What are some of the benefits of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS)? Aside from the fact that it’s the only computing-focused school in the UC system and happens to sit in the middle of “Silicon Beach,” it also offers capstone courses that provide hands-on experience in a practical, real-world environment. The strength and importance of such programs was reiterated June 6-8, 2022, when ICS faculty, students and staff attended the National Capstone Design Conference in Dallas, Texas.
“I came away from the Capstone Design Conference even more convinced that providing hands-on practical experience is essential to prepare our students for life after college,” says Informatics Lecturer Matthew Bietz. During his Projects in Human-Computer Interaction capstone course, students take all of the skills they have learned in ICS classrooms and put them together in the context of a software development project. “These projects require students to balance real-world priorities, deadlines and resource constraints. They have to understand client needs and figure out how to best meet them given their team’s strengths and weaknesses,” he explains. “Our capstone program gives our students a real competitive edge in the job market.”
This year, some of the top students from the ICS undergraduate capstone program — with course offerings for informatics, computer science and data science majors — traveled to Dallas to present their projects. At the same time, ICS faculty and staff learned about and shared best practices.
Sharing Best Practices
One goal of the biennial Capstone Design Conference is to provide a forum for sharing ideas. It features sessions focused on how to engage industry partners, bring in dollars for philanthropic support, manage courses, and so on.
“The conference gave us the chance to find out what is working (and not working) at other schools, learn about tools and techniques for organizing and teaching capstone courses, and network with colleagues,” says Bietz. It also gave him the opportunity to share some best practices from ICS.
Collaborating with Informatics Professor Hadar Ziv, who has been leading capstone courses in ICS since 2009, Bietz co-authored a paper for the conference on “Empowering Capstone Students in Client Interactions.” They point out in the paper that “most student training has been in classroom settings, where the structure of tasks is well defined, the expectations are clear, and the instructor is an absolute authority.” They argue that a critical lesson gained from the capstone experience is learning how to have a productive disagreement with a client.
Ziv also co-authored a paper with colleagues from Texas A&M and from Brazil on “Adapting SCRUM Ceremonies in Undergraduate Capstone Projects.” The paper talks about getting student teams to follow Agile values and principles and SCRUM activities and best practices, while acknowledging important differences between a SCRUM team in the real world and undergraduate students in a capstone course.
These were just two of the more than 30 papers and posters presented at the conference. Ziv also presented two workshop sessions in collaboration with UCI alumnus David Ochi, director of the Beall Student Design and Butterworth Product Development Competitions. The workshops covered how to generate ideas and how to translate projects into startups.
“ICS had a strong showing at the conference, not just by the number of papers, posters, workshops and other activities, but also by a strong attendance and active engagement with all other attendees,” says Ziv. “Our presence was well noticed, and well received!”
Jason King, senior associate director of corporate relations in ICS, agreed, noting that it was a win-win situation. “We attended this conference hoping to take away some golden nuggets or gems, learning from other institutions.” He compared it to being an athlete seeking out better competition during training. “If you truly want to grow and be the best soccer player, you need to get outside of your region to compete against other players to raise that bar, and this is a perfect example of that,” he explains. “This is the first time we’ve gone outside of our region, and it’s only helping us grow. Now we’re opening up those communication channels, and people respect our feedback and vice versa.”
Presenting Projects and Networking
While half of the conference focused on best practices, the other half focused on student engagement, with students competing, presenting and networking with their peers, and also meeting with high school students interested in computer science and engineering.
“Our students who attended the conference were amazing,” says Bietz. “Presenting their projects in a competitive poster session was a great learning experience, and they got great feedback from the judges and other attendees. The conference also provided an opportunity for them to network with students from other schools, meet representatives of tech companies, and strengthen their bond with each other.”
Connecting with other students was a highlight for Jessie Chang, a business information management major who presented her team’s project, “Canvas Tools for Teachers.” The tools she helped design aim to alleviate common challenges in the existing education model. “I enjoyed meeting new people the most! There were so many different teams from different parts of the countries,” she says. “It was just really cool meeting them and learning about their projects!” She added that she learned a lot about engineering. “The conference seems more geared toward engineering students, so it was a surprise to all of us that our projects were even accepted as it was all software!” (King noted that the conference is making an effort to incorporate more computer science students and projects into its biennial event.)
“The Capstone Conference in Dallas was a fantastic opportunity to showcase two quarters of hard work, as well as engage with students and professors from all over the United States,” says software engineering major Ellen Kulla, who presented the “AudioScribe” cough diarization project with teammates Alexis Diaz, Jinli Duan, Qiantai Duan and Yuan Wang. AudioScribe, developed in a capstone course taught by Informatics Lecturer Darren Denenberg, analyzes different sounds for use in clinical research and healthcare settings. “The conference,” adds Kulla, “really showed us how much students are able to accomplish as a group in a short period of time.”
Another ICS project presented was developed by computer science students Ezra Hammond, Rieko Konishi, Arian Namavar and Ryan Sakuma. The students collaborated with Delphi Display Systems, in a capstone course taught by Computer Science Professor Sergio Gago-Masague, to develop a recommendation system for quick service restaurants (QSRs). “My team had the opportunity to attend the conference, and it was an amazing experience getting to represent the school of ICS and interact with sponsors, companies, colleges and universities from all over the U.S. and Canada,” says Namavar. Their project, “AI-Driven Personalized Menu Content for the QSR Drive Thru,” uses a machine learning system to present relevant items to users based on their preferences and dietary restrictions.
Cultivating that Competitive Edge
“The capstone program is the one of the best things about ICS, showcasing the great work that’s going on within the school from undergraduate students,” says King. The program provides opportunities for internships and professional development, helps students learn how to apply technical skills and use various project management and communication tools, and lets them practice soft skills and networking in a real-world environment. “We want to make sure we’re using best practices when it comes to these offerings and that our program is on par, if not better than, other standout schools across the nation,” says King. “This conference is the closest thing to attending the World Cup of capstones!”
— Shani Murray