With college campuses shut due to the novel coronavirus, many students with new-found time on their hands have found themselves asking, “What can I do to help?”
To connect people with organizations that need support, three students have combined their desire to help with the skills they’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom. Developed by Penn seniors Steven Hamel from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Megan Kyne from the Wharton School, and Hadassah Raskas from the College of Arts & Sciences, the online platform Corona Connects bridges the gap between people looking for ways to help and organizations looking for support.
After returning to her hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, Raskas was eager to find some way to help but noticed that it was difficult to find opportunities online. With friends and colleagues voicing similar struggles, Raskas reached out to University of Maryland junior Elana Sichel and started putting together a list of organizations in need of help. Then, after reaching out on the Class of 2020 Facebook page about the project, Hamel, from Philadelphia, and Kyne, from Pittsburgh, offered their support to get an online platform up and running.
The team of students quickly realized that there was both a large number of individuals who wanted to find ways to help alongside an unprecedented level of need from numerous types of organizations. “We knew there was need, and we knew there was an availability of people, but the connection was missing, so we built Corona Connects to bridge this gap,” says Raskas.
With their spreadsheet as a starting point, their goal was to create an online platform that would make it easy for volunteers to get involved and to find activities of interest. Raskas created an initial prototype using skills she learned in a data science class, and then Kyne jumped in, further developing the design layout using skills recently learned during a student-led user experience/user interface class as well from a product design course. “In my product design class, we focused on identifying needs and designing solutions through an iterative process focused on the user, which is exactly what we’ve tried to do with Corona Connects to make volunteering as easy as possible,” Kyne says.
One of the unique features of the website is the ability to sort activities by time commitment. It was something that Hamel, as a part-time employee at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), was especially keen on developing for Corona Connects. “I thought it would help students volunteer when they knew exactly how much they were getting into and could tailor it into their schedule,” he says. “It’s much easier than current websites where you have to check each individual opportunity.”
The website features a variety of volunteer opportunities, from supporting the elderly and special needs communities to website development and data analysis. The team is also partnering with new student-led organizations to provide additional opportunities in the coming weeks. “The opportunities really vary, but that’s on purpose. We are hopeful that by matching people to things that are actually of interest to them, people will want to do it again and again,” says Raskas.
So far, the feedback on Corona Connects has been positive, with individual volunteers now able to find ways to help and organizations able to have an easier way to reach volunteers. In the near term, the team is aiming to build up their team of regional coordinators as well as bringing in more people with programming experience so they can continue to enhance the platform.
All three of the Penn seniors credit the skills they’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom as instrumental to the success of Corona Connects. Hamel says that much of his coursework in bioengineering was designed to help students become adaptable and learn on the fly. He also credits his time spent developing apps for CHOP and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as crucial for helping him find the balance between using time wisely and making the most impact. “The skill I’ve learned in both projects was the ability to ‘need find,’ to find an impactful project that helps the most people as quick as possible,” says Hamel.
Raskas credits the interdisciplinary nature of her Penn education as incredibly helpful, with skills from classes in behavioral science and computer science providing key insights into how to set up the website and how to work with the technical web development team. “Having worked on group projects, and having the hands-on experience of doing things like this on a smaller scale, has been something that I’ve been able to translate,” she says. “When I first heard that our time on campus was going to be cut short, it felt like we were going to be missing out on much of the educational experience, but for me this has been a tremendous learning experience.”
They are also thankful for professors and mentors who provided support, advice, and suggestions and who have been responsive even in challenging times. “I feel like I have learned so much from every single professor that I’ve had, and it’s equipped me with the motivation and skills to tackle a project like this,” says Kyne.
Additional information about Corona Connects is at http://www.coronaconnects.org. Organizations and those interested in joining the Corona Connect team can contact Corona Connects.