June 26, 2017  

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USM Hosts Hackathon to Find New “Hidden Figures” in Computer Science

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The Petal High team J.A.M. Inc., captured first place in the inaugural Hackathon competition held April 7-8 at The University of Southern Mississippi. Pictured left to right: Myla Cox, Abbey Gallager, Jasmine Gibbs and team mentor Dr. SherRhonda Gibbs. (Photo by Reggie Thomas)

Last year’s hit movie, Hidden Figures, told the inspiring story of three female African-American mathematicians who worked as “computers” for NASA, helping the U.S. win the Space Race and put the first man on the moon. Today, despite the accomplishments of these early trailblazers, women of color are among the least represented minorities in the technology sector, especially in computing fields.

In an effort to increase interest and diversity in computer science and ensure that future generations of black women are no longer the “hidden figures” of tech, The University of Southern Mississippi organized and hosted the first-ever iD 8 Hackathon, held April 7 and 8, on the University’s Hattiesburg campus.

During the hackathon, nearly 50 female African-American students representing six Mississippi high schools worked in teams to design and build a mobile application. They were challenged with developing a social media app designed to bring about a positive change in the world. Each team included an adult teacher or sponsor. Computer science professors and students from the University provided technical assistance as needed.

“I was very impressed with the interest and talents of the girls who participated,” said Dr. Andrew Sung, Director of the School of Computing at Southern Miss. “The hackathon busted all myths about minority interest in programming and computing in general. The tremendous success of the event provides great momentum for USM to recruit more students from this most under-represented group into computing fields to increase diversity and serve critical national interest needs.”

The hackathon was kicked off with a warm welcome from USM President, Rodney D. Bennett, whose bold words encouraged the girls to take advantage of this event to change their lives.

Throughout the hackathon weekend, participants heard from a number of accomplished women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. Speakers included Sheena Allen, the Founder and CEO of Sheena Allen Apps; Dr. Mary Moore, an Aviation Engineer at GE and Founder of S.T.E.M. Discoveries; Yetunde Adewunmi, a Doctoral Candidate in Biological Sciences at USM; Deidra Minor, Director of Applied Technology at USM; Dr. SherRhonda Gibbs, Associate Professor of Management at USM; and Dr. Julie Cwikla, the iD 8 lead organizer and USM Director of Creativity & Innovation in STEM.

At the hackathon’s conclusion, each team presented their app to judges Henry Jones, Ph.D., the co-founder and CEO of Kopis Mobile; Thomas Avery, Ph.D. a Senior Electrical Engineer at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems; and Jennifer Sequeira, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management and International Business at USM.

Once the scores were tallied, J.A.M. Inc., a team from Petal High School, was honored as the hackathon’s winner. Their app, called Fishhook, is designed to protect social media users from online predators that use fake profiles. Team members included Myla Cox, Jasmine Gibbs and Abbey Gallager, and Dr. SherRonda Gibbs served as the team’s mentor. Winners received the iD 8 Hackathon trophy and $100 Amazon gift cards.

“The entire experience was really enjoyable,” said Myla Cox. “I got to learn something new and create a product that people could actually use in the real world.”

All participants received an iD 8 medal and a copy of the book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.

“The iD8 event was a visceral reminder of the power of creative young people who tap into their passions,” said iD 8 Hackathon judge, Dr. Henry Jones. “All of the teams accomplished an impressive amount of work in a very short amount of time. We had a difficult time choosing just one winner.”

“The iD 8 Hackathon was a truly amazing experience.” said Dr. SherRonda Gibbs. “It challenged the young ladies on our team to perform tasks well beyond their comfort zone. By the end of the event, two of the three girls on our team expressed a desire to major in science or engineering. I couldn't be more pleased. As a team mentor, the experience reignited my passion for software engineering, and most importantly, the girls loved it.”
Dr. Julie Cwikla, who envisioned and organized the hackathon for the University, is working to turn the iD 8 Hackaton into an annual event. “The hackathon exceeded all of our expectations,” said Dr. Cwikla. “Not only did the teams learn basic coding, app development, and excel at it all, but the USM computer science professors, students, guest speakers, and judges were all inspired and challenged. Nobody left this event untouched.”