Hackathon Gives Underrepresented Youth a Chance to Build Apps to Help Their Communities

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Level the Coding Field aims to bring a new innovation to Silicon Valley: more diverse engineers, programmers and entrepreneurs.

By Betsy Mikel (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

When you envision a hackathon, it’s likely you picture a bunch of white dudes hunched over their computers with a very few women and people of color sprinkled in.

Level the Playing Field Institute recently teamed up with Kapor Center for Social Impact, SVB Financial Group & Silicon Valley Bank, DataWind and AT&T to change that stereotype and encourage a more diverse — and much younger — group to develop their own apps.

To fuel its mission to increase diversity in the workforce and eliminate barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), LPFI hosted Level the Coding Field, a hackathon for middle school and high school students of color. LPFI focused on recruiting students who typically lack access to computer education: 88% of the students were African American or Latino, 75% were low-income and 80% had parents that did not attend college.The event brought together 125 students from around Oakland, California.

Each five-student team worked with teachers and volunteers from top tech companies such as Google and Twitter. The teams started by discussing educational, health and environmental issues in their communities, explored root causes of the issues, then built a mobile app to address those challenges.

The winning team built an app that suggests safe walking routes for students to avoid gun and other types of violence. Other students built apps that distributed food to food banks and shelters, called out fast food restaurants to encourage trash reduction, and matched local STEM mentors with low-income mentees of color.

“I learned that a lot of similar issues have been affecting more than one community and that together we can make a change,” said middle school Hackathon participant, Vanessa T.

Though it’s difficult to nail down exactly how large the diversity in tech problem really is, we certainly know minorities and those from a low-income background are severely underrepresented in the field. LPFI and the partner companies that sponsored the hackathon want to change that by exposing students as early as possible to the opportunities in tech.

“Exposing young people early to technology and to the communities that can help them improve their skill sets and get them excited about it is really important,” said Silicon Valley developer and technology consultant Adria Richards.

Competitive and engaging events such as this hackathon are just the way to get students — no matter what their background — interested in pursuing these fields.

“I was looking into the Computer Science field for college, and now I'm sure," said Yum, who participated in the Level the Coding Field Hackathon.

What are other ways to get minority and low-income students involved in tech?

Betsy Mikel is a freelance copywriter and content strategist who helps brands, businesses and entrepreneurs tell their stories. A journalist at heart, her curiosity drives her to find something new to learn every single day. Follow her on Twitter at @betsym.