In 2008, William “Bill” Cunningham established the BERT (Building Emergency Response Teams) training program to help companies and organizations better prepare for emergency situations. For more than a decade, the program has helped build safety teams in compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, leveraging effective communication technology. More recently, Cunningham has been leading a different kind of team, leveraging UCI’s Informatics Senior Design Project course. Collaborating with students enrolled in the two-quarter capstone course — supported through partnerships with local corporations and organizations — Cunningham was able to better advertise BERT’s EmergaLink service while giving the students hands-on experience with a real-world project.
The BERT’s Bees Project
The team, which called themselves BERT’s Bees, consisted of the following students from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS): Kyra Eichinger, Breanna Lee, Jacqueline Nguyen, Karen Nguyen and Princess Pancubit. These five women were tasked with developing a new website for EmergaLink, which combines BERT training and app technology.
“The benefits for BERT/EmergaLink were tangible,” says Cunningham. “There are many aspects to both BERT and EmergaLink that, properly communicated, will be instrumental in building safety teams throughout our society that will save life and limb in any type of emergency.” Properly communicating such aspects was the goal of asking the team to take one page from the BERT website and redesign it into its own separate site. “With the new, clear direction, we anticipate that EmergaLink will be taken to the state and national levels with two principals in our organization active in the state reserves working in FEMA coordination,” explains Cunningham. “I believe that this came about only because of the clarity of the message from the students.”
He adds that BERT would be pleased to sponsor another capstone project. “The collaboration process with the UCI students was an interesting and substantive one,” he explains. “They quickly understood the process and were able to intuitively move the project forward [and] continually align their understanding with the end goal.”
While the capstone course created a tangible outcome for BERT and supported efforts to secure a new contract, BERT reciprocated by helping the capstone students build their portfolios and put their education to practical use. “This class allowed us to work with a real-life client on a real-world project,” says Breanna Lee, who plans to find a job in the Bay Area after graduation in June. The project helped the students develop critical soft skills as they learned how to effectively communicate with their client. “We also learned how to better elicit requirements and handle changing requirements and adjustments in scope,” she says.
Karen Nguyen, who recently accepted an offer as a business analyst for Kaiser Permanente, points out that communication was key. “Not everything will run smoothly when working on a project,” she notes. “Sometimes people’s opinions will differ, there will be miscommunication along the way and even unexpected glitches.” In the end though, she learned that “most things can be fixed through communicating with each other.”
In addition to soft skills, the team had to tackle technical difficulties as well. “The most challenging part of the course was not knowing about the technologies we were going to be using for our project,” says Princess Pancubit, who is moving to New York after graduation to work as a software engineer at Etsy. “We had to take the time to learn on our own, since we didn’t take a class prior that would teach us the knowledge we needed.”
The team also felt the weight of the responsibility handed over to them. “The biggest challenge for me was initially figuring out which direction our project was headed,” says Kyra Eichinger, currently an IT intern at Beckman Coulter. “Our partner gave us a lot of freedom in terms of what the website would look like. It was challenging to decide what would be best for our project and BERT.” The team learned the importance of project planning as they translated conversations with the client into successful design decisions.
Fortunately, “Bill was very friendly and a great communicator,” says Jacqueline Nguyen, who plans to pursue a career with a focus on UI/UX design. She adds that that his enthusiasm for the project drove their motivation.
Role Models in the Making
Jacqueline Nguyen also notes that “because most of the field is predominantly male, it was really nice to be able to work with such a great group of ladies.”
Lee agrees. “I was used to being on teams where I was the only female, so I was really thankful for this group and enjoyed our time together.” Pancubit, who is co-president of UCI’s Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS), echoed that sentiment. “As someone who is actively trying to close the gender gap in tech, it was an honor to be on an all-female team, since it’s so rare.”
As these future tech leaders enter the workforce ready to hit the ground running — thanks to sponsors like BERT — the rarity of such teams could become a thing of the past.
— Shani Murray