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Assistant Professor of Teaching Sergio Gago-Masague has been leading project-based assignments for years. He first started working at UCI in 2012, when he joined the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and founded the Engaging Technology and Application Design (ETAD) Lab. Since then, he has become involved with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the Internet of Things (SURF-IoT).

“I have worked closely with more than 300 undergraduate students at UCI in sponsored project-based assignments for the past eight years,” says Gago-Masague. “When I became faculty in the Department of Computer Science in 2018, I was really excited about the opportunity of setting up a capstone project-based course in CS.” This year, he realized that goal, piloting a two-quarter capstone course with more than 50 students split into 14 project teams. The pilot’s success paved the way for COMPSCI 180AB, the new computer science capstone course set to start in 2021.

Gaining Real-World Experience
The pilot course, “CS 199: Project in Computer Science,” started in Winter 2020. During the first quarter, students signed up for a project sponsored by an industry partner or research group. “We have more than 700 technology-based companies in Orange County, which offer an appealing collaborative environment for CS students to work on real-world applications,” says Gago-Masague. Local corporate sponsors included Delphi Display Systems, Ethic Marketplace, HireRight, Integral Prudence Solutions, Kaiser Permanente, Paciolan and Teletrac Navman. UCI’s Dutt Research Group (DRG) and Calit2 also sponsored projects.

The student teams began designing a proof of concept as they learned about the challenges their sponsors faced. The teams worked to address problems such as how best to analyze and visualize data to improve manufacturing performance, or how to augment employee and supervisor intelligence using augmented and virtual reality. Students gained first-hand experience in requirements specification, software development and project management.

During the spring quarter, each team implemented a final iteration, testing their prototype and presenting their final work. A variety of solutions emerged, including IoT applications, a medical imaging annotation platform, a short code messaging service, and an Internet Crawler bot. One team developed a graph database model to help tie together information in HireRight’s fulfillment system, and another created a machine learning model for Teletrac Navman that could predict customer turnover six to 12 months before contract termination. Yet another team helped Delphi develop an IP camera-based system to detect, time, count and classify vehicles in a drive-through, enhancing the company’s Insight Track Drive-Thru Timing System.

This was the first time Delphi had sponsored an undergraduate project, and it likely won’t be there last. “We are very interested in continuing to sponsor projects going forward,” the company told Gago-Masague. “We are hiring two members of the team for summer internships that will hopefully lead to permanent positions in the future.”

In fact, feedback from both the sponsors and students was overwhelmingly positive. Students said the course was a “challenging learning experience,” where they practiced “working as a team.” They were “grateful for the experience” and the opportunity to “build a project for a real-world sponsor.” As one noted, “our sponsor offered me a position over the summer and potentially full time during fall, so I’m really excited to continue my work.”

Scaling Up the Capstone Course
Gago-Masague is also excited to continue his work. In the short term, he hopes to increase the number of teaching assistants and recruit more industry and academic sponsors, and in the long term, the goal is to increase the number of offerings per year with additional instructors. “We would like to offer every student a spot in this course, but that requires an effective plan to gradually increase instructional staff and sponsors.” Computer science is UCI’s second largest major, with about 800 new students each year, so Gago-Masague has his work cut out for him, but he’s up to the task. “After this good experience with the first pilot, my goal is to continue offering the course indefinitely and overcome the challenge of scaling it up.”

If you are interested in sponsoring a capstone project, contact Sergio Gago-Masague.

Shani Murray