Reflections on Supervising More than 100 Capstone Projects

Thoughts on some of my students' best work.

Introduction

I just wrapped my fifth semester teaching at ASU. On many levels, it was quite the different experience. Most germane to today’s post, for the first time I didn’t teach my normal capstone courses.1 Instead, I taught a survey course: Introduction to Information Systems (Honors).

Professors can manage capstone courses in several ways. I choose the method that requires the most work for me but the greatest benefit for my students. This entails hunting down people and organizations with data and technology needs and meaningful projects. Even though I have developed a few shortcuts after more than one hundred of these things, it’s no small endeavor.

Professors can manage capstone courses in several ways.

Sure, just like in the real world, often projects break bad. When they succeed, though, the results can be spectacular. Today I’ll cover a few of my favorite ones. Note that I’m intentionally omitting company names to provide anonymity.

Scraping the Web

A firm that specializes in executive compensation engaged a group of my CIS students to pull Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. These documents are the very definition of unstructured data. Manually downloading this information and making sense for even a few companies would have taken a great deal of time.

Fortunately, a group of smart cookies used the Python library Beautiful Soup to scrape largely unstructured data from the Web. The entire script took a long time to run but the results blew my mind. Beyond retrieving gigabytes of data, the team threw in an interactive data visualization to boot. The project sponsor was ecstatic.

Alexa: Do Something Cool

A large financial institution wanted to build a mobile app that would help its older customers apply for loans. Sounds pretty standard, right? Consider that the team built did this with Alexa’s voice-recognition technology.

Watching the six-student team develop the app over the course of the semester served as one of my highlights in my ASU tenure. Beyond building a cutting-edge app, the students had some fun in the class—a key tenet of my teaching philosophy. I grinned from ear to ear after the following exchange:

Student: Alexa, what is Professor Simon’s favorite band?

Alexa: Professor Simon’s favorite band is…Rush.

Building a Model for a Startup

Finally, in my analytics capstone course, a team three students helping a parking startup build a model for its expansion plans. To do this, the students needed to scrape data, deal with the startup’s founders, handle uncertainty, and think critically—just like they will upon graduation.

Because of the students’ character and work ethic, the team accomplished more than some of its peers more than double its size. Sometimes, less is more.

Simon Says: Watching students turn their ideas into reality is very rewarding.

My experience on IT projects is decidedly mixed. Because of this, watching students succeed while learning important real-world lessons just makes me feel good. It’s that very feeling that makes the professor job worth it.

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Footnotes

  1. Universities’ needs can quickly change.
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