Payton Carroll, 13, from Elkridge Landing Middle School in Elkridge wants to be a video-game engineer when she grows up. She likes playing Minecraft and said she wants to be able to design a game like that someday instead of just playing it.
“I really like using a computer,” she said. “I always have ideas of things I would like to play in games, and I want to be able to make that.”
Carroll was one of the 400 girls and women who attended Technica, the University of Maryland’s first all-female hackathon, held in Ritchie Coliseum over the weekend. Participants from across the country took part in the two-day event to design and build projects related to computer science, engineering and virtual reality.
Based on first-day data, about 47 percent of participants were university students and 19 percent were high-schoolers or younger, said Amber Mirza, a junior computer science major and Technica organizer.
“The computer science, mathematics and engineering fields may seem like a man’s world, but it is desperately lacking a woman’s touch,” said university alumna Poupak Afshar, CEO of Easy Dynamics Corp., a Washington-based consulting firm and the keynote speaker at Technica’s opening ceremony.
Afshar said women should be given the same opportunities as men to excel and thrive in technical fields. Events like this hackathon help open doors to women who might otherwise be intimidated by the male-dominated tech world, she said.
Technica organizers tried to get rid of “impostor syndrome” that makes some girls feel like outsiders or as though they don’t belong in tech environments, said Amritha Jayanti, a sophomore computer science major and Technica director. Typically, co-ed hackathon participants are about 18 percent female, she said, but Technica was intended to allow girls and women to come together and be immersed in tech culture without any extra pressure or discomfort.
Silvia Taramillo, a freshman participant from Villanova University, said Technica set a precedent for how other hackathons could attract more women to the tech field.
“There is a kind of comfort zone created,” she said. “It might be intimidating to come and do this normally, but that’s not how it is here.”
Yasmeen Wright, a participant from Towson University, said she didn’t necessarily agree with the emphasis on the “all-ladies” environment.
“I don’t like the idea that we are in some inferior position and we have to assert ourselves,” she said. “It’s good for people who are just getting into it ... but it shouldn’t matter. We should all just be able to come together and work together.”
While working on their hacks, attendees were able to participate in workshops on coding or product design and in different activities throughout the event, like competitive cup stacking, for the chance to win prizes. The event also brought together sponsors from area tech companies as well as mentors, including university professors and tech-related club members, to help participants with their projects.
For example, Taramillo and University of Pennsylvania student Isabel Ren worked on a concentration-based game using the Oculus Rift, with some help from this university’s virtual-reality club. By the end of the weekend, other participants were able to use the Rift and play the game they had created. They did not know each other before Technica and said their hackathon experience was exciting and empowering.
Meredith Lightstone, a member of the Technica marketing team, said hackathons aren’t just for those who specialize in tech. Afshar, for example, majored in criminology and criminal justice in college.
“As a non-STEM major, I’ve seen how tech is integrated in almost every field nowadays,” Lightstone, a junior government and politics major said. “You don’t have to be an engineer to have tech impact your career. Even a baseline of tech skills can be really beneficial for internships and jobs and research positions in the future.”
Lightstone said organizers wanted Technica to be as inclusive as possible, because for many, it might be their first introduction to the tech world.
Mirza said sign-in data from the first day showed that 75 percent of attendees were first-time hackathon participants and another 36 percent were non-STEM majors.
Jayanti said she hopes Technica makes a positive impact on some of the participants and that they left feeling like they learned something valuable or created something great. Mostly, she said, she hopes they understand that there is a place for them in the tech world.
Technica was the first hackathon experience for Ciara Robinson and Anita Bangali, both seniors in high school, and they said they certainly will be attending more.
The two spent the weekend designing simple app and Web-compatible video games. Robinson said they basically started from scratch, with very little coding experience. It took a lot of hard work and learning to create their end product, but it was “really worth it,” she said.
“All of our friends are going to come back and be like, ‘I watched Netflix all weekend,’” Bangali said. “And I’ll be like, ‘Really? Well, I built a video game.’ And that’s awesome.”