Posts Tagged: NSBE U of T

Toronto’s first-ever Black student-run hackathon tackles algorithm bias and builds community

A screenshot of the hackathon taking place in Gather Town, showing a virtual room with tables and chairs, the participants' avatars and their video feeds.

The fourth annual NSBEHacks, a 24-hour virtual hackathon, was hosted on Gather Town. (Screenshot: Genevieve Aguigwo)

 

By Safa Jinje

On March 5, more than 200 participants from across Canada and the U.S. joined NSBEHacks, a 24-hour virtual hackathon. Now in its fourth year, the 2022 event aimed to redesign digital technologies that don’t serve marginalized communities. 

Organized by the U of T chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE U of T), NSBEHacks is the first Black student-run hackathon within the Greater Toronto Area. 

“This year’s theme was ‘Disruptive Innovation,’ and by the end of the weekend, we received an influx of solutions that we could have never envisioned,” says Chetachi Ugwu-Ojobe (Year 3 EngSci), president of NSBE U of T. 

One problem that NSBEHacks teams tackled is algorithm bias, where errors or assumptions in a system’s machine learning process can lead to prejudices and create unfair outcomes. 

D’SpeakerVerse, the team that won first place in the hackathon’s U of T Engineering Challenge, noticed that many voice assistant services alienate individuals by misunderstanding their accents. 

In response to this problem, they created an interactive platform where users can take part in voice games and tongue twisters to test the voice-to-text AI, with the goal of improving accent recognition for voice AI services through collected data.  

“This team was able to create a disruptive innovation by building on something that already exists in the market and opening it up to people who are neglected by these services — people with non-Western accents who are often misunderstood and left frustrated by popular voice services,” says Genevieve Aguigwo (Year 2 MechE), vice-president of NSBE U of T.  

The event also sought to cater to the specific needs of Black audiences in fast-paced digital environments, such as virtual reality.   

The Barbershop team, which won second place in the event’s Google Cloud Challenge, used virtual reality to create a welcoming online space that replicates the sense of community found in many Black-owned barbershops.  

“Barbershops hold a historical significance to many Black communities. It’s not just a place to get a haircut, it can also serve a therapeutic role,” says Ugwu-Ojobe.   

“The Barbershop team created a virtual space that allows people who are unable to visit a barbershop, because of the pandemic or personal challenges, to gather, share information and stay connected with their community.”  

NSBE U of T is committed to supporting participants beyond the hackathon, as they take their designs to the next level.  

“We are partnering with the Black Founders Network to give our design teams a platform to bring their ideas to life and make a business out of it,” says Ugwu-Ojobe.  

“Having a network of people in the industry who they can turn to with questions and reach out to in the future really ties in with NSBE’s own goals to support the professional development of our community,” adds Aguigwo.  

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to increase the representation of Black individuals in engineering and industry.” 

This story originally appeared in the U of T Engineering News.


Black History Month: Presidents reflect on the impact of National Society of Black Engineers at U of T

NSBE past presidents

Since 1999, the U of T chapter of NSBE has helped increase Black representation, while fostering community among Black students at U of T Engineering

Kelly-Marie Melville (ChemE 1T2 + PEY) was in her dorm room, just two weeks into her studies at U of T Engineering, when a fellow student Korede Owolabi (CompE 1T5 + PEY) and member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T chapter came knocking on her door.

“He gave me a full rundown about NSBE, and I didn’t fully understand the gravity of it at the time,” says Melville. “But once I started my classes, I got it.”

Melville remembers sitting in Convocation Hall, where all first-year engineering students traditionally gather for their first class together.

“It was intimidating for someone who just moved here from Trinidad and for someone who is just starting engineering. I remember thinking, ‘oh my goodness, there is no one here who looks like me.’”

NSBE, founded in 1975 at Purdue University, aims to promote, support and increase the number of Black engineers who excel academically and professionally. Each year, the NSBE National Convention brings thousands of members together for networking and professional development opportunities. The organization’s goal is to graduate 10,000 Black engineers annually by 2025.

The U of T chapter, founded in 1999, is the largest in Toronto. And for more than 20 years, NSBE U of T has played an important role in increasing Black inclusion at U of T, and in fostering a safe space among Black engineering students, who continue to be underrepresented among the student body.

Three years after that knock on the door, Melville was NSBE president (2009 to 2010), and found herself using the same recruitment strategy. “Sometimes I was even chasing students down in the hallways to talk to them [about NSBE],” she says.

One of the students she introduced NSBE to was Akira Neckles (ChemE 1T7 + PEY), who would also eventually become president (2016 to 2017). During her studies, Neckles remembers seeing only five Black students within her year.

“That can really make you feel like you don’t belong,” she says. “With NSBE, it felt like it brought us together. Within a program, we’re less, but within a group, we’re more.”

Over the years, each NSBE U of T president would bring a unique vision and leave their own legacy of impact.

During Melville’s term, she worked to significantly increase NSBE U of T memberships. For Neckles, her focus was on professional development, inviting organizations to U of T so that members were informed of career pathways, even before looking ahead at their Professional Experience Year (PEY) Co-op.

During Dimpho Radebe’s (IndE 1T4 + PEY, ChemE PhD candidate in EngEd ) presidency (2014 to 2015), she was challenged with keeping NSBE U of T afloat, as memberships began to dwindle.

