Caitlin McDonald: Five Lessons from Dance Hack Day 2017

Caitlin’s a writer, coach and award-winning researcher whose mission is to help people rediscover wonder. I was amazed by her experiences with this intriguing fusion of dance and technology – it’s an avenue I had never thought of. Check out her blog!


Dance Hack Day is a global celebration of the intersection of dance and technology which happened over December 3 and 4 this year.  Watching the presentations for the day at the Amsterdam site I was fascinated by the range of work people displayed, from recording technology which enables multiple dancers to choreograph together on their smartphones to creative coding libraries pairing music, lights, and pathways for an interactive composing experience.

As a person in the early part of my programming journey I’m a while away yet from creating integrated light and sound systems used for concerts and big media shows of 12,000 people at a time as some of the presenters are doing, but it was great that even as a beginner I could still fully participate in the event and to feel that my participation was valued.  With two collaborators, I created a multimedia performance called Khamseen, representing a sandstorm rising from the desert and whirling around the globe.  My five key lessons from this experience were these.

1. Insulate, insulate, insulate.  My main contribution to the performance was an Arduino-powered dance costume that changes colour when the dancer moves, based on this Adafruit textile potemtiometer hoodie project.

The costume has two reactive pieces, a sleeve and a sash over the dancer’s abdomen.  The conductive thread on the sleeve is insulated with silver nail polish and always worked from the moment its final stitches were in place.  The sash, on the other hand, I’d left uninsulated while my collaborator, dancer Casey Scott-Songin, sewed on decorations.  The sash had always been a bit persnickety because I sewed the LEDs in an awkward pattern which caused some short-circuiting, which meant that the lights didn’t behave as expected.  After a little bit of ripping out and restitching it seemed okay.  In the afternoon before the performance, though, we noticed that the LEDs were getting ‘stuck’ in the green position while Casey was dancing.  At first we thought this was because the slider from the potentiometer was catching on the knots at the back of the LEDs causing a short in the data signals so we tried sewing patches over them for a smooth slide.

My heart fell into my shoes when after doing this some of the LEDs completely failed to light up–there was an electrical short somewhere in our sash.  I quickly unstitched my work and mercifully everything lit up just fine, but we still found that the lights on the sash seemed less reactive than their counterparts on the sleeve.  About 10 minutes before the performance I realised the reason the LEDs weren’t responding was a short circuit where the potentiometer slider was coming into contact with one of the uninsulated threads along the side of the sash, preventing the signal from the slider from going where it needed to go.  We’d never put any nail polish or other insulation over these while we were busily sewing on the decorations.  We tried to repair the short quickly with electrical tape but with time running out we weren’t able to do as firm a job as I would have liked.  The lights did change colour during the performance but not as dynamically in the sash as in the sleeve.

Conductive thread is just like uninsulated wire so ensure that yours is well-insulated after sewing or you could be in for an unwanted adventure!

2. You can’t put a weaver’s knot in conductive thread.  On a related note, I was nearly finished sewing two of my LED data connectors together when I noticed I’d accidentally sewn one long loop directly through my sliding potentiometer–no good!  In an ordinary, non-conductive sewing project a blunder like this is no big deal to repair by cutting the troublesome long stitch and knotting the threads into place on either side, but I needed one long continuous connection between the two points of my LEDs.  Not wanting to waste perfectly good conductive thread I decided to cut where the problem was and use a weaver’s knot to connect a new piece of thread.

I soon discovered this was a bad idea as it caused a short circuit within the knot itself!  Some current was clearly getting through as the remaining LEDs were lighting up, but with unexpected behaviour: different intensity of light and not colour-responsive the way I expected.  Fortunately none of the LEDs blew out in this experiment and after I restitched between the two connector points it was fine.

Always sew your conductive thread in a single continuous line between two connector points.  If you encounter problems, discard that thread and resew from the last connector, or you’ll find your project behaving in mysterious ways.

