Swen, Yu, and Willer-Buchardis win Capelluto grants

Sean Lee, Staff Writer

Caroline and Charlotte Willer-Buchardi

Caroline and Charlotte Willer-Buchardi (10) were co-recipients of this year’s Alexander Capelluto Award for their idea of hosting Hack The Bronx, a Bronx hackathon centered around using digital tools to improve the community. 

A hackathon is a multi-day event where participants code unique, innovative, and feasible solutions centered around a specific theme, Charlotte said. “After an opening ceremony on the first day, participants can begin working on their projects individually or collaboratively, which are then submitted virtually through DevPost,” she said.

Some notable projects that came out of the Hack The Bronx in December were an app that digitally holds your spot in a line, a community task board, and medical assistance for seniors, Charlotte said. “We aim to spread the passion for computer science, increase access to digital tools, and come up with new digital ideas for students in the Bronx,” she said.

The twins entered the application process for the grant already having a successful trial run for their idea in December, a Bronx hackathon with over 100 participants and innovative projects as a result, Charlotte said. Instead of focusing on developing an entirely new project, the sisters looked towards increasing participation levels for their hackathon and relied on the Capellutos’ expertise to develop ways to do so, she said.

While the hackathon was completely online last year with participants sending in their projects virtually, the sisters hope to have a hybrid event this fall where students can travel to in-person venues and code, Charlotte said. “We’ve connected with the Superintendent of the school district so we can find time in the school day for students in the Bronx so they can work on their projects,” she said.

“In future years, as COVID dies down, we could do in-person venues — when we talked to Dr. Kelly a year ago, he said that the Horace Mann campus would be available in the future,” Caroline said.

The sisters began the application during Spring Break by writing about their project and explaining what their role would be in the project’s expansion. This process was followed by an interview, Charlotte said. After they found out that they had made it to the second stage of the application, the sisters focused on writing a second proposal that could only include new information about changes since the initial interview, and participated in a final interview before results were announced, she said. To prepare for the proposal and interviews, the sisters brainstormed and prepared responses to potential questions that could be asked about their project, Charlotte said.

Throughout the process of interviewing, the Capellutos suggested that the twins reach out to various organizations and resources that they could use to work around problems such as a lack of funding, eventually helping them develop a feasible yet impactful project, Caroline said. “We started out with a good idea, but they helped us find more computers and other options to integrate our project and make sure it happens every year at the Horace Mann School,” she said.

One of the companies the twins reached out to was FIRST Robotics, a non profit organization aimed at increasing access to STEM education, who offered to open up their STEM centers and allow students to use the computers there, Caroline said.

During the application process, the twins realized they needed to make sure that more students had access to the technology they needed to actually be able to participate, Caroline said. “Initially, we’d asked for money to get more computers to Bronx students, and throughout the process, they helped us to reach out to different companies in New York that could provide these computers,” she said.

The Capelluto family also helped refine the sisters’ ideas regarding prizes, Charlotte said. “Before, we had things like headphones, but this time we decided to do Amazon gift cards because we found that headphones might not be as accessible for people, and that they might want to use that money for other things, not necessarily just for themselves,” she said.

The twins also received support from Monica Major, Director of Education in the Bronx, who helped run the hackathon this past December and ensured that the sisters’ ideas for expansion were feasible to be implemented in the Bronx community from her own expertise, Caroline said.

Overall, the twins hope that their project grows in size and continues on even after they graduate from the school, but also allows for real change to occur in the Bronx using some of the project ideas developed during the hackathon, Caroline said. “There are some very talented kids that can come up with amazing ideas that can really help their community,” she said.


Hanzhang Swen and Joann Yu

Alexander Capelluto Award co-recipients Hanzhang Swen (10) and Joann Yu (10) were awarded $1,500 to start a Public Forum Debate program in international schools in Beijing. Both students participate in Debate at the school, and their project focuses on internationalizing the activity with a focus on China, where Yu attended school before coming to the United States.

The pair also wanted to focus on female empowerment through debate and public speaking, something that has historically been overlooked in China, Swen said. “We’ve both had experiences where because of our gender, we weren’t treated equally as men because of Chinese culture, and China has more of a conservative culture than the U.S,” she said. “So, we want to try to empower girls through this program and help them speak out against sexism.”

After seeing the success of Teddy Ganea’s (12) Public Forum debate outreach program to Romania, Swen and Yu wanted to start a similar program in China, where Yu had attended school before coming to the United States, Yu said. “Before we applied for the grant, we met with Teddy to discuss how his debate project worked, and what was effective and what didn’t work,” Swen said. “Our project is very similar to his, since we’re bringing PF debate to a different country.”

However, there were major differences between the two countries that would challenge the two in their planning process, Yu said. “China’s a much bigger country, and the public school system already has debate through a program called NSDA China,” she said. 

The two planned their project around the Lide International School of Beijing, the school Yu attended during her time in China, working with a rising junior, as well as teachers and administration on the Beijing side, Yu said. “She was a really great help, because Capelluto really wanted to see that we actually had the support from the Chinese side,” she said. “Words from administrators and adults actually meant something and showed them that we had approval and support.”

The online nature of Yu and Swen’s project will help cut down costs and help their project fit within the grant’s budget, Yu said. Instead of travel, the two hope to dedicate their funds towards helping run inter-school debate tournaments for students in China, Yu said.

“We want to start with Lide, but we also want to spread to at least other international schools within Beijing, if not other major cities in China,” Yu said. “When we do that, we want to plan an annual tournament between these schools, and most of the costs that we want for the grant to provide will be for the tournament that we hope to organize.” Costs would include renting fees for a tournament venue, hiring judges, food, transportation, and other expenses that make it difficult for students to host debate tournaments on their own, Yu said.

The two also hope to be able to provide scholarships for those who win at these tournaments, Yu said. “We haven’t hashed out the specific details, but some ideas we’ve had for those scholarships are book awards or partial scholarships to debate summer programs,” she said.

Swen hopes that debate will become self-sufficient in the following years after some preliminary infrastructure has been built up, she said. “We want to establish a club at Lide that can run by itself after we graduate and to establish a connection between Horace Mann and these international schools,” she said. “We’ll know our project is successful if there is a community of schools in China that debate each other.”