Mountaintop Polytics team members (from left) Grant Ng, a Pratt Institute student, and Lehigh students Sachin Joshi ’17G, and Klaudia Jazwinksa ’18 conducted market research about users’ news consumption habits and analyzed the breakdown of news organizations by political ideology. They used this information to build their site, which helps users recognize the “echo chambers” on their Facebook feeds.
From the first few students in 2013 to the 75+ who participated in the Mountaintop Experience during summer 2017, one thing is certain: scholars are thriving in this dynamic environment where they can think freely, take risks, work with others, and have the opportunity to fail and try again.
Exploring their own ideas in an industrial-sized facility located on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus, undergraduate and graduate students work shoulder to shoulder with faculty and staff members and pool their knowledge from different disciplines. Faculty mentor these excited minds, rather than lead or lecture. This is the environment where open-ended discovery is the syllabus, and changing the world is the aspiration.
This is an exciting time for the Mountaintop Summer Experience, under the leadership of Khanjan Mehta, vice provost for creative inquiry. The fall 2017 semester has seen the piloting of new courses, allowing projects formerly limited to the summer months to have continuation through the academic year.
Journalism and global studies double major Klaudia Jazwinska ’18 shared her experience this past summer. As Klaudia’s story shows, while the Mountaintop summer program allows for a deep dive, sometimes big questions take more time to solve. Shifting to a year-round model helps advance big dreams forward and creates more outcomes with greater real-world impact.
Describe the Mountaintop project that you participated in.
I worked with my Mountaintop team to create the beta version of a tool called Polytics, which aims to address the issue of algorithm-induced echo-chambers on social media sites like Facebook. A majority of Americans get at least part of their news from social media, but the information they see on their feeds is skewed by the preferences Facebook has determined best reflect each user’s specific interests, including their political leaning. In an effort to combat this sort of polarization and misrepresentation of information, we created a site that would inform users about how algorithms work, how they’re affecting their newsfeeds, and what they can do to “pop” their online filter bubbles.
What experiences were you hoping to obtain through the experience?
Coming into the project, I was really interested in taking a more entrepreneurial approach to journalism - focusing on creating solutions rather than simply pointing out problems. It was really exciting to do research and to talk to journalists from across the political spectrum.
I ended up taking on a project management role on the team, so I wore many hats, and was able to practice and hone in on a variety of skills. In addition to conducting research and overseeing the design of the site, I also worked on networking and pitching Polytics to interested parties, and even created a video tutorial for the site.
Was your team interdisciplinary and how did that help the project?
The three students on our team came from a range of backgrounds. Grant Ng, who is pursuing a degree in game design and interactive media at Pratt Institute, designed the website and created our logo. Sachin Joshi, a graduate student in computer engineering at Lehigh, worked on the back end to program the analysis and recommendation tools. I come from a journalism and social science background, so I did most of the research and concept design for the project.
Additionally, our mentors - Professors Jeremy Littau (journalism and communication), Sarah Stanlick (sociology and anthropology) and Haiyan Jia (communication technology and data journalism) - have a range of interests and expertise, and were an immensely valuable resource.
Were there any obstacles that you encountered working on the project?
The greatest challenge we faced was a lack of cohesiveness and shared vision in our group.
What did you learn from that?
Working at Mountaintop for a whole summer taught me a great deal about learning how to work with people with divergent personalities and work habits. Such challenges are bound to arise when working in a group with people from varied academic backgrounds, so my goal became to figure out a way to capitalize on our differences, rather than let them slow down our progress.
How did the project conclude?
Ultimately, we were able to launch a beta version of the tool we envisioned, which is available for testing at http://www.polytics.me. This is not the final product I envisioned, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Was it different than the anticipated outcome?
Truthfully, I expected to have a completed product by the end of the 10 weeks, and I had planned to reach out to national publications to spread the word about our tool. Unfortunately, the team was not able to accomplish this. We do have a beta version of the site up and running, and plan to recruit other students to continue developing the idea.
How did the MT experience further prepare you for your professional aspirations or life skill set?
Working on a Mountaintop project further fueled my excitement for working in an entrepreneurial environment after graduation. Additionally, it made me want to hone in on skills that would enable me to take a more proactive role in enacting change in the way we share information. I am now looking at graduate school programs in data journalism and media innovation where I can continue doing the kind of work and research I did this summer. The Mountaintop experience enabled me to flex some creative muscles that I haven’t used in many, many years and has certainly opened my eyes to many potential paths.
Would you recommend other students to participate in the Mountaintop Experience and why?
I would certainly encourage other students to participate in the Mountaintop experience and collaborate with others who are passionate about their projects. Building C is an incredible space that gives students the flexibility and resources to take a passion or idea and run with it. I loved working in an environment with so many different projects underway, and meeting students who were so passionate about their work. If you’re passionate, creative and driven, Mountaintop is the place for you.