UChicago CS Student Group compileHer Takes Hackathon Virtual (And To Space)

February 25, 2021

Each winter, the UChicago CS student group compileHer gathers middle school girls from around the city to campus for a unique all-day hackathon experience. When gathering in person became unlikely, the organizers took on a new challenge for 2021: converting their hands-on introduction to computer science and app design challenge to a virtual and remote environment. Instead of thinking small, they set their sights on the stars.

With this year’s theme of <interstelll/Her>, compileHer and a fleet of student volunteers created an online experience combining CS, astronomy, art, and plenty of collaboration. Over the weekend of February 6th and 7th, 30 middle school girls worked in teams with undergraduate mentors for activities and design around the theme of outer space exploration, creating apps for astronauts to communicate with their families back on Earth and for students to learn about women in astronomy and space. 

“We wanted to emphasize that everyone who attended the event could, in fact, work and succeed in the world of astronomy and outer space,” said Shriya Bansal, a third-year CS major and co-director of compileHer. “We asked the girls to design an app that would help us explore interstellar space. There was a large focus on communication across physical distance, which is a challenge that we've all experienced during COVID-19.”

The move to a virtual environment provided some silver linings, as the organizers were able to host a keynote talk from Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington, who Zoomed in from Seattle, and career talks from CS students, Samantha Baker and Lily Ehsani, who had interned at NASA and Fermilab. As a substitute for the tech demos that were featured at previous hackathons, students built their own spacecraft from household items, and received solar powered robotics and solar system art kits as prizes. 

Where previous hackathons asked teams to sketch out their app on large pieces of paper, this year, the students used an app called Thunkable, which lets users assemble app ideas through a drag-and-drop interface, which allowed them to include video and other media.

“The most important change in converting our hackathon to the virtual setting was gaining access to resources that we didn't have before and the ability for girls to connect with other students and mentors from across the country,” Bansal said. “The Thunkable platform worked really well in our favor, because before the girls were just drawing their ideas on paper and wireframing. This was a little disconnected from the actual apps that they see on their phones every day. Hosting the hackathon on this platform gave them a better sense of practical design concepts as well as the kind of potential that is there; they could see that designing these technologies was possible, and it wasn’t all that difficult to do.”

At the end of the two days, the teams presented their apps to a panel of judges including UChicago CS faculty Adam Shaw and Marshini Chetty, who awarded honors such as “Just LIke Rocket Science,” “Giant Leap For Womankind,” and “Out of this World”. Apps designed by the teams included Astronaut Helper, a social media platform for astronauts to communicate with friends and family back home or with other space explorers, and Rocket Launch, which keeps track of critical resources such as food, oxygen, and fuel on space voyages. An app called SpaceTube provided information “to connect people around the solar system through interactive means, including videos, pictures and maps.” Others provided virtual tours of the International Space Station or information on the “herstory” of women in the space program, such as Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

“The ‘herstory’ app was especially inspiring because the girls really emphasized that there are leaders and role models in this field who look like them and come from similar backgrounds, and that they too can follow in their footsteps,” Bansal said. “This left a lasting mark on the rest of the girls because it showed them that space technology is accessible to everyone; it doesn't need to be confined to the traditional views of astronauts and scientists that have been popularized in the past.”

The hackathon was just the latest of the virtual events that compileHer has put together during the pandemic. In late 2020, they hosted online workshops with Google and Code Your Chances, and this winter they continued their ongoing partnership with Bret Harte Elementary School in Hyde Park (see videos with the students and teachers). This spring, they will host a mother-daughter coding project for Mother’s Day and will create a virtual version of their other annual flagship event, the Tech Capstone. 

The group is looking for UChicago students and faculty to volunteer at these events; if you are interested in getting involved, contact them at compileher@gmail.com. The planning committee for the hackathon was Kate Hu, Emma Rosenthal, Katherine Hou, Maxine King, Lucy Li, Hatoon Attar, Neha Lingareddy, Lily Ehsani, Aly Sonnenberg, Shriya Bansal.