The University of Arizona

Learning, Innovation Shine at Women Techmakers Tucson Hackathon

Innovation and experiential learning will take center stage this weekend at the third annual Women Techmakers Tucson Hackathon. In collaboration with the Office of Student Engagement, Google Developer Groups, Code for Tucson and UAZ Libraries, the event illustrates the best of learning, discovery and collaboration for individuals of all race, gender, class, ability, and skill level.

In anticipation of the exciting event, we caught up with Maggie Melo, a University of Arizona graduate student and coordinator of the hackathon for the past three years, to talk about what’s on tap for the event and future plans. 

I’m sure a lot of people have a general idea about what a typical Hackathon looks like, but this one is unique in the way that it operates. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Maggie: Sure. Usually when people hear the word hackathon, they associate it with coding, hacking, and all-nighters filled with Red Bulls. Women don’t usually get to attend these events and that’s why we structure our hackathon differently.

For example, it starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. We also provide childcare support and “hacking” occurs in the form of individuals coming together to create projects that solves a problem. It makes for an environment that’s more inclusive of everyone in the community.

I hear one of the new things that you’re doing this year is collaborating with the Office of Student Engagement.

Maggie: Yes, this year we’re kicking off the hackathon with an introduction to design thinking, in collaboration with the Office of Student Engagement, UA Libraries and McGuire Center.

The idea is to set the tone for the event and provide a more focused, effective structure to the ideation and pitch sessions. It’ll also provide attendees with valuable creative problem-solving skills. This is especially important because many companies, including Google and representatives from the Women Techmakers group, come to the event to meet up-and-coming talent.

What about outcomes? What are you hoping participants gain out of this experience?

Maggie: Good question! One of our goals is to provide students with experiential learning opportunities to reflect and learn based off their experience. A big part of the hackathon is about trying, failing, and learning.

The hope is that participants leave with some tech skills such as the ability to code and use augmented reality technology, in addition to skills that are essential in every workplace, such as professionalism, as well as how to communicate and collaborate with others.

I’m guessing one of the best outcomes are the products participants create. Has there been any projects that stood out to you over the past couple of years? 

Maggie: There’s so many to pick from, but one of my favorites from last year was a group that used ham radio technology to expand Wi-Fi hot spots. We also had a group build a video game to identify problematic Halloween costumes. We get a lot of talented and creative individuals that come through and completely fall in love with the tech field.

What if I don’t have any prior experiences in coding and hacking? Should I still come?

Maggie: This is a common question, and yes, you should still come! On Sept. 30th, we host 18 workshops that will teach students skills such as virtual reality design, game development, the basics of HTML5/CSS, how to use drone software, and advanced data visualization. By the time you hit the hacking sessions, you’ll have something valuable to contribute. Last year, about 80 percent of our participants were brand new.

This is the third year that you’ve returned to coordinate the event. What keeps you coming back?

Maggie: I’ve been a part of Women Techmakers for many years so providing visibility, community, and resources for women in technology has become a big part of my academic and personal identity.

I’m always amazed at the work our participants produce and the feedback that we receive. I also love the camaraderie. Every year, we get an incredibly diverse audience, including community partners, faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate students.

Let’s talk about the future. What’s next for the hackathon?

Maggie: We’ve seen some incredible growth in the hackathon since its creation in 2015. In the first year, we had 53 attendees and three sponsors. This year, we already have more than 250 people signed-up and 16 sponsors. Additionally, we’ll have representatives from 12 different UA departments and eight different community organizations on-hand for support.

In the future, we’ll continue to foster positive changes in the tech field and create a quality environment that allow members to grow and create connections!

The Women Techmakers Tucson Hackathon runs from Sept. 30th to Oct. 1st. To learn more about the event, including the schedule for workshops, visit their official website. For more ways to get involved, including how to participate in 100% Engagement experiences, visit the Office of Student Engagement