Students at the University of Kansas are competing head to head against students at other institutions. But this contest is taking place in the classroom and the boardroom, not on a playing field.
Fourteen KU computer science students are taking part in an innovative videoconference-learning environment that tests their creative and technical skills with an actual product development application.
Cerner Corp., a Kansas City, Mo.-based healthcare software development firm, asked students at KU, Kansas State University, Purdue University and the University of Iowa to develop software for a PDA for use by physicians and other healthcare providers. The PDA would present, collect and tie together patient information and other data essential to healthcare providers as they care for their clients. Cerner provided each of the nine student teams with a PDA on which to build, test and run their class project.
"The four schools are universities that Cerner recruits from," said Stephen Smith, senior learning strategist with Cerner. "Each school has nationally recognized departments and programs. In addition to recruiting, the goal is to build relationships between universities and Cerner that will help identify possible partnerships that can improve the healthcare industry."
Faculty at KU welcome the challenge represented by the multi-institutional course.
"From an engineering perspective, these are strong schools — it is competitive," said Arvin Agah, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas and Software Development Lifecycle course facilitator for KU's students.
Through video conferencing, Cerner's engineers and business and medical professionals are assisting with course lectures, giving students at all four schools lessons based on actual engineering and development processes. Smith said Cerner associates have committed between 500 and 700 hours to developing and delivering the course, above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities.
The different learning environment is winning some fans.
"I think it works pretty well. It works just as well as any other class," said Justin Hendricks, a senior from Kansas City, Kan. One benefit is the open exchange of ideas among students from other schools, he said.
The students also are learning what it takes to begin with a product concept and develop a rapid prototype of the product, Agah said.
"The techniques they are learning are not just Cerner-oriented. They can apply these methodologies to any software development project," Agah said. "They get to work in a sort of hands-on project on a real product." He likened the process to a steppingstone for students, where they experience the dynamics of the work world in an academic setting.
Students are getting more out of the course than just software development.
"There have been some very good lectures, especially about testing, marketing and pricing," said Jeff Unger, senior from Shawnee, Kan. He added that this kind of information would be essential if he or his classmates ever go into business for themselves.
Just as in industry, the participants also learn the importance of planning.
"This course also teaches them project management," Agah said. "You can't be crisis driven. To be good, you have to plan."
The students also are competing against each other to win the approval of the company. On Dec. 6, all teams from each institution will travel to Kansas City to formally present their prototype to Cerner executives for judging. The members of the top team will each receive one of the PDAs.
"I have high expectations for what the students can accomplish in the class," Smith said. "The teams always come up with innovative designs and functionality."
The students retain the intellectual property rights to the software they develop for the project. However, if Cerner executives are particularly impressed by something they see during the presentations, they have indicated a willingness to negotiate with students.
For Cerner, however, the project is more than a way to identify the top fresh talent.
"Cerner enjoys a relationship with each university that reaches beyond the typical university/company recruiting relationship," Smith said. "While recruiting is a key component of the program, the relationships that are built between the universities and Cerner create opportunities to collaborate and create business relationships that are beneficial to both organizations."
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Professor Arvin Agah