Coding for a Cause
A passion for making computer science more accessible earns a New York Key Club member honors from the White House.
Story by Julie Saetre
Sharon Lin stared at the screen in shock, not quite sure what to make of the email message she had just read. Was it spam? Someone phishing for information? She read the message again. And slowly, reality seeped in.
“I screamed,” she remembers, laughing. “And I called my parents.”
Lin had just learned that she had been named a White House Champion of Change, an honor created by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to showcase individuals making an extraordinary impact on their communities. A senior and Key Club member at Stuyvesant High School in New York, Lin was being recognized for her work in Extracurricular Enrichment for Marginalized Girls and Girls of Color. And, in two weeks, the 10 newly named Champions in that category would head to the White House for a daylong session of panel discussions, networking and inspiration.
“My parents drove me up the day before (the Sept. 30 event),” she says, “so I did have to skip a day of school. But my teachers were understanding.”
That’s not surprising, considering Lin’s Champion designation was the result of two major initiatives that she has launched during her high school career. The free, weeklong BitxBit Camp introduces NYC-area middle school girls to computer science, while Stuyhacks provides a hackathon opportunity for middle and high school students.
The idea for BitxBit Camp came to Lin in her sophomore year, when she learned about the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), founded to empower women and girls in computer science. Why not, she wondered, introduce something closer to home? Lin knew that exposure to coding and other key concepts wasn’t part of every girl’s life. She and her now 14-year-old sister, Sammi, hadn’t found ample opportunities to pursue their interest outside of school-based classes. And some of the elementary and middle school students she met during volunteer projects didn’t have access to a computer at school, much less at home.
“The fact that there was such a gap in computer science and the fact that there was something I knew I could do really pushed me to go for it,” Lin says.
So she created a nonprofit summer camp, propelled by some big-name sponsors. Intel and Microsoft contribute funds to NCWIT’s ongoing AspireIT initiative, which awarded Lin a US$3,000 grant. Microsoft also agreed to host the program at its 5th Avenue flagship store. Sphero, maker of the BB-8 droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens provided free robots to introduce programming concepts in a visual manner. Students can, for example, program the robots to blink or move forward and then tangibly see them follow the code. Participants also study website design and entrepreneurship, tour technology companies and hear from speakers within the computer science field. To date, 15 girls have completed the camp; one day, Lin hopes to expand to cities throughout the state and beyond its borders. (The Kiwanis International Foundation is helping her get closer to that goal: For 2017, Lin received a Key Club International Youth Opportunities Fund grant.)
Stuyhacks developed through Lin’s experience attending hackathons, where participants work, either individually or in teams, on developing software; the best results win prizes. The projects often revolve around a theme, which can range from video games to space exploration to the World Cup. Hackathons last a day, a weekend or longer. Lin enjoyed every one she attended, but something clicked when she headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Pearl Hacks, an all-women event. As usual, she was one of the only high school students in attendance, since most hackathons target the college crowd. But she immediately felt at home.
“The atmosphere at that hackathon was so different from what I’d seen in my community,” she remembers. “When I was learning computer science, even before I started taking classes at my school, I noticed that it was primarily an isolated community. I didn’t have a lot of people to talk about code with or talk about programming ideas with. And I didn’t think that a school, especially one in New York City, that has so many students and so many resources, should go on without at least exploring the possibility of starting a hackathon.”
School administrators, however, didn’t see it the same way. When Lin asked if they would fund and host a hackathon, the answer was no. Undeterred, she recruited four fellow students, and the group began planning to host their own hackathon. For the next several months, they sought out sponsors, recruited judges, searched for a venue and reached out to potential attendees. On Oct. 10, 2015, Stuyhacks debuted to more than 100 eager participants.
“It was so, so rewarding afterward,” Lin says, “because most of the students were attending a hackathon for the first time. They all commented that it was something that they didn’t know about beforehand and that they wanted to continue participating in. And that was really the community aspect that we wanted to promote through Stuyhacks.”
Enter Stuyhacks 2.0, held in May 2016. Stuyvesant administrators still weren’t onboard, especially for the bigger-and-better 24-hour hackathon Lin and company had in mind. This time, though, the school’s alumni association stepped in with a donation to help buy materials, prizes, food and other necessities. And the Stuyhacks crew found a new partner: Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league responsible for bringing events to more than 65,000 participants every year.
“It really connected us to the greater hackathon community. We began hearing about other organizers around the world who were doing things in Mexico, Europe and Canada. It was one of the most exciting times of my high school career,” Lin says.
The second Stuyhacks attracted more than 150 participants, including—to Lin’s satisfaction—a middle school group and a large contingent of female students.
“We had around 40 percent girls in attendance,” she says, “which was crazy considering the gender gap that exists in the computer science field.”
The fledgling hackathon began to get noticed, not just in NYC but throughout the state. And last December, the once-reluctant administration reversed course, welcoming some 200 students onto school grounds for Stuyhacks’ third edition. Lin expects that number to hit 300 at the next Stuyhacks in March, an unusually large attendance, she says, for a high school hackathon.
After that, graduation plans will be in full swing, with higher education on the horizon. Lin plans to study computer science at the university level, although she hasn’t decided on a school yet. She’s considering a career as a software engineer or a data science researcher. She is quick to point out, though, that her commitment to service won’t waver.
“Nonprofit work and social activism and volunteering, these activities have been part of my life for so long, and that won’t be going away anytime soon. I see myself continuing to work as a mentor to students in future hackathons, continuing to run my nonprofit, continuing to advocate for girls in STEM, for education, for technology literacy. Volunteering is something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.”
Key to Success
For Sharon Lin, what began as a passion for service grew into launching a nonprofit and recognition from the White House—and she hasn’t even graduated from high school yet. In September 2016, she was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for her work with marginalized girls and girls of color. We asked her about volunteering, Key Club and the leadership skills she brought to Washington D.C.
How did you become involved with service projects?
One of my first experiences volunteering was through community programs. I used to live in New Jersey, and my parents would bring me to these different groups that they were part of. We’d volunteer for community events, whether it was our town celebrations or volunteering at senior groups.
Did those experiences eventually lead you to Key Club?
One of the first clubs I signed up for in middle school was Builders Club. I ended up being president of Builders Club, and that brought me a lot of leadership building and understanding the meaning of volunteering and what it meant to be serving as a youth activist. It really gave me a community of other young people who were also interested in volunteering and in spending their free time helping others. And that really inspired me in high school to join Key Club.
How has Key Club impacted your high school career?
I’ve loved the community and being able to meet so many people who willingly give up their time for others and willingly give up their weekends to volunteer at senior homes, to volunteer at soup kitchens, to volunteer at all of these incredible places. And that also taught me so many different leadership skills, whether it was public speaking, how to talk to people who are investors or sponsors, how to find different opportunities to volunteer and how to find people who were interested in these fields.
Those skills must have been helpful at the Champions of Change event.
After the event was over, we had about an hour and a half of networking with the other Champions and attendees. They were pretty high profile. All of them were interested in nonprofits, providing opportunities to young girls, volunteering, activism. I met so many incredible people there. The backgrounds that everybody came from are so diverse and different. It was so inspiring and so surreal.
Do you keep in touch with the other Champions you met?
I have been so amazed by the community of Champions. We regularly communicate online and talk about ways to support nonprofit groups and youth and all the different initiatives that everybody in the community is working on. It’s been a huge opportunity for me.