By Erica Yee
A new student organization, Sandbox, is connecting different communities on campus by empowering students to develop software for Northeastern researchers and, in its community arm, for the university.
The idea for Sandbox came about when Khoury College student Arun Jeevanantham (BS, Computer Science, ‘21) was on co-op in San Francisco and learned about groups at other schools doing software and management consultancy. Inspired, he wanted to bring a similar concept to Northeastern. He mentioned the idea to Da-Jin Chu (BS, Computer Science, ‘21), who was already working with psychology researchers and motivated to create student-driven software.
Together, the two realized there was untapped opportunity for computing work in research on campus. “It was a great opportunity to leave a real impact on people who were doing novel research and help the pace of research at the university advance, too,” says Jeevanantham, now Sandbox’s operations director.
Preparation for Big Research Problems
Up and running as of the Spring 2019 semester, Sandbox is recognized as a Khoury College student organization and has 25 members currently working on six projects. In one, a Sandbox team is helping Signaligner, an interdisciplinary project between faculty at Khoury and Bouvé College of Health Sciences, to build an open-source platform that analyzes and predicts motion activity from devices such as cell phones and smart watches. Their software develops models to label incoming accelerometer data as activities—for example, cooking or lifting weights—based on body movements.
Each research project Sandbox takes on lasts for one semester. This limited timeframe means they must develop contracts with researchers defining what deliverables are possible. Besides accounting for students who may leave on co-op, the semester-long commitment fits with the defined timeframes of many academic research projects.
Looking back on what classes helped prepare them for Sandbox, the group’s leaders agree that Fundamentals of Computer Science 1 was key. “Fundies 1,” as it’s often referred to, is a required introductory course for Khoury students.
“We feel like it gives us a great frame of mind to reason about problems, especially when we’re facing big, research-type problems,” says Sandbox executive director Ryan Drew (BS, Computer Science, ‘21). “The knowledge that we get in Fundies 1 of how to structure problems, design programs, and write good code is super useful.”
Marketing director Sauharda Rajbhandari (BS, Combined Computer Science and Economics, ‘22) joined Sandbox right after taking Fundies 1, having never coded in any other context. “These projects are a great way for students to write code that will be for more than just a class project,” he says. “We maintain industry-standard code in Sandbox.”
Teamwork and Kindness
Sandbox members value pair-programming, a practice emphasized in Khoury computer science classes, in which partners take turns writing code. “One of our core values is to learn together. So, pair-programming is a good opportunity for somebody who might not have as much experience to learn from somebody that has used the technology before.” Jeevananthan adds, “It also works the other way around, where even the less experienced person might teach you something about code design.”
Chu, now Sandbox’s technical director, says the group’s collaborative environment—including a core value encouraging members to “be kind”—intentionally differs from other coding communities that believe criticism through radical honesty is the way to get work done.
“We thought we should challenge that because, from some of the things we’ve learned as Fundies tutors and pair-programming in other contexts, is that kindness goes a long way,” he explains. “It’s not just the first step to creating an inclusive and productive culture, but it’s also just really effective for writing good code. If you can give your feedback kindly, then it will be taken better, more likely to turn into actual changes.”
Sandbox also has a community arm in which students develop projects for their fellow students.
“Our mission statement right now is to unleash the power of software for researchers,” continues Chu. “But in addition to our researcher clients, we also have products that are designed to benefit people like students at Northeastern.”
Sandbox and Search NEU Partnership
The flagship product of the community arm is Search NEU, a website that helps Northeastern students discover information about classes and professors. According to Sandbox, Search NEU has been used by around 45,000 people over the last two years and serves 400 people per day at peak hours.
Search NEU founder Ryan Hughes (BS, Computer Science, ‘19) came up with the idea in the fall of 2016 as a third-year student when he encountered a real-world problem he wanted to solve—right at Northeastern. He had to keep checking the class registration site to see if seats opened up in a class he wanted to take. Eventually, he realized he could write a script to automate the process, which ultimately helped him and a few friends successfully enroll in sections they wanted.
Hughes continued working on the project as he saw the potential for the wider student community, and the site first went live the summer of 2017. News of Search NEU spread to other students and faculty on campus, and the site quickly became a big hit—especially during registration season. About a year later, support for notifications when seats opened up was added to the site, which was also a popular feature among students.
Before graduating in Spring 2019, Hughes set out to find another student to maintain Search NEU. Chu heard Hughes was looking and realized that the project would fit well—as student-driven software helping other students—with Sandbox’s mission.
Hughes, who now works as a software developer at Google in Cambridge, welcomed the partnership. “In the end, it was an easy decision. All the students involved in the organization are bright, ambitious students who enjoy developing open-source software for the NEU community.”
Having an organization maintaining its ongoing development bodes well for Search NEU’s future, and the leaders of Sandbox are determined to keep it going.
“We’ve been very intentional in trying to maintain the longevity of the club through setting values, building culture, and laying down processes,” says Chu. “Because it’s great and all if Sandbox is our pet project and then we graduate, but it doesn’t really mean anything unless we build something that has a lasting impact on the college.”