Bruce Porter

(Left to right) Computer science seniors Matt Ebeweber, Bri Connelly and Niko Lazaris display their $100,000 award from the IBM Watson University competition. They were among seven students who worked to develop the prototype app called CallScout.

Photo Credit: Charlotte Carpenter | Daily Texan Staff

After winning a $100,000 award in the IBM Watson University Competition, a group of seven computer science students plan to develop an mobile app that connects users to local social services, such as clothing banks and health insurance programs. 

As their winning entry, the students developed a prototype app named “CallScout,” aimed at meeting the needs of users in Central Texas.

Bri Connelly, computer science senior and project member, said CallScout will provide useful information directly to callers in need, so callers won’t have to find or wait for human representatives. 

“Right now, when people have questions about social services, like where to find a homeless shelter, or if they need help paying their rent, they call the 211 hotline,” Connelly said. “Through the app, people can ask those questions and Watson will answer them, and they’ll also be able to do things that they can’t normally do over the phone, like have favorites and rate and review services.”

The Callscout app uses IBM’s automated question-answering software, known as “Watson.”

According to Bruce Porter, computer science department chair and class instructor, IBM’s Watson software was popularized by its appearance on “Jeopardy,” when it played against human opponents and won. 

“It’s a program that enables computers to interact with people in English — for a person to ask Watson a question, and Watson to deliver a specific answer,” Porter said.

The students began work on the app in September as part of a capstone projects class, which was designed to combine education and career-oriented research.

Connelly said with the help of the Longhorn Startup Lab, an on-campus group that helps students form start-up companies, the team will use the award money to produce the application.

Porter said he believes the students won the competition because their project focused on helping people in the real world.

“My guess is that one differentiating factor was that the students here built a system for a real client, in this case, the United Way of Central Texas,” Porter said. “It wasn’t just a class project.”

Niko Lazaris, computer science and finance senior and project member, said the group learned more than what they expected from a computer science class.

“I think what we expected to learn was a lot more technical insight into how Watson works, and we did learn that, but I think what kind of surprised us was the whole product development that goes behind it and figuring out a viable pitch to the competition,” Lazaris said.

With General Motors, Apple and Samsung all announcing plans to bring new operations to Austin, students looking to work in the technology industry will soon have more options close to the 40 Acres.

General Motors announced last week it will build an IT Innovation Center in Austin and hire as many as 500 to work at the facility, which is expected to be in the Tech Ridge area of Northeast Austin, according to the Austin American-Statesman. GM, which makes the fifth highest revenues in the nation, will employ software developers, project managers, database experts, business analysts and other information technology professionals at the new center, it said in a statement.

Some technology professionals say the GM plan is part of a trend in Austin. In March, Apple announced it would hire 3,600 employees and build a new facility in Austin. Samsung also announced an additional multi-billion-dollar investment in its existing chip manufacturing center in Austin. Randall Mott, GM vice president and chief information officer, said a skilled workforce is already in place in Austin.

“The next generation of IT workers, the talented visionaries we want contributing at the Innovation Center, are being trained at top computer science schools in Texas and surrounding states,” Mott said in the company’s statement.

UT’s computer science graduate program ranked eighth in the 2010 U.S. News and World Report college rankings among computer science departments including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technoloy, Carnegie Mellon and Princeton. UT’s Computer Science department chair Bruce Porter said the local industry growth has picked up in the past two years.

“During the economic downturn, frequently students would need to go to Silicon Valley or New York City or somewhere else for an internship or a job,” Porter said. “So the growth in Austin is going to make a big difference to our students.”

UT’s computer science program is not only competitive but large, with more than 1,300 undergraduates. The department routinely sends students to intern and work for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, Porter said.

Porter said the technology industry operates as an ecosystem made up of universities, companies and venture capitalists.

“You need all those things together to make a community as vibrant as what we have in Austin right now,” Porter said.

Tech companies tend to gravitate to one area, Roger Kay, founder of tech analysis company Endpoint Technologies Associates, said. He said Dell was one of the first major tech companies in Central Texas. Dell currently has its headquarters in Round Rock.

“Dell is very much a trickle-down company, in that secondary and tertiary levels of the company got rich,” Kay said.

