Hackathon: Cracking the Code for Women in STEAM

It’s a Saturday morning in February.The NCS campus is quiet except for inside Gray Library, where more than 70 students are huddled over computers, learning programming languages such as Java, Scratch, and Python. Still others are cheering on a game of robot soccer, exploring faraway scenes through virtual-reality goggles, or creating “life hacks” for their friends using design-thinking strategies.

Welcome to NCS’s fourth annual hackathon, a day-long event that engages young women in computer science and other STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) subjects. The sessions are led by students for students, a tacit rebuttal to stereotypes about gender roles in computer science.

Although the STEAM job rate is growing, science and technology fields remain notoriously male-dominated: Women compose only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Board. And women can feel at a young age that they are shut out of those fields.

India Bhalla-Ladd ’17 and Julia Stavreva ’17 both felt pulled toward computer science when they entered the NCS Upper School. “We had this vague but powerful interest and not a lot of certainty about how to pursue it,” said Bhalla-Ladd, now a junior at Yale University.

Julia Stavreva ’17, left, and India Bhalla-Ladd ’17 cofounded NCS’s Girls Who Code club. Both Bhalla-Ladd and Stavreva turned to the nonprofit Girls Who Code, which aims to advance more women into the computer science workforce, and signed up for summer courses prior to their junior year of high school. “It’s such a phenomenal organization,” Bhalla-Ladd said.

Inspired by their classes and the Girls Who Code curriculum, the two students determined to start a similarly focused club at NCS. “It didn’t make sense that we didn’t have a coding club, because as a school we really advocate for getting women into all fields,” added Stavreva, who is now at the University of Michigan.

Meetings of the new club started off small. Members would work through coding tutorials and talk about ideas for projects or apps. They also began attending local hackathons, events in which computer programmers and others involved in software development work intensively on coding projects with the goal of having a completed product at the end of often-multi-day sessions.

Bhalla-Ladd recalled her first hackathon experience with members of the Girls Who Code summer program. As most of the members were relatively new to coding, they attended a local co-ed hackathon to meet others and learn skills quickly. “Most of the people there were guys who had been coding a lot longer than we had. A couple groups would make strange comments about us being an all-female team, like ‘Oh, good luck with that,’ or ‘Of course you’re Girls Who Code,’ ” Bhalla-Ladd recalled.“It was just compounding levels of insecurity.”

But when the NCS club attended Technica, a 24-hour,  all-female hackathon at the University of Maryland, it was a completely different experience: Empowering, welcoming, and surrounded by many female coders.

“It was so much easier to try new things, work on projects, and just generally exist there. It was a big inspiration—we owe a lot to them,” Bhalla-Ladd said, adding that she still has a sticker on her computer from the event.

A Non-Traditional Hackathon
From that experience, club members decided that they wanted to create a friendly, welcoming, and encouraging space to make coding more accessible for students: an allfemale hackathon of their own. And NCS had just hired the perfect advocate, Academic Technology Specialist Frances O’Connor.

Less than a decade ago, O’Connor was a writing instructor with virtually no coding experience. She had learned some HTML as an editor at Scholastic, but it was while teaching a writing course with an online format that she designed her own WordPress website and dove fully into learning code. That project sparked her interest in STEAM: “It’s a total passion of mine,” she said. “I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d had one teacher or older student in school who encouraged my interest. If I had gone to an event like [the hackathon] when I was young, I think I would have gone in a different direction.”

O’Connor had attended the Technica event with the club and was equally interested in getting something started on campus. Logistically, NCS’s Girls Who Code club could not plan an overnight hackathon, and Bhalla-Ladd and Stavreva were about to graduate. Their main priority was building a sustainable model that would keep the excitement going for those who came after them.

“Ms. O’Connor was so helpful. She was in the room with the original idea and just ran with it and helped us along every step of the way,” Bhalla-Ladd recalled.

O’Connor helped the students order supplies, plan workshops, and spread the word among students, faculty, staff, and parents.

That first hackathon looked similar to the current model. It started with an introduction from a guest female coder; Girls Who Code members then developed and ran their own coding workshops, robot demonstrations, virtual-reality experiences, and more for about 50 students in grades 6–12. Finally, students partnered together for a build challenge to test their engineering skills.

But the biggest success for Bhalla-Ladd and Stavreva was having so many students excited about the event. They felt relieved that it would continue after they graduated.

