Real-world computing

July 19, 2016

Computer Science students help Edmonton Public Library find a new software solution


Assistant Professor Cam Macdonell and Vicky Varga, manager of IT customer service at Edmonton Public Library, worked together to get Computer Science students solving a real-world software problem. 

Spreadsheets have their place, but not necessarily as part of a complex business planning process. So when Vicky Varga, manager of IT customer service at Edmonton Public Library (EPL), was asked to look for business planning software around the same time she was invited to take part in Assistant Professor Cam Macdonell’s Intro to Software Engineering course, she had the perfect problem for his students to solve.

“More than 150 people from 17 departments and teams contribute in some way to the goals tied to EPL’s three-year business plan,” explains Vicky. “That process is pretty manual right now, and we wanted a way to both efficiently track progress toward those goals and easily pull data to report to our board and City Council.”

It’s a real-world problem that software can solve, so Vicky challenged students to go solve it. They did.

After an initial pitch outlining what the software needed to do and an opportunity to ask questions, the 26 students in the class split into groups and started searching for solutions.

“As students, we’re used to working on a project, getting it to where we feel it’s completed, handing it in and getting a mark,” says Computer Science student Megan Baluch. “This was very different because we went back and forth a few times, each time getting feedback from Vicky. It was really valuable to get exposure to working that way—to see that sometimes an idea you present and think is wonderful might not be something your client likes.”

It turns out that the students weren’t the only ones to benefit.

“Some of the things the students uncovered during their processes weren’t necessarily things I would have thought of,” says Vicky, who visited the class several times to answer questions and offer constructive feedback. “Working with the students helped me better specify my needs and refined my thinking about how to approach this very project.”

While the exercise was always intended to be academic, Vicky says that there is a chance that EPL may end up building their solution in-house. If that happens, she wants the library’s web developers to meet with one or two of the student groups to look at their solutions.

“The students were simultaneously thrilled and terrified in April when they made their final presentations to Vicky and two additional decision-makers at EPL,” says Cam. “Having a ‘real’ client is very motivating, and students learn a lot from interacting with people who have a real software problem they want to solve.”

It’s likely that students in Cam’s Winter 2017 Intro to Software Engineering course will once again find themselves “working” for a real-world client.

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