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HackHERS at Rutgers empowers women to create code, breaks 'ice ceiling'

 During the event, students team up and spend more than 24 hours coding and developing programming projects. They are involved with both making the software, such as the web design, and building the physical hardware for their project.  – Photo by Catherine Nguyen

This past weekend, several hundred students — both from Rutgers and universities in New Jersey — gathered at the Cook Student Center for HackHERS, an annual overnight hackathon.

As the name suggests, the hackathon focuses on women, with the purpose of creating a “space where women feel empowered to create with code and explore tech culture,” according to the HackHERS website. The event is a collaboration between the organization Women in Computer Science and Douglass Residential College. Students have 24 hours to team up and develop programming projects, along with making a web application and building the hardware.

HackHERS's opening ceremony began with welcoming remarks from Sally Nadler, the assistant dean of Douglass Residential College. Other speakers at the opening ceremony were members from the executive board of Women in Computer Science and company sponsors who announced challenges and prizes. 

Sonya Gande, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and lead for HackHERS, said one of the purposes of the event was to help bridge the gender gap. 

“The ultimate goal of ours is to foster growth and productivity among women,” she said. 

The companies that offered challenges during the event were ExxonMobil, Fiserv, JP Morgan and Wakefern. ExxonMobil challenged participants to incorporate high-performance computing to solve the dual energy challenge, increase affordable energy and reduce harmful environmental impacts. Fiserv, a financial services company, asked participants to think of an application that would help meet their consumers needs. 

JP Morgan and Wakefern gave challenges with more creative freedom. JP Morgan challenged students to create an application to increase the amount of women in STEM fields, and Wakefern gave the open-ended question of what the participants imagined the future to be, especially regarding their experiences as shoppers. 

Prizes for the various company challenges included Jaybirds, gift cards and a Google Home Assistant. This did not mean that every student took on these challenges, though. Some of the students, such as graduate student Nishka Uberoi, decided to work with her team on a project that would be more Rutgers-centric: an app that could scan for attendance instead of the iClicker. 

“We decided not to target any of the company goals,” she said.

The event did not only include hacking, but also panels, talks from the companies and recreational activities such as cookie decorating, Pictionary and Jeopardy.

Sunny Feng, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and sponsorship lead for HackHERS, said the talks during the hackathon allowed companies to discuss and teach a topic they were passionate about or related to the company.

“Wakefern talked about how to land your first technology internship, Fiserv talked about AI and financial technology and ExxonMobil talked about high-performance computing,” she said.

Overall, she said HackHERS, which is in its fifth year of running, was a successful and well-run event. This year, there were 26 project submissions, which was more than twice than the amount last year. 

The project that received the award for best overall hack was HappiEarth, which aimed to use data from the World Happiness Report and connect it with statistics on areas such as the environment, government and even chocolate consumption. The team who created the winning project consisted of Aditya Verma, Amber Rawson and Shantanu Laghate. 

HackHERS was an event that drew a wide range of students, some experienced in computer programming and some beginners. 

Nida Ansari, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, said she wanted to pursue computer science and knew hackathons were a way to create projects to show to companies. It was also the first time she had ever been to a hackathon.

“(I hope to get) a better knowledge in computer science. I like coding, and being able to use GitHub … this is the first time that I’m using it a lot,” she said.

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