Covid hackathon solutions in action

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In January, when MIT’s campus was snowy and students were engaged in their Independent Activities Period, the Undergraduate Association (UA) announced a team-up with MIT leaders to source ideas on making the upcoming spring semester more enjoyable despite the pandemic. The resulting event, christened COVID Hack, started on Jan. 8 and encompassed three days of brainstorming around four tracks: outdoor spaces, virtual community, remote learning, and policy awareness.

Preceded by several days of community events intended to build excitement, the hackathon drew nearly 100 team proposals that were judged by MIT leaders including Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and Professor Rick Danheiser, the Arthur C. Cope Professor of Chemistry and chair of the MIT faculty.

The idea of COVID Hack sprang from the proposals students were generating on their own to make life on campus in Covid time a little better. “They had ideas about dining or socialization,” says senior Kiara Wahnschafft, COVID Hack director, and UA chief of staff. “And so we thought, well, everyone’s bored and at home during IAP. So why don’t we hold this really fun event where you can actually share your ideas.”

What’s more, COVID Hack had the backing of MIT leaders who agreed to help the winners turn their hacks into real programs. The fun of thinking big, combined with the potential for those ideas to shape life on campus, gave participants an emotional and intellectual boost. “The Hack provided an outlet for actually thinking about your community,” says first-year student Abbie Schipper, who serves on the UA’s Committee on COVID-19 and helped organize the hackathon. “We asked a bunch of people what was the most fun thing they did over IAP, and they said it was the COVID Hack.”

The four selected concepts are now being implemented, though the final forms of some projects have evolved from the teams’ original ideas. Here’s where their ideas stand today.

The _finite

Submitted by Team banana bunch: Felix Li, Robert Cato III, Umang Bansal, and Sangita Vasikaran (all juniors)

The Pitch: “The _finite is an assortment of up to three guided walking loops in the MIT area with signs posted along the trails acting as conversation starters. The trails will help students explore new areas of campus, create extended social spaces, and encourage conversation and socialization in a Covid-safe way.”

What’s the latest? “This has already been implemented,” says Gustavo Burkett, senior associate dean for diversity and community involvement. Two routes – DORMfinite on the west side of campus and MAINfinite on the east side – offer a nice walk enhanced by unanticipated conversations. “Along each loop are signs with QR codes that link to questions intended to be conversation starters,” Burkett adds. “Using a smartphone, students will get questions to share with a walking buddy or for personal reflection if they’re walking alone.” Each route has its own set of questions, so the experience is different each time students walk the paths.

“The entire project is centered around asking questions and getting to know the people you’re walking the trails with, and my friends and I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different questions,” says Robby Cato of Team banana bunch. “One of the biggest adaptations we made from our initial proposal was the use of QR codes,” Cato adds. “I think our original design had the questions printed directly on the signs, but this made the project less sustainable because you’d have to print new signs if you wanted to swap questions.”

And, like each team, finding the time to work on The _finite was among the biggest challenges they faced. “I think we were able to overcome this by delegating different tasks [to other team members] based on skill level and comfort,” Cato said.

Beavers Incognito

Submitted by Team Ok Google, Play All Star By Smash Mouth: Tim Gutterman, Kenny Cox, and Ibuki Iwasaki (all juniors)

The Pitch: “Beavers Incognito is a weekend-long social event with a mystery-solving component. Designed to bring MIT undergraduates together using a novel yet simple anonymous matching system, this event will foster the development of meaningful, long-term connections within the student body.”

What’s the latest? “The team is ready to launch this any time now,” Burkett says. The system, currently undergoing beta testing, poses a number of questions to student participants about how they experience life at MIT. The algorithm matches participants, who then have to guess who they’re matched with based on the submitted answers. The team also got some help from an outside developer and support from the Division of Student Life (DSL) and the de Florez Fund for Humor.

“I’m surprised at how little we’ve actually had to change our concept since the hack,” says team member Kenny Cox. “We thought we would be able to consolidate all the parts of the project into one website, but that turned out to be logistically difficult, so we’ve had to think creatively about the way we’re going to deliver the project to students,” he says. Teammate Ibuki Iwasaki had a more personal take. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing responses come in ever since we opened up the registration to testers,” she says. “Kenny and I have put in a decent amount of time and effort into Beavers Incognito, and it’s been really cool to see it come to life.”

Improving Digital Education: A Handbook and Suggestions

Submitted by Team JAS: junior Shannon Weng and first-years Joshua-Curtis Kuffour and Abigail Kolyer

The Pitch: “This project aims to improve digital education by the creation of a handbook and the development of suggestions for professors and students. Our project will centralize academic information and tools that instructors can employ to foster a sense of community among students and faculty, and enhance the virtual MIT experience.”

