Pearl Hacks promotes a precious commodity: female coders

Hackathons – mini conferences where programmers converge to show off their coding skills and learn new ones – are the hot new way to network, but mostly for males. “Girls don’t come because girls won’t be there, and girls won’t be there because girls don’t come,” Maegan Clawges summed up the vicious cycle.

So Clawges, a junior majoring in computer science and graphic design, created Pearl Hacks, the first all-female hackathon held at UNC on March 22-23. The free weekend event at Sitterson and Carroll halls, a joint project of the computer science department in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was specifically designed to attract female high school and college students.

Like pearls, Clawges said, female programmers are “beautiful, rare and eminently valuable” and also created over a long, painstaking process. At universities across the country, only 18 percent of undergraduates receiving degrees in computer and information sciences in 2010 were female, according to statistics compiled by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. That’s why Pearl Hacks, with its 200 female coders, marked “[t]he first time there will ever be a line for the women’s bathroom in the CS building,” as one attendee tweeted.

The female students came mostly from North Carolina or Virginia schools, but there were also a busload from the University of Maryland, some from Illinois and California and two high school students from New York. They came to be inspired by keynote speaker and original Femgineer Poornima Vijayashanker (femgineer.com) and to meet professionals from Google, Palantir, SparkFun and many others from the tech industry. They received guidance from volunteer mentors and cool swag and prizes, like Pebble smart watches and Google Glass, donated by sponsors.

The attendees took breaks for food, dancing and naps, but mostly they came to code, working in four-person teams to develop a number of apps and compete for prizes. The relatively new field of wearable electronics proved very popular. One project that emerged was turn signal gloves for cyclists, fingerless biking gloves with bright orange indicator lights sewn in. The cyclist only needs to press her fingers together to signal a left or right turn.

Winning entries included a wristband that can discreetly send emergency messages in crisis situations, a map tracking news about college sexual assault, an app that allows radiation oncologists to mark images to create treatment plans, a watch that vibrates when the wearer says words he/she is trying to avoid and a mobile app that helps diners order food in Northeast Thailand.

“OMG we just won a hackathon,” UNC senior multimedia journalism major Annie Daniels tweeted when her team’s Culture of Yes map about sexual assault took the top prize. “NEWS NERDS JUST WON A HACKATHON.”

For more information or to become a sponsor or mentor for next year, visit http://pearlhacks.com/.

By Susan Hudson, University Relations.

Published April 18, 2014.