Software engineering course develops communication, open source skills

May 05, 2018      By Victoria Grdina

Students in the first software engineering cohort pose after their SOFT 261 class presentations.
Students in the first software engineering cohort pose after their SOFT 261 class presentations.

The second school year and first round of core courses have wrapped up for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering’s first software engineering cohort.

Software engineering students completed their final core course, SOFT 261, this spring. They spent the semester working with OpenMRS, a customizable open source medical records system used in clinics around the world. The class was designed to not only give students experience with an open source software system, but also help them develop effective communication skills.

“In this class we focused a lot on presenting and being able to work on large software projects as a group,” said sophomore Hallie Hohbein. “We also focused on trying to communicate visually instead of just with words, so being able to properly demo a system and knowing the level of audience that we’re presenting to as well.”

Software Engineering IV is an ACE 2 pre-Senior Design capstone course taught by associate professor of practice Suzette Person and assistant professor of practice Brady Garvin. Students in the course were not assigned a specific project to complete, but were tasked with identifying OpenMRS issues and potential improvements, contributing their own solutions, proposing ideas to the OpenMRS community for approval, and presenting their work to the class at the end of the semester.

“This is the first time we’ve required them to contribute to a real-world, active project that was external to the university and to our class,” Person said. “They had to do a lot of self-learning in this course.”

Students were introduced to OpenMRS in their first semester, but had not contributed to the community prior to this course. During their project presentations, many students shared that they discovered new bugs while trying to fix others, which helped them learn a lot about the system. They also found communication skills to be extremely valuable when collaborating with users across the globe to resolve issues.

“It seemed like a good project for the students,” Person said. “We knew there was a lot of documentation, we knew that some of it was outdated, we knew it had problems, but we also knew it was representative of a real software project.”

Garvin said this course’s project helped students combine all the knowledge they’ve amassed in four semesters.

“We’ve been building them up and introducing them to larger and larger code bases that they hadn’t worked on up until that point. Finding their way around and keeping track of which way is up is a really difficult skill, and they really did a good job of that,” Garvin said. 

For students like Hohbein, the course helped her gain both the experience and confidence to join similar professional projects in the future.

“At least for me, open source projects are notoriously intimidating, so I really liked that this class gave us a boost,” Hohbein said. “I feel like I could work on OpenMRS again, and I think it would be easier for me to join other communities now.” 

Person said she’s looking forward to watching this cohort continue the second half of its software engineering studies. 

“They’ve been a really good group for us. They’ve been very honest with their feedback. I don’t think we could have had better students this first time through,” Person said. “We’re excited to see what they do in Senior Design the next two years.”