AYEI 3rd Annual HackAppleton Shifts Virtual to Empower Students to Address the Impacts of COVID-19
Posted on 06/18/2020
On Sunday, June 14th, the Appleton Youth Education Initiative (AYEI) hosted its third annual HackAppleton event virtually on Microsoft Teams.

As the modern economy becomes increasingly propelled by the data-driven and other computational technologies, gaining experience in computer science has become paramount, regardless of occupation. Two years ago, the AYEI envisioned an event where Wisconsin middle and high school students could gain this exposure to the expansive world of computer science. Students from across Wisconsin would form teams and within eight short hours create a software project to address a complex problem statement. The social importance of solving the problems would draw competitors with a multitude of diverse skill sets to collaborate, thereby leading students to both broaden and sharpen their skills, expanding the competition beyond solely coders, and ensuring that all participants gain from the event - regardless of existing abilities. With the patronage of Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, and the partnership of Microsoft Philanthropies, the AYEI hosted its first annual Hackathon in 2018.

In early March of this year, the HackAppleton team grappled with the prospect that an in-person Hackathon might be inadvisable on account of COVID-19. As the situation escalated by April, cancellation increasingly seemed like the only viable option. However, in light of the remarkable engagement with the program in previous years, the team did not want to deprive the students of 2020 of this unique opportunity to engage with the computer science community at such a young age. 

The team consisted of the 2019-2020 administration of the AYEI Executive Board, under the leadership of President Manish Raj, Vice-President Tracy Wang, Treasurer Paige Givens, Secretary Maya Ruffolo, and Chief of Technology Danielle Zheng. The team worked under the guidance of the AYEI Advisory Board, a body of prominent community leaders including Judy Baseman, Alex Fan, Ivan Fan, Chris Fleming, Ken Fritzell, Greg Hartjes, Lori Hilt, Gayle Kagen, Greg Levenhagen, Mark McQuade, Matthew Mineau, Rita O'brien, David Pynenberg, Edward Ruffolo, Marjorie Sutter, Thai Xiong, and Tong Zhan.

Under the recommendation of the Advisory Board, the team elected to reschedule the event to June 14th, and in the three month interim organized and hosted the event virtually using Microsoft Teams. Although the online format represented uncharted territory for the team and presented a host of novel challenges ranging from marketing to logistics, Microsoft Teams provided the optimal environment for participants to collaborate in groups and for those groups to participate in full event activities. Ultimately, the third-annual HackAppleton drew teams of three or four students from 21 different schools from Wisconsin and beyond. Schools represented included Appleton North High School, Appleton West High School, Ashwaubenon High School, Brillion Middle School, Fairfax High School, Fox Valley Lutheran High School, High School of Health Sciences, Hortonville High School, Kimberly High School, Leonardo da Vinci School for Gifted Learners, Luxemburg-Casco High School, Neenah High School, Nicolet High School, Oak Creek High School, Odyssey/Magellan Magnet School, Ripon High School, Ripon Middle School, Robert Bateman Secondary School, South Milwaukee High School, Tesla Engineering Charter School, and Wisconsin Hills Middle School. 

“As a sophomore two years ago at the first Hackathon we hosted, I never would have foreseen today: expanding the competition beyond Wisconsin as well as having the event online,” said AYEI Vice-President Tracy Wang. The AYEI believes that HackAppleton 2020 will serve as a great antecedent for future hybrid online/offline events where students will have the ability to participate from locations all over the United States.

One of the keystones of HackAppleton is the fact that students from all across the state are able to network with like-minded individuals, bonding over their mutual passions for computer science. In order to preserve this aspect, the team arranged for ‘virtual lunchrooms’ where participants were able to socialize with one another through chaperone facilitated games and discussions. 

Amid the widespread, disruptive phenomenon of COVID-19, technology has been an important source of constancy, being the main medium of industry, recreation, and safety. As expressed by Manish Raj, the President of the AYEI, “technology has the unique power to amplify human ability; one kind act by a high schooler can profoundly influence thousands of lives globally. We’ve seen this principle in action time and time again when it comes to mitigating and remedying the impacts of COVID19. Even our basic understanding of the virus and its potential antibodies is derived from computational analysis and modeling.”

