CAC Students do their prelaunch presentation. From left to right Sonja Elstad, Norma Owens, Braden Smith, James McGalliard, Gina Milliron, Jose Mendoza, and Karen Banda.

CAC Engineering and Computer Science Students Receive Experiential Learning Outside of Their Regular Classes

By Angela Askey, Executive Director Public Relations and Marketing

Central Arizona College students enrolled in SCI195 (High Altitude Balloon Payload) and EGR198IS (Special Topics in Engineering) participate in experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom.

At the beginning of the semester, they select a project that is designed to answer a question or solve a problem.

Professor Dr. Armineh Noravian explains, “In SCI195, students engineer a payload to collect atmospheric data. In EGR198IS, students work on a problem either of their own choosing or suggested by me. These projects have ranged from electronics to mechanical to software, or a combination of all these.” She adds, “The problems that students work on have largely fallen on the ill-structured (like a real-world problem) side of the spectrum. Unlike well-structured problems (which are generally educational exercises with rules, within set parameters, with pre-determined right or wrong solution), ill-structured problems have numerous solutions and pathways to solutions, have few parameters, and contain uncertainty or ambiguity about how they are organized. Such problems inspire creativity and innovation because the focus of students is not on getting the correct answer so that they can pass the class. Instead, students engage in what engineers call “playing” where they explore, experiment, and learn through both success and failure.”

Encouraging students to do projects outside of their regular courses is important and allows students to learn from experience through creative experimentation and exploration. Student feedback on these courses shows they gain confidence, disciplinary growth, and a professional identity. Additionally, students may list their work on a resume, making them competitive with other candidates for internship or scholarship opportunities.

Experiential courses, such as SCI195 or EGR198IS, also provide faculty with an opportunity to interact and mentor students beyond the classroom, in particular students who are underrepresented in engineering and computer science. Mentoring can impact persistence, retention, and completion.

Ben Kerns is a Software Developer who volunteers as a mentor for the EGR198IS class. In college he majored in Computer Information Systems and holds a certificate in Business Data Analytics. When asked why he volunteers, he stated, “I wanted to give something back to the community, since so many people had pitched in over the years to make me the professional, I am today. I also enjoy teaching or tutoring others because it helps reinforce things I know.”

Kerns believes it is important for students to be able to work with mentors from industry. He commented, “Mentors need to be ready to jump into unfamiliar technical situations if it is required. On the other hand, this means the mentors can sometimes learn as much as the mentees. Regularly meetings with mentees is important. There needs to be a professional connection, even if maintained via voice call and screen-share, to enhance the learning experience.”

Fall 2023 EGR198IS students Rebecca Hurtado Olivera and Rebecca Luma completed a project focused on integrating front-end and back-end functionalities to create a web application designed for task organization.  They used JavaScript for the frontend, Java for the server side, and MongoDB for the database. The goal was to create a platform that enabled efficient task management providing a user-friendly interface that allows the user to create tasks within those folders and assign them desired features such as priority levels (high, medium, or low), customized folders for tasks, the ability to assign due dates and mark them complete once finished.

When asked why they chose this project, Olivera indicated she wanted to expand her abilities and gain a deeper understanding of project management, front-end, and back-end development. Similarly, Luma wanted a hands-on project that aligned with her career aspirations in software development, provided an opportunity to broaden her skillset and reinforce what she was learning in class. Both agreed that classes they were taking at the same time as they were working on the project complemented each other, allowing them to apply their class knowledge to practical, real-world applications.

Olivera summed up her experience, “Working on this project provided valuable hands-on experience within a professional work environment. It has shown me the extensive research required for project setup and emphasized the importance of planning before project initiation. Additionally, the challenges faced during the process have been a rewarding learning experience and pushed me to explore innovative or alternative techniques that might lead to solutions. It has been an excellent opportunity to work with a software engineer and another student as a team and strengthen my collaboration skills.”

Luma described her experience as being incredibly beneficial. “It bridges theory and practice, reinforcing what I am learning in class and extends beyond that. This project is something that I will be adding to my portfolio. Being able to have a portfolio with projects that I have worked on will be amazing to show to potential employers. The guidance that I have received from my professor and her colleague has been invaluable.”