Weekend hackathon inspires hundreds of MIT students to find ways to improve the upcoming semester

The MIT Undergraduate Associate (UA) kicked off 2021 with COVID HACK, a virtual three-day idea generation and pitch session open to all MIT undergraduate students. The goal was simple, but audacious: for teams to develop practical solutions for how to make life and learning at MIT better during the spring term, given the limitations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Kofi Blake, MIT senior class president, put it, “One of the hardest things about going to MIT virtually is … that you are going to MIT virtually,” missing out on the normal social and classroom experiences, from walking down the Infinite Corridor and bumping into faculty and fellow students to bonding in physical classrooms.

More than 500 students stepped up, participating in an event the UA said they had hoped was the “first, and hopefully last” of its kind. “This will be huge in terms of making the spring semester much better,” said sophomore Daniele Geathers, UA president.

Junior Kiara Wahnschafft, the UA chief of staff and chair of the event, added that what made the hack special “is that students can come up with ideas that they could benefit from 20 days later, as there’s an administration right here willing to take the ideas and turn them into reality.”

Self-assembled student teams, 115 in all, guided by experts from across the Institute, tackled four areas: outdoor spaces, virtual community, remote learning, and policy awareness. In addition to ramp-up exercises — from game nights to Q&A sessions — hosted by the UA, teams received insights and inspiration from local rock stars like Bob Langer, the David H. Koch (1962) Institute Professor; Andrew Dreyfus, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts; and Sumbul Siddiqui, mayor of the City of Cambridge.

While the enthusiasm, albeit via Zoom, was palpable, especially among the first-years who have yet to set foot on campus, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson acknowledged the sobering backdrop to the event, given recent political events, social unrest, and the ongoing toll of the pandemic. “For me,” she said, “this has been one of the hardest years I’ve had professionally … especially given so many daily unknowns and changes. The one constant to me has been working with students, because when we ask students to come and help us they just didn’t flinch. It’s the silver lining in all of this.”

Students certainly didn’t flinch when it came to creative ideas. Notable examples include a trampoline park; an outdoor movie theater; “bubbleBuds (the massive human side bubble-like enclosures”); a virtual version of the Infinite; replacing midterms with interactive alternatives like animated videos, lesson plans, or textbook chapters; and creating a new staff position responsible for helping to identify and report on new regulations and ensuring community-building.

The winning teams and proposed solutions are:

In the category of Outdoor Spaces, creating safe and fun ways to socialize outdoors throughout the winter, Team BANANA BUNCH (Felix Li, Robert Cato, Umang Bansal, and Sangita Vasikaran) won with their concept of The _finite, 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.

In the category of Virtual Community, bringing people together and building community virtually, Team OK GOOGLE (Tim Gutterman, Kenny Cox, and Ibuki Iwasaki) won with their concept of Beavers Incognito, 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.

In the category of Remote Learning, reimagining the remote learning experience at MIT, Team JAS (Shannon Weng, Joshua-Curtis Kuffour, and Abigail Kolyer) won with a concept to improve digital education by creating a handbook and developing suggestions for professors and students. This would 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.

In the category of Policy Awareness, improving communication and awareness of MIT Covid policies, Team :0:D (Kanoe Evile and Jimin Lee) won with their concept of [COVID Friends!], animated public service announcements that aim to educate students on MIT Covid-19 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 Division of Student Life website. [COVID Friends!] was also the Audience Choice Award winner.

UA Vice President Yu Jing Chen closed the event with a sense of confidence and optimism, which she hoped all students will share when the new semester starts in February: “I’m super excited to go back to campus!”