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Computer students design software for real business

By Sally Jongsma

Students in Wolthuis's Information Systems Design class worked collaboratively throughout the semester.

Students in Wolthuis's Information Systems Design class worked collaboratively throughout the semester.

Professor Dawn Wolthuis was reworking the business plan for her company, Tincat Group, last spring when she was hired to fill a one-year teaching position in computer science at Dordt College. As she began preparing for her Information Systems Design course, Wolthuis decided to draw on case studies from her many years of experience working in the field to supplement those in the text. Students would work on a real project for her company instead of a series of “what if” case studies.

For the course, which focuses on software analysis and design, Wolthuis presented her students with the concept plan for her business. As students have progressed through the course material, they’ve used that information to write up a “Requirements Document” that analyzes what software is needed to make the business plan work.

“They’re architects,” Wolthuis says. “The students won’t actually build the software, but they’ll present a blueprint for it.”

According to Wolthuis, using a real business and a real business plan has been an asset.

“No matter how good the case study, there are always unanswered questions,” she says. “Here I have to come up with answers to all of their questions, and they have to take into account all of the details.”

“They’re learning project management, how to analyze a situation, how to mitigate risks, and how to design a software solution,” she says. So while they are learning the theory, their work is anything but theoretical as they design database tables and work with security issues.

Students are working in teams—because “that’s how it goes in the real world,” Wolthuis says. In a class composed primarily of business and computer science majors, the eyes of the computer science students glaze over when she stresses that the design has to be “pretty,” she says. Business majors know they have to keep their customers happy.

The eyes of the business majors, on the other hand, glaze over when things get too technical. The computer science majors know you have to be detailed if software is to work. Each team includes students from both majors. They learn to work together, just like they will have to do on the job later on. And they give presentations of their work to each other, another skill Wolthuis wants them to master for their future jobs.

“They’re doing well,” Wolthuis says with a smile. The students are coming up with designs she hadn’t thought of and their documents are of industry quality. Asked whether she’ll actually use any of them, she smiles and says “That is yet to be seen. I’ve definitely learned from them, and I just might have software that matches their designs in the future.”