Computer Sciences Capstone course: “I’ve never felt so proud of something I’ve made in class before”

by Elea Levin

Most classes require students to take a final exam or turn in a final paper at the end of the semester for professors to evaluate their work. In Computer Science 638, the Computer Sciences Department’s Capstone course, students instead turn in a project that they collaborated on with a real company.

The Capstone course allows undergraduate computer sciences students to work on a software development project in teams with a corporate partner. This gives students the opportunity to learn more about different agile software development techniques — which is the focus of the projects — and to gain more experience with business and entrepreneurship. 

The class was first offered in fall 2021 and had about 40 students enrolled. Instructor Amber Field is hoping to expand the course to accommodate 80-100 students and at least eight business partners in the fall of 2022 given the success and popularity of the class in its first year.

Amber Field

“Not only are students working on real business problems for their corporate partners, they’re using and integrating new technologies, and collaborating on teams using Scrum, Kanban, etc (agile processes), much like they will when they graduate,” Field said. “The experience they gain is very similar to what they might get from an internship, except here we start and finish a project so that they get to see the entire software development lifecycle in one semester.”

Last year, students partnered with Amazon/Shopbop, Epic, Capital One, Last Lock, and Medtronic. Jillian Genova, one of the students in the course, worked with Capital One to develop a small business locator tool. She will be interning with the company this summer after having a positive experience with the class and with her business mentors.

“I was able to gain a lot of insight on how things are done in industry — from source control contribution models to how front-end development occurs,” Genova said. “I will be able to apply almost everything I learned to real world experience after college.”

By combining computer science with business skills, the Capstone course not only helps students improve their software development skills, but also allows them to learn about how computer science and entrepreneurship interact in the real world. Field makes sure that she incorporates business skills into the curriculum as well to help students who may want to pursue a career in business.

“We spend the beginning of the semester talking about how we figure out what to build and the students get a chance to try out Lean Start-up, Design Thinking, and Google Design Sprints processes — all of which are great skills for starting your own business,” Field said.

This also gives students the opportunity to learn a wider set of skills and figure out how they may want to apply their computer science knowledge to a future career.

“Before going into the class, I wasn’t sure if I really enjoyed computer science,” said student Akshay Bodla.  “I loved the work involved to take a product from ideation to demo, and I learned that I really enjoy development.”

For other students, the benefit of the class was to build their skills in a classroom environment so that they would know how to apply them in real world situations.

Jillian Genova

“As someone who was already planning to jump into the software engineering world after graduation, what really impacted my career trajectory was getting to experience seeing a project through from beginning to end,” Genova said. “There are very few instances where I had the opportunity to do so in my other classes, so having this experience before entering the workforce makes me feel capable and confident that I would be able to do the same in my career.”

While other colleges offer similar Capstone classes, UW-Madison’s course is unique in that it allows students to select which project they would like to work on. Having students on teams they are excited about leads to better work, Field said.

Field also emphasizes the “discovery phase” in the course so that students are better equipped to solve problems and gain a clearer understanding of what they are working on.

“We take the time to learn about various agile software development techniques and try them out. The discovery phase we do is unique and it’s really important — it helps the teams determine what to build,” Field said.

By offering both hands-on experience working with a real company and a chance to learn more about software development and entrepreneurship, the Capstone course is highly beneficial and enjoyable for students looking to develop these skills outside of a job or internship.

“I think being able to work directly with really supportive mentors and apply what we learned directly to an industry-relevant project was a unique experience,” Genova said. “I’ve never felt so proud of something I’ve made in a class before.”