13-year-olds hack their health with MI2: Reflections on our Digigirlz Health Hackathon

Leatt Gilboa, 21 May 2016


Photo courtesy of Microsoft Digigirlz.

This May, MedStar Health, Microsoft, Cardinal Health, and  1776 organized a two-day health hackathon for 50 middle-school aged girls from DC public and charter schools as part of Microsoft’s Digigirlz programming, which tackles disparities in STEM education. Microsoft, Cardinal Health & MedStar trainers and mentors educated the girls on ideation techniques, app wire framing, and app design, and advised and assisted the girls in their solutioneering.

The event importantly recognized similarities between STEM education and wellness education: both are necessary to habituate at a young age, and both are drastically under-represented in the education of young Americans. For that reason, embedded into the day’s training were ways to address concrete health concerns that could directly benefit the girls’ wellbeing: managing stress and engaging in healthy habits.

The day served to address multiple truths facing the health industry:

  1. Health and tech have become inseparable, so we work to decrease the deficits in understanding and integration between these two industries.
  2. Health providers cannot provide health without the participation of our communities, but health communication often comes too late and is therefore ineffective.
  3. Lack of diversity is blaring within the already small talent pool of professionals that blend health, tech, and behavioral change.

We know that only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computing, and physics are earned by women. We also know that girls lose confidence and interest in math and science during middle school. Therefore, targeting middle school girls helps us to build a future with robust and diverse technical talent. In order to address health for all demographics we must be organizations that are representative of our communities.

And, indeed, the diversity of ideas presented by these girls was outstanding. Examples include an app that encourages mentorship through social media to combat struggles with bullying, an app linked to biosensors with curated music playlists meant to quell difficult emotions and encourage movement, and an app with built-in mechanisms to promote safer and more productive school environments.

The hackathon was an uplifting coming together of industry and community, technology and soft(er) science, youth and experienced professionals, education and practice…with the effect, echoed by the girls themselves during their presentations, of showing girls how to stretch the limits of their imaginations and how to, borrowing MI2’s mantra, think differently about what they can accomplish.


Photo courtesy of Microsoft Digigirlz.

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