Student Success

Lethbridge students take business, tech skills to international competition

A team of seven women from Lethbridge will take their business savvy, computer coding and blockchain knowledge to an international competition in Toronto this week. They will compete at the CryptoChicks Hackathon, May 31 to June 2, an event that will feature world leaders in blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, and competitors from around the world, in person and online.

Lethbridge College students Cassandra Olfert and Katherine Campos, University of Lethbridge students Kathleen Gonzales, Kairvee Bhatt, Leila Karimi and Mahshid Aghania, and Victoria Park High School student Brooklyn Carlson have been meeting weekly since mid-April to prepare for competition. Jefferson Gardner, certified blockchain expert and CEO and co-founder of InBridge Inc., and Dr. Muhammad Khan, an assistant professor in the U of L Department of Mathematics and Computer Science are leading the students. The Lethbridge team will make two separate, but related, pitches at the competition — one a business solution; the other a code and tech solution — that once combined will solve a real-world problem.

U of L professor Dr. Muhammad Khan, Brooklyn Carlson, Mahshid Aghania, Cassandra Olfert, Katherine Campos, Kathleen Gonzales and Jefferson Gardner have been meeting at Tecconnect weekly in preparation for this weekend’s CryptoChicks Hackathon competition in Toronto. Missing from the photo are team members Kairvee Bhatt and Leila Karimi.

The problem they’ve chosen is ripped from the headlines: “The teams will be creating an end-to-end solution to address the Canadian canola industry’s need for traceability in answer to a trade partner closing its borders because the crop was tainted with an unnamed contaminant,” says Gardner.

Canada is the world’s No. 1 producer and exporter of canola. China, the country’s biggest customer, embargoed Canada’s canola this spring. “We could have brought any problem or solution to the hackathon, but we think our pitches will be particularly relevant and urgent, and the agricultural and blockchain focus will stand out,” Gardner says.

Olfert and Campos, who recently completed their first year of Lethbridge College’s Computer Information Technology program, are working on creating “smart contracts,” pieces of self-executing code that make the product traceable from a seed through processing, and every truck, train and factory in between.

Olfert, who grew up on a farm east of Vauxhall, says she can appreciate the importance of the canola trade dispute and it’s “super exciting” to be learning how blockchain could help protect Alberta’s farmers and their market share. “I think it’s really important to have opportunities like this for women,” Olfert says. “Computer programming is really a male-dominated field. I appreciate the support we’ve been given to attend.”

U of L student Kathleen Gonzales is a neuroscience major, bringing a unique perspective to the team. “Joining CryptoChicks has given me the opportunity to branch out past my field of studies and see how intermingled science, business, technology and agriculture really are,” she says. “By focusing on agriculture, our group aims to connect innovation, science and passion, through ensuring farmers, traders and all who are involved with the business are able to access data and communicate thoroughly across borders and work together towards a better and efficient future.”

If the team sounds diverse in its composition, it’s backed by an equally diverse network led by the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta (RINSA), anAlberta Innovates-supported collaborative partnership of Lethbridge College, the U of L, Economic Development Lethbridge and others. The inclusion of a high school student came about thanks to Career Transitions, a not-for-profit organization with a mandate to support student career explorations, which arranged for students in a high school coding class to visit the Tecconnect innovation centre. Career Transitions is itself a partnership venture by eight K-12 school jurisdictions across southwestern Alberta, the college and university. Corporate sponsors are also supporting the team.

Lethbridge was encouraged to submit a team after someone from CryptoChicks served as a judge at a hackathon held at the U of L. Leveraging the collaborative network already in place in Lethbridge to support technology, entrepreneurship and innovation, the student team was quickly assembled and got to work.

Dr. Samantha Lenci, Lethbridge College Provost and Vice President Academic, says the college’s connections to the community, guest speakers, mentorship and networking opportunities create even more unique ways for students to learn and grow.

“As a college, we encourage our students to extend their learning beyond the walls of their classroom,” she says. “These young women will represent us in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and we are so proud. These kinds of ‘Yes, I will’ moments build to more and more moments for the women who have yet to come to college. They are opening doors to success.”

Dr. Khan says he’s proud not only that the team is tackling “an issue of great contemporary importance for the Albertan and Canadian economy,” but that the opportunity showcases aspiring and inspiring women.

“The gender gap in STEM is a bitter reality being challenged by these aspiring developers and entrepreneurs,” Khan says. “I am excited that our team will showcase their talent at the CryptoChicks' AI and Blockchain Hackathon — the grandest stage there is.”

The team’s work dovetails with a larger community effort to bring blockchain to the southern Alberta economy, says Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge.

“Economic Development Lethbridge through Tecconnect is exploring many ways of using blockchain technology to solve real world business problems and provide local industry with a competitive advantage,” Lewington says. “We’re thrilled to support the team heading to the CryptoChicks Hackathon as they do exactly that.”

The team leaves for the competition on Friday.