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Faculty Excellence Chris McCauley January 10, 2024

 Amber Wagner, Ph.D.Amber Wagner, Ph.D., wants her students to apply their learning in the real world, plain and simple. Given this priority, she teaches a senior capstone course in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Computer Science that requires seniors to work with real clients in the Birmingham community.

“To me a capstone project should be the culmination of all their coursework,” said Wagner, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. “To be able to create something that, at the end of the semester, they can demonstrate that it works [and] they can run through the testing [and] they can run through all the different scenarios that you would need to in a real-world environment, I think that’s really important.”

The course—CS/CSA 499—requires students to assist a community partner with implementing a new and innovative idea. It challenges students on two levels: first, they must apply what they’ve learned during their tenure as a computer science major; second, they must navigate the complexities of working with a client and translating their ideas into real projects.

“The client expresses what they need, and the students have to translate that into what’s possible,” said Wagner. “You can’t simulate that in the classroom.”

In Fall 2023, eight groups formed during the course, all with unique and thought-provoking names: Portal, Portalux, Pirates of the Courtroom, Penny Pulse, Periodic Table, SRVR, TASC, and ForgetMeNot.

The Portal group got the opportunity to work with Retail Strategies, a Birmingham-based company that provides “real estate expertise, tools, and human effort that position deserving towns as alluring locations for national businesses.”

For the project, the Portal group designed a web-based app that will allow Retail Strategies’ employees and clients to keep up with the status of projects. Developing the app required a range of technologies and programming languages, including HTML, CSS, and Python.

In total, six students worked on the Portal project: Dylan Calvin, Betty Chen, Michael Gathara, AJ Nettles, Joe Chang, and Vira Shankar. For Chen, the experience was eye-opening.

Group of graduate students showing their research.Portal group presents their web-based app that will allow Retail Strategies’ employees and clients to keep up with the status of projects.

“Working on the Portal project for Retail Strategies in Dr. Wagner's course was a transformative experience. Engaging directly with a company like Retail Strategies provided me with a practical understanding of industry challenges, enhancing my problem-solving and collaboration skills,” said Chen. “This real-world exposure not only prepared me for life after graduation by sharpening my technical skills but also instilled in me the confidence and adaptability needed to excel in the dynamic field of computer science.”

Chen, along with her fellow group members, got the chance to share their project at the 2023 Senior Capstone Showcase, which took place in University Hall on November 30. During the showcase, all eight groups from the course presented posters and demonstrated their projects for faculty, students, clients, and members of the community. Dozens of people attended the event, including Chandler O’Neal from Retail Strategies.

"Collaborating with students was immensely beneficial for Retail Strategies in creating a client management tool,” said O’Neal, research associate with Retail Strategies. “Given our limited resources for software development, the UAB student partnership enabled us to build a website integrated with a database, marking the start of our client management software.

"The UAB senior capstone partnership empowers students to address real-world challenges in professional settings, enhancing their skills in team coordination, time management, and effectively communicating technical information to non-technical managerial groups."

For Wagner, it’s all about preparing the students for the future. “For those students who don’t have an internship on their resume, I think it’s very helpful for them. It gives them a talking point in their job interviews, potentially.”

Wagner takes this priority a step further by also asking students to upload their projects to GitHub, a digital platform that allows students to build and store their portfolios. With both GitHub and the in-person showcase experience, Wagner believes many of her students saw CS/CSA 499 as a milestone prior to graduation.

“I had a few students in the class who told me afterwards that they were really happy they got to do that — it felt like they were actually finishing their college career,” said Wagner.

And, according to Chen, the experience helped set the stage for life after graduation. “Courses that emphasize practical application are invaluable, bridging the gap between academia and the workforce seamlessly,” said Chen.


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