A new St. Olaf hackathon isn’t just about coding — it’s about increasing DEI in computer science
Jiwon Moon ’24 had planned to use a gap year after high school to see the world. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and cut her travels short. As she settled back in at home, she stumbled on an online Java course and decided to self-learn coding. Soon she was writing code, creating interactive web content and applications, and participating in virtual hackathons. She was hooked.
By the time Moon arrived at St. Olaf to begin her first year, she knew she wanted to major in computer science. She also knew that she wanted her fellow Oles to experience the excitement of the hackathons she had grown to love — the around-the-clock, multiday competitions where teams compete to develop apps or programs.
“I had a lot of fun because I got to meet new people and it was fun to stay up all night and build something cool,” Moon says. “I always thought I wanted to bring this to Northfield because we don’t have many hackathons in the state of Minnesota.”
St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Sravya Kondrakunta provided the perfect support network for Moon. A frequent participant in hackathons herself, Kondrakunta understood that this could be a powerful way for St. Olaf students to sharpen their coding skills in a fun, hands-on learning environment. Together with Patricia Kinsumbya ’23, they created OleHacks, which will hold its inaugural hackathon March 3-5.
OleHacks is supported by the college’s Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science (MSCS), and the Linux Ladies, a student organization focused on supporting women and underrepresented groups in computer science and STEM. The strong collaborative effort among all of these departments and organizations is a key component of OleHacks — as is the event’s focus on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field.
OleHacks is the first student-run and major intercollegiate hackathon focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the southern Minnesota area and will take place on campus in five different classrooms in Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. The event will include teams from St. Olaf, Carleton College, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota.
The Power of Hands-On Hackathons
A hackathon is an around-the-clock event where participants engage in a collaborative and rapid project to produce a high-quality solution to real-world problems of their choosing or provided by event sponsors. OleHacks will be a 36-hour event, and students will have the opportunity to pitch their project and launch ideas to their fellow peers and company representatives. There will also be invited talks from University of California-Santa Cruz Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Leilani Gilpin and industry expert Dustin Dannenhauer, in addition to a panel session with Ole women alumni in tech.
In one of the hackathons that Kondrakunta participated in as a college student six years ago, her team developed a “Your Virtual Doctor” app that allows users to input their symptoms and receive a diagnosis with some degree of certainty. In another hackathon five years ago, she helped create a hazard detection system using in-home videos and surveillance programs to detect actions and process images. Both of these concepts, of course, have since been developed by other computer scientists and are used widely by consumers.
OleHacks aims to provide St. Olaf students and students from other Minnesota colleges with the opportunity to work on similar projects. Moon serves as an executive member on the Linux Ladies board, where she and Kinsumbya — another member of Linux Ladies — connected with Piper Center Associate Director Meghan McMillan about hosting a hackathon on campus.
“During our conversations we started talking about the big picture of what it could look like and when we would want to do it,” McMillan says. “There was a lot of energy behind it with the Linux Ladies and with Sravya, and you can’t deny that energy. Sravya and the Linux Ladies have been the force behind a lot of the planning to get OleHacks to the point where it is now.”
From these conversations, OleHacks became a part of the Ole Career Launcher, which is designed to help students pair skills that they learn inside and outside the classroom with applied skills that they can immediately use in situations they’ll encounter when they enter the workforce. OleHacks will complement the AlgoExpert coding certification, which is a 100-question technical interview prep program for computer science. AlgoExpert is a new program that was launched this year through the Ole Career Launcher.
With the creation of this new program, OleHacks will serve as an opportunity for participants and other individuals interested in technology to utilize the skills they learned in AlgoExpert to create their own projects. In addition to serving snacks and meals during the event, the Piper Center provided resources on alumni networks and employer connections for sponsorships. This year’s sponsors include Dev10, Netspi, and Securian.
Increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Computer Science
Besides strengthening students’ technical skills, one of the major goals of OleHacks is to provide a space for women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other traditionally marginalized communities to be represented within and have access to the computer science field. Computer science is a heavily male dominated field. In the United States, women earn just 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees. At St. Olaf, 30 of the 103 St. Olaf students who are majoring in computer science identify as women.
“The event’s goal is to give a chance to students to create, work on, and implement their ideas, but also to open up the space to more people who have been traditionally marginalized and haven’t had the chance to take part in hackathons,” Kinsumbya says. “At St. Olaf, there’s a small number of students who major in computer science, but there are even fewer women. By opening this hackathon, we’re hoping to target more marginalized communities at St. Olaf so they can see themselves represented in computer science because that’s something we don’t necessarily see in STEM, and we’re hoping students will really take up this chance to engage more.”
Kondrakunta agrees, noting that she often felt lonely in graduate school because there were not many women in the program. “One thing that I’m very passionate about is trying to increase the women population in computer science. Computer science is bad at gender diversity right now, so for that reason, this hackathon is being organized and led by all female students,” she says. “When the participants come in, they get to see female students in managerial positions, which might encourage others to push through and see that there is a place for them in the program and they can thrive in the field.”
In addition to Moon, Kinsumbya, and Kondrakunta, there is a student volunteer group helping to serve as the coordinators and facilitators of the event. Together, the team is putting together websites and other materials to support OleHacks. “It’s definitely a collaborative effort,” Kinsumbya says.
“We’re really trying to promote diversity by our mission, and also we have a student volunteer group for the event with 10 people, and we are all POC,” Moon says. “We really have a diverse group, and that reflects our commitment to making not only the Computer Science Department, but also the tech industry in general, more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.”
Another reason why OleHacks is imperative for the St. Olaf community, Kinsumbya says, is because if the technology and media that are being consumed on a daily basis are only being created by and for the majority, they will not be applicable or usable by other groups. In this way, minority populations will never be properly represented.
“Say that an application was created to test for skin cancer. If the majority of the testers are only testing on white skinned people, and you don’t have enough dark skinned or brown people, that technology will not learn how to detect melanoma in dark skinned people. If you’re a nonbinary person and you’re using some sort of technology to input your gender, but it can only accept the binary, that means you’re being left out, you’re not being included in society,” she says. “As we get more progressive, we also have to make sure that technology and media are representative of who we are as people. That’s why this hackathon is really important at St. Olaf and for the rest of Minnesota.”
Kinsumbya, Moon, and Kondrakunta hope to make OleHacks an annual event. In addition to the project-building aspect, Moon strives to have more alumni involvement, securing more industry sponsors, individuals coming in for tech talks, and networking opportunities to help students find mentors within the field. Kinsumbya aspires for people to be able to “work on bigger, more crazy, more ambitious projects” and for OleHacks to become more influential. Kondrakunta is excited to see both the participants and organizers grow as people and the ideas students will come up with.
Most of all, they hope OleHacks will continue to be a space for creativity, innovation, and inclusivity.
“I strongly believe that diversity generates new ideas and perspectives, enabling a field to expand in various directions,” Kondrakunta says. “Increased diversity benefits both the field and society in general, as it brings fresh insights and viewpoints.”