Community With Only an Internet Connection: Student Events and Organizations Continue to Thrive Digitally

2/19/2021 10:04:47 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

About a year ago, PhD student Colleen Heinemann did something she never envisioned she would do as a co-leader of the local chapter of the student-run organization, Girls Who Code.

Last year's cohort from Girls Who Code did not get to experience the end of year celebration of their work, like this group did in May 2018.
Last year's cohort from Girls Who Code did not get to experience the end of year celebration of their work, like this group did in May 2018.

She came into Siebel Center for Computer Science and tore down the students’ work before they could show it to others. One of the items, an obstacle course built for robots to conquer, was especially difficult to remove before seeing the finished result.

Girls Who Code is for middle and high school aged girls, encouraging them to learn computer science at a young age. As with years past, the last cohort spent the fall semester learning programming basics. Then the spring semester provides the students a chance to delve into a single project, culminating in a spring showcase event.

But the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to all on-campus in-person activities last spring. This meant Heinemann had to lock all the projects – all the signs of these young students’ progress – away in a room.

“In the spring, everything stopped really suddenly,” she said. “The girls were gearing up to finish their projects that they had been working on for months, and the world took that away from them.

“I can’t imagine what that disappointment was like.”

Just before that time, HackIllinois co-director Megha Mattikalli, a sophomore CS major, recalled the inspiring scene that is the three-day long hackathon event.

The first time she ever witnessed it, as a freshman on campus, Mattikalli couldn’t believe that many people could cram into the same area with the same goal in mind. The attendants all used their passion for computing to create something new. She also fed off the distinct vibe of enthusiasm and energy.

Illinois CS undergraduate student Megha Mattikalli said the energy and enthusiasm that comes from so many people working together at HackIllinois is what drew her to the event. That will not be the experience this spring, but the creators are working to make the event special still as it goes digital.
Illinois CS undergraduate student Megha Mattikalli said the energy and enthusiasm that comes from so many people working together at HackIllinois is what drew her to the event. That will not be the experience this spring, but the creators are working to make the event special still as it goes digital.

Last spring student leaders could still hold HackIllinois in-person, just before on-campus events were cancelled due to the pandemic.

“In person, this event has an energy to it, an air about it, that is unlike anything else I’ve experienced,” Mattikalli said. “It’s amazing to be a part of something that allows so many people to take ownership of their own ideas like this in computing.”

As the summer months went on, each of these student leaders – and their colleagues – faced a different challenge.

Following a spring in which events and student organizations went online or were cancelled, could they find a way to still make an impact this year?

“For Girls Who Code, it was a possibility to keep the group closed. That option was tossed out really quickly,” Heinemann said.

In September 2020, the annual technology conference, Reflections | Projections, went online for its 26th edition. Speakers and representatives from industry and academia gathered for the student-led event, which featured speakers, a 24-hour AI hackathon and a puzzle hunt.
In September 2020, the annual technology conference, Reflections | Projections, went online for its 26th edition. Speakers and representatives from industry and academia gathered for the student-led event, which featured speakers, a 24-hour AI hackathon and a puzzle hunt.

HackIllinois leaders echoed that sentiment, representing the collective determination of so many Illinois CS related student organizations and events.

“I’ve been working with our student clubs for 12 years, and those involved have always blown me away by the things they accomplish. But the determination, creativity and care that they have continued to display during this entire year is even more amazing,” said CJ Coleman, Illinois CS director of external relations. “Many are isolated to apartments, dorms or are at home with family. Staying in touch even virtually, connecting with your peers, it’s so important.”

Girls Who Code still provides a consistent outlet for girls first learning CS fundamentals

For Heinemann and co-director Cynthia Damodaran, the list of reasons to keep Girls Who Code going beginning this past fall semester, albeit in a digital format, is a long one.

First and foremost, the organization provides an amazing opportunity for young women to start what could become a lifelong interest in computer science. Many have never programmed before. Most, however, already understand that they are the minority in a male-dominated field.

Insert caption here
Girls Who Code facilitators are integral to the experience each student receives.

“What I love about Girls Who Code is that it shows these students, at a very young age, what amazing things they can do with computing skills,” Damodaran said. “I’ve heard from a lot of the girls who join that they’re the only girl in their high school’s CS course. Beyond teaching them about coding, I love being able to offer them a community that proves to them that they can be a girl in computing and do amazing things.”

Together with several of the group’s facilitators, the student leaders ensured there would be Girls Who Code this year.

They set up a digital space for all the participants, worked through technical issues and set up a different yet familiar experience. The fall semester is still dedicated to learning CS fundamentals. The spring will still be about delving into a single project.

More importantly, at a time when these young girls have had their other interests taken away – athletics, music, chorus, etc. – Girls Who Code is still there for them every Sunday.

“Like everyone else on the planet is learning right now, it’s hard to live and work separately,” Heinemann said. “I miss that aspect of seeing everyone together and that personal connection. But I get weekly emails from parents thanking us for providing something for their daughters to do outside of school.”

HackIllinois restructured to digital, found a way to grow impact and reach

Rishin Pandit, a sophomore undergraduate student looking into the CS + Economics program and co-director of HackIllinois with Mattikalli, can recall the days and weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic altered the reality on campus.

The students returned home to complete their studies, and they were without the social circle they enjoy at the university. Pandit said each day became the same. He would study and go to class virtually during the day. Then he would watch the news and learn more about the virus’s spread. Then he would message friends and classmates to see how their quarantine was going. In talking with others, he knew this was a common feeling for many others.

Students experiencing this year's hackathon will not be in-person at Siebel Center, unlike years past.
Students experiencing this year's hackathon will not be in-person at Siebel Center, unlike years past.

Finally, though, HackIllinois meetings started back up again.

“During those times, the HackIllinois meetings were like an oasis,” he said. “I got to meet all these new people again, and I was having great conversations again with fellow students I already knew.”

Together, the group planned not only to take HackIllinois online, but to create a few new events beforehand as trial runs. They also saw foresaw the digital experience providing greater flexibility and additional reach, thus providing an opportunity to develop events that could help address as many new initiatives as the group could handle.

HackThis became one of those new attempts.

Taking place last August, the week-long hackathon event restructured to digital and focused the participants’ energy on creating solutions to remote learning challenges.

The digital format eliminated physical barriers – travel, distance and costs – that previously limited participation. More participants signed up, including people from 30 different states and 10 different countries.

HackIllinois will continue this spring, with a digital format and a renewed sense of purpose.

“This a huge part of what it means to be a part of Illinois CS,” Mattikalli said. “Sure, we’re hoping to build a meaningful event that creates amazing things for the world to see. But we take it even more seriously to enhance the inclusive nature of our department through an event like this. And we look forward to doing that again this year.”