3. The test LED won’t change blink speed.  The Arduino Gemma has an LED right on the chip which can be used to test what’s going on while you’re setting the project up.  The project instructions say to test the sliding potentiometer once it’s sewn down by seeing if the onboard LED blink speed adjusts when the slider is used.  However, both times I tried this I found that what actually happens is the onboard LED makes a barely perceptible twinkling when the sliding potentiometer is moved around and it’s not really possible to see what’s going on until proceeding to the next step using the colour-changing code and hooking up one of the pixel LEDs to the Gemma using alligator clips or conductive thread.  If all is well, at this point when you slide the potentiometer up and down you should see the colours changing on the pixel.

Both times at this point in the project I saw what looked like an inert red LED on the Gemma and panicked, assuming I’d done something wrong.  Then I wasted time by trying to load the test programme onto the Gemma over and over.  It’s only when I tested by connecting to a light pixel that I realised it had actually worked just fine all along.

Trust yourself–you might be further along than you realize!  Also, alligator clips are your friends when you want to test without sewing down first.  I actually recommend hooking the whole thing up using clips before sewing anything down so you can see how all the pieces fit together first.

4. Even a beginner can contribute something to a project.  When I arrived at Dance Hack Day I really had to fight off some powerful impostor syndrome vibes.  How could I possibly contribute to this global celebration with my one tiny project?  After all it was only two little strips of lights and I hadn’t even written the code myself from scratch–I’d just followed the instructions like brownies from a box.  Would any of these experienced choreographers and coders even want to work with me and Casey?

But the reality I found was far different: each person participating in our collaboration had something unique and remarkable to bring to the table; something that made our performance more than the sum of its parts.  It turned out that was true for every participant in every team: everyone had some special expertise to share and when it all came together it was truly magical.

If you’re a beginner don’t be afraid to participate–put yourself forward.  There are plenty of events which seek out and welcome people of all levels of ability and diverse sets of skills where you can shine.

5. If you want to go far, go together.  The most important lesson that I learned in 2017 is that my most rewarding creative experiences are those where I collaborate with others.  As I get older and wiser, I feel less inclined to try to do everything myself or to expect that I have to be an expert in everything.

As a former academic, it can be pretty hard to move from a model where you’re increasingly rewarded for specialising deeply in an ever-narrower range of knowledge to one where the rewards come from knowing when to seek expertise from others.  That isn’t to say my learning journey is over–far from it!  One of the new skills I learned this year is to recognise the value of building on the specialisms and different perspectives of talented people to bring an idea to life.  If I’d tried to do it all on my own, Khamseen would just be a glimmer in my mind instead of a fully realized multimedia experience.  The same is true of other projects I worked on this year.  Plus I have the satisfaction of knowing that the projects I’ve worked on are rewarding for my collaborators also–if I hadn’t suggested their involvement they wouldn’t be able to look back with satisfaction on what we created together.

There are definitely areas of technical skill I’d like to continue to grow, and I feel lucky to be in a position where I can pursue those skills relatively easily.  But overall the biggest gift is recognising the exciting creative and productive possibilities that happen with a shared vision.

Find people you trust whose skills you admire.  Share one of your dream ideas with them.  You might find they get as excited about making it happen as you are!


ProjectCSGIRLS: Pooja Chandrashekar

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Pooja’s a senior at Harvard, and a fierce fighter for closing the gender gap in CS. As a high school sophomore, she started ProjectCSGIRLS, the nation’s largest computer science competition for middle school girls. We’re truly inspired by her dedication to and vision for her nonprofit, as well as for women in tech. Here’s her story.

What inspired you to create ProjectCSGIRLS?

POOJA: So, I started ProjectCSGIRLS my sophomore year of high school as a result of my own experiences with the tech gender gap. I found myself one of only three girls in my first high school computer science class, and also noticed many of my female friends stopped pursuing CS because they felt out of place and discouraged by the gender ratio in their classes. I credit much of my own decision to stay in CS to my prior experience with the subject in middle school, so that’s why I wanted to create a national platform to encourage middle school girls to pursue CS and tech.

A common criticism of programs like Girls Who Code and Robogals seems to be that creating programs exclusively for girls is discriminatory and ineffective. James Damore, the former Google employee that circulated the divisive memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, commented that such programs “continue the ‘women are victims’ narrative, which can be harmful for everyone”. How would you respond to these criticisms?

