AthenaHacks Hackathon Empowers Young Women in Engineering and STEM

Over 400 women and nonbinary students participated in this innovative event.

Students who participated in the AthenaHacks Hackathon. Photo Credit: Instagram | athena_hacks.

Students who participated in the AthenaHacks Hackathon. (Photo Credit: Instagram/athena_hacks.)

The 5th annual AthenaHacks Hackathon at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering focused on empowering women and nonbinary students to pursue careers in technology. Teams of students had 24 hours to create the best app, game or product. The event created a spirit of collaboration and coordination among the students. 

Hackathons are a common tool to promote innovation and collaboration. They are particularly productive when used for exploratory activities. Bringing together people with diverse backgrounds sparks innovation and encourages novel solutions to problems. Hackathons bring together many preconditions for innovation. They attract talented people, create a community of experts, and motivate problem-solving. 

But Hackathons are not without criticism. They have been blamed for fostering competitive, male-dominated programming cultures, which promote low female attendance. The low female attendance can further make women uncomfortable at such events because they do not have a community of friends participating. 

This sentiment was expressed by Jillian Khoo, the lead for programming at AthenaHacks 2021. Describing her first experience with a Hackathon, Khoo recalled, “I went to the event and felt like I didn’t have enough experience to build a project.… I felt pretty lost at all the workshops and ended up leaving early.” 

Events such as the AthenaHacks Hackathon are therefore important for creating a comfortable environment for women to engage in these innovative practices. “I want people to come to AthenaHacks and realize that they can learn literally anything in a weekend,” said Khoo. 

With this innovative spirit, over 70 groups submitted projects. From them, 13 winners were selected in a variety of categories. Below is a summary of some of the most innovative projects. 

Best Overall Hack—Iago for Dementia Rehabilitation

This project featured a memory game to help those with dementia remember the names of their close friends and relatives. Players are presented with pictures of their loved ones, to which they must match a target name. The control board has 3D-printed oversized buttons to assist those with accessibility needs. The program includes a doctor portal to allow doctors to monitor a patient’s recall ability. 

Athena’s Favorite—Penny’s Programming Adventure

Penny’s Programming Adventure. Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.

Penny’s Programming Adventure. (Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.)

Penny’s Programming Adventure is a game to teach girls how to program. The game is themed around Disney princesses. The team wanted to use characters that players would already be familiar with. In the story, the player (Penny) is helping Mulan plan her birthday party. To help Mulan, Penny must find and help the other Disney princesses solve problems, which relate to programming concepts, in a series of mini-games. The game was designed using Unity software.

Best Beginner Hack—EyeScream

Since the pandemic, many people have increased their screen time. Screen time can cause eye strain. The team wanted to address this by creating a Chrome extension that can remind people to rest their eyes every 20 minutes by looking away from the screen for 20 seconds. The extension creates a 20-minute alarm that provides a nonintrusive reminder for the user to look away from the screen for 20 seconds. 

Pinnacle Hack Winner at AthenaHacks—Tastee

Food is an important way for people to come together. However, the pandemic has made it more difficult for people to connect around food. This team wanted to reimagine how we can come together through food while respecting social distancing. They created a website for groups to share recipes and create cooking challenges. They describe it as like a book club, but for food. 

Best Use of CockroachDB—Women Empowering Stock Portfolio

The Women Empowering Stock Portfolio. Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.

The Women Empowering Stock Portfolio. (Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.)

An issue with stocks is that the information available on them often lacks information about the social impact of the company. This project humanized stock values by creating a portfolio of companies that value women. The goal is to highlight undervalued companies that are committed to gender equality. 

Best Mobile Hack Sponsored by Zynga—CosmoCare

Cosmetics can contain many chemical ingredients that may impact both the health of the people who use them and the environment. But it can be difficult to make sense of all the information on cosmetic labels. Using this app, a person only needs to scan a product’s label to access easy-to-understand information about the potential effects of the product. 

Best Use of Google Cloud—FEM: Future Emerging Medicine

FEM. Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.

FEM. (Image courtesy of AthenaHacks 2021.)

This app focuses on improving access to women’s health resources. Along with health information, the app includes a period tracker, a birth control reminder, an appointment calendar, and a feature to help locate feminine products on the go.