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Informatics graduates develop science fair software

February 20, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. — The Howard County Science Fair went high-tech this year, with an online management program developed by two Indiana University Kokomo graduates.

Christopher Heinzman and Theral Jessop developed an online program to simplify management of the annual fair, for their senior capstone project. While they graduated in 2016, both continued fine-tuning the program right up until the annual fair Saturday (February 10). 

Heinzman, from Cicero, said they gained valuable experience in their career field by developing the software, and they continued working on the project because they knew it mattered to the science fair committee. 

“We learned to work with real people, and to figure out how to get to the root of what they really needed and wanted,” he said. “We had to explain what we can do, and learn to talk to people who aren’t as technical as we are. We learned to communicate with them in a way they could understand what we were capable of doing, and then they could better explain what they actually wanted.”

Mohammad Almalag, assistant professor of informatics, said the project was a good hands-on experience for the two students.

“This is exactly the kind of work they will do in the job market,” he said. “These two are above and beyond other graduates, based on the work they did. They just went above and beyond by themselves, because they saw it’s important in real life. They got something from nothing to development, to a completed project, even with a guide of how to use it. They took care of all of the details.”

Heinzman visited the science fair briefly on Saturday, to see the program in action. He said other than a problem with the server, the program performed as well as he expected.

During the event, volunteer judges strolled among the displays in Alumni Hall and the Kelley Student Center Commons, stopping to question the 48 participants about their research projects. Instead of the clipboards and paper forms of years past, each one carried a tablet or smart phone, open to the judging pages. After talking to a student, the judges took just a minute or two to type in a few notes and scores, then hit “send” to complete that session.

Marcia Gillette, adjunct lecturer in chemistry, and long-time science fair planner, noted that their program eliminated paperwork and made results available more quickly. The greatest impact is reducing time and effort by planners, which will be important when she retires and other faculty take over the task. 

“It just wouldn’t go on if we continued the way we have been doing it,” she said, noting that younger faculty have more responsibilities, and less time for additional work. “Having it online facilitates it all, plus the faculty and the younger kids are all online anyway.” 

In addition to developing the software, Gillette noted, they also made instructional videos for users, to help them learn how to use the program. 

“It’s very hard to overstate the effort and energy and expertise these students put into this project, and they did it on their own time,” she said.

The project started in the fall 2015 semester, in a senior capstone class taught by Almalag. The basic assignment was to follow the development lifecycle of a project, creating software with databases, and being able to link to it though a browser.

For most projects, Heinzman said, students just have to meet a list of requirements listed with the assignment. In this one, he and Jessop met multiple times with the science fair planning committee, assessing their needs, developing prototypes for demonstrations, and adjusting based on their clients’ assessment.

The scale and complexity of the project gave them a better idea of the kind of work they will do in the field of informatics.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 02/20/2018