The most important part of the formula was getting Upper Schoolers to develop and run their own lessons for younger students. Maya Thumpasery ’21 recalls being urged by Girls Who Code presidents to plan and run a workshop at that first hackathon in 2017. She chose to lead a virtual-reality demonstration. This year, as co-president of the Girls Who Code club, she taught HTML, which she had learned in a summer course.

“The biggest barrier is getting the younger students to feel like it’s okay to make mistakes,” O’Connor said. She helps the older students prepare to be mentors by asking them about how they might reassure a tentative student and encourages them to build in time for attendees to make mistakes and have fun.

O’Connor hopes that resiliency persists when the students leave school and enter coed spaces that may not be as encouraging. She wants each student who comes through the hackathon to feel confident in her abilities, having safely made mistakes in a supportive environment and accepted that failure is part of the learning process.

When You See It, You Can Do It
One of Thumpasery’s favorite parts of the hackathon is seeing the younger students’ faces light up when they learn something new.

“The Lower Schoolers are super excited all the time. They definitely like the hands-on things, like Google Cardboard and the robots,” she said. “They want to know it works, and it’s cool when you explain it to them and they actually get it.”

As someone who started going to the hackathon in 5th grade, Malia Smith ’25 agrees: “I really like the handson building.” She remembers trying the 3-D pen her first year: a tool that melts plastic as you draw, allowing students to create structures and designs in real time. “It’s not really coding-related, but it’s just fun because you get to take home whatever structure you build,” Smith said. “I made myself a pair of glasses!”

This year, Smith wanted to pay forward her experience. She ran robot soccer with the Middle School’s Alpha Eagles Robotics Team, took pictures around campus with a 360-degree camera for a virtual-reality demonstration, and helped design one of the afternoon group builds.

Students were tasked to make a tower out of cardboard and other tools; it also had to match certain specifications: have a door that opened and closed, be tall enough to allow a human to stand inside, have one other opening such as a window or pet door, and be resilient and strong.

The dynamic of turning around and helping a younger student engage in coding is what the hackathon is all about. “There’s this novelty and importance in the peerto-peer relationship,” O’Connor said, emphasizing the significance of students being able to see themselves in the instructors. “If you see it and you understand that this can be your story, you’re going to do it.”

Last year, for the first time, the hackathon participants included prospective NCS students. The admissions office partnered with the club to invite STEAMinterested students who had applied to NCS. The number of applicants who took part doubled this year over the 2019 number.

“Prospective students get the opportunity to engage in STEAM activities in a supportive environment, and they see for themselves how empowering NCS is for young women, since our students run the whole thing. It’s an experience our peer schools can’t offer,” said Molly Price, senior associate director of admission and financial aid.

And the range is growing: In the fall, NCS plans to host a hackathon on campus for D.C. public school students–primarily to get more girls excited about coding.

“What’s great about the hackathon is, if you discover the importance of computer science or your interest in it early on, you can really take it further in high school and beyond,” Thumpasery said.

Stavreva and Bhalla-Ladd say the hackathon and Girls Who Code gave them a leg up in college and helped them stay engaged in STEAM. They have found that their coding skills translate well to other subjects.

Stavreva regularly uses the Python programming language in her advanced economics classes, and Bhalla-Ladd’s physics courses require a knowledge of code. Her coding background also led to a research assistant position in Chile and an upcoming stay at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Bhalla-Ladd also runs a Women in Physics group on campus, which she immediately joined during her freshman year.

“I think the reason a lot of women stay in physics and computer science is because of the communities they formed early on,” Bhalla-Ladd remarked.

Observing the enthusiasm and concentration on students’ faces at the NCS hackathon, it’s easy to envision a world in which women run the STEAM world.
    • Members of the Upper School Girls Who Code club. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)

    • Julia Stavreva ’17, left, and India Bhalla-Ladd ’17 cofounded NCS’s Girls Who Code club.

    • Frances O’Connor, center, and Audrey May ’20 show Lower Schoolers how to operate a circuit board at the 2019 hackathon.

    • Malia ’25 draws with a 3-D pen at the 2020 hackathon. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)

    • Alexandra ’26 and Emelina ’26 experiment with a circuit board that turns fruit into musical instruments. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)

    • Maddy ’25 operates a tablet-controlled robot. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)

    • Mishah ’26 displays a binary-code bracelet. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)

    • Julia ’27 gazes in wonder at a virtual-reality scene through a Google Cardboard viewer. (Photo by Molly S. Photography)