“I think the biggest challenge for NSBE is that, although it is an organization created to support Black students, we’ve always said, we’re open to everyone and not exclusively to Black students,” explains Radebe. “But many students don’t realize that, and it makes our potential pool that much smaller.”

Radebe says one of her greatest achievements during her leadership was sending 10 students to the NSBE National Convention in Anaheim, Calif.

“That experience really inspired students to join because they can see the full power of NSBE versus when you don’t see many of us around at school,” she says. “Many of them ended up running for leadership positions after that.”

For Iyiope Jibodu (ChemE 0T8 + PEY), it was about “NSBE family and NSBE love.” As president from 2008 to 2009, he was instrumental in launching D-Battle, a student dance competition that would attract large crowds to the Sandford Fleming atrium. D-Battle started as an idea by Owolabi to increase membership — it would become a staple NSBE event for years to come.

“NSBE had a reputation as a professional student group, but we took the risk to host D-Battle, which turned out to be a fantastic platform to increase awareness on campus,” says Jibodu. “By having a fun event with mass appeal, we brought the entire Faculty together and showcased our strong and vibrant community.”

During Mikhail Burke’s (MSE 1T2, IBBME PhD 1T8) presidency (2010 to 2011), he would play a pivotal role in founding ENGage, an outreach program for Black students in Grades 3 to 8 that sparks passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). ENGage has been running for more than a decade out of the U of T Engineering Outreach Office, and would pave the way for Blueprint, a new program designed for Black high school students interested in STEM.

Alana Bailey (Year 3 CivMin) is NSBE U of Ts current president and has had a term like no other — having to lead from home during the pandemic. Despite this challenge, Bailey has set out ambitious goals.

Her mission when she took office in May was to have each executive member recruit at least five students — this led to a growth of more than 60 members by September 2020. Under her leadership, NSBE U of T has been more involved in Faculty recruitment events, as well as leading their own high school outreach efforts.

This year, NSBE U of T has also brought in more external sponsors to support initiatives — most recently, NSBEHacks garnered a wide range of sponsorships with leading companies such as Google, NVIDIA and Shopify, just to name a few.

Bailey hopes this effort builds toward retaining sponsorships year-round, providing funds for members pursuing professional development endeavours.

“If students need help to go to a conference or to enrol in an expensive course, our hope is to have the supports to actively help them achieve that,” says Bailey.

Bailey has three months left in her term, before she takes up her PEY Co-op position next fall. She plans to stay in close contact with NSBE, and she isn’t alone in wanting to stay in touch — many former presidents and members continue to advise, mentor and participate in NSBE U of T events.

That includes Burke, who is now the Dean’s Advisor on Black Inclusivity Initiatives and Student Inclusion & Transition Advisor at U of T Engineering. Over the last decade, he has seen and participated in many efforts by U of T Engineering to address Black underrepresentation — and NSBE has always played a role.

“There’s been a shift in what the Faculty feels empowered to do and it’s a good start, but there’s always room to do more. We have to continue to lean into the discomfort of talking about the lack of Black representation and about anti-Black racism on campus,” he says. “Organizations like NSBE are key advocates in driving the Faculty to engage in that change.”

This story was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


Toronto’s first-ever Black student-run hackathon returns for third year, going virtual and global

NSBEhacks 202 team

The NSBEHacks 2020 team, many of whom are back to lead NSBEHacks 2021. This year’s student organizers also include Adam Cassie (Year 3 ECE), Rebecca Lashley (Year ECE), Kyra Nankivell (Year 1 IndE) and Boleng Masedi (Year 4 ECE). This photo was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of NSBEHacks)

Bu Liz Do

This weekend, 300 high school and university students will have 24 hours to code, design, build, network and learn from mentors at NSBEHacks 2021 — an event that aims to equalize the footing of Black and other minority students within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Alana Bailey (Photo: Daria Perevezentsev)

“Black-facilitated events like these are important because limited opportunities are often afforded specifically to Black students in STEM, as there aren’t many of us,” says Alana Bailey (Year 3 CivMin), president of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T Chapter, and one of the lead organizers.

Launched in 2019 and founded by U of T computer science alumni Kyra Stephen and Temisan Iwere, as well as alumna Ayan Gedleh (IndE 1T9), NSBEHacks is the first Black student-run hackathon within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

“It was very important to me to make sure that things are easier for incoming Black students in tech,” says Iwere, who has stayed involved with NSBEHacks since graduating. “The technical industry can be very intimidating, especially when you get into certain spaces and realize that you’re the only one who looks like you. It can be an alienating experience.”

This year, NSBEHacks goes beyond city limits. For the first time, the hackathon is fully virtual, allowing participants to join in from across North America, the Caribbean, and Asia.

Temisan Iwere (Photo courtesy Temisan Iwere)

In addition to sponsors RBC, Accenture, Google, NVIDIA, TD, Bloomberg, Ecobee, Shopify, FDM and EA, the event has also partnered with Major League Hacking (MLH) this year. MLH is the official student hackathon league in North America and is providing free access to software to participants during and after the hackathon.

Keeping students engaged in coding and designing, even after they’ve virtually walked away from this weekend, is how the NSBEHacks team will be measuring the event’s success.

“We want to see students feeling confident and a sense of belonging. We want to inspire them to get involved with NSBE after, applying to STEM programs at U of T, and staying in touch with companies from our career fair,” says Bailey. “NSBEHacks is one of the ways to ensure that going forward, we are building strength in numbers.”

This story was originally posted in the U of T Engineering News.


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