Brain Break Goes Remote

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Brain Break Goes Remote

How the spirit of off-brand cereal can maybe prevail, thanks to Harvard ZoomHop

By MARISSA GARCIA

The transition to virtualizing Harvard College appears deceivingly simple: download Zoom, click the link, and mute yourself so your cat meowing doesn’t reverberate across your PS11 lecture. Some courses had already begun to transition to Zoom before Spring Break in response to President Bacow’s Tuesday, March 10 announcement that all Harvard undergraduates must vacate their Houses by Sunday, March 15 at 5 p.m. Courses are formally expected to fully transition to online by Monday, March 23. 

In the rush to virtualize an entire university’s worth of courses, worries about the other parts of the Harvard community have been ignored, such as how in-person interactions can be taken online. Luckily, one plucky undergraduate has a solution. Nicolas Weninger ‘20, a concentrator in Electrical Engineering, has created an online platform called Harvard ZoomHop, which he hopes may reimagine the community of Brain Break that he misses from nights spent in Kirkland House. Weninger based the idea on his CS50 project from Fall 2016, “DormHop,” put together alongside team members Benjamin Lee ‘20 and Christopher Onesti ‘20. The project provided a platform for students to coordinate staying at other college dorms; the new version facilitates hopping between Brain Breaks at different Houses. 

Though friends can stay in touch over text, nothing is quite the same as heading downstairs from your room to a dining hall you are sure will be replete with rotating snacks—chips, pound cake, Chex Mixes—and friends. Derek Taylor ‘20, a concentrator in Computer Science, cannot imagine his time at Harvard without this space, recalling, “There’s something about occupying the same living space that is so fundamental to the Harvard experience—hell, even to the college experience, and that cannot be replicated by Zoom or text messages, as hard as it is to admit.” Speaking to the Independent, Weninger reflects upon this sentiment being an inspiration for the platform, saying that he “threw this together in a night as I was missing the serendipitous interactions that take place over meals or Brain Break in the dining halls on campus.” Harvard ZoomHop is currently based on GoogleSheets, broken down into several tabs. There is one for instructions and thirteen for Zoom hangouts, one for student organizations and twelve for each of the undergraduate houses. All are appropriately colored: Adams invites you with marigold and crimson, and Lowell has a baby blue. The host of the Zoom chat can write their name on the list on their respective house tabs, and then those who wish to join can add their names under “Participants.” Upon clicking on the link, the Zoom user will be whisked away to the virtual “Brain Break” for each respective House. Snacks are not provided.

Weninger emphasizes that these kinds of connections are critical to fostering a sense of community, and that these are the moments that are unique to an on-campus setting that he refuses to let disappear upon going remote. “In thinking through the nature of remote education at a place like Harvard,” he says, “I realised that what I will truly miss the most—and what I will remember the most—are those small interactions that happen on a place like a campus: where your friends walk by when you’re doing a p-set, Stats Night in Eliot, or even just wandering down to Brain Break hoping to see someone when [you’re] lonely.” 

Weninger further recognizes that this transition to a remote education may cause a rise in loneliness and truly hopes that ZoomHop may be able to take a step in ameliorating this strife. He remarks, “I wanted to make something that may help alleviate [loneliness] for a few people.” 

If ZoomHop gains traction among students, Weninger notes that he will look toward making “something more sophisticated that integrates with the Zoom API.” This could allow for features such as sub-meetings—essentially, the virtual version of creating side conversations. 

Weninger’s platform, ZoomHop, follows suit with similar initiatives, as many American universities make the move to transition their courses to being online for the remainder of the academic term. Yale’s OKZoomer, also developed by undergraduates, is a prime example. Designed around a GoogleForm and originally published through Facebook’s largest Ivy League meme group—the Ivy League Meme Consortium— OKZoomer aims to matchmake students who can no longer live on their respective campuses. Like Weninger, the OKZoomer team seeks to build a way to spark connections beyond the confines of social distancing. We the Independent wish them, and Weninger, every success.

You can join these virtual Brain Breaks by heading to zoomhop.us

Marissa Garcia ‘21 (marissagarcia@college.harvard.edu) misses the friends she would run into while filling up a cereal bowl with her go-to Cinnamon Toasters.