, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
  • Jinisha Patel, New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Safia Abdalla, Northside College Preparatory High School

Committee members:

  • Ashika Ganesh, West Windsor Plainsboro High School North
  • Aishwarya Borkar, San Jose State University
  • Diem-Nhi Tran, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Heather Huynh, University of Georgia
  • Kylie Moden, Trinity University
  • Nishtha Oberai, University of Colorado at Boulder
  • Veronica Wharton, Rochester Institute of Technology

The hackathon provides an opportunity for female students to demonstrate their technical chops and unique problem-solving approaches. The hackathon provides an opportunity for female students to demonstrate their technical chops and unique problem-solving approaches.

We are excited to have this year’s challenges sponsored by the following nonprofits: UN Women, Hindsight Group, Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and Teens Against Distracted Driving. Hackathon participants will design a software application that meets one of two challenges: (1) increase women’s participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors, or (2) put a halt to texting while driving.
I am also pleased to announce our partnership with the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. We will be front and center during the festival, with women students from local universities hacking live on stage while we connect via Skype to the hackathon events taking place on university campuses all over the world.
I will announce more information about the hackathon in January, including details on special speakers and unique events, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I hope that many of you will take advantage of this opportunity: you can organize teams and register for the event now.
Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
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Exposing more students to Computer Science, it’s time for “An Hour to Code”

It’s time to revise the traditional “three Rs” of education in the United States. In addition to “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic,” we need to add computer science. Yeah, I know it doesn’t even contain an “r,” but computer science is just as important as those fundamental “r” skills. And that brings me to the topic of this blog: Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), an annual US event that stresses the need to teach computer science basics to every student. This year, CSEdWeek runs from December 9 to 15.

I am especially excited to work in partnership with Code.org, a new non-profit organization that initiated one of CSEdWeek’s prime events: the “Hour of Code.” The event aims to introduce 10 million students of all ages to computer science ideas and tools—and to let them try coding for one hour—while also demonstrating to parents, teachers, and policymakers how accessible coding can be. And at a deeper level, we hope it will drive demand for expanded computer science courses and activities in secondary schools.

As part of CSEdWeek, I am in central Oregon at the Culver Middle School and Culver High School on December 12th and 13th, introducing students to programming through an hour of coding by using TouchDevelop, a free Microsoft Research mobile application development tool. I’ll also host an all-school assembly later in the month on “How Computer Science Can Solve the World’s Greatest Challenges.”   In addition, I get to spend a day devoted to my greatest passion: sparking young girls’ interest in computer science. I will meet with 93 Culver Middle School girls, introducing them to computer science research and the importance of user experience design. Too many young people only hear about the difficulty of programming; I strive to show them the art, creativity, and satisfaction involved in making an application that meets the end user’s needs. They’ll learn about the storyboarding process and how to design an application, and then they’ll help create the user interface for Games Learning Society, a research project I’m working on with Constance Steinkuehler at the University of Wisconsin. I will also give them a preview of a program we will announce this week—so stay tuned to learn about great partnerships and an event that will entice even more young women to pursue computer science careers.

rane with kids at kent school

Despite the excitement of CSEdWeek, my commitment to and passion for what it represents doesn’t begin and end during this week. Early last week, I met with 75 high school students from the Auburn (WA) Mountainview High School IT Academy Program and shared Kodu, .NET Gadgeteer, WorldWide Telescope, and other Microsoft Research technologies with them. They also learned about the exciting future of computing from bright young Microsoft employees who are in an accelerated career development program.

Later in the month, I will head to Redmond (OR) Middle School to conduct a TouchDevelop programming event with all of the students and to introduce middle school girls to user experience design. And I’m not alone in this outreach effort; several of my Microsoft Research colleagues are also volunteering at elementary, middle, and high schools to excite students about computer science. Judith Bishop is in South Africa to expose students to TouchDevelop, and Arul Menezes, Krysta Svore, and Peli de Halleux are visiting Seattle-area middle and high schools to help students experience an hour of coding.

Why is coding so important? The digital age has transformed how we work and live, making computer science and the technologies it enables central to our daily lives. By 2020, an estimated 4.6 million computer-related jobs will be available for those with skills in computer science—jobs that will address such issues as climate change, healthcare provision, and economic development. Unfortunately, many educational institutions in the United States have not been able to keep pace with technological advances, leaving students without fundamental computer science skills: of the more than 42,000 high schools in the United States, fewer than 3,250 were certified to teach advanced-placement computer science courses in 2013. Only 14 states count computer science courses toward a student’s graduation requirements in math and science, and no states require a computer science course as a condition of graduation. This must change if we want students from the United States to have future career opportunities in global computer science fields.

By the way, you don’t have to work at Microsoft Research to be part of this effort: to learn about more free tools you can share with students to interest them in computing, visit Research tools.
Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
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