For one weekend every spring, in the halls of the Information Science Building in North Oakland, clusters of computer science students spend a sleepless weekend over their computer screens coding massive projects. This is SheInnovates, an annual hackathon hosted by Pitt’s Women in Computer Science — or, WiCS — club.
WiCS, which is open to students of all genders, is a club designed to foster diversity in the field of computing. According to senior computer science and political science double major and WiCS President Erin O’Rourke, WiCS is primarily for creating a community of support for its members.
“I was really lucky that the officers at the time [I joined WiCS] did a great job at making people feel included and really made it seem like an approachable space,” she said. “I think so often you can sit next to people in class all week and not get to know them super well and WiCS gave me the first taste at what a CS community would be like.”
Andrea Michael, WiCS’ business manager and a senior double-majoring in computer science and information science, said she was initially drawn to the club when she changed her major from physics, and enjoyed the supportive nature of the community
“I really liked that you could mess up, that you could be doing poorly in a CS class or feel insecure in certain things, whether it’s an internship or project and so forth, and yet you would still be supported,” she said.
The club, which according to O’Rourke typically consists of around 30 active members and hosts events for up to 70, hosts a variety of events, which reflects the multidisciplinary nature of both WiCS and the computer science department as a whole. O’Rourke finds that her training in computer science connects to her education in political science as well.
“I found opportunities to connect those two interests, and I know from talking to other people that you can do that with tons of other disciplines across CS,” she said. “You can really find a niche for yourself in terms of what you want to study.”
Common events hosted by WiCS span a range including professional development events, such as mentorship dinners, advocacy and inclusion events, and the occasional social mixer — where members gather for anything from movie nights to holiday-themed get-togethers.
"For someone who is entering as a woman in computer science or a minority group within the field, finding a community helps a ton. Finding some friends in the major or even just people that you’re comfortable with venting when you have a tough class, or sharing some of the victories you have, in the first couple of years helps so much in making the major feel less intimidating. And we hope we can be that place for people" - Erin O'Rourke
However, the events aren’t all fun and games. The club also hosts technical events, where members learn to use different services such as GitHub and Plotly. One of the biggest technical events is their annual SheInnovates Hackathon every spring. During the hackathon, O’Rourke said, members meet in groups and spend a weekend coding a project, taking it from idea to a functional program that can be presented in front of a panel of judges for a prize.
“It’s both an opportunity to work on something creative and work on a team and to create a project that may be a good thing to demonstrate professionally or academically.” she said.
For first-year students, WiCS also hosts WiCStart, an annual overnight event for incoming computer science students prior to the fall semester. WiCStart gives members an opportunity to meet the community of both the club and other computer science speakers, as well as an opportunity to be introduced to the world of professional development through seminars and site visits to local tech businesses.
“I chose Pitt because I knew Pitt had a variety of programs that were pretty high quality. I really liked the problem solving aspect of computer science, and on top of that what I later developed with myself is finding out that I like learning about how humans interact with computers" - Andrea Michael
The tech events and professional mentorship students receive as a member of both WiCS and the broader computer science community helped Michael realize the breadth of opportunities available to her as a CS student, which was made possible by her fellowship with other members of WiCS
“Not everyone does the same thing. Not everyone does software engineering. There’s data scientists, there’s researchers, there’s designers, there’s people like me who kind of go more towards the contact side of things or project management,” she said. “There’s all these things within CS that you can do, and there’s all these people here that, have different walks and different experiences and different strengths.”
According to Michael, one of the driving factors in her love for WiCS is the sense of community, not just during meetings or club events, but in class as well.
“The only reason why I survived some of the really hard classes in CS was because I had made some friends in WiCS and found some of them in my classes,” she said. “It was a support system. It was people that knew what I knew when others second guessed me.”