By Benjamin Willhite ’18
Ishwar Agarwal ’18, Zachary Ball ’17, Kye Hoover ’17, and Jesson Soto Ventura ’19 formed a group through classes and working together in Berea College’s labor program, which enabled them to expand their software development skills for real-world use. Ishwar noted that the connection to the labor program played a role in their success at HackNC: “Going into the hackathon, we had a couple of ideas for developing software; however, when we realized there was an opportunity to apply IBM’s program Watson [a program that answers questions asked in natural language], we knew we could develop a web application to benefit both students and teaching assistants.” According to IBM, Watson is a cognitive technology that can think like a human. This allows the program to offer specific recommendations based on the user’s questions.
Using Watson, the team created Elementary, a web application that allows students to view what teaching assistants (TA) are collaborating on with the students by signing on to an online board. As is the case with similar boards at other institutions, students can upload questions for the TA to review. What makes Elementary different from similar boards is that with Watson, even when a TA is busy working with another student, Watson can direct the student to relevant resources for solving their problem. There is a dual benefit to this approach. Not only does it help reduce the workload on TAs, but it also empowers students to begin solving problems on their own.
Designing Elementary involved all four students brainstorming at the beginning of the hackathon and deciding what to build. From there, Ishwar and Jesson collaborated on integrating Watson into their application, while Kye and Zachary focused on establishing the database. Within 24 hours, they had constructed a successful web application.
The four students agree that Berea College’s Labor program helped lay down a strong foundation for them in computer science and real-world problem solving. Zachary and Jesson share the same title in the labor program as student software developers. They apply the principles and techniques of computer science to design, develop, test, and evaluate software that enables various offices on campus to better perform their many tasks. The current offices aided by their labor position include the labor office, environmental health and safety, the office of sustainability, the registrar’s office, and the center for transformative learning.
Ishwar’s primary labor position is as co-lead teaching assistant. He manages a team of 18 TAs, organizes weekly department meetings, assists faculty in managing the data structures course, and tutors 53 students in a weekly lab. As a secondary labor position, Ishwar works as a student programmer on a team that designs and develops web applications used by students and faculty.
Kye serves as a technology supervisor for the environmental health safety office, assists in the daily operation of management of the office, and is helping create a new chemical inventory systems for the College.
The students are confident that the skills and experience forged in the labor program enabled them to take first place at the HackNC. Kye said, “I came to Berea without the knowledge of a single programming language and with help from faculty and through my classes, I now contain real-world experience that will be utilized to further my education and career in computer programming.”