By Leah Jones, Features Editor

 

Justin Reusnow, junior, computer science; Omar Salih, information systems; Sam Luebbers, graduate, information systems; Chau Tran, senior, information systems; Kyle Hopfer, junior, information systems, and Alex Nuetzel, sophomore, computer science, at the University of Missouri–Columbia, have collectively won $10,000 and the opportunity to create and incubate a business through the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Accelerate program. This is all before any of them have graduated from their respective degree tracks.

The group, who called themselves “Amazing Hack,” according to Reusnow, created a “Virtual Advisor” in lieu of UMSL’s current Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS) at UMSL’s first ever co-gender Hack-A-Thon. The 48-hour Hack-A-Thon took place over the weekend of March 3 through March 5. Teams of students competed to create an application that would solve a real world problem. Mohamed Langi, senior, information systems, and president of the Information System Programming Club (ISPC), helped to organize the event with UMSL alumnus Stuart Ashby after the two met at St. Louis’s GlobalHack, which took place last October. Dr. Dinesh Mirchandani, professor of information systems and chair of the department, also helped to organize the historic event.

Reusnow explained the problem that “Amazing Hack” addressed at the Hack-A-Thon. “Any student who uses the DARS system is almost always entirely confused and somehow even more unsure of what they need to do before they tried the system. This is because DARS analyzes what classes the student has taken, compares that with the student’s declared major, then checks to see what is remaining,” he said.

While Reusnow said that it was fantastic that the system was able to generate this information for students, he said that the manner in which the information is given back to students is less than ideal. “DARS returns theses details exclusively in text with a few icons that are supposed to indicate if a requirement was met or not. This becomes an intimidating mountain of text that nobody wants to sift through, and those that try typically struggle to navigate through this report that looks like a receipt from Walmart. We realized this was a massive problem that is costing students valuable time and even money because they may take a class that it turns out they didn’t even need,” he said.

Hopfer agreed that while it may be frustrating to take unnecessary classes, not understanding the DARS report could also result in students staying an extra semester and paying more money for an already expensive education. “There is no worse feeling than meeting with your advisor to plan out your final semester only to find out that you are missing a prerequisite for a required course. While advisors are helpful, students are oftentimes too busy to meet up with them in person. We think that Virtual Advisor can solve this problem once and for all.”

To supplement busy advisors then, Amazing Hack created the “Virtual Advisor,” which performs the same essential functions as DARS but relays the information visually. “Virtual Advisor is composed of three main features: the dashboard, which gives students important statistics such as degree progress and GPA; suggestions, which is dedicated to helping students make decisions about which courses to take; and the roadmap, which I would consider the defining feature of Virtual Advisor,” explained Hopfer.

“The Roadmap is an interactive two-dimensional graph which shows eight horizontal lines, representing semesters, and on these lines are various circular ‘nodes’ which represent classes. These classes are connected to each other based on prerequisites and ordered from semester one to semester eight based on that prerequisite structure. [This] shows the student exactly what he or she needs to take and in what order to graduate when he or she wants,” Reusnow explained.

The roadmap feature also allows students to experiment and try out different roadmaps to their graduations. Students who wish to graduate as soon as possible can use the roadmap to rearrange courses to figure out the most time-effective path to graduation, while students who wish to ensure that they have more manageable 12–credit hour semesters, can arrange their courses to fit that path as well. Though the university does not always offer the same classes every semester, making prediction a little bit more difficult, students get a much better idea of the time frame and work load which they will have until graduation. “Roadmap” also automatically checks for pre-requisite classes, so that students do not plan on taking a course without the required parent course.

Reusnow said that the effect is that students have more freedom in determining their own path through college. “The student can test out any ideas he or she may have to graduate on his or her own terms,” he said. “Every student builds his own most optimal roadmap through college. And this is just the core functionality.”

In addition, the application can also detect and inform students if they are close to having enough classes to complete minors. “A lot of students are one or two classes away from minors and don’t even realize it. What we propose [that] this roadmap do is detect that you are near a minor and suggest the courses you would need to get this minor,” Reusnow explained.

“It is easy and intuitive to use. Just drag your course to the semester you want to take it and you’re good to go,” Hopfer said.

Reusnow heard about the Hack-A-Thon through his colleague at Centene Corporation, Hopfer, who had already formed a team for the event with Salih. Salih invited Tran and Luebbers, and Reusnow invited his friend, Nuetzel, who attends Mizzou. From there, Amazing Hack was born.

