After the workshops and a break for lunch, students and mentors returned to Wilson Hall energized and visibly excited for what lay ahead. Participants filed into the social space and took their places at the round tables, talking, laughing, and asking questions. What will our assignment be? Do we have to stay up and work for 24 hours straight? What’s a “hackathon” anyway?
Mustafa Babak, Program and Outreach Associate at the CSE and organizer of this hackathon, introduced the challenge. The overall topic would be HIV/AIDS. Groups of four and five would have until one the next day to make a one-minute PSA that will make a difference in the world. Each group would have three to four MiddCORE students and the rest of the member would be other student participants. The specifics of the challenge were revealed in a short video, which concluded by asking, “Can you find a way to encourage HIV testing?” The nine teams were divided equally among the three possible target audiences for the PSA: babies, adolescent women, and men.
And the groups were off! Until 5:30, groups worked on their challenge in different parts of McCullough as faculty, staff, and mentors involved circulated and offered their assistance. After 5:30, students would be free to leave McCullough and allowed to work until 12:30 the next day.
Details of the Hackathon
Team 1: Babies
Team 1 began by thinking about the hard skills they had between the five of them, namely, who could make and edit a video? They decided to target mothers in Eastern Africa and South Africa, since those areas have high rates of HIV and the mothers would be the ones bringing babies for testing. As they were brainstorming and their ideas expanded, the group moved over to the whiteboard to map their thoughts.
Team 2: Babies
Bree Baccaglini ’15 pulled out her notebook and sketched an idea: visually contrast the lives of children who were tested and treated with those who were not. Team 2 decided to target mothers in sub-Saharan Africa to encourage them to get their babies tested. They wanted to focus on showing a story, not just telling it. They grappled with how to make it “a story of joy” as Martin Naunov ’17 called it, not a story of fear.
Team 3: Babies
Team 3 began brainstorming with a big sheet of paper “What we know” and filling in just that: whatever they knew about HIV, babies, mothers, and barriers to care. Members of this team talked with and listened to advice from mentors from mothers2mothers. Hannah Burnett’10, a former Princeton in Africa fellow from m2m, helped the group understand when is the most crucial time to intervene with testing for babies. “Where the participation drops off is after birth,” not during antenatal care, Hannah said. David Torres ’84, the director of business development for m2m, talked about the mothers’ fear of knowing and getting results.
Team 4: Adolescent Women
This team decided to target adolescent women in the US, acknowledging their lack of local knowledge of other cultures and not wanting to make cultural; assumptions. “We didn’t feel comfortable making a cross cultural comparison,” said Sayre White ’15, a MiddCore student and co-president of GlobeMed. Their goal was to normalize testing and normalize living with HIV. They struggled with how to portray HIV in a neutral light, not wanting to glorify or disparage people with the disease.
Team 5: Adolescent Women
Team 5 took a new twist on how to get the word out about testing in South Africa: make it trendy. Cate Stanton ’15.5, co-president of GlobeMed, suggested using a famous or powerful woman, regardless of her HIV status, to promote testing. Because of the cultural value placed on certain types of beauty in South Africa, Jake Eisenberg ’15 explained that another idea they had involved “combining treatment or testing facilities within nail salons or hair braiding places.”
Team 6: Adolescent Women
The conversation in this group centered around how to send a positive message about the outcome of testing. Professor of economics Erick Gong suggested emphasizing that treatment is highly effective. Jenny Chute ’15.5 wondered about the trajectory of young women who get tested: how does knowing their status change their lives?
Team 7: Men
Team 7 narrowed their target audience to adolescent men in South Africa. The first question they asked themselves was “Why don’t men go for testing? Is it accessibility? Cost? Not knowing?” Phil Oldham ’90 from the Office of Advancement worked on HIV and AIDS in various places across the world, such as Ghana and Haiti, for 20 years. From his expert knowledge on the issue, he advised the team that it was awareness, not accessibility, that was more of a barrier to testing.
Team 8: Men
Like most of the other teams, team 8 narrowed their audience: incarcerated men. A quick Google search brought them a variety of statistics on incarcerated men in the US and South Africa, showing higher than normal rates of HIV among this popualation. The group members hoped to create a PSA that was general enough that it could be used in English in the US and translated into Afrikaans for use in South Africa.
Team 9: Men
Even before leaving for their assigned room, members began by brainstorming barriers to men going to HIV testing. One idea they came up with was that men, and all people in general, might be more likely to go for testing if they have a motivation outside themselves, like a child or partner they love who may get infected. The group began to narrow their focus too quickly, so Professor Berenbaum suggested they return to brainstorming broader thoughts and ideas. “Just put your ideas out there, anything is fair game,” she said. So group members took out their notebooks and began scribbling down anything they could think of on HIV and men.
Teams were allowed to keep working up until 12:30 pm on Saturday. At one, all students, faculty, staff, and mentors involved assembled back in Wilson Hall for the presentation of the PSAs. The panel of judges sat in the front, watching and listening to the fruit of each team’s hard work. The judges included Professor Berenbaum, founder of m2m Mitch Besser, Liz Robinson from Community Engagement, and David Torres ’84, also from m2m.
Awards and Closing
The judges left the room to deliberate.
When the judges were gone, Professor Isham led a discussion about the process. Students and mentors alike were thrilled by the overall quality of PSAs and the diversity of ideas.
“I’m really impressed by what everyone came up with,” Bree Baccaglini ’15 said. She loved getting to see everyone’s work, since during the process each team had no idea what the others were doing.
“There was a lot of up and down, argument, changing of ideas,” Tangut Degfay ’15 said. She was not alone with these sentiments. Many teams experienced the challenges, tensions, and compromise that naturally comes with group work.
Professor of Economics and MiddCORE Director Jessica Holmes has worked with students on projects of this sort for years. “I always am amazed with what students do…these students never cease to amaze me,” said Professor Holmes.
The judges re-entered and took their places in front of the eager room of students and faculty. Everyone fell quiet in anticipation of the judges’ verdict. “This is probably the hardest things we’ll have to do all year,” said Professor Berenbaum, speaking for herself and her three fellow judges. The decision on a winner was a tough one. “It was an incredibly difficult job for us. We were absolutely tormented,” she said. But alas, they had to choose a winner. However, they decided to choose an honorable mention from each of the other two categories as well.
Team 6 was the ultimate winner:
Team 3 and Team 9 each won an honorable mention. Team 6 was presented with a $200 check, which they then signed over to mothers2mothers.
The symposium concluded with re-watching the three winning videos and reflection on the past 24 hours. Discussion continued about what went well and what could be improved for next time. The first ever MiddHackathon finished on a high note. Students and faculty were pleased with the results and looked forward to trying it again next year.