04/19/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

What Is A Hackathon And How Do They Empower Girls in Science And Technology?


Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Hackathons have been around for years, but few outside of the field of software development and computer engineering actually know of them, even fewer participate in these events. It's unfortunate because hackathons are a utopia of the most ambitious, driven, curious, resourceful and quirky individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

So, what is a hackathon? Basically, it's a community event in which computer programmers, engineers, software developers, web designers, UX designers, project managers, mathematicians, scientists, and business minds come together to create a fully-functioning application or piece of hardware, and it's all done in tight time constraints often between 24 to 48 hours, although some have lasted longer. How is this possible? Simple. When you bring together the best minds in STEM and there's a fluid exchange of ideas and skills, incredible things are bound to happen.

Take for example the International Space Apps Challenge, a two-day hackathon led by NASA that focuses on developing open-source technologies that address challenges in space exploration and social needs on Earth. Last year, the inaugural event took place at 25 volunteer-sites all over the globe, including New York City, and drew in approximately 2,000 participants who collaborated on-site and virtually. As a result, millions of dollars' worth of open-source solutions is now available for free public use. This year, the event will take place on April 20-21 with more than 80 volunteer-sites in over 40 countries and will likely be the biggest hackathon in the world or the "biggest technology development marathon." Participants can flex their coding and STEM prowess in four key areas such as software, open hardware, data visualization, and citizen science.

Before you start assuming that the people who attend these crazy events are only awkward, nerdy, social outcasts like Lisbeth Salander or Abby Sciuto, let me stop you. The women that participate in these events are as normal as you and I, and not all of them started out knowing that they would end up working in STEM. Take for example Marissa Levy Lerer, a petite, bubbly and soft-spoken brunette who participated in the 2012 International Space Apps Challenge in New York City; she along with Ken Koch and Rob Hanley built ExoAPI, an ongoing project that extends the accessibility of exoplanetary data though an easy-to-use RESTful API, which is basically a fancy term for an architecture style that utilizes HTTP to make machines talk to each other. "My tech career is actually entirely inspired by my music career. When I first started playing music in the city, I needed a website and press materials. Rather than pay someone to do that for me, I picked up an HTML book and took a few Photoshop classes and all of a sudden, I'm a web developer," explained Marissa who earned a B.A. in music and M.A. in graphic communications, management and technology.

But, you don't need to have a professional career in technology to participate. In fact, this weekend, a group of curious students from Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, NY, are going to put their STEM chops to the test by taking part in the upcoming NASA hackathon, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 20 and ending at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 21. Computer teacher Chris X. Leung who is leading the trip explains, "it is important for female students to participate in this event [Space Apps Challenge], so they can meet other females in STEM and understand that a career in STEM can be a reality for them." He adds, "this is a unique opportunity for young adults to apply their understanding of computer science, engineering, and mathematics to solve real world problems alongside people who are seasoned in the field. It's a great way for them to further their interests in STEM and see what careers they may want to pursue."

Hackathons are quickly gaining recognition outside of the technology community. They attract and foster collaboration among people of different age groups, talents, backgrounds, goals, and geography, but the best part? It doesn't cost you anything to participate and what you gain at the end is priceless.

To learn more about the International Space Apps Challenge or to register for the event, please visit