Duke Students Step Up to Help Non-Profits with Coding Needs

August 9, 2021 | By Ken Kingery

New student-led “Tech for Equity” program matches qualified students with summer internships for community-minded organizations

21 student interns in a Zoom meeting with green background screens

Besides matching students with computing internships for non-profit organizations this summer, the new Tech for Equity program featured a series of social nights, coffee connections, faculty chats and ethical trainings.

Matthew Ralph was immediately drawn to the word amongst a jungle of emails about summer opportunities forwarded through his statistics department at Duke. For Eunice Kim, the word jumped out at her from a post on a LinkedIn-like website called Ladder.

That word was “equity,” and it had the exact effect that Albert Sun intended.

“During the height of the pandemic over the summer of 2020, I saw a bunch of different programs focused on matching interns with companies for virtual internships,” said Albert Sun, a rising junior majoring in computer science and mathematics at Duke University. “I had this idea to connect that model to my passions for [technology] and [working with community organizers]. The result is this program that [works with] local community organizations to achieve their missions through technology while providing students with meaningful summer internships.”

“I had this idea to connect that model to my passions for [technology] and [working with community organizers]. The result is this program that [works with] local community organizations to achieve their missions through technology while providing students with meaningful summer internships.”

albert sun

Armed with nothing more than an idea and passion, Sun soon found co-conspirators who shared his vision and were willing to put in the elbow grease required to get it off the ground. Sara Brackett, program committee lead, is a rising sophomore double-majoring in computer science and public policy. Jamila Otieno, student committee lead, is a rising junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering and computer science. Alex Chao, student committee lead, is a rising senior majoring in computer science. And Emily Mittleman, client committee lead, is a rising junior majoring in computer science.

A young man in a scarf and plaid shirtWith advice from people involved with Project Phoenix—one of the inspirations for the internship-matching program—Sun and the leadership group spent months emailing as many people as they could. They created connections to find potential community partners who needed help implementing a technical idea. They blasted email lists and social media sites to attract potential students. And they found resources to support their idea both financially and programmatically.

Advised by Becky Simmons, associate professor of the practice of mechanical engineering and materials science, Tech for Equity received 136 applications in its inaugural year—far more than the number of positions they could fill. After interviewing 45 eager applicants, the program matched 19 fellows to 10 different organizations.

“We had been talking with more organizations, but we really wanted to make sure that our fellows would be a good fit and have a good experience,” said Sun. “Not only did their interests have to align, but we had to make sure that the students’ technical skills matched what the projects required.”

“I’m really proud and honestly kind of shocked that we’ve managed to pull it off to this degree,” said Brackett. “There was this phase of freaking out that it was actually going to happen. But now we’re all just incredibly excited that the projects are going as well as they are and that the fellows are enjoying their experiences.”

Equal Parts Internship, Community Building and Equity Education

Throughout the summer, the 19 fellows aren’t just working for their $3,000 stipend—they’re also being immersed in a supportive and educational curriculum. After spending more than a year learning mostly online, the team knew how hard it was to feel connected to a virtual group. But through a series of social nights, coffee connections, faculty chats and ethical trainings, they’re making it work.

“Since the program is remote for us, it’s hard to make friends or real connections. I feel the Tech for Equity program has tried its best to do that anyway, through game nights and other events. I’ve really enjoyed the program so far.”

eunice kim

“Since the program is remote for us, it’s hard to make friends or real connections,” said Kim, a rising senior studying statistical and data science with a minor in economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. “I feel the Tech for Equity program has tried its best to do that anyway, through game nights and other events. I’ve really enjoyed the program so far.”

“They’ve also done a really good job with different programming, making us think about questions of equity that are more common to an academic environment than an internship,” said Ralph, a rising senior studying statistics and political science at Duke. “They’re taking the extra step beyond just pairing us with an internship to make sure we’re thinking about and interacting with these questions about equity.”

Visualizing Plea Bargaining Data

Besides spending time with each other on community-building and equity-focused Zoom calls, Kim and Ralph have been working on the same project together for the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School. This summer, the district attorneys for Durham County, North Carolina and Berkshire County, Massachusetts partnered with researchers at the Wilson Center to design and pilot a new “Plea Tracker” project to generate comprehensive data on the factors that drive case outcomes.

Despite 90 to 95 percent of all criminal cases ending in plea agreements, what actually happens during the negotiation process has never been studied in depth. The Plea Tracker’s initial year-long study seeks to uncover patterns in how prosecutors use their discretion and apply that information to inform future policies and decision-making.

Kim and Ralph have spent their summer building a dashboard capable of displaying the data in ways that can help those involved with the project make sense of it all. Besides the programming and data science challenges involved, the two have spent time understanding how the data is collected, the differences between the two states’ criminal codes and how plea bargaining actually works to ensure that data are represented accurately and in a useful way.

“I was a little nervous when we started because I hadn’t had much experience making any kind of dashboard before, and the system we were using to build it was new to me,” said Kim. “But after presenting a test demo version to the DA offices, we’ve put together a more polished version that I think is in a pretty good place.”

“And we’ve created it in such a way that even after we’re gone, they should be able to go back and tweak it to fit their needs,” added Ralph. “I think we’ve given them a strong foundation.”

Other projects enabled by Tech for Equity include an app for Hunger Fighters Oregon that helps clients get the food that will be of the most use to them, a mobile app for a reusable take-out container company in Durham called Green To-Go, and a cloud-based product that demonstrates how algorithmic bias and data tracking works for a computer science educational program called CSbyUs. 

Expanding Into a More Equitable Future

Moving forward, Sun and the rest of the Tech for Equity leadership hopes their fledgling program will continue to grow through long-term partnerships with community organizations. While they did not start out advertising the program to non-Duke students, they decided to open it up after having conversations about creating a more equitable program. The initial cohort featured three non-Duke fellows, and Sun says they are considering keeping the program open to students outside of Duke to recruit from smaller colleges and HBCUs as part of a mission to recruit more engineers from under-represented backgrounds in tech.

“We don’t want this to be a transactional relationship where students come in and get a lot out of it but the organizations don’t. We want these partnerships to continue long after we’re gone, so that any project can continue in some capacity as long as both sides are interested and excited about it.”

jamila otieno

The leadership team also recognizes that summer is not the only time these organizations could use help, so the group is working to create year-round opportunities, either independently or through a course offered in spring that could offer engineering credit.

“We don’t want this to be a transactional relationship where students come in and get a lot out of it but the organizations don’t,” said Otieno. “We want these partnerships to continue long after we’re gone, so that any project can continue in some capacity as long as both sides are interested and excited about it.”