Campus, Coded

Temple university information sciences student

From Temple alumni magazine

It’s a cold, dreary Tuesday in early December and a group of five senior information science and technology majors have just bravely trekked across campus and up to the third floor of Conwell Hall. Inside a small, dimly lit meeting room, they take their seats at the far side of a conference table. If there’s any anxiety in the room, it’s buried far beneath the professionalism and coolness on display. To the right of the table, a projector splashes the students’ final product—a computer information system representing the culmination of their college careers—onto a bare wall. They’ve dubbed it Student Learning Assessment Management, or SLAM.

Alysa Truong brandishes a nondescript red binder and hands it across the table to their client, Gina Calzaferri of Temple’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. It’s a user manual about 60 pages long. 

“Something to read over the holidays,” Calzaferri jokes, flipping through the pages. 

In that moment the students were, in essence, handing over the keys to the castle—a castle built with more than 16,000 lines of original code, that is, and one that could drastically change the way Calzaferri and faculty members across the university manage a multitude of important reports. One so impressive, it’s easy to forget it was born in a class.

Projects with a Purpose

Since its inception in 2012, the phrase “Temple Made” has become so widely used by students and alumni alike that it’s refreshing to sometimes be reminded of what it actually means. Or what it looks like in action.

Look no further than to the aspiring developers who’ve been quietly infusing their code around campus for the past several years through their capstone work across two classes, Information Systems Analysis and Design and Information Systems Implementation. 

“These are all real-world experiences,” says Rose McGinnis, an assistant professor in Computer and Information Sciences who also serves as director of student professional development in the College of Science and Technology.

For the past five years, McGinnis and Wendy Urban, a fellow assistant professor, have partnered to lead the two classes—McGinnis overseeing the first, in which students focus on analysis and design of a system for a client, and Urban guiding students through its development and delivery, a student presenting in front of a classroom.

Both faculty members approached the course within the context of 20-plus years spent in the software development industry, emphasizing pragmatism by visiting technology companies, such as Vanguard and SEIInvestments, to ensure students master the most current software development techniques before leaving Temple. 

The classes follow what’s known in the field as “agile software development,” a methodology that breeds collaboration and nimbleness and encourages continuous improvement. The classes also create working relationships among students, faculty and staff that might not cross paths otherwise. 

The class has spawned systems such as one for the College of Science and Technology to handle scholarship assessments and another that facilitated the nomination and selection process of the prestigious Philadelphia Award. To date, more than 50 systems have been developed.

A project for the university that went into use in 2016 expedited the process surrounding a stipend program that allows qualifying students to fund research projects, study abroad trips and other experiential learning opportunities. 

“There’s a complex workflow that goes along with it,” McGinnis says. “The students previously had to run around campus getting signatures. This system takes all of that running around, office to office with paper, and automates it.”

Currently, one student group is working to assist student-athletes’ academic advisors in better tracking individual student progress. Another is creating a system to help a nonprofit organization make delivery routes smarter. 

In some ways, it seems, the final project for information science and technology majors represents a developer’s answer to a Senior Class Gift. 

Surveying the Survey

As assistant director of assessment and evaluation, Calzaferri is the point person for an assessment report completed annually by upward of 500 academic programs at Temple.

The reports, she says, help ensure accountability, documenting that university degree– granting programs are meeting their stated missions and that assessments are consistent with the standards of Temple’s accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. 

But the university wide reporting process to track those assessments has become cumbersome, in part because the surveying system in place was simply not designed for the complex reporting process required by the Institutional Research team. An obvious sign of this is the fact that the surveying tool lacks a button to go backward in the process. 

“If they forget to do something or they want to add something to a section, they have to contact me,” Calzaferri explains, “and I have to restart the survey.”

Finding a system that met the office’s and faculty’s needs—and was within budget—proved difficult.

“We wanted a system [in which] it would be easy for people to work as they go along and to collaborate,” Calzaferri adds.

As it happened, there were some students up to the task.

In late 2014, after hearing about the information science and technology capstone, Calzaferri discussed with McGinnis and Urban the possibility of a new, student-made system for the reports. 

The instructors invited Calzaferri to sit in on a series of final presentations; she was impressed by the scope of the systems students had created. By the beginning of the following semester, Calzaferri’s project had been assigned a team: Truong, Kyler Love, Salvatore Giafaglione and Matthew Merritt, who all graduated last December, and Yash Patel, Class of 2017. 

Both sides of the arrangement acknowledge they harbored natural moments of reservation initially. 

“It’s very daunting on the face of it,” says Merritt, 28, from South Philadelphia. “There were definitely points of time where I considered everything that had to be done, and I was a little terrified.” 

Calzaferri admits she was unsure of how much work the students, who would be juggling other courses and jobs throughout their final year, would be able to accomplish. 

“When we first started, it was just to replace the survey part of the system,” says Love, a Belton, Texas, native who spent six years in the Marines before coming to Temple. “It became really obvious that she needed something more than just a way to fill out the surveys.”

Team Operation

The two-part capstone, Urban says, might indeed appear to be “your worst nightmare of a group project, times 10.” But the students tend to also recognize the sizable value of the opportunity. 

“I’ve had students say, ‘Of course I’m going to work hard; this is my legacy—when I leave Temple, this is what people are going to still be using,’” says Urban. 

That’s how Love, who accepted a job as a developer for QVC upon graduation, says his team thought of the project. The members just clicked. Each came armed with applicable and complementary skills: Love acted as the project leader and the client’s primary point of contact; Truong was a strong documenter; Giafaglione was good at coding; Merritt specialized in data models; and Patel had a knack for testing.

True to their field, the group members worked together by relying on an array of digital tools. They used GroupMe, a mobile messaging app; Slack, a group communication program; and Git, a “version-control” system that ensured all members were working on the most up-to-date iterations of the task. While the project expectedly posed hurdles along the way, intragroup communication evidently came easy; learning the language of the assessment reports, however, required more effort. 

“They had to learn a whole vocabulary that I use on a daily basis around campus,” Calzaferri says. “On the flip side, I had to learn a lot about their language for programming and system development.”

Over the course of nearly a year, the group spent countless hours each week—not to mention time over the summer—to create a system that met the needs of Institutional Research and Assessment. And with a smooth operation in place, the project, by all accounts, grew in scope and size. 

“Our expectations continued to grow as they completed aspects of the program,” Calzaferri notes. “We would keep throwing things at them, and they remained positive and professional.” 

The result was SLAM, an assessment reporting system that greatly improves intuitiveness and flexibility. Participants can begin, save and resume the reports as they see fit. Automated email notifications are sent to those assigned to each program’s reports, and the system allows for those faculty members to reassign the reports to another faculty member if necessary. The system takes into account that some academic programs, for a number of reasons, may not be subject to a report every single year.

McGinnis and Urban say the system, measured by lines of codes and complexity is among the most sophisticated they’ve encountered in their years of leading the capstone courses. The students worked through the last week of classes, putting the final touches on the product. And as is common practice in the course, they agreed to provide support for several weeks following their graduation. 

Calzaferri is now in talks to evaluate how to best bring the system into use. As much a boon as it may prove to be to the university, the work was also a welcome primer for the departing seniors’ careers. 

“It’s the logical conclusion to everything we learned,” says Merritt, who accepted a job as a software developer at SEIInvestments. “There’s no reason our system can’t survive here for a long time.” 

-Angelo Fichera, SMC ’13