During her visit to Whitman this spring, Terian Koscik (Grinnell ‘12) invited students to participate in Code for Good, “an annual event based out of the Portland area where Python programmers from all over the globe get together for a long weekend to build projects that help our communities.” Three Whitman students ultimately participated, including my summer research student Andrew Harvey ‘20, our new CS 167 mentor Missy Gerlach ‘19, and the very enthusiastic Nathaniel Larson ‘19. The three of them have agreed to contribute to a joint guest post about their experiences. First they will give an overview of the event, and then each will share their biggest highlights and takeaways.
On the day of our arrival, after moving into our rooms in the dorm and mingling with other attendees, we all gathered for the orientation. After an outline of the event, project leaders presented and described their individual project—such as designing an app for a soup kitchen, categorizing black holes, and developing a self-guiding historical and cultural tour of Portland. Attendees went from table to table asking questions about individual projects, but within 15 minutes, the groups were clear. Having decided these groups, we turned to games, and the night ended after a few hours of mingling and fun.
The next two days were a blur of working, food, and more games. Each day after we made and ate breakfast together in the dorm lounges, groups split off to work until lunch. After lunch, more of the same until five, when everyone joined together for dinner and board games. On Sunday, the pattern finally broke; after lunch, the groups all coalesced into a conference area. There, we discussed the event, but most importantly, each group shared their progress. Having shared our projects, there was nothing left to do but thank the organizers for a great event, say goodbye to our new friends, and start the drive back home.
I had the pleasure of working with the group that created an app for a soup kitchen in Portland, Sisters of the Road Cafe. Having only taken two CS classes coming into the weekend, I was slightly nervous about how much I could contribute to the project, but thanks to some incredibly supportive team members and an absolutely amazing team leader, I was able to make some valuable additions as we created a functional web application to optimize some of the data keeping operations for the Cafe.
The entire weekend was a smashing success, from fun games, a walk around a lake on Reed College’s beautiful campus, and getting to know some really cool people. I felt like I learned a lot to bring back to Whitman, whether that be some actual technical skills, or some of the wonderful things my group leader, Jules, did to bring the team together and keep us inspired throughout the long seven hours of coding we did.
My absolute favorite part of the weekend was when the director of the Sisters of the Road Cafe came in towards the end of the project to see what we had been working on, and so we could show her how to use the app. On the verge of tears, she told us how much this would help their organization, and in turn how much it would help the people of Portland that they served. I was so moved to see how much of a difference we were making, and it absolutely made me want to go back next year.
Although the whole experience was great, looking back there were definitely a few parts of the event that stand out in my memory as highlights. First, working as team was incredibly fun. The front end of our project all sat around a table together and even though we were all working on individual things, there was a lot of cross-communication and collaboration. Second, it was incredibly exciting when all of our individual sections began to come together to make up the (more) final project. The app isn’t completely finished, but getting to the stage where we had a product that we could show and demonstrate to the entire conference was very exciting.
I think my main takeaway from Code for Good is that it is easier to get involved than you think. Going to the event, I was somewhat nervous that I wouldn’t have enough programming knowledge or experience to be helpful for the project I was a part of. This didn’t end up being the case at all; instead the leaders of my project considered my abilities and assigned me tasks that I was capable of but also challenged me. By the event’s end I had both contributed to the project and learned a lot from going outside of my comfort zone.
Coming into Code for Good, I quickly realized I was going to be a newbie. The ultimate goal of our team was to develop a machine learning algorithm that would effectively differentiate black holes that exhibit a characteristic called the Wolf-Rayet (WR) bump from those that do not, and design a system of checking these complex calculations against the knowledge of experienced astronomers. It was quite the project. And while some of our colleagues knew the intricacies of Django and Tensor Flow, all I had was some exposure to Python and a basic understanding of how coding works.
While I believed I was far from being set up for success, I was surprised when Missy and I became a useful—even central—part of the team. Over the course of the weekend, we learned the basics of HTML and developed the website that would allow astronomers to classify black holes and check the results of the machine learning algorithm. The rest of our team cheered us on as we worked with git for the first time, created our first functional button on the webpage, and then took the website live with real black hole spectra.
The whole weekend, I was surprised at the ability of our group to come together and make something completely new and useful. I am already excited for the next chance that I will have to brush up on my coding skills and get myself involved in another impactful project.
Janet here: I am truly gratified that these students—all rising sophomores and juniors—were able to apply the skills they are learning and make meaningful contributions in the world beyond the Whitman bubble. I hope to see Whitman students participate in Code for Good again next summer. And of course, thanks to Missy, Andrew, and Nathaniel for contributing to my blog!
Whitman CS students: How did you spend your summer? The next guest post will document students’ summer experiences. Please share your experiences—look for more information on the cs_announce email list today. Also look for an invitation to Lunch and Learn hosted by the SEC next week on the search for a tech industry internship.