MONACA, Pa. — When Grant Miller explained his problem to Penn State Beaver Instructor Amber McConahy, she was skeptical.
She thought this particular problem was going to be too big and too difficult for her information sciences and technology students to solve.
Miller, the vice president of information technology at electrical component company c3controls, wanted the students to build a new online purchasing system for customers.
That task alone would have been challenging, but consider that c3’s products are all customizable, which means customers literally have tens of millions of options. And students would have to figure out how to best wrangle and present all of those options in a logical, user-friendly way for a company that promises to build and ship its products in a day.
“I was really fearful that what they would come up with would not meet the company’s standards,” McConahy said, “but we went ahead with it.”
And she’s glad they did, because her students surprised her. Really surprised her.
“I honestly have no complaints,” McConahy said. “I can’t think of anything to dock either team for, and that’s the first time that’s happened. They came up with designs that were better than I could have done on my own.”
The company’s original site used a series of drop-down lists, which had to be filled out in a particular order, to fulfill customer requests. It wasn’t visually appealing or user friendly and it required an excessive amount of code to run.
Two teams of students from the Beaver, Greater Allegheny and Shenango campuses, managed by Beaver students and team leaders Tyler Frank and Andrew Cramm, spent two semesters coming up with separate solutions to the problems.
Miller liked parts of each design, so he’s planning to integrate both of them when he and his colleagues build the new site, a process that begins when McConahy turns over hundreds of pages worth of her students’ code.
This isn’t the first time McConahy’s students have worked with a client, but it is the first time it’s gone so smoothly. Part of it she attributes to having well-organized team leaders.
Frank, one of those team leaders, credits his cohort.
“I was surprised with how well the teams worked together,” he said. “On my team, if I asked anyone to do anything, they would try their hardest to get it done.”
But most of it, McConahy says, was the client. Miller’s expectations were clear and he treated the students like professionals, even arranging for an extensive tour of c3’s Vanport-based facilities in March.
“Grant is such a nice person and was so easy to work with,” McConahy said. “He always had something positive to say, and it makes a difference. When you get a lot of negativity you really don’t have the desire to do your best work.”
It also helped that students were trying to improve an existing site instead of building the site for the first time.
“Because it existed, (c3) knew the problems and knew what they wanted in a solution,” McConahy said.
And that made creating elegant solutions that much easier, and the results that much more fulfilling.
“Having a client with genuine requirements for a problem, was a key element for this project,” Cramm said. “Instead of making use of a predetermined list of plausible requirements, we needed to interpret the needs of the client along with real-world tools.”
“We learned the pressures of turning something in not only for a grade, but for something that could be used in the real world,” Frank added.