Computer science students develop resources for faculty across the University

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – Two students majoring in computer science at Penn State Harrisburg, Mina Otgonbold and Sarah Kettell, used their software skills to develop new resources for Penn State faculty.

Otgonbold created a chatbot that allows professors to answer basic course questions through artificial intelligence and schedule office hours appointments, and Kettell developed a web application for professors to estimate and customize their hours of instructional activity.

Both students saw ways to simplify and streamline aspects of faculty teaching, and they worked on their solutions through the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence. The center’s staff interacted with them closely as they completed these projects.

“These apps will be extremely helpful, for students, faculty, and staff,” said Linda Null, associate program chair of computer science and math. “It is so exciting to see students come up with such great ideas, something they want to do to really make an impact. Then they take what they know and what they have learned, and they just go for it -- and get it done.”

Using Dialogflow, a development suite for creating artificial intelligence applications, Otgonbold programmed her chatbot to respond to certain questions posed by students about course material. For a course she intended to assist with her program, Otgonbold put herself in the position of a curious student: “I got to take the online course, and I used my own questions as a student taking the course for the first time,” she said. She met frequently with Shirley Clark, professor of environmental engineering, to develop an extensive list of knowledge-based questions for the chatbot to address.

In the 2020 spring semester, she extended the functionality of her chatbot to be able to schedule office hours appointments for six courses taught by Dariush Khezrimotlagh, assistant professor of computer science and mathematics. Khezrimotlagh was not always able to meet the high influx of emails from students requesting appointments across six courses. “I extended the chatbot to connect it with his Outlook calendar, so that it was checking his availability. Students were directly seeing when he was available and could book meetings,” Otgonbold explained.

Otgonbold talked about how this project became a learning opportunity and helped her to further her career goals. “When I was learning about how to make a chatbot, I had no background on it, so I had to learn while developing it. I had to watch all of the videos on how to implement these techniques.”

Over the summer, she applied her new skills while interning at Highmark Health as an application developer, where she created a chatbot for COVID-19 information-related sources. While looking for a full-time position after college, she discussed her accomplishments with prospective employers. “I was really passionate while talking about my chatbot,” she said. Because of her work at the center, she secured a position in Houston, Texas as a cloud software engineer after graduating in December 2020.

Kettell’s app is based on the Hours of Instructional Activity (HIA) estimates at Penn State, which approximate how much time a student spends learning activities compared to the time the instructor spends on instructional activities. The estimates help faculty understand how the times of their assigned activities add in total and balance with one another. “Because there are a lot of different types of activities and complicated math involved, I created the web app to be customized."

Her app allows professors to enter their activities quickly and easily, and estimate their recommended hours, make quick changes, and share with their peers. She wanted to “let faculty get in there and estimate their hours quickly and easily, play around with it, and share it with others.” She also included a pie-graph data visualization that faculty receive, showing how the types of activities distribute based on what they involve, such as writing, reading, hands-on projects, and more.

Kettell’s HIA Estimator is hosted on Penn State’s University-wide Web Learning site, supported by the Faculty Engagement Subcommittee of the Penn State Online Coordinating Council.

Jennifer Keagy, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and a member of the council, describes how, before Kettell’s app, the Hours of Instructional Activity estimates were recorded and added through a more complex Excel document. “Sarah’s app makes it so much easier and dynamic. It really helps faculty understand the rigor of their course, whether it's not enough or too much, and just helps them get an estimate,” she said. “What I love about her project is that it’s for the entire University, not just Penn State Harrisburg. We’ve had other universities point to it because it is excellent and just a great resource for faculty.”

Kettell completed her project in July 2020 and presented it to the Penn State Online Coordinating Council, as well as the University’s Teaching and Learning with Technology summer camp. Additionally, she will begin full-time with the Center for Teaching Excellence following her graduation in May 2021.

The wide library of tools available at Penn State helped these students develop their projects. “Penn State has a lot of resources,” Otgonbold said. She discussed how her meetings with faculty and staff, as well as their flexibility as she balanced her chatbot with schoolwork, “came a long way for me to be passionate about my job and work harder, even during remote sessions.”

Keagy stresses the initiative taken by these students. “Our center gave them the platform and this opportunity, but it was really Mina and Sarah who dug into these projects and sought to understand how they could help faculty at any campus across the University,” she said. “We were so fortunate to have these two young women work on our team and create resources for our faculty that Penn State hasn’t had before.”