POOJA: Those criticisms are entirely invalid; in order to address issues of discrimination and underrepresentation, it is necessary to create spaces and programs that foster empowerment, support, and peer mentorship. One of the biggest impacts of the tech gender gap is that girls and women often feel isolated and unsupported; thus, we have to create programs that show girls that they aren’t alone in their endeavors and that there’s a strong community of women in tech who will back and support them. The goal of female-only and/or minority-only programs isn’t to be discriminatory, but rather to build community and channel resources to those communities that need them the most.

You took on this endeavor as a high school sophomore! Did it ever seem daunting to you or were there moments when it seemed like things wouldn’t work out? 

POOJA: Yeah absolutely! The first year of ProjectCSGIRLS was only for girls in Virginia, Maryland, and DC so it was just a regional program! We worked our way up from there to a national, and now international, program. And there were lots of challenges along the way; from securing funding from corporate sponsors to getting the word out on a national scale, there were a lot of steps along the way that I had to take one at a time while building the organization and scaling our programs!

What are some cool projects you’ve seen submitted to ProjectCSGIRLS so far? 

POOJA: There have been so many! A few include an app to help Alzheimer’s patients recognize their loved one through facial recognition, a machine learning-based algorithm to translate the movements of wounded veterans’ lips to words, and a VR system to help claustrophobic individuals get acclimated to an MRI environment before they undergo an actual scan.

You’ve engaged in many public speaking events and presentations to executives and large-scale conferences – was it intimidating? How’d you calm your nerves? 

POOJA: For me, it just came with practice! I was definitely not accustomed to public speaking before my work with ProjectCSGIRLS, but as I began to speak at more events, it began to come much more naturally and I started to really love it. Now, it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do! I’ve found that the best way to calm your nerves is to speak with passion. If you do, you’re much more focused on the content rather than the delivery and setting!

What made you become interested in computer science? 

POOJA: My parents are both engineers, so I’ve always had a natural inclination towards technology and computer science. I also went to a middle school with mandatory computer science classes, and I was immediately drawn to how logical and creative of a field it was. But, I really became interested in pursuing computer science and tech as a long-term path when I realized how much of an impact these fields were having on healthcare and medicine.

You’re a Biomedical Engineering major – what technological potentials draw you to this field?

POOJA: There’s so much potential for digital health to really transform the way we treat patients and diagnose diseases, and the system that’s responsible for delivering this care. Some examples of technologies I’ve particularly been interested in and have worked on are better ways to diagnose concussions with noninvasive technologies, mining social media data to predict health crises before they occur, and how virtual reality can be used to help children with special needs. I’m also really interested in how we can harness technology to improve how health systems function (i.e. how can data and analytics help us improve care quality, reduce costs of care, and improve care coordination).

You’re a senior at Harvard! What are your plans for after graduation? 

POOJA: So I’m taking a gap year before medical school! I’m not sure yet exactly what I’m going to be doing, but I’m hoping it’ll involve a combination of digital health, education, and public service!

What do you see yourself doing in the future? 

POOJA: Working at the intersection of healthcare, technology, and policy! I’d really like to be in a position where I’m harnessing technology to improve our healthcare system, as well as identify and reduce health disparities. Also, I hope to continue working on reducing education inequities through advocacy and nonprofit work.

Any words of advice for aspiring STEMGirls?

POOJA: Stay with it, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help/mentorship, and take the initiative! Don’t be discouraged by the statistics, and ensure that you speak out, step up, and take the lead in projects or internships. And look for mentors! Seek out mentors – both male and female – who will advocate for you, support your aspirations, and encourage you to reach higher!




Maya Frai: Myoutlines

Maya’s an undergraduate at Cornell – she developed an iOS app, Myoutlines, that provides AP students with outlines to help them study. Here’s her journey.

