a champion of change

This 17-year-old is helping low-income students learn to code

Through hackathons, 17-year-old Sharon Lin has collaborated on many inventive, socially conscious projects. She worked on Pearl Runner, a game designed to teach players about sexual health and Lotus VR, which encourages empathy for sexual assault victims and educates players about consent.

Many people in the hard sciences will tell you the field came naturally to them at a young age. But for Lin, a New York high school senior and recipient of the White House’s prestigious Champions of Change distinction, an inclination towards computer programming at 10 was met with an even stronger desire to spark change. Lin aims to challenge conversations about coding, computer programming, and bring marginalized girls into computer science.

“I think the general perspective of computer scientists is that they’re sort of isolated individuals who are somewhat antisocial…and usually work on problems by themselves,” Lin tells Fusion. “And, I certainly understand that that stereotype [has] been perpetrated by the media for so many years but I think it’s one of the stereotypes thats also drives computer science to become such a widely misunderstood field.”

Lin’s short career has already worked against the stereotype of the reticent, socially-averse scientist. Lin is the founder of BitxBit, a coding camp for middle school girls co-sponsored by Microsoft and StuyHacks, a free high school hackathon for low-income students with no previous coding skills. Lin says outreach programs provide an initial exposure that’s key to bringing diversity to the field.

“[Stuyhacks] was pretty much just a conversation between me and a few other friends about our experience going to hackathons and why we felt that students in our community weren’t as interested,” she says. “Students in our local community didn’t really have the same experience…they hadn’t been told why computer science was so awesome and the incredible things they can do.”

Lin prides herself as being an example of the potential of outreach. While she originally picked up coding languages HTML and CSS as a hobby, her interest in computer science began in earnest after joining hackathons and eventually being accepted to NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Technology. There, she came into contact with other inspiring women who were breaking ground. Building networks with women not only influenced her decision to pursue the field, it’s also been a guiding principle for her work, and for good reason. According to the National Science Foundation, 75% of all computer science jobs go to men.

Network building brings women into computer science and is essential in keeping them there. Harvard Business Review examined the biases and “double jeopardy” compelling women to leave the field. Two biases are especially pronounced for women of color: being isolated at work as the only minority and being similarly isolated from the few other women on the job, who feel obligated to reject their female peers to appear competent.

“I’ve just seen a huge growth in the student population in terms of their interest,” she says of StuyHacks. “Even within the school there’s so much more…of an open mind towards these sorts of ideas and a lot more students are getting involved, which I think is fantastic.” Lin is hoping to expand the venue for the hackathon as it has become a huge hit.

In the future, Lin wants to use data science and modeling to help non-profits achieve their goals, like cancer prevention. “I think projects like these are definitely indicative of the potential that data science has on changing the way we view how our networks work and how we communicate across different cultural borders,” she says.


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