Carnegie Mellon University

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June 18, 2020

Undergraduate Economics Students Hack COVID-19 Policy Restrictions on Immigration — And Win

A team of current undergraduate economics students and a recent alumnus won top honors for their public policy proposal in the international COVID-19 Policy Hackathon, sponsored by Stanford University and MIT. The hackathon took place on June 12-14, 2020. 


For thirty-six hours over the course of a summer weekend, four Tepper School undergraduate economics students and one alumnus applied the analytical research skills they learned in the classroom to an immediate and real-world economics challenge: the impact of COVID-19 on immigration policy. 

Participants Put Analytical Skills to the Test

Rising sophomores Daniel Kornbluth, Zachary Leventhal, and Sean Swayze teamed up with rising junior Lucas Jia and recent alumnus Martin Aquije (TPR 2019) to participate in the hackathon. 

“Seeing the hackathon as an opportunity to put my analytical skills to the test in the context of macroeconomics is what drove me to apply and reach out to the rest of the team,” said Aquije.

Their entry, “A Proposal to Reduce the Burden of COVID-19 Policies on Immigrants in America,” was a top finalist in the trade and immigration track of the competition. Over 800 participants from around the globe competed in one of four tracks in the hackathon:

  • Public health
  • Firms and workers
  • Trade and immigration
  • Financial policy

Creating Policy Interventions That Make a Better World

“As an economics major, I’m always trying to imagine how policy interventions could be used to make the world a better place,” Swayze said. “This (COVID-19) is one of the most prominent problems today where a policy intervention could make a big difference.”

The team’s winning proposal calls for immediate changes to immigration policy that will ease travel restrictions and disruptions to immigration while still reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Additionally, the proposal outlines the need to ensure that medical care and treatment for COVID-19 is offered to immigrants without regard to immigration status, and the need to protect individual privacy when employing the use of contact-tracing efforts without fear of retribution due to status.

Tepper Students' Advantage Stems From Economic Program Experiences

While impressive to tackle such policies with credible solutions within one long weekend, the students had a clear advantage in creating their proposal: all are current or past members of the Economics Research Club and also participated in Carnegie Mellon’s own hackathon, the Global Challenges Competition.

“The fact that the team entered the Stanford/MIT hackathon and were so successful is a direct result of much increased emphasis on undergraduate research in the Undergraduate Economics program,” said Chris Telmer, Associate Professor of Financial Economics and head of the Economics program. 

“Students develop the ability to apply economic fundamentals and data science to real-world problems starting in the first year of the program. Thus, when faced with a problem such as how the COVID-19 pandemic interacts with U.S. immigration policy, our students are able to quickly analyze the problem, propose policies that address it, and convince a panel of experts to take them seriously. The fact that our students are able to excel on the global stage is evidence indicating that the research skills they acquire are valuable and relevant for society’s biggest problems.”

Kornbluth, who is the current president of the Economics Research Club, felt that the event provided an opportunity to look at a real-world problem and collaborate with like-minded individuals from around the globe.

“In our time at Tepper, we've been taught how to break down complex problems to consider analytical solutions. This was integral in our team's success, because we were given such a broad topic (COVID-19) to focus on, and had to hone in on one area where we believed we could develop a solution,” he said. 

Leventhal echoed his teammate’s sentiments, adding that participating in the CMU Global Challenges competition “gave me important hackathon experience” that helped the team in creating an effective policy proposal. He also credits his undergraduate coursework.

“I better developed my understanding of the scope of issues that economists analyze and try to solve, as well as how to write about and format research. These classes provided me with information on how to create an effective policy proposal,” Leventhal said. 

Economic Toolkit Helps Turn Ideas Into Tangible Policy

During the hackathon, teams received guidance from leading academics and policy-makers while creating their proposal memos through a series of virtual workshops and mentor office hours.

“It would be incredible to see the 800-plus hackathon participants’ ideas turn into tangible policy in the United States and elsewhere,” Leventhal said. 

All finalist proposals will be made available as open source policy on the hackathon website moving forward, enabling teams to continue to add and refine their policy proposals after the competition. 

“Economics education gives students a toolkit. A hackathon shows them what the tools can do,” Telmer concludes.