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.”