This past weekend UF hosted its third annual hack-athon, SwampHacks. More than 500 college students attended this event, not just from our campus, but from places all over Florida and Georgia. For those of you not familiar with what a hack-athon is, it goes a little something like this: You and three other students have a set amount of time (in this case it was 36 hours) to code something — literally anything. This sounds intimidating to those not familiar, but don’t be fooled. You don’t have to sit at your computer for 36 hours straight. There are workshops, activities and plenty of food. And, believe it or not, you don’t have to come in with any coding knowledge.
If you aren’t a computer science or some sort of engineering major, for instance, you probably read the word hack-athon and were instantly turned off.
But one of the best parts of the event is that mentors are available and ready to teach anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Austin Brown, one of the coordinators of SwampHacks, estimates that a quarter of the participants had no prior coding knowledge. These events are a great way for people who don’t know much about computer science to dive right into coding. It’s a fun environment, built on teamwork and innovation, and there’s no pressure to turn into an expert overnight.
Hack-athons are a way to make computer science more accessible on the outside, but the field still has a long way to go.
Even though computer science is one of the fastest growing fields in the job market, only a quarter of high schools across the country offer computer science courses, and out of these, a lot only focus on basic computer use. Roughly 18 percent of schools offer Advanced Placement computer science classes, but the demographic of students who take the class is incredibly skewed. AP computer science has the largest split between males and females taking the exam, with males making up about 81 percent and females making up 19 percent in 2013, according to College Board. Compare this to Calculus AB, with a 52 percent male and 48 percent female split. There were 11 states in 2013 where no black students took the computer science exam and 8 states where no Hispanic students took the exam.
It’s important to remember that a lot of lower-income schools typically do not have a computer science curriculum, and those students have limited access to computers to begin with. Others might have no idea where to begin, or they believe that computer science is scary and too hard for them.
Unlike physics, biology and chemistry which have been core components of high-school curriculum since the 1890s, computer science is still considered an elective. Entry-level computer science classes in college, sometimes the first coding class a lot of students take, usually serves as the weed-out class for the major. This works for Chemistry 1 and Biology 1, where students come in with some knowledge from high-school courses, but this isn’t often the case for computer science. Some individuals persevere, but it’s a deterrent, and ultimately makes the field seem inaccessible to those who did not have the opportunity to start early.
What the school system needs to do is make computer science as essential as biology, chemistry and math. We need to introduce computer science at a young age, the same way we introduce other sciences. We need to make the already existing space more accessible to those who are interested. And we’re getting there. Events like hack-athons create a fun environment for new coders. There are more and more easy-to-follow online tutorials about coding. People are even coding games and websites for kids to learn about coding — going full circle and passing on their knowledge to a generation that won’t be as restricted.