Cody Schory demonstrates software on a laptop

Penn State Harrisburg students shine at innovation challenge

Computer science major Samantha Calaio was the guinea pig for her team’s effort in the Nittany Watson Challenge, sponsored by Penn State’s EdTech Network, in collaboration with IBM Watson. The point of the contest was to use Watson – the natural language computer platform most famous for winning at Jeopardy – to figure out ways to improve the student experience at Penn State.

The network, part of Penn State President Eric Barron’s $30 million invent Penn State Initiative, provided the challenge to Penn State students, faculty, and staff.

Two teams from Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Science, Engineering, and Technology came up with such good ideas that they each won $5,000 and the chance to move on to the next round.

The team “Penn State Student Connection,” comprised of Calaio, Alexander Edinger, Zachary Reedy, Alexander Rhone and Cody Schory, did just that.  The team’s winning idea was awarded an additional $10,000 and the chance to work with mentors at IBM to develop a viable product.

The team wrote software that would help incoming freshmen become part of campus life more easily. To do that, the team would send surveys to freshmen and inspect their Twitter feeds to match them with student mentors with similar interests and personalities. The team also fed Watson descriptions of all campus events, so that Watson could forward the events matching the first-year students’ interests.

For the trial run, Calaio pretended to be a freshman and filled out a one-page survey, which asked questions about what time she gets up in the morning, what hobbies she has, how much she studies.

Because none of the team members use Twitter, computer science major Matthew Hoare made up tweets that he randomly assigned to team members. Some were quotes from Mr. Rogers – the late children’s television host known for his gentle manner – while other students were assigned quotes from the likes of Josef Stalin. Watson would then analyze the text to make a personality match.

Calaio was matched with team member Alexander Rhone, and it was a good choice, she said.

“I go to bed between midnight and 2 a.m., I spend a lot of time studying, I like travel, musical events, computers,” she said. Added Rhone, “I share a lot of those traits.”

Watson suggested that Calaio might be interested in joining the National Society of Leadership and Success. It also told her about upcoming Broadway trips and choir performances.

This “could have been useful as a freshman,” she said, noting that information can be hard to find for a newcomer to campus.

According to Edinger, “When we first got to Penn State Harrisburg, we didn’t know where the pool was. We didn’t even know there was a pool. We didn’t know about trivia night every Thursday.”

Most of the team graduated in May, but Edinger and Reedy will graduate in the fall and plan to extend their work over the summer by asking professors to distribute the surveys to freshmen. They will continue to work on the next phase of the Nittany Watson Challenge, which could bring their idea to actual implementation at the University.

Challenge organizer Brad Zdenek, an innovation strategist at Penn State, wrote the team, “From this point forward, we are moving past competition and progressing with a common goal in mind, developing… products with the potential to be implemented by Penn State.”

Penn State Harrisburg’s other team, including Matthew Hoare, Timothy Kolstrom, Emily Mras, Luke Snyder and Kyle Stauffer, called their effort the “PSU Office Hours Optimizer.”

Their idea came when associate professor of computer science Jeremy Blum said he sometimes runs out of time to answer all of the questions students have during his office hours.

The team, with the help of Watson, devised a system to make office hours more efficient – for instance, by scheduling students who have similar questions at the same time, and providing an on-line forum. A chat box can point students in the right direction. Watson uses its language analytics to understand the reason for a student’s visit and suggest a plan of action.

Thirty-nine teams from all Penn State campuses participated in the original contest, and ten proposals – including the two from Penn State Harrisburg – were chosen to move on. The top ten teams then presented their product in person to an eight judge panel at University Park.

Blum, who mentors the student teams, said the contest was a terrific learning experience.

“Students had to learn to incorporate a tool like Watson to get something up and running,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal introduction into challenges they will face in their careers – tight deadlines, and new systems and technologies to learn.”

Calaio said she has already snagged a bunch of job interviews, just because of her involvement with the Watson challenge.