From the Classroom, to the Lab, to the Community | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

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From the Classroom, to the Lab, to the Community

When Jeremy Olin came to Pitt as a computer science major, it seemed only logical to get a job in the Student Computing Labs. It offered flexible hours, and it enabled him to gain experience working with customers with varied levels of computer skills. Olin enjoyed the work because it forced him outside of his computer science bubble. “Having a student-facing job gave me a little more perspective on other students with different skills sets,” says Olin.

Jeremy Olin picAs his coursework became more advanced, however, he wanted to apply his technical skills to make a more significant impact in the larger community. “I wanted to gain real-world experience in something that could really help people,” Olin explained.

Networking to Find His Niche

Olin talked about his goals with Bob Gradeck, project manager of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center at Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. Gradeck put him in touch with Dr. Sera Linardi, a faculty member in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Center for Analytical Approaches to Social Innovation (CAASI). Linardi had launched CAASI’s Grief to Action (G2A) initiative, a volunteering platform to help fight the systemic racism laid bare by the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

Since its inception in June 2020, G2A has hosted four undergraduate capstone teams from the School of Computing and Information (SCI), and she had the perfect opportunity in mind. Linardi connected Olin with 412 Connect, a new project whose mission is to promote and increase the visibility of Black-owned businesses in Pittsburgh and to expand their presence on and around the University of Pittsburgh campus. Olin had already completed his SCI capstone project, so in October, he joined the technical team on a volunteer basis, joining other capstone students.

Gamifying Awareness

“Data shows that Pittsburgh’s Black neighborhoods and businesses are very segregated, and most students don’t branch out to these areas,” Olin notes. 412 Connect is developing a site that makes it fun for the student population to connect with Black-owned businesses via a scavenger hunt experience.

“Think of it like Duolingo,” Olin explained. People can create individual or team accounts. They can then access a directory of recommended Black-owned businesses in the Pittsburgh region. Each entry has information about the business: what they do, their location, their website, etc.

The site makes it easy to visit and support these businesses. “The goal is to incentivize students by creating a reward system. People can earn badges and connect with others by visiting different businesses,” said Olin. The team is also considering other ways to reward people who show commitment to visiting Black-owned businesses.

412 Connect hopes to get the basic site set up by the end of spring term, and launch a mobile-friendly site in the summer.

Doing Well by Doing Good

Olin really enjoyed working on 412 Connect, and the experience he’s gained helped him gain the attention of employers in this challenging job market. He graduates this summer and already has a position lined up.

“Employers really liked that I have real-world experience in a variety of tech positions. Working with customers in a help desk and troubleshooting role through my lab job was a seen as a real bonus. But I also demonstrated more advanced coding and project skills through my work with 412 Connect.”

While Olin’s job will be in the private sector, he hopes to continue to participate in non-profit and volunteering work, using his technical skills to make a difference. “Helping people is worthwhile work that I want to do, instead of work I have to do.”

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger