Students address community issues through popular service-learning course

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By Nicole Beatty ’15

Pozefsky - s-l course Braille SquadUNC offers many courses for students interested in learning more about public service and civic responsibility. APPLES service-learning classes bring the two together by extending learning outside the classroom to collaborate with community organizations. One service-learning course in particular is in high demand: not only by students but by organizations in the community as well.

During the fall semester, 39 UNC students experienced service-learning in a unique way under the instruction of Dr. Diane Pozefsky. Students in COMP 523, Software Engineering Lab, created software for real-life problems, meeting the needs of clients in the community. To accomplish this, students had to understand the users’ needs and then design an appropriate system for each client.

“The most challenging parts of the course were that students learned new systems on their own and dealt with the problems of designing and implementing a system that has not been vetted to avoid problems,” said Pozefsky.

Throughout the semester, students worked on 12 different projects including one with MyHealthEd where students created an online sexual education course for the organization. MyHealthEd offers online courses to students in North Carolina’s rural areas where school districts are not always able to hire qualified teachers. Students also worked with Braille Squad, led by Diane Brauner, an orientation and mobility teacher for visually impaired children. Here students built an application to teach blind children how to use a refreshable Braille display, which aids them in typing, reading and learning braille on a computer. Unlike other courses, Pozefsky says she never knows what problems the class will encounter while working on projects with clients.

“I had a team working with a refreshable Braille display attached to an iPad, and they tried to use specific features that the client, who works with this device regularly, had never seen used before,” she said. “Not surprisingly, they ran into some technical issues.”

The class worked on a testing project for Tar Heel Reader, created by UNC’s Dr. Gary Bishop, a Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar. Bishop developed a website dedicated to helping people learn to read. While the website was originally designed for teens and adults who never learned to read due to disabilities or lack of opportunity, it is now also used to assist people wanting to learn English. The student team assigned to this project created a way for Bishop to automatically test changes in the program before introducing them to the program users.

COMP 523 has come a long way since its inception almost 50 years ago. Dr. Frederick Brooks, founder of the Department of Computer Science, created the course. While working at IBM he was challenged by the company’s CEO to understand what made managing software hard. Brooks developed the book “Mythical Man-Month” and the COMP 523 course in response to his inquiry. Pozefsky took this course from Brooks when she was a graduate student and after working at IBM for 25 years, returned to UNC to teach. Pozefsky has been the course instructor for 10 years and has found that her industrial background made COMP 523 a natural course for her to teach.

Taught by Pozefsky in the fall and Professor David Stotts in the spring, this service-learning course offers a unique learning experience for students, so it’s no surprise that it is in high demand. Pozefsky says she typically has three times as many project proposals than the course can support. To make the course feasible for instructors to teach, class size is capped at 40 students per semester.

“As our department has grown and requests from clients have grown, it no longer was possible to contain it to a single semester,” Pozefsky said. “There is a huge demand for the course.”

With this course having been taught in the computer science department for almost 50 years and a service-learning course since 2010, it is a good example of how learning in the classroom blends with real-life application in the community.