Coding for the kids

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After 46 hours on their feet — dancing, blowing bubbles, playing cards and crafting — it’s finally time for the dancers participating in Penn State's Dance Marathon (THON) to sit down. But even as the music stops, the strobe lights fade and hundreds of neon-clad students collapse into a multi-colored mass on the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC) floor, the excitement in the room only builds. In the stands, the roar from the audience has reached a new decibel.

In mere minutes, the multimillion-dollar figure raised to support children battling pediatric cancer will be broadcast to the world.

For the 21 students on THON’s technology committee, the big reveal — and the Four Diamonds families who will benefit from it — are the driving force behind every line of code they write, patch they deploy and Web update they apply in the year leading up to THON Weekend.  

With more than 15,000 student volunteers, a website, online store and two administrative systems, THON relies on technology for everything from tracking online donations to helping nurses deliver medications to the dancers during the marathon.

“We support the other 16 THON committees in any way we can,” said Kevin Leimkuhler, the technology director for THON 2016 (which will take place Feb. 19–21). “So, at the end of the weekend when everything goes smoothly and we see how much we raised, we know we did our job. It’s an indescribable feeling.”

Though Leimkuhler, a senior studying computer science, has been involved with THON since his first year at Penn State, this is his first directing role. He’s not only in charge of leading the committee’s 20 captains, but he is also responsible for helping to determine THON’s technology needs and, therefore, the committee’s main goals for the year.

Unlike many of the organization’s other committees, the tech group’s work specifically revolves around collaborating with captains and supporting the initiatives of such committees as rules and regulations, merchandising and communications.

“We get a really unique behind-the-scenes perspective on what it takes and what’s needed for THON Weekend and Family Carnival to happen,” Leimkuhler said. “For example, providing medicine to dancers at the times they need it is not the first thing you think of when you think of THON, but it’s an important component to a safe weekend. So, we recently updated the online emergency management system (EMS) console to make it easier for nurses to schedule and communicate with the entertainment committee about which (and when) dancers need to take medications.”

This year, the technology committee’s focus has been revamping the administrative backbone of the dance marathon: THINK (which contains the EMS console) and PASS.

Used by the 15,000 student volunteers who participate in THON each year, THINK (the THON Informational Network) is an online system that enables volunteers to keep track of donations and donors, apply to be dancers and captains, join committees, register for the THON 5K, manage supplies and inventory, access volunteer safety training modules, and more.

Leimkuhler and the technology committee are currently in the middle of a major overhaul to update THINK (now in its third version) for THON 2017. And last year, they rewrote the code for the PASS system, which helps maintain safety by keeping track of who and how many people are allowed on the floor during THON Weekend and Family Carnival. After the introduction of a digital queue last year, PASS had its most efficient system performance ever by enabling dancers’ guests to use wristbands to scan into the system and receive text notifications when it was their turn to join the floor. Similarly, the committee also maintains a digital line management system to help spectators waiting for admission into the BJC.

Despite their importance to the overall success of THON, THINK and PASS are primarily known only to the THON community, but anyone who buys a T-shirt at the THON Store or donates to sees the committee's public-facing contributions.

For Natasha Bhave, a junior who works on the website and online store, the technology committee is the perfect union of her passion for computer science (her major) and the dance marathon. It’s also one of the reasons she decided to come to Penn State.

“I joined THON right away as a freshman, but after two years I wanted to be involved in a closer, more impactful way, whether it was using what I was learning in my major or being able to interact more with the kids,” Bhave said. “The technology committee has given me both opportunities.”

This fall, she visited the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to visit with children undergoing cancer treatments. “I saw kids going through chemo treatments with smiles on their faces, and not one of them was crying or complaining about why they had to go through that," she said. "Seeing them so happy was eye-opening.”

Bhave, who is also a member of Penn State’s Association of Women in Computing, is busy learning Drupal, the content management system upon which the THON site and store are built. She spends her days collaborating with such committees as merchandise, special events and public relations to make site updates, as well as Penn State’s VM Hosting team, which houses THON’s sites on virtual servers.

Though most of the technology committee’s work this year will happen before THON, each member will still be on hand during the event to make sure THINK, PASS, and the digital line management system are working; help with the radio communications system; and troubleshoot any tech issues with the webcast. With access to a limited number of dance passes, some might even get the coveted opportunity to dance.

But for Bhave, just being present for the "Final Four" — the last four hours of THON when emotions are running high and Four Diamonds families take the BJC stage — is enough.

“Being part of such a happy and heart-wrenching moment and being united with so many other students is very empowering. I’ve never felt anything like it,” she said. “I’m proud that I’m part of THON, and I’m proud to be part of it at Penn State. These experiences are going to be with me for life.” 

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Last Updated February 05, 2016