The first incarnation of the capstone course in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) was in 2009, with 19 students from the Department of Informatics working on five project teams. Now, more than a decade later, the Informatics capstone course is offered three times a year, and ICS has added undergraduate capstone courses for its computer science and data science majors. It also offers capstone courses through its Master of Human-Computer Interaction and Design (MHCID), Master of Computer Science (MCS) and Master of Software Engineering (MSWE) professional programs. Even with the global pandemic moving people out of classrooms and offices and into online spaces this past year, more than 130 ICS capstone projects were successfully completed.
“We’re growing in leaps and bounds,” says Informatics Professor Hadar Ziv, who led that first capstone course so many years ago. This growth was on full display at the ICS Spring 2021 Capstone & Student Design Showcase, where nine of the 12 projects presented were a mere sampling of the more than 60 projects completed for the undergraduate informatics, computer science, and data science capstone programs this year. You can view many of the student capstone videos online.
“It was hard to select projects [for the showcase] because they all were very competitive,” says Professor Sergio Gago-Masague, who led the new computer science capstone and its 16 projects after a successful pilot version last year. The course has already grown from 50 to 70 students, and Gago-Masague plans to scale it up again next year.
The capstone required for the data science major — the first such undergraduate degree program offered in the UC system — resulted in 14 projects created by 42 students this year. The course is co-taught by two faculty members each year, one from the Computer Science Department and one from the Statistics Department. “The balanced and rigorous curriculum of the data science major allows students to take on a wide range of ambitious capstone projects, ranging from predicting medical treatment effects using electronic health records to using time series techniques to forecast product demand,” stresses Statistics Professor Vladimir Minin, who directed the data science program the last three years. Starting July 1, 2021, Statistics Professor Mine Dogucu will take the helm of the program.
The other three projects presented at the Capstone & Student Design Showcase were award-winning designs from the Butterworth Design Competition, a software development competition open to ICS students. The top prize — and $10,000 — was awarded to the Grasshopper Fund, a startup marketplace and funding platform.
ICS has also witnessed growth at the graduate level, with the MCS Spring 2021 Capstone Showcase featuring 18 different projects, one of which, Armory, took third place in the Butterworth Design Competition. MCS students working on the Armory interactive platform, which lets developers experiment with various cybersecurity threats so they can proactively write secure code, were awarded $3,500.
This year, another seven projects were completed for the MHCID program, and a joint MCS and MSWE Winter Showcase in December presented 46 projects — ten of which were created by the inaugural MSWE cohort of 34 students.
Quantity and Quality
The growing number of projects isn’t the only impressive element of the ICS capstone program. “The quality of the projects is also increasing,” says Jason King, associate director of corporate relations in ICS. “We’re seeing more success stories on both the student and sponsor side as we refine the capstone process and devote more time up front to setting up the projects.” This benefits the students, faculty and corporate sponsors. “We’re not just doing projects to do projects,” he says. “We’re ensuring students gain the hands-on experience and soft skills needed for future success.”
Ziv agrees. “A couple of my teams were not only the best in their class, but among the best I’ve taught in 12 years or so,” he said, referring to the Adventure Biofeedback project, where students created a game environment to make speech therapy for kids fun, and the Dreams for Schools project, where students helped a nonprofit STEM education program scale up its operations.
In developing the speech therapy application, computer software engineering major Eduardo Magdaleno said it was an opportunity for him to apply “all of my culminated skills that I learned during my four years at UCI.” He was able to practice Agile development, project management, HCI and more while working closely with the stakeholders. “I did demos and user testing and learned that talking and eliciting the right questions was very important so our application could be built with the users in mind.” Informatics major Stella Adriana, who helped design an Instructor Assignment Sorter for Dreams for Schools, similarly talked during the showcase about how the project helped her learn how to effectively communicate with developers.
Google software engineer Tim Laubach, one of more than 120 participants at the online Capstone & Student Design Showcase, stressed the importance of the students learning this lesson. “The most beautiful design in the world — if it can’t be implemented — doesn’t help the user.”
Gaining this practical, hands-one experience is what the capstone courses are all about. “There are things we just can’t teach in a traditional classroom — the capstone course gives students a leg up as they transition out of their undergraduate degree and into their careers,” says Informatics Lecturer Matthew Bietz, who taught one of the capstone courses this year.
Even those who already have a background in industry have a lot to gain from the capstone experience. “Working on this project has expanded my knowledge of agile development and working on a team, which will be significant in my career progression,” says MCS student Uddeshya Kumar, who worked on an Artistic Photos application to help people create art from photos. “This project gave me the opportunity to learn new technologies that align with my professional goals and will prove to be crucial in the near future.”
The project sponsors are yet another beneficiary of the capstone courses. “Project sponsors tell me again and again how happy they are to have worked with the students,” says Bietz. “Some sponsors come from nonprofits [and] just this quarter, our students built apps to help victims of trafficking, to support parents of children with developmental disabilities, and to help cancer patients better understand their treatment using 3D visualization, to name just a few,” he says. “Some sponsors join us from startups or larger tech companies, and in addition to creating marketable products, working with the students is a way to identify individuals they want to recruit.” This form of networking is invaluable to students and sponsors alike. “For all of the skill-building and new knowledge the students get,” says Bietz, “the real impacts of the capstone program lie in building relationships, careers and passions.”
If you are a company interested in sponsoring an undergraduate- or graduate-level capstone project, contact Jason King at Jason.King@uci.edu.