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In high school, the best study strategy to handle my overwhelming course load was to outline chapters in AP textbooks for all of my classes. Whether it was for biology or history, summarizing concepts in my own words was the easiest way to consolidate dense information. As I started to accumulate more and more outlines on my hard drive, friends started asking me if they could use my outlines to review topics for exams and essays. I welcomed the idea and started to share them. Frustrated with having to use multiple platforms to share my outlines— from Facebook to Google Drive to email — I decided to make a website. I initially created the site for my local high school, but soon after I created it, high school students from all over the world started to view and download my study guides. As of today, has over 300K users and subscribers and is #1 Google page-ranked for search keyword “AP outlines.” But, it doesn’t stop there.

Reviewing the website’s analytics over time, I noticed that a large number of users were accessing the site through their mobile phone. I realized making an app would be beneficial, however, I didn’t know the first thing about app development. When I first arrived at Cornell, I enrolled in an iOS development course and began designing and developing the Myoutlines app. Throughout the course, it was not easy to keep up with the advanced instructors explaining UI components like it was 3rd grade arithmetic. And not only was the material difficult to grasp, the room full of male developers didn’t help my overall morale much. In the beginning, I questioned whether I should be in the room, learning amongst those who were already enrolled in higher-level computer science courses. But throughout the semester, I focused on the main thing that was important to me, the driving force that motivated me to take the course in the first place. Even when I would find myself being scoffed at or “brogrammer’d at” (I made that up) for asking a “silly” question during office hours, I wouldn’t even pay them a glance. My goal was to build an app not only for myself, but also for my users.

After constant visits to office hours and weekly projects, I finally mastered the skills I needed to start developing my own app. But of course, the challenge didn’t end when the course did. Designing and developing the app came with its own many frustrations. Not only was I a newbie at Swift, but also in UX design. The time that I was not working in XCode, I was designing in Sketch. While ensuring a minimalistic design, I was also conducting UX research to meet the many design guidelines for education apps. While trying to meet my initial design expectations, I struggled with compiler errors of all kind. I’m not going to lie and say that I always knew what I was doing–because I didn’t. I struggled with nitty-gritty errors as well as large-scale server issues that once led me to believe that my entire project was gone. But, thanks to the open source community as well as my instructors, iOS development resources and libraries, my app was continuously improving.

When developing and designing the app, I not only learned how to work on my skills and become a better programmer, but I also discovered that no one can get in the way of something you set your mind to. At Cornell, I am constantly in contact with male peers who undermine my abilities and misjudge me based on my gender. But this is something that all women can help improve. As one of the vice presidents of Women in Computing at Cornell, I work with an incredibly talented and powerful group of women that strive everyday to reduce the gender gap and advocate for every woman aspiring to pursue a career in technology, whether it be through product design, software engineering, or product management. For any woman trying to make their first app, develop a website, or even take their first computer science class, I strongly encourage you to keep moving forward, regardless of anyone or anything that is working against you. To make a change, we all have to contribute something and we are all capable of being a part of that change. Not only am I proud to say that I released Myoutlines on the App Store, but I am also humbled to be the one able to further my passion project and contribute something to the women in technology community.

Judgement Day – College Decisions

Yes, it’s that time in a high schooler’s life. College decisions. As those dreaded dates loom closer, it’s easy to absorb yourself in something so relatively trivial that you forget your grand ambitions, passions and dreams. This post is dedicated to people like me who need a good reminder once in a while.
Guess who got rejected by Harvard Business School? Warren Buffet.
Guess who got rejected by Princeton and Harvard? Ted Turner, founder of the one and only Cable News Network (CNN)
Guess who got rejected twice by Harvard Medical School and was advised by a dean to join the military? Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate in medicine
Take these inspiring success stories to heart. College is just an environment to nurture your growth; ultimately, it is up to you to reach your true potential! (At least, that’s what I’ll be telling myself this weekend.).
But truly, do not forget the scale of the world in that second after reading your decision. Remember, this event in your life is but a speck in the grand scheme of things, like the pale blue dot in that fabulous selfie of our solar system.
So, before you go and open the judgmental letter that you’ve been waiting so long for, take a breath, pause for a minute and think: What do I want to do with my one-in-seven-billion life? 
Keep your answer in mind; the words on that piece of paper can never stand in your way.
Yours truly,