Instead of writing a research thesis to conclude their master’s degree studies, 19 University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate students formed a team to develop software for a Lincoln company that needed a better tool to track its workers’ billable hours.
It was a real-world experience that benefited both the students and the business, Nebraska Air Quality Specialties, said professor Deepak Khazanchi, associate dean of UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology.
“If you want to prepare graduate students for the workplace, we need to have experiences that are realistic at the end of the educational process,” he said. “So we actually have them work on a real-life problem.”
The company’s time-tracking system will be unveiled at 6 p.m. today at an event at the Kiewit Institute on UNO’s south campus.
The project was the result of a capstone course for students who will graduate this weekend with a master’s degree in Management Information Systems. For more than three years, UNO has given students in that field the option of tackling a capstone project instead of writing a thesis or taking a comprehensive exam.
The students’ “clients” are chosen from among nonprofits and small businesses that have sought UNO’s assistance with their information technology dilemmas because they can’t afford to hire information technology experts.
The project was a learning experience even for students like Nate Clute and Kurt Johnson, both of whom were part-time graduate students while working full-time at information technology-related jobs.
Clute, for example, is a systems analyst for Science Applications International Corp. in Omaha. It’s a job he landed through an internship when he was a UNO undergraduate more than 10 years ago.
Johnson is director of network technology for NorthStar Financial Services Group. He served on the documentation team.
Clute’s classmates selected him to serve as the project manager.
“I have a little experience managing in my job, as a supervisor — but I’ve never managed that many people before,” he said. “It was quite an experience.”
Clute said Lincoln businessman Piyush Srivastav approached the students with a problem.
Srivastav’s company, Nebraska Air Quality Specialities, is a consulting firm that helps businesses comply with government standards for air quality. His workers travel a lot and needed a more effective way to track their working hours for billing purposes.
Srivastav wanted a Web application that would interface with mobile devices so that employees could record their time before they forgot it without having to carry a lot of slips of paper. He also wanted a way to export the data to a spreadsheet program for analysis.
Clute said the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for many smaller businesses.
The 19 students divided into teams in much the same way they would while working in the private sector. One student was assigned to be client liaison and others served on the documentation team. There was a technical lead, a project manager, a database team and a development team.
The students involved came from around the world — China, Saudi Arabia and Malawi — as well as the U.S. Many already are working for Omaha technology companies.
They learned techniques commonly used in the working world to manage software development projects, such as a “Scrum” framework. Named after a rugby maneuver, the Scrum method requires team members to routinely report their progress and problems to the rest of the team.
Collaborating and communicating with others actually are the major skills taught by the capstone project and are critical to being successful, said Shonna Dorsey, an adjunct instructor who works as a software consultant with Sogeti of Omaha.
Dorsey herself was a student in the capstone class two years ago. She said it allowed her to move into her present job, in which she works with clients, gathering information about their needs and developing and delivering a project that serves those needs.
“It’s had a huge impact on my professional career,” she said.
Contact the writer: