Filling the Internship Vacuum by Coding for Good Causes

With summer internships in computer science gone due to COVID-19, the Tufts community stepped up and created a new way of learning skills—and helping others
A Zoom screen with many participants. With summer internships in computer science gone due to COVID-19, the Tufts community stepped up and created a new way of learning skills—and helping others with the Coding for Good program
Caroline Kaufman and Yuki Zaninovich (top left) and students, faculty, and alumni gathered via Zoom for student presentations about their Code for Good projects and what they learned.
August 11, 2020

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Early in the spring semester, Kiran Misner, A22, had set his sights on a summer internship, in part to explore research as a career path, but also to bring his skills to bear on a real-world problem.

What he and other like-minded computer science majors hadn’t counted on was COVID-19. In late March, shortly after Tufts was forced to shift to remote-learning, most companies canceled summer internships—a casualty of the pandemic.

“The fact that these kinds of opportunities suddenly weren’t going to happen was definitely a bummer,” he said.

But thanks to Code for Good, a program placing students together on teams to work on technical projects for nonprofits, the opportunities were again abundant. Yuki Zaninovich, A18, a member of the external advisory board for the Department of Computer Science, and Caroline Kaufman, A20, a teaching assistant for the department, put together the program this spring with help from students, faculty, and staff.

The initiative paired some seventy students with twenty-one short-term programming projects—each conducted remotely and spanning the United States. They included projects making website improvements for Firehouse Spice, a nonprofit that works with farmers in the Bahamas to buy excess produce and prevent food waste; creating a webpage promoting the new cyber lab at the SEED School of Maryland, a public, college-preparatory boarding school; and building an app to serve as a shared portal for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a Pittsburgh organization educating and inspiring urban youth through the arts.

Code for Good benefited from support from nearly 100 alumni volunteers—some as project coaches, others as tech experts who volunteered to monitor Slack channels to provide answers to technical questions. Others stepped up to give Zoom talks related to professional development.

All in all, Code for Good gave students like Misner, in California, a chance to strengthen their skills and sustain close ties to Tufts. Misner, for example, was part of a team that built an app for The Village Method, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for Black youth in South Alameda County in California.

“I’m so grateful to everyone who helped create this program, especially Caroline and Yuki; you can tell that their main goal is for us, the students, to succeed,” he said. “The support system was incredible, and the technical experts and mentors were super willing to help us, whether it be technical questions or career advice. Being able to do something like this was a blessing.”

Kathleen Fisher, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, shared similar appreciation. “Code for Good reflects the value of project-based experience that goes well beyond technical problem solving,” she said.

“Our students want to hone their skills over the summer, but ideally they want to align those talents with a meaningful social cause,” she said. “They also know that whatever they do, teamwork and collaboration are key to their success. So it’s fantastic that the computer science community rallied—and so quickly—to make sure this positive experience could continue, even under the most difficult of circumstances.” 

Zaninovich said that internships can give students a head start on a career. His own internships included work at an online brokerage firm in Florida and at Amazon, first in Tokyo and then in Seattle. “There’s a famous saying that ‘you need experience to get experience,’ so you do have a significant advantage in the job-hunting process down the road,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of empathy from the alumni seeing the students go through these sorts of hardships,” Zaninovich said. “We’re so grateful for their support.”

“Everyone in computer science community realizes how important it is to help each other; there is a spirit of holding the door open behind you when you have made it,” said Kaufman. “That’s really something special about Tufts’ computer science department.” (Computer science is now the most popular major at Tufts, and students in the School of Arts and Sciences as well as the School of Engineering can major in it.)

A Stress on Success

The Code for Good program gained early momentum from the fact that Kaufman and Zaninovich share a default setting: to help students succeed. Kaufman, as a TA, enjoys seeing students thrive in their courses, and, in turn, shape ambitions as confident computer scientists.

“I care a lot about their career development,” she said, adding that she herself had the benefit of two internships, which “gave me so much context for my classroom experience. I learned learn so many skills. I didn’t want my students to miss out.”

Zaninovich, a software development engineer at Amazon, also has an inherent passion for helping students; he held that door open before he graduated. Grateful to “valuable mentors who helped me in my younger years,” he taught a course at the Experimental College on the art and science of practical skills, like writing a resume and interviewing. “I really wanted to help more students get that head start on their career,” he said.

Many people helped make Code for Good a success, from listings on the computer science department’s COVID-19 Career Resources webpage to a list of side projects posted by Hacker News thanks to Associate Teaching Professor Ming Chow, E02, EG04.

Program administrator Donna Cirelli also included a call for opportunities in the department’s newsletter; it reached more than 1,500 people and then “some alumni forwarded it to others in their professional networks to see what they might have,” said Kaufman, who also made dozens of calls throughout April to find nonprofit clients with projects that could completed remotely in about eight weeks.

One client was Martha Lucia Forero, assistant professor in the departments of public health and community service and of pediatric dentistry at the School of Dental Medicine. She co-directs the Community Service Learning Pediatric Dentistry Rotation, and wanted help building an educational and motivational mobile app for Autism Smiles, a program started last year to help children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). The app would help pediatric patients with ASD have comfortable visits to the dental office, as well as provide information to children, families, and caregivers about oral health.

Forero and others at the dental school worked with the Code for Good team to build the prototype of an app to help desensitize children with ASD to the dental office experience and address some of the sensory stimulations that may occur on a typical dental visit.

“I can’t put into words my immense gratitude for the Code for Good team that welcomed the project with great enthusiasm,” she said. “This opportunity was the perfect description of what this pandemic period represents: changes, adaptation, and, most of all, community support. Their prototype now allows us to take next steps: testing, researching, and reaching our ultimate goal of creating a final product that will benefit patients, their families, and caregivers.”

Misner said what he’s learned from Code for Good goes beyond takeaways of a regular internship. “I had the chance to learn new technologies that aren’t taught in school,” he said, “and I also worked with my team to create something useful. I’m happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.