Computer Science Students Tackle Real-World Corporate Projects

Photo of hand on laptop

When the world’s third-largest oilfield services company needed new software to better manage data on drilling projects around the globe, it entrusted the assignment to a group of University of Houston computer science students.

Baker Hughes was so pleased with the result that this fall it submitted another software challenge for the university’s tech whizzes to tackle. The Houston-based firm is among several companies turning to UH’s computer science students for solutions to real-world business software needs.

It is all part of a new software design program within the computer science department which combines classroom learning with hands-on experience working on software projects with corporate clients.

This 15-hour curriculum track, started in 2007, is akin to a minor. It equips computer science undergraduates with advanced skills in programming languages, software design techniques and data structures and algorithms.

The coursework, developed with input from the department’s industrial advisory board, will produce graduates ready to craft software solutions from day one, said Marc Garbey, department chair.

A key component of the curriculum is a software development practices course, in which teams of students work on a semester-long software project submitted by businesses and nonprofit organizations.

By working directly with clients to meet their needs and software specifications, students gain valuable problem-solving experience, said Shishir Shah, an assistant professor of computer science who teaches the class.

The team that worked on the Baker Hughes project in the spring semester had an especially daunting task. The company possessed vast sums of data on oil wells and drilling projects throughout the world. This information was kept on different databases and was sometimes incomplete.

Baker Hughes needed software that would allow itsemployees across different divisions to easily sort through and verify the drilling project data. So a team of five students produced a skeletal prototype after just two weeks and added functions as the semester progressed. They met weekly with a Baker Hughes representative, getting feedback and tweaking the software.

The end result included an interface similar to Google Earth, showing the coordinates of each drilling project and allowing users to zoom in and pull up all the records on a particular well, Shah said.

The software also flagged records that were incomplete.

“Our students aren’t just writing code and programming,” Shah said. “They’re using logic to think through problems. They’re managing projects, dealing with customers and learning to budget and prioritize.”

Luke Scanlon, a Houston-based entrepreneur launching a new Web site called Planet Teach, was another satisfied customer. He came to respect the students’ expertise and trusted their project recommendations.

“I love working with these students because they don’t mind working hard, and I enjoy sparring with them over functionality scope,” Scanlon said. “In the end, I benefit tremendously in seeing my ideas come to fruition.”

In addition to this class, the software design track also includes courses in graphics, game development and digital imaging. The software option is now one of three specialized curriculums available to computer science undergrads who do not study a minor.

The science option provides coursework for those interested in research, and the business option is for those pursuing management careers. Garbey hopes that eventually half of the department’s undergrads will be in enrolled in the software option.