In response to the stay-at-home order, the science fair, an annual event that draws hundreds of students from across the state, went virtual on the website Student Corner, the brainchild of UH Hilo computer science student George Donev.
A web platform co-founded by a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo for students to publicly post their projects and research has saved the day for this year’s Hawaiʻi State Science and Engineering Fair. While public events across the island and state have been canceled due to the coronavirus, the science fair, an annual event that draws hundreds of students from across the state, went virtual last week on Student Corner, the brainchild of computer science student George Donev.
“We’ve tried to simulate the process of a real science fair on our site Student Corner,” says Donev, a junior.
The fair is an annual event, started in 1958, sponsored by the Hawaiʻi Academy of Science, a nonprofit based on O‘ahu. This year marks the first all-virtual fair.
Currently more than 400 participants in the fair have uploaded their projects to Student Corner, and more than 100 judges have logged in to the platform. To accommodate the new virtual platform, student projects are going live in two phases, with the senior division (high school) projects first, followed by the junior division (middle school) projects later in April and May.
Since the fair is traditionally a public event, all the projects are configured to be viewable by the public on the Student Corner site. Each project features an audio recording of the student presenting the project’s methods and results to the judges.
Amy Weintraub, director of the Hawaiʻi Academy of Science, notes that what could have been a major disappointment to young scientists and engineers across the state has turned into an opportunity to showcase their scientific research to a potentially more extensive network of scientists and educators.
“These students work year-round, they have to qualify at the school and district levels before advancing to the state, and in the case of high school students, on to international level,” explains Weintraub. “We wanted to honor their work. It has been a big relief all around for students, teachers, and parents just knowing that we are having the fair virtually.”
Weintraub adds that the virtual format is conducive to student participation in potential collaborations. “We have organizations and industry members looking for projects that they can work with and expand,” she says.
Weintraub says it was a challenge to move a massive production like the state science fair from an in-person event to an all-online event in just three weeks, but it helped that Donev himself was once a finalist in the fair and already understood how it works. “To be able to hire and work with a former student, who is still a student, has just been great for us,” says Weintraub. “I am proud of him and the team.”
Donev says the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the need for online learning tools, and Student Corner is stepping in to fill the gap. “Our user base is growing exponentially and there are hundreds of students using it every day, with a hundred or more added each week,” he says.
The idea for the website came to him while he was a high school student at Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy in Waimea, which specializes in hands-on, project-based learning.
“After the semester was over, we would have projects to showcase, but there were no tools for students to get their work out there in a digital format,” says the 2017 HPA graduate. “I took a gap year and started building a web platform to help students showcase their work online.”
Student Corner’s co-founder is Morgan Dean, currently a senior at Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy.
“Morgan has done a really good job ensuring that the technology is solid, stable, and scalable, which is really critical for tech products,” says Donev, who is CEO at Student Corner Inc. Another team member on the business side is UH Hilo business student Althea Kamali‘i, who Donev hired last year.
In 2018, Donev’s development team, which included students from UH Hilo, Arizona State, and local high schools, won top honors in the Student Business Plan category at the annual Hawaiʻi Business Plan (HIplan) competition. The team shared in the prize of four full tuition scholarships for the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters for those attending UH Hilo.
In an interesting twist, Donev recently hired one of his own instructors. “We just hired Ted Shaneyfelt, [a lecturer] at UH Hilo with a PhD in computer science, as our chief technology officer,” says Donev. (In 1986, UH Hilo awarded Shaneyfelt its first bachelor of science in computer science.)
In March, Student Corner was awarded a $20,000 grant by the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship (PACE) program. The funding is through PACE’s new Liftoff Advisors program. PACE is part of the Shidler College of Business at UH Mānoa.
“It’s like an investment but without the equity strings attached, which is really nice,” says Donev. “We’re using the grant to reinvest in the business and help it grow more quickly.”
Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.