What’s the latest? Team JAS published their handbook on the UA website. “The most enjoyable part of working on the handbook was the team assembly part,” says Joshua Curtis Kuffour. The team especially enjoyed working with a broad range of people who work on education. “From the UA Education committee to the Teaching and Learning Lab to even working with Ian Waitz was very exciting for all of us.” Vice Chancellor Waitz was particularly helpful, guiding the team to keep the handbook concise, Kuffour says. “Our original idea was to have a very lengthy handbook detailing everything we wanted to suggest to faculty regarding teaching online,” he says. The finished product is a web page with 19 suggestions across five topic areas.

“The judges really resonated with the goal that Team JAS articulated during their pitch: If instructors heard about what their students see as best practices, this could result in better teaching, better learning, and better engagement,” says Krishna Rajagopal, the William A.M. Burden Professor of Physics and MIT’s dean for digital learning. “Immediately after the hack, it was great to see how JAS and the UA did such an excellent job preparing their Handbook of Tips for Remote Teaching in a very short time.”

[COVID Friends!]

Submitted by Team :0:D: sophomore Kanoe Evile and first-year Jimin Lee

The Pitch: “[COVID Friends!] are animated public service announcements (PSAs) aiming to educate students on MIT Covid policies. This collection of characters unique to the MIT community will be an engaging and dynamic alternative to the currently dense presentation of Covid policy available to students through email and the DSL website.”

What’s the latest? [COVID Friends!] launched in early March and continues to evolve, with three student animators developing clips on topics such as Covid testing, daily attestation, and building access. “It’s been difficult deciding which policies to animate, and to actually create the animations,” Lee says. “Animating is a time-consuming process and thus it’s been difficult to balance this project with the semester and these challenging times.” To ensure that the interpretations of policies were both clear and correct for the first round of animations, the team shared storyboards with DSL staff.

“Their concept is really fun and novel,” says Matthew D. Bauer of DSL Communications, who discussed the project’s opportunities and challenges with team members Evile and Lee. “Covid policies are carefully written and detailed by design, so visually highlighting what students need to know helps to clarify expectations and encourage students to do their part.” Lee adds: “Beyond Covid, we think these beavers could be integrated into communications from the various offices and services on campus, and hope to continue to share informative and enjoyable content.” For the moment, [COVID Friends!] can be seen on various social media platforms and on the team’s Instagram account.

Expanding life outside

In addition to working with hackathon winners, the UA and DSL are implementing other outdoor enhancements that will invigorate campus as the weather gets warmer. “We’re setting up some fun and inviting spaces on campus, including outdoor games like giant Jenga and Connect Four, and we extended Tech Twinkles into spaces around the Student Center by wrapping trees with lights and installing strings of bistro lights in spaces where students can gather safely,” Burkett says. “We are preparing to take delivery of outdoor furniture – picnic tables, benches, and chairs – made from recycled milk crates, so it’s really durable and sustainable,” Burkett adds.

Another idea generated outside of the hackathon is a collaboration of the UA, DSL, and The Borderline, which sponsors student artists to paint works in the tunnel between buildings 66 and E17. Borderline will project student art in three campus locations to encourage outdoor activity and brighten the Institute’s overall environment.

The UA and DSL are also teaming up to run movies in the Stata Center Amphitheater using an inflatable screen. “We can safely get about 25 viewers in the space outside, so the UA worked out a system for obtaining tickets ahead of time, which ensures that we stay within Covid space usage limits,” Burkett says. The movies have since been moved to Kresge Lawn to allow more students to attend spread out across a wider space.

Junior Maheera Bawa, who also serves on the UA’s COVID-19 Committee and helped to organize the hackathon, says ideas that didn’t win their track also had merit. “Abby and I right now are trying to get ideas off the ground that didn’t necessarily win but were really great,” she says. “Movies at Stata is one of them, and then there’s the ‘smores project, which was also really great.” The soon-to-launch effort includes delivering kits for making ‘smores outdoors to pods in undergraduate houses.

Beyond Covid

Though these ideas were developed with Covid time in mind, Burkett sees purpose beyond the pandemic for ideas submitted through COVID Hack. “We’re working to make the lighting around the Student Center more permanent,” he says, “and the new Student Events Board is taking over the movie nights and carrying those on beyond the pandemic.”

The student leaders are thinking even more broadly. “When we were developing COVID Hack, in the back of our minds we were thinking ‘Are we going to do this again in the future?’ And let’s make sure that this is replicable, because the idea of bringing a whole bunch of students together to impact their experience is something we want to do again and again and again,” Wahnschafft says. “What if we do a [diversity, equity, and inclusion]-specific hackathon? Or, you could imagine doing another space-specific hackathon. It would be really cool to see them popping up across campus, getting more people involved in improving MIT further.”

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