Since the group only had 48-hours to build the application, the team members took on different roles. Nuetzel and Reusnow programmed the core of Roadmap, maintained the integrity of the pre-requisite class structure, and ensured that the Roadmap was visually appealing. Luebbers, Tran, and Hopfer created the system layout and architecture. They also styled the HTML elements, and set up the bootstrapping, or fluid design, for the project. Salih acted as project manager by determining what needed to be done and by providing intellectual and technological support through setting up tools like a GitHub code repository and a Slack, or instant message, room.

While the different members played different roles, Hopfer said that the most important skill required for the event was teamwork. “We only had 48 hours to come up with an idea that had business value, develop a working prototype, and create a sales pitch. When you have that little amount of time to work, it doesn’t matter how many technical skills you have if you can’t work together with others to develop a unified solution to a problem,” Hopfer explained.

The group started using teamwork at the inception of the idea together. “It started with us thinking about all the problem statements that the Hack-A-Thon proposed and realizing we had our own bigger problem statement to solve: DARS. After a long Friday night of debating and talking back and forth about various solutions, we all agreed the roadmap idea would be a monumental help to students, and then we were off,” Reusnow said.

“We came up with the idea for Virtual Advisor by writing down the top problems each of us experience at UMSL and listing potential solutions for each of them. We found that the solution to the course planning problem was the most viable to implement,” Hopfer continued.

While 48 hours may seem like a long time to dedicate solely to coding, Reusnow said that the experience was not overwhelming or intense, but instead described the event as delightful, fun, and even tasty, citing the food that was offered at the event. “I found it not to be so much intense as it was refreshing. I haven’t had a large personal project to work on in a long time, so having a team of people working on something new and cutting edge was quite an experience,” he said.

“This was the first Hack-A-Thon that any of us had ever participated in, and I guarantee that it will not be the last,” Hopfer continued.

“Overall I think the organizers of the event did a wonderful job putting everything together. You would not think this was the first Hack-A-Thon they organized by how smoothly everything went, at least from my perspective. I hope this is an event that continues for many years down the road,” Hopfer said.

Both Reusnow and Hopfer expressed gratitude to their mentor, Jordan Walker. “[Walker] gave us great advice when we were planning out what to build. His help was invaluable,” Hopfer said.

“While he was restricted access to our team in the interest of fairness, his help was monumental to our success and his advice helped shape our idea into what it became,” Reusnow concurred.

While the “roadmap” to building their award-winning application and obtaining their goals was pretty clear, the future remains bright and open for “Amazing Hack,”  though their plans are just as ambitious. “As it stands, we are still on board to create a business venture out of this; however, we are not quite sure what form that will take yet. We hope that we can one day have the UM System entirely incorporate this system. From talking to Alex [Neutzel], who goes to Mizzou, he tells me that their degree auditing system is also not very great. Beyond that, we may try to expand further, or sell to a larger company such as one of the major learning management systems, Blackboard or Canvas, though absolutely nothing is in stone or set about any of these decisions and aspirations yet,” Reusnow said.

Though they are not entirely sure which direction they will go with their business, Hopfer explained the wider significance of the application. “Virtual Advisor will help students gain assurance that they are taking the proper steps to earning the degree that they want in as little time as possible, while also giving helpful suggestions on which electives to take. Virtual Advisor’s importance lies in its ability to take away many of the complexities associated with course planning, which is the central pillar to a college student’s university experience. It is a solution to a long-standing problem faced by all universities,” he said. “I believe that Virtual Advisor has the potential to be a game-changer for thousands of universities across the nation.”

While Amazing Hack created a roadmap for other students to complete their degrees, the roadmap that they have created for themselves and their lives beyond UMSL has proven to be abundant and prosperous as well—$10,000 and the possibility to make even more money through business profits, to be exact. While the money and opportunities are nice, Hopfer said that the experience itself was invaluable. “For me, the significance of [the Hack-A-Thon] was really learning more about the planning phase of a software project. Before [the Hack-A-Thon], I never had a situation where I was just given a problem and told to solve it. I now have a good appreciation of how much thought goes into analyzing a problem and designing a solution to solve that problem. “The experience I gained from [the Hack-A-Thon] will help me not only throughout the rest of my coursework at UMSL, but throughout the rest of my career.”