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Pearl Hacks to host 10th annual hackathon

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Students participate in Pearl Hacks in the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union on Feb. 12, 2023. Photo courtesy of Pearl Hacks.

Pearl Hacks will host its 10th annual "hackathon" this month, specifically aimed toward women and gender non-conforming students.

The hackathon, first founded in 2014 by UNC alumna Maegan Clawges, will allow students to collaborate to create a code that addresses a prompt provided by the sponsors of the event.

Though the event will take place on Feb. 24 and 25, there are several pre-event workshops participants can take part in, starting with a computer science department resume review on Feb. 15. 

Other pre-workshop topics include different technologies that hackers use, computer science topics and how to actively participate in a hackathon.

The name “Pearl Hacks” comes from the idea that gender minorities in computer science face pressure and obstacles. Still, they can accomplish their goals, similar to a pearl undergoing many stages before becoming what it is, Rashi Jagani, experience and executive chair for the organization, said.

Shaina Patel, director of sponsor outreach for Pearl Hacks, said attending the event helped her feel less alone in the computer science field.

“Seeing so many people that were similar to me in a room made me feel really good because a lot of the time in CS classes, there aren't that many women or non-binary people,” Patel said.

Participants can attend a kickoff dinner on Feb. 23. Registration for the main event will begin at 9 a.m. on Feb. 24 and the hacking period will follow at 11 a.m. Participants will have 24 hours to submit a hack — or the code they create alongside a team of three fellow participants.

Much of the event will take place in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union and several rooms will be designated as places where participants can sleep.

“Generally, I don't really have much time or really much of an excuse to just sit down and do work on a project I'm really interested in,” Kate Ma, 2023 Pearl Hacks participant, said. “It was really nice to have a space where we could just sit down for a day and really harness our creativity and see what we could come up with.”

Participants can either enter Pearl Hacks with a team or form one at the event and are encouraged to attend workshops being held during the event. In addition, they cantalk with mentors to integrate what they learn from the workshops into their projects.

Jagani said submissions for each category are judged by representatives of its specific sponsor. For example, this year Google is one of the sponsors, and employees from the company will judge the projects submitted under that prompt. 

Other prompts created by the Pearl Hacks team will be judged by faculty in the Department of Computer Science.

Depending on the success of each team’s project, different prizes can be earned — including AirPods, backpacks and other merchandise.

Patel said during her first UNC hackathon experience, the supportive environment really stuck out to her. 

“I had never been to a hackathon that valued team bonding and meeting other students that are similar to you, and that's really what Pearl Hacks is all about,” Patel said.

A current senior, Jagani remembers coming into UNC intending to be a computer science major. But, she said after Pearl Hacks she found the information science major — which ended up fitting her interests better.

Jagani said she hopes Pearl Hacks can help participants find something they’re passionate about, whether that be computer science or something else

“It's a beginner-friendly hackathon meant for women and gender non-conforming students, so it's just a super supportive environment overall,” Patel said. “But since it is beginner friendly, we aren't specifically looking for computer science students — you can be literally any major.”

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