Hack3: Closing The STEM Racial Gap

The Hack3 team. Courtesy image

Students graduating with STEM degrees earn the highest starting salaries among other bachelor’s degrees, but STEM jobs are vastly underrepresented among Black and Hispanic workers.

A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that while Hispanic workers make up 17% of total employment across all occupations, they make up just 8% of all STEM workers. Black workers comprise 11% of all employed adults and 9% of those in STEM occupations. On college campuses, Black students make up only 7% of those who graduate with STEM bachelor’s degrees.

Four New England-based high school students — Jonathan Lei, Vidyut Suresh, Amanda Sherman, and Rama Rao Vencharla — are hoping to help bridge the socioeconomic divide in computer science through Hack3, a free global 24-hour online hackathon that teaches any and every interested high school student how to code.

“Historic systematic discrimination contributed to less opportunity for women and minorities, a divide that is still perpetuated today,” Amanda Sherman, a 16-year-old high schooler in Massachusetts and Outreach Director at Hack3, says. “Unfortunately, this contributes to a lower amount of education and finances which makes it harder to attain an education to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Our organization is committed to alleviating the gap in opportunity for participants in our events who may be from historically marginalized groups.”

BACKED BY AMAZON, NETAPP, BALSAMIQ, POSTMAN, AND NEXUS BYTES

Last year, Hack3 introduced its first hackathon, which connected over 275 students of all skill levels with 20 professional mentors, to learn how to build novel projects across tracks such as COVID-19, groundbreaking technologies, and recreation.

This year’s Hack3 hackathon grew over 25% featuring 350 participants with over 30 professionals acting as mentors and judges. Additionally, the hackathon included 10 workshops that introduced students to technologies in computer science such as building a chatbot in the programming language Python, and featured $70,000 in prizes with support from high-level tech companies such as Amazon, NetApp, Balsamiq, Postman, and Nexus Bytes. Winners of the “Best Project” also got to select a charity to donate Hack3’s excess cash to a charity of their choice.

LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD FOR ALL

Minority students face a number of structural barriers to fields such as computer science compared to their White counterparts. A study found that Black students are less likely than White students to have dedicated computer science classes at the school they attend. Moreover, Black and Hispanic students are less likely than White students to use a computer at home.

To combat these barriers, Hack3 offers to sponsor internet access for any student who needs it. In addition to internet access, Hack3 offers to help compensate living expenses and equipment costs incurred for low-income participants attending a Hack3 hackathon.

“Some of the key obstacles that underrepresented minorities face is a lack of access to education and financial barriers to affording that education,” Sherman says. “At Hack3, every aspect of our hackathons is free to participants so that each and every individual has an equal chance to compete.”

Next year, Hack3 hopes to expand on its offerings and help increase access to computer science by offering a number of weekly classes to students prior to the hackathon covering prevalent concepts in computer science — all at no cost to students. The hope, Sherman says, is to level the playing field and encourage greater accessibility in an industry where the underrepresented might not have the same opportunities to learn and succeed.

“We believe in empowering every high schooler to learn the skills and teamwork that is necessary to work in one of the highest paying industries in the 21st century,” Sherman says. “We will continue to discuss further how we can enhance the experience at hackathons for all of our participants, especially for beginners and those who do not have much access to CS education.”

FREE MENTORSHIP FOR ALL

Mentorship plays an important role in career progression. Studies have shown that employees who received mentoring are five times more likely to be promoted than those who don’t have mentors. For minorities, that mentorship plays an even greater role.

At Hack3, all hackathon participants get free access to classes with mentorship led by industry professionals affiliated with the likes of billion-dollar companies and prestigious institutions including Stanford, Harvard, Amazon, NetApp, and Wikipedia. Sherman says that free mentorship is an important component of Hack3 and enabling each and every student interested in pursuing computer science with an equal opportunity to do so.

“Due to the barriers to obtaining education that are so frequently faced by individuals belonging to marginalized communities, offering free mentorship is an effective way to give people a chance to learn some of the most important skills in technology, which they can use to climb the socioeconomic ladder,” Sherman says. “Mentorship can greatly shape an individual’s perception of a field by opening their eyes to a wider world that they have not seen before.”

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