The “Hack for Inclusion” conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an annual hackathon whose purpose is to combat bias using technology. A “hackathon” is an event where many people join together to engage in collaborative computer programming. Last month, ten students from EF Academy New York traveled to Boston with Ms. Berni Lally, a teacher of computer science. At MIT, the students participated in the conference and collaborated with other students to tackle various challenges. Student Re Lee, a tenth-grader at EF Academy New York, was a part of the winning team at the conference. Alongside his teammates, Lee worked on a challenge sponsored by Wayfair, addressing the problem of underrepresentation in hiring processes. Lee and his team designed a prototype for an app that would help hiring managers at high-growth technology companies to find and hire candidates from more diverse backgrounds.
Understanding and researching the challenges
This particular conference was created by MIT tech groups Breaking the Mold (BTM) and Hacking Discrimination with the intent to tackle issues of social justice by uniting students through technology. “Hack for Inclusion” is a socially-focused event, where the tasks and discussions are shaped around issues of discrimination, representation and equity in the workplace. There were a variety of projects to work on that each dealt with specific social issues. These topics asked students to address challenges such as gender equity in the STEM field, sexual violence on campus, and equal representation in hiring and consulting firms. Other students worked on creating navigation technologies for the blind, tackling the challenge of scheduling for small businesses, and addressing the need to help former criminals successfully reintegrate to society.
Many of the students that attended the conference are either students in Ms. Lally’s computer science classes or members of her after-school coding clubs. Prior to attending the hackathon, the students were assigned to their different challenges so that they could begin preliminary research and brainstorming. Some of the students working on a product to maintain efficiency and equity in scheduling spoke to the food services team on campus to find out would improve their lives as employees.
Collaboration and product-development at MIT
During the conference, the students spent time collaborating with other college and university students as they approached these difficult tasks. To begin, the students spent time brainstorming, developing initial plans, designing algorithms and troubleshooting their products. Once they had finalized their ideas and developed prototypes for their products and services, each team presented their solutions. Investors, sponsors, and representatives from tech giants like Twitter and eBay were also in attendance at the conference to hear the students’ proposed solutions. EF Academy New York student Re Lee was even part of the winning team! Re worked with his peers to develop an app that would help to promote equity in the recruiting process for high-growth tech companies, allowing more diverse candidates to be matched with better job opportunities.
Reflecting on the experience
Aruuke, a 10th grade student at EF Academy New York, said this conference was a really motivational and educational event: “This trip taught me how to work better on a team, how to construct data, how to break down an issue, and how to be attentive to all the ideas and opinions of my team members. Witnessing so many issues being solved and seeing so many creative solutions to problems really motivated and inspired Aruuke. She is excited to continue pursuing her goal to keep experimenting in the STEM field (and, someday, to attend MIT)! Tien Nam Nguyen, a junior who also attended the event, said it was an unforgettable experience. “I myself have never experienced anything like this before,” Tien explained. “During the whole process of planning and create the actual product, I felt as if I was actually in a business – I could feel the professional working environment. It was such a valuable experience for me.” Tien was grateful for the opportunity to experience first-hand what it would be like to work in the field of technology or computer science.
The students had a fantastic experience at the event, and were really excited to participate in such a relevant hands-on experience. Ms. Lally explained that “this conference was especially interesting, because it was more of a socially-focused hackathon, which is different. It was a great opportunity for the students to shift their focus from the ‘doing’ part of coding to understand how ‘doing’ can impact society.” This event allowed them to put their knowledge from the classroom into practice, giving new life to textbook theories. Understanding how technology can be used to positively impact the lives of others is such a valuable skill for these students as they begin to think about their future career paths.