On March 27 and 28, three Nobles sophomores, Mimi Zhang, Darvensky Daniel and Jackie Zhang (no relation, all pictured left to right, above) collaborated virtually with students from around the country for the first Merge Hack+Policy event, in which they were challenged to “solve society’s most pressing challenges within 30 hours.” Their group selected the issue of universal background checks for gun ownership. Daniel, Zhang and Zhang are members of Nobles’ Coding Club, advised by Dominic Manzo, who also teaches their AP Java class.
Merge is run by Harvard’s student-led organization, Policy for the People, out of Harvard Innovation Labs. Partnering with more than 100 policy organizations, Policy for the People hosts several virtual “policythons” each year. According to Merge, “An increasing number of youth are interested in making a difference in the world, but the majority of them aren’t given the opportunities and resources to get started. Furthermore, hackathons are often geared towards more STEM-oriented youth — essentially barring less ‘technical’ thinkers from participating.” This year, participants tackled five different tracks: Society and Culture (social inequality and bias around the world); Environment (state of the earth, sustainability); Technology (the hidden side of tech and its dangerous effects); Healthcare (inaccessibility of advanced Internet of Things/healthcare devices); and Education (equity in an online education environment).
Merge believes all youth can make an impact, and tries to bring fresh perspectives and inspire creative thinking by gathering students with different interests and backgrounds. Their aim is to “start important conversations, spark innovation, and bring like-minded people together to work towards a better future.”
Mimi Zhang’s first hackathon was last year, before the pandemic; it was in person and all participants were female. Daniel was familiar with coding (mainly Java) but said this hackathon experience was “new and exciting because I got to apply my skills to something else.” Likewise for Jackie Zhang, this hackathon was her first. “There was not much time and you had to get a lot of stuff done; our website was not perfect. But it was about learning how to manage your time and collaborating over Zoom, which is much harder than in person. It was a challenge, but I think we did okay!”
Over the 30-hour span of the weekend hackathon, the Nobles students and their teammates collaborated over Zoom, attended other coding workshops, and tried to squeeze in a couple hours of sleep! Daniel and Mimi Zhang did most of the coding with Java, while a teammate from another school designed the website and Jackie Zhang focused on policy writing and issue analysis.
“We created this website with several criteria that people have to fulfill to obtain a gun license,” Jackie Zhang said. Daniel added that the programs they designed would search for certain words to indicate whether a person’s application would be approved to get the guns they wanted; their team limited ownership to pistols only, since they thought that was “all that is actually needed for protection.”
Policy writer Jackie Zhang said, “We investigated recent shootings, including school shootings. I feel like as high school students, we have a lot to say; it’s scary, those experiences that shouldn’t be happening at schools where you’re supposed to feel safe. And there are a lot of organizations like the NRA that make it very difficult for Congress to pass laws that prevent these shootings from happening. So we wanted to address that because recent events show that it’s still a very prevalent issue.”
As an example of problematic gun control loopholes, Daniel added, “Mimi and I took practice gun law tests, similar to a driver’s license test, but for guns—and we both blindly passed, which is very concerning.”
Asked if it was empowering to write policy, develop code and create a website around such a timely and important issue, Jackie Zhang said, “Collaboration skills and learning from other people’s perspectives are really helpful and connect to a lot of real life businesses. The organization that created this hackathon encouraged us to continue working on our projects because two days is not enough to refine a website.”
While Mimi Zhang enjoyed her in-person hackathon more, she says the advantage of joining remotely is that there are many more opportunities for people from around the world to attend.
Both the Zhangs and Daniel plan to introduce hackathons to their Coding Club, and continue participating in future events like this one. Daniel says, “Even if you’ve never coded before, I suggest trying at least one hackathon; in the little time we had for the projects, we met a lot of people who were into history, STEM, and it was very interesting to see them interact and interact with them ourselves.” Mimi Zhang and Daniel started the Coding Club this year because they are excited about computer programming and want to get other students interested in it as well. Their computer science teacher, Dominic Manzo, praised their initiative and enthusiasm. “They are wonderful to teach — they’re so positive and conscientious — and I love their passion to do something novel. Watching them run Coding Clubs is so impressive. They are natural teachers and have wonderful poise.”
Jackie Zhang said, “When you’re coding, it can seem like it’s just numbers and words; you don’t really see the impact that your code can have. This policy plus coding format is really helpful because you get to see the impact of what you’re doing, and how it helps other people—and the purpose of your code. That’s really cool.”