Computer Sciences Capstone class provides real-world projects for UW-Madison undergrads

By Elea Levin

While most students have to wait for an internship to get hands-on experience working with a company in their field, a group of undergraduates had the opportunity to gain this real world experience through one of their UW-Madison Computer Sciences classes.

The Computer Sciences Department launched a new Capstone course this fall taught by Amber Field to give students hands-on experience working with companies on software projects. Each team of four students was assigned a company and tasked with a specific project to work on for the semester. The three companies that participated were Capital One, American Family Insurance, and Epic.

The class met for two hours each week, in which students were able to get feedback from their peers on their projects, heard lecture material from Field or a guest lecturer, and met in breakout groups to plan the next steps of their projects.

Wisconsin map with circles representing number of Covid cases
Epic Wisconsin COVID-19 dashboard

The class is all about practical computer science – how do we collaborate, how do we design a project, what is agile software development and how do we use it?” Field said.

Part of the point of the course is that the assignment from the company was fairly ambiguous, so students had some freedom when designing their projects. The class also highlighted the importance of working with customers to understand their needs while developing a project.

“We learned a lot about different aspects of software development that exist within a company structure, such as agile development, using version control, iterative development, storyboarding, prototyping, and working in a team environment,” said Lauryn Branham, a student in the course who worked on the Capital One team. “It allowed students to dig into their creative side and really think about how to engage the general population in whichever topic the company they worked with assigned to them.”

Cash Cows app screenshot with cows and poop emoji
Cash Cows app

The Capital One team was tasked with designing an application to help students learn about financial literacy and responsibility. 

“Our game was a farming simulation that encouraged students to think about how best to spend and save their money to get the most benefits for their farm,” Branham said. “It also included introductions to other financial topics, such as, loans, investments, etc.”

American Family Insurance (Am Fam) asked students to work with a model their data science team had made to capture odometer readings from odometer images.

American Family Insurance App screenshot
American Family Insurance app

“Am Fam gave us room to explore the possibilities of the model. My team and I decided to scale the model and distribute it to other companies in need of an odometer-reading-extraction software,” student Aryan Adhlakha said about his work with the Am Fam team. “With the go-ahead from the Am Fam team and our business structure, we built a software that readily allows companies to use the software, charges them, and provides companies with various performance tools as per usage.”

Students who worked with Epic created a Covid-19 dashboard, with one team creating the project in a website format and the other team in app form.

Some of the main goals of the course were to show students how software projects run in the real world and how to plan and adjust the timeline for a project, Field said. The course also reflected an office-like setting, giving students the opportunity to see how software projects work in the real world.

“Personally, my sophomore year internship was cancelled due to the pandemic. Hence, this course allowed me to work for a company in a simulated environment, while also learning academically,” Adhlakha said.

Students in the course appreciated the opportunity to gain real life experience in applying what they have learned in the Computer Sciences Department. 

“I highly recommend this course to anyone who is looking to work on a software development project that is much more realistic to what they would be working on in the real world,” Branham said. “Amber made sure to include topics that would be relevant and useful to any student entering a technology field upon graduation.”

Field looks forward to offering the course again in the fall of 2021 and is hopeful the class will operate in person. Both she and the mentors from each company who worked with the students were highly impressed with the final projects the students created.

“It’s amazing what a group of four students can accomplish in one semester,” Field said. “I look forward to seeing how this class evolves and scales over the years.”

The final presentations from the Capstone course can be viewed here.