The tech that drives THON

Emma Riglin
February 16, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The roar of a huge crowd. Speakers blasting the music to the line dance. Thousands of people in bright colors dancing at the Bryce Jordan Center on Penn State's University Park campus.

These are the sights and sounds that typically define the atmosphere at the Penn State Dance Marathon, more familiarly known as THON. But this year, with restrictions on in-person gatherings due to COVID-19, things will look and feel a little different.

THON Weekend will be held primarily virtually for the first time in its nearly 50-year history — making the committee that plans and manages technology for THON more essential than ever. A number of students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology are driving those efforts.

Kyle Feigenwinter, a senior studying cybersecurity analytics and operations, is captain of the team that has been improving the website for Dash over the past year. Dash is the technology responsible for the THON passes which monitor everyone entering and exiting the venue and the number of people on the floor. This year, the system is essential for ensuring that the Bryce Jordan Center does not exceed capacity for COVID-19 regulations so that all participants can maintain proper social distancing.

“Technology is very important this year especially because of how we manage THON,” said Feigenwinter. “With a decreased physical presence in the BJC, we want to provide the Penn State community with the best THON experience they can get through our services. Behind it all, the systems administration team works with AWS to make sure everything stays afloat all year long, even with the increased traffic during THON weekend.”

On the Systems team is Jameswell Zhang, also a senior studying cybersecurity analytics and operations. He and the rest of the Systems team will be on call this weekend to ensure the uptime and infrastructure of THON’s online platforms. With the recent move of THON’s web applications to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the team has used new tools to improve the flexibility and scaling of THON’s websites to meet any level of traffic. This year, the Systems team also set up proactive monitoring dashboards in Splunk to monitor traffic and server performance for three sites with the highest anticipated THON Weekend traffic – THON.org, Dash, and the THON Online Store. After THON Weekend, Systems team will use the logs collected from these dashboards to paint a unique picture of how the THON community enjoyed THON Weekend from home.

Another critical piece of technology during THON Weekend is the organization’s website itself. Kaitlyn Davis, THON.org developer captain, is in charge of improving and maintaining the website, which gets thousands of visitors on THON Weekend alone.

“This year especially, technology plays a special role in connecting people within THON,” said Davis, a senior studying cybersecurity analytics and operations. “Everyone on the THON Technology Committee has been fully committed to making this virtual THON the most authentic experience possible for the dancers, volunteers, families and viewers.”

Part of that commitment is bringing the authentic experience directly to viewers — no matter where they are. Jake Galushka, captain on the Technology Committee, and his team will oversee the livestream and monitor the system that hosts all THON sites. He anticipates that thousands more people will tune into the livestream and visit the sites compared to a typical year. 

“The Technology Committee is a force-multiplier within the THON community,” said Galushka. “This year, we are expecting a large bump in traffic so we will be on our toes.”

Galushka also serves as THINK project manager, leading an agile team of five developers to maintain THINK, THON's internal information network. According to Galushka, THINK plays a critical role throughout the year by tracking information ranging from organization registration to fundraiser data to inventory counts. Over the past year, the THINK team has completed more than 40 formal project requests to help improve THON operations, including overhauls of application processes and the THINK website.

The IST impact

With the College of Information Sciences and Technology's emphasis on project-based learning and teamwork, Feigenwinter said that his classroom knowledge prepared him for success in his THON role. 

“The College of IST has helped me immensely with my position in THON by teaching me problem-solving skills and how to work in a collaborative environment,” he said. “Working on a website like Dash with thousands of lines of code is not easy, but IST has provided me with the education to successfully navigate through and complete projects.”

Davis also said that her IST background has prepared her for the teamwork that her role requires. Further, her THON role has helped her learn new skills outside of the college and combine her passions for THON and technology, she said.

"My position consists of mostly front-end developing, so I’ve had the opportunity to learn several new coding languages, such as HTML and PHP, and learn how to improve user experience design,” said Davis. “Being a technology captain has been a great opportunity for me to learn things outside of the classroom and to further enhance my education.”

While the captains appreciate the opportunity to put their skills to practice, they are most thankful for the chance to make an impact for the Four Diamonds families.

"No matter the situation, they always have a smile on their faces, and I want to contribute to seeing their smile grow even more,” said Feigenwinter. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn more about them.”

Added Galushka, “To me, THON is more of a feeling. You can only really understand the feeling once you've experienced THON for yourself. Although that might look a bit different this year, I try to put forth my best work every day for the kids and families that we support.”

Last Updated February 25, 2021