Imagine a colorful, student-friendly maker space filled with young ladies—40 middle school girls from San Diego public schools (Qcampers) paired with female college students who were serving as their mentors—and everyone racing the clock to create mobile applications for social good and win the Qualcomm Hack for Impact Engineering Challenge.
That was the scene January 9th inside Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab during the 3-hour inaugural hackathon that I attended. Things got particularly interesting when one team struggled to get a crucial button working on its wellness app. The college students thought the problem was in the software and that fixing it before time ran out and judging started was hopeless. The Qcampers believed the problem was a hardware issue and kept troubleshooting.
I was across the room when, moments before the clock stopped, I heard the college women cheering. The Qcampers had resolved the issue (hardware-related, like they thought) and were beaming with pride. What an amazing moment. It reminded me of Qualcomm’s own legacy of achieving what others say can’t be done.
I help lead Qualcomm’s Women Enhancing Technology program, which focuses on building the pipeline of girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and women’s empowerment is very important to me. I’m thrilled to have helped bring the hackathon to fruition through our Qcamp for Girls in STEM program and as part of the annual Qualcomm Women’s Collegiate Conference (QWCC).
For this year’s event, the QWCC invited 55 top university students from across the country—mostly freshmen and sophomores entering Computer Science, Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering programs—to participate in workshops, network with Qualcomm employees, gain interview and career advice, learn about the wireless industry and pay it forward through the hackathon’s unique mentoring opportunity.
What made this event extra meaningful for me was that we challenged the girls to come up with ideas for mobile apps related to four focus areas: education, health care, public safety and the environment. The teams used tablets, Arduino and MIT App Inventor to code their solutions and then presented their inventions to a panel of judges. Winners took home fun Qualcomm swag such as sweatshirts, headphones and backpacks imprinted with our corporate logo.
The college students really enjoyed having the middle school students there because it helped them focus on learning. For many of them this was their first hackathon and working alongside a middle school student took away the intimidation and competition factor and allowed them to immerse themselves in the learning experience. With this new confidence they gained at the conference, many of the college students are now talking about meeting up going to hackathons this spring as a team.
As a special treat, a delegation of Pakistani businesswomen who were in the U.S. to explore women’s entrepreneurship and initiatives to engage women in STEM careers visited Qualcomm that afternoon and attended our hackathon. I was honored to meet with them and tell them about our efforts to empower young girls and women to pursue careers in STEM. The delegation had a wonderful time engaging with the girls and listening to their presentations to the judges.
The goal for our hackathon was to inspire the girls to continue with STEM education, enhance their coding ability and surround them with role models who can show them what it’s like to pursue their dreams. Not every girl went home with a prize, but every girl went home a winner.