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Student-invented software will keep Ithaca’s women swimmin’

One of the best-known and most successful fundraising events in Ithaca will now be one of the most efficiently organized as well, thanks to some optimization help from a group of Cornell Engineering students.

From left, Betsy East, co-chair of Women Swimmin’ and former associate dean of student services at Cornell Engineering; Jane Powers, Women Swimmin' pod coordinator and senior extension associate in the College of Human Ecology; Julie Langenbacher, former Women Swimmin' coordinator; and Jen Gabriel, director of development and community relations for Hospicare, which the annual event benefits.

Women Swimmin’ has been Hospicare and Palliative Care of Tompkins and Cortland Counties’ signature fundraising event since its start in 2004. Participants swim 1.2 miles across the south end of Cayuga Lake, earning donations from sponsors totaling roughly $400,000, about half of Hospicare’s annual philanthropic fundraising total. This year’s event is scheduled for Aug. 10.

It is also a major logistical challenge. More than 300 swimmers are supported by 200 boaters in kayaks and canoes, and 150 volunteers on the shore. Five buses shuttle swimmers and volunteers from one side of the lake to the other.

To keep everyone safe and ensure things run smoothly, swimmers enter the water in “pods” of about nine. Pods are formed keeping in mind swimmers’ speed, preference of swim partners and preferred start time. Shuttle buses vary in capacity; additionally, there is only one bus turnaround on the east shore, and only one bus at a time can use it.

In past years, Jane Powers – senior extension associate in the College of Human Ecology – was tasked with assigning swimmers to pods.

“Over the years, I developed this complicated system involving names on slips of paper and paper plates spread all around the room,” Powers said.

Recently, Powers started to use a computer for this chore, but it wasn’t much more efficient than her old method. “I used my own crazy coding and categorizing strategies,” she said.

At the start of the 2018-19 academic year, the Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE) Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) program invited 12 companies and groups from the Cornell and Ithaca communities to present challenging projects for students to solve.

Betsy East, co-chair of Women Swimmin’ and former associate dean of student services at Cornell Engineering, heard about this call for projects and mentioned it to Powers, who described the logistical challenges of the event to a roomful of students and faculty.

“I left that day thinking that none of those students would want to work on our project,” said Powers. “So many of their other options were working alongside corporations, so I thought they would gravitate to those sorts of things. I was shocked when we got chosen.”

Four of the students in the room that day have created a team, along with ORIE faculty advisers David Williamson and Christina Lee Yu, and have developed a software program that uses data collected from participant registration to organize swimming pods and bus schedules. The software has been tested using data from prior years, and will soon be used to organize this year’s event.

Said team member Maria Salvador, M.Eng. ’19: “This is a great experience for us. We have a client, and we have to deliver something good and useful. It’s more real than simply writing code for a class assignment.”

“This is uncharted territory for me,” said Peter Haddad ’19, a mechanical engineering major who is simultaneously earning his ORIE M.Eng. degree. “As an undergraduate, I have had very little experience with optimization. This project is forcing me to apply what I am learning right away.”

The other student members of the team are Michael Lapolla ’19 and Judy Zhou, M.Eng. ’19.

“This is a great experience for the M.Eng. students,” Williamson said. “If you have a client who is not technical, you have to be able to hear their needs, translate those needs into an optimal technical solution, and then translate what you have done back in a language the client can understand.”

Registration for the Women Swimmin’ event opens on May 6, but the ORIE M.Eng. team has already shown Powers what their algorithm will be able to accomplish.

“There are two boxes where the links to the data will be, and then a button that says ‘Create Pods,’” said Powers. “It was only when I saw that, that I realized how this would work – a click of a button would create what took me hours and hours to do. I could not believe it. I was so excited.”

Visit the Women Swimmin’ website to learn more about the event.

Chris Dawson is brand manager for the College of Engineering.

Media Contact

Gillian Smith