Two Computer Engineering students at the University of Pretoria (UP) were part of a team that won an award for best proposal on social distancing at a global hackathon held at the weekend.
The team comprised third-year UP students Ryan Naidoo and Jason Kamps, as well as Fiona Wong and Michelle Sandhika of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which hosted the hackathon, as well as workshops, as part of its annual Global Youth Leaders Summit. This year’s summit was held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the theme was “Transforming Crisis into Re-connection”.
The team addressed the topic of children and social distancing, and produced a novel idea for a game that entails online interaction.
“Prior to the hackathon, a Global Reflection Workshop guided youth leaders to conduct a social study, which is designed to lead them to understand the unique challenges faced by specific groups under the pandemic,” says Dr Martina Jordaan, head of community engagement research and postgraduate studies at UP. “This was followed by a hackathon that lasted 24 hours [excluding preparation events], whereby teams had to collaborate online simultaneously.”
Seventy-seven students and alumni from 12 countries/regions were enrolled in 14 teams, of which 12 teams were mixed to include students from two universities. “This year’s hackathon had students from UP, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, University of Maryland and the Royal University of Phnom Penh competing against one another,” says Dr Jordaan.
“We were given 24 hours to identify and address a specific problem related to the COVID-19 crisis,” says Naidoo and Kamps. “Our topic was on social distancing and children. Children need to have meaningful formative interactions with other children because of the one-sided, disengaging nature of online learning during the pandemic. The problem we addressed was the lack of interaction children have with others their age when they’re participating in online learning.”
The team’s solution was a monthly subscription box service called Friend-in-a-Box. The box would contain activities that a child can complete with children from other countries.
“The box would have a QR code, which allows another child on the other side of the world to open their box, allowing them to make contact and start working together to open their boxes,” the students explain. “Each box would contain three games, as well as educational and interesting information about their buddy’s country of origin.”
The inclusion of local snacks from their online buddy’s country would also make the box more fun. “Each box comes with a small Lego set, but the instructions to build the set are sent to the buddy and vice versa. In order to assemble the Lego and play the games, healthy interaction between children of the countries in question have to be established.”
Kamps and Naidoo say it was encouraging to know that the judges saw the potential of such applications to address online learning/interactions for children. Each team member won a 360-degree camera and Raspberry Pi development kits.
The team was mentored by UP alumni Paul Ssali and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University alumni Edith Li Chi Ching.
Dr Jordaan mentored six other students who also represented UP at the hackathon. They were Chris Ehlers, Bryce van der Kraats, Ian Schilz, Adriaan van Niekerk, Kian Strydom and Janco Venter. They developed a proposal on networking with various non-profit organisations and higher education institutes to solve the education problem in South Africa.
Their argument was that there are too many non-profit organisations working on the same problem and that there’s a need to coordinate them. “The problem that you are tackling is a very real issue,” was the feedback they received from the judges. “If you managed to do this, you would really be solving a big problem.”
In addition, two UP students were part of the Global Reflection Workshop that ran in conjunction with the hackathon. They were required to research a topic and present it to fellow students. Final-year Electronic Engineering student Gerdus van der Laarse discussed how the elderly coped with Covid-19 in South Africa, while Thabang Ngwenya, who is doing his honours in Industrial Engineering, presented his research on university students.
UP alumnus Altus Bisschoff and a mechanical engineer at Exxaro Resources were also invited to be on the panel of international adjudicators, and two non-profit organisations that work closely with UP were invited as speakers. Mary Lant of Lesedi la Batho discussed social impact during a time of crisis, while Robynn Ingle-Moller of Lory Park Zoo shared her experience of working at the zoo during the pandemic and the projects carried out by the students enrolled in the Community-based Project Module in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.
“The students of the University of Pretoria demonstrated commitment and creativity during the summit,” said Dr Jordaan. “UP is proud of their achievement.”