HackAppleton participants were challenged to ‘apply their knowledge, technical skills, and creativity to create a software project that can effectively redress an issue that was either created or worsened by COVID-19’. Issues of focus included technological disparities, Zoom fatigue, the speed of vaccine development, and disadvantaged minorities. 

Participants' solutions were evaluated based on their utility, design, and engineering by a distinguished group of judges: Jay Ramos, the Schneider Web Team Technical Lead; Tong Zhan, the Torus Capital CIO and Correlation One Head of Technical Product, Chris Fleming, a Microsoft Data Product Solutions Architect; and Tyler Hoffman, a Stellar Blue Project Strategist. As a testament to how impressive all the submissions were, the judges all agreed that choosing amongst the large number of quality submissions in order to assign awards was a tall task.

While their submissions were being assessed, participants heard from inspiring industry professionals and community leaders. The keynote speaker Matt Adamczyk, the TitleTown Tech Technologist in Residence, opened the event. Edward Ruffolo, the Miron Construction IT Manager began the afternoon speaker sessions, followed by Tara Anderson, a Microsoft Enterprise Account Manager. Following Tara Anderson was Adam Luebke, a Microsoft Field Engineer. Shane Achterberg, the Schneider National Innovation Manager spoke next. Finally, Ivan Fan, the AYEI Founder and Chairman, closed the speaker sessions. Not only did the participants hear from the speakers, but they had the opportunity to interact with them through question and answer sessions.

The event closed with prizes being awarded. Divyasree Chintamani, Ashley Vermeulen, Lindsey Vermeulen, and Mandeep Kaleka from Appleton North and Appleton West earned Most Creative and each received a Google Home Mini. Appleton North’s Siri Lokensgard earned Best Documented as a team of one and also received a Google Home Mini. 3rd Place Overall and Amazon Echo Shows were awarded to Luigj Ndoja, Morgan Brevard, and Umika Sivasamy, students from Robert Bateman Secondary School, High School of Health Sciences, and Appleton North High School respectively. 2nd Place Overall and DJI Tello Drones were awarded to Daniel Guilette, Issac Yang, Donglai Duan, and Jacob Farrell from Kimberly High School. The most prestigious award of the day, 1st Place Overall and XBox Ones, was awarded to Naveen Balu and Jayanth Balu from Ashwaubenon High School. These incredible prizes, totaling to $2,000, were made possible by the generous contributions of the HackAppleton 2020 sponsors: Microsoft, Appleton Area School District, Titletown Tech, Stellar Blue Technologies, Schneider National, Miron Construction, and Festival Foods. The video component of the winners’ and other participants’ submissions and can be viewed on the Appleton Youth Education Initiative Youtube channel.

HackAppleton is just one of the many programs organized by the AYEI: since 2009, these have included a free ACT/SAT prep class taught by students, Philharmonic Ventures for the musically inclined, and the Fox Cities Book Drive, a system of book exchange including AP/ACT/PSAT/SAT books, all free of charge. The student-driven non-profit is constantly looking for more ways to provide educational opportunities to the youth in their community. For instance, the HackAppleton event acted as a catalyst for announcing the launch of a new program called the AYEI Technology & Research clinic. Starting this fall, the clinic will provide opportunities for students interested in the tech world to perform pro-bono work for top-notch professionals in the industry.

The passionate efforts of the students and the community leaders in organizing HackAppleton reflects the resilience of the AYEI and Wisconsin youth in the face of adversity. Three seniors will graduate from the organization this year - this September, Manish Raj will be studying computer science, economics, and sustainability at Stanford University, Tracy Wang will study pre-pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and Jack Hammerton plans on pursuing a major in economics at Marquette University. They were glad that their last HackAppleton was a success despite the constraints that the pandemic created and the unusual circumstances of having to execute a remote event online. Regardless of how society continues to be impacted by the pandemic, the AYEI is confident that it will do its part in finding and delivering innovative and engaging educational solutions for students in Wisconsin and beyond.

For more information about the HackAppleton event, please visit the HackAppleton website

For information about the Appleton Youth Education Initiative, please visit the AYEI website

Additionally, consider following AYEI on Twitter (AYEIOfficial), Facebook (AYEIOfficial), Youtube (Appleton Youth Education Initiative), Instagram (ayeiofficial), and LinkedIn (Appleton Youth Education Initiative) for regular updates. 
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