Upper school hosts annual Harker Programming Invitational with extra precautions due to coronavirus concerns


Sabrina Zhu

A hand sanitizer station stands at the registration table for the Harker Programming Invitational. Extra hygienic precautions were taken this year due to concerns over the coronavirus.

Three students huddle around a table in the Nichols atrium, speaking in hushed voices together as their eyes focus on the problem set in front of them. One picks up a pencil and begins drawing out a list of numbers on the page, attempting to explain a potential solution to his teammates. 

After the others listen to his logic, ideas start pouring forth, and within minutes, they are typing out the final line of their code on the laptop in front of them and are ready to test their work. The air is tense and full of suspense as they watch the server run, but this anticipation is quickly replaced with relief and joy as a bright green check mark appears on the screen. 

One problem done, eleven more left to do.

The Harker Programming Club (HPC) hosted its eleventh annual Harker Programming Invitational (HPI) in Nichols Hall on Saturday, with the theme this year being cybersecurity in computer science.

115 middle and high school students from schools all around the Bay Area participated in a two-hour long coding contest in the morning, forming teams of up to three members to solve a variety of algorithmic problems. There were two different levels, novice and advanced, which separated contestants based on their past experience in computer science and programming.

“The problems were challenging, but it was a fun bonding experience that we were able to learn a lot from,” said Ashley Hu (9), who participated in the advanced category.

After the contest, participants listened to a keynote speech about artificial intelligence from Jagdeep Singh, co-founder and CEO of the QuantumScape Corporation, a startup working in energy storage.

Following Singh, panelists Riana Pfefferkorn, Associate Director of Cybersecurity and Surveillance at Stanford; Hitesh Sheth, CEO of Vectra; Victor Fang, CEO Anchain.ai; and Manoj Apte, CSO of Zscaler, discussed cybersecurity-related topics and questions proposed by the students.

HPC has been organizing HPI since last fall. They invited speakers to present, contacted possible sponsors for funding and designed t-shirts and fliers. The 17 problems were written by club officers, who also proctored the contest. Susan King, upper school computer science teacher and HPC mentor, supervised the entire event and its coordination.

Sabrina Zhu
Arnav Joshi (12) uses disinfectant to clean a table to prepare for the arrival of contestants.

Along the way, the student organizers faced many difficulties that they had to address and resolve, with the main one being the spread of the novel COVID-19 in the Bay Area. This year, extra precautions were taken to increase participants’ safety and to minimize any potential exposure to the virus at the event.

“First, Ms. King did a lot of coordination with Nurse Nott to go over what our relationship was with the larger school’s administration,” HPC co-president Bryan Wang (12) said. “We got the go to continue with the Harker Programming Invitational, and after that was done, we brainstormed what we had to do.” 

Even before the contest began, club members disinfected all the tables in the atrium with alcohol. At the end of the day, the tables and chairs were cleaned again. Two automatic hand sanitizer stations were placed at the registration desk, and contestants were instructed to use them before entering the classrooms. During lunch, contestants sanitized once again while waiting to receive food.

HPC also implemented a “quarantine system” when all participants were in the auditorium together to minimize unnecessary contact.

“The Nichols auditorium can be really packed, so we sat one team to each row on the left and right sides, allowing extra seat spaces,” Bryan said. “By doing this, we isolated teams to their own members, which reduced any unnecessary interaction.”