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UCI’s first women-centric hackathon, VenusHacks, attracted more than 680 attendees from 250 schools, successfully supporting and encouraging women in STEM — including 180 first-time hackers. The two student-run organizations hosting the event, Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS) and Hack at UCI, leveraged the virtual format, expanding outreach and attracting more attendees than would have been possible with an in-person hackathon. The event started on April 24, 2021 with an opening keynote from Lisa Conn of Icebreaker, and it concluded the following day with a closing keynote from Emily Van Norden of Crowdstrike.

“Both stories were very inspiring to hear and the way they walked us through their journeys was quite captivating,” says VenusHacks Co-President Bhavani Panda. “I personally felt very empowered after listening to both their speeches. We really couldn’t have asked for better keynote speakers.”

Throughout the rest of the weekend, participants virtually attended a number of panels and workshops and created more than 50 projects. Fourteen teams took home $13,000 in prizes.

Lisa Conn, co-founder and chief operating officer of Icebreaker, gave the opening keynote. Emily Van Norden, senior director of diversity, equity & inclusion and corporate communications at Crowdstrike, gave the closing keynote.

Award-Winning Hacks
The Best Female Empowerment Hack went to Nursing my Pregnancy, a user-friendly virtual platform for volunteer nurses to connect, chat and have video calls with low-income, young, and/or single pregnant mothers. As pointed out in the project summary, “the CDC estimates that more than 650 mothers in the U.S. die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, or one year after pregnancy” and that “approximately half of these maternal deaths are preventable.” Inspired by the Nurse Family Partnership, a nurse home visitation program in the U.S. for new mothers, the platform provides health information using an online dashboard, chat-box and video. For creating the award-winning hack, each team member received a Samsung Smart Monitor, Keychron mechanical keyboard, and $100 Grubhub gift card (sponsored by zyBooks).

Two projects were awarded Best Overall Hack, with each team member receiving a Nintendo Switch, $60 Nintendo gift card and Sony XM4 headphones. One of the projects, Be Well, helps users incorporate health, fitness and self-care into their daily lives, presenting a variety of recipes, exercise routines and relaxing activities. For example, the app might suggest that the user have a corn and basil sauté for lunch, squeeze in a five-minute cardio workout, and watch a cat video. Test out the app yourself to see what suggestions you get! This project also won the Best Beginner Hack, with each team member receiving a one-year Disney+ subscription.

The other Best Overall Hack was CO2 CARculator, which calculates the carbon emissions of a trip (specified by the distance traveled and vehicle fuel type) to increase carbon-footprint awareness. A YouTube demo shows how the app presents estimated emissions for gas, hybrid and electric vehicles for comparison and how the background color changes from red to green based on the trip’s emissions per mile. The app also suggests alternative transportation options that can reduce your carbon footprint.

Two other award-winning sustainability hacks were Adopt Green Tech, with information about reducing, reusing and recycling electronics, and The Green Ladybug, which aims to reduce water waste by telling users how much water their plants really need. To see all 51 projects created, including awarding-winning hacks focused on social good, education, AI/VR and more, visit the devpost project gallery.

Just some of the many hacks in the VenusHacks project gallery.

Fostering Gender Inclusivity in STEM
“Although it was many organizers’ first time hosting a hackathon, VenusHacks 2021 went better than I could ever imagine,” says Areeta Wong, who helped organized the event as corporate outreach director of HackUCI. “Overall, the feedback from hackers, mentors, and judges has been overwhelmingly positive.” Comments about the event ranged from “amazing,” “well-organized” and “fun” to “best hackathon I have been to.”

Some of the organizers of the VenusHacks event, including computer science majors Areeta Wong and Bhavani Panda (top and mid center).

“Most importantly, we were able to host UC Irvine’s first large-scale event and hackathon dedicated to fostering gender inclusivity in the STEM field,” says Wong, noting her gratitude for support not only from corporate sponsors but also from students, faculty and clubs within Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “Being able to receive support from our own ICS community has been extremely helpful in sharing what ICS has to offer and also what different types of fields and topics there are in technology.”

The community is now already looking at what comes next. “VenusHacks 2021 is just the first step,” says Wong, “and we’re so excited to continue this event and create a legacy for it!”

— Shani Murray