This company’s success spawned growth in Austin, he said. The growth attracted big companies like General Motors and Apple, and it also attracted entrepreneurs looking to invest in tech startups, Kay said.

Tommy Nguyen, a UT corporate communications and computer science alumnus, works as a software consultant for BP3, a technology consulting company. Nguyen said he was happy to find a tech industry job that allowed him to stay in Austin and use his computer science skills. Nguyen interned at BP3, which employs up to 30 people, during his last year at UT and got the job after graduation.

“We’re actively trying to look for college recruits,” Nguyen said. “We’re one of the fastest-growing companies in Central Austin.”

Printed on Friday, September 14, 2012 as: Austin tech expanding

The Department of Computer Science will decrease the number of required classes needed to obtain a degree from the department, a move some faculty hope will allow students to specialize in their interests and experience more while attending school.

Designed to be more flexible, the new curriculum has been a five-year endeavor by the department to allow students to take more electives. Bruce Porter, department chair of the computer science department, said the average student has time for 15 computer science classes. However, the old curriculum required students to take 11 specific courses to obtain a degree, leaving little time to take upper-division electives. The new curriculum has reduced the number of required courses to six. Porter said some students have jumped to conclusions of the department cutting back the number of required courses for budgetary reasons.

“I cannot think of any way that this has a budgetary side to it at all,” Porter said. “Sure, the department has had budget cuts, we’ve all had budget cuts. But that has nothing to do with the curriculum. This is based on what is best for teaching the field.”

He said the idea of scaling back on required classes to open up more upper-division elective options is taking place at computer science schools across the nation and UT was neither ahead nor behind the trend.

Faculty in the department started talking about revisiting the computer science curriculum in 2007, Porter said. He also said the department took a lot of inspiration from a 2001 report by the Association for Computing Machinery, a national organization dedicated to delivering education resources for computing.

The report, titled “Computing Curricula,” states that the required body of knowledge should be made as small as possible.

“Over the last decade, computer science has expanded to such an extent that it is no longer possible simply to add new topics without taking away,” the report said. “We believe that the best strategic approach is to reduce the number of topics in the required core so that it consists only of those topics for which there is a broad consensus that the topic is essential to undergraduate degrees.”

Porter said the department wanted to change the curriculum because the field has gotten too big to try to teach in four years. Now, Porter said students can study the areas that most interest them in depth.

“For some students, it’s going to be the mathematical stuff, for others it’s going to be game development,” Porter said. “Everybody has their own inclination.”

Although much of the new curriculum has already been implemented over the last couple of years, the most recent and final changes to the curriculum include reducing the number of theory classes. The department previously required four theory classes, but now students only have to take two.

“When you go to four to two, it is not like you can take the content in four courses and squeeze it down to two, because the students aren’t any smarter than they had been before,” Porter said. “Instead you have to choose a little bit of one course and add a little bit of another.”

Before the most recent changes, the department reduced the number of required computer system courses from 12 hours of coursework to eight.

“A problem we had in the past is students would take these four system classes and never really come away with the big picture view of how a computer works,” he said.

Associate computer science professor William Cook said while he did not foresee the department needing to make any additional curriculum changes, adjustments might be needed.

“I do think there will probably be some adjustments to fine tune the current system,” Cook said. “There is a lot of room with flexibility, so if there are any problems we can tweak the curriculum.”

Cook said students in the new theory, systems and programming classes will experience classes taught at a faster pace.

“There could be some struggle there as students adjust,” Cook said. “Essentially we are raising the bar and expecting more of the students.”

Calvin Lin, a computer science professor who chaired a committee that defined a new theory course under the new requirements, said students will find more excitement under the new requirements.

“There is also an observation that our old curriculum, because there was this long chain of required courses, students often didn’t see the pay off, they didn’t see the excitement till a few courses down,” Lin said. “The hope is by shrinking the core they will get to see some of the more exciting things quicker, and this is also an opportunity to bring some of the excitement into the core as well.”

Porter said he was pleased with the curriculum and he did not foresee any more upcoming changes. Nevertheless, he said teaching computer science is a constant struggle.

“There will be a continual battle to keep each of these classes current,” Porter said. “But the overall scaffolding of them, that is going to last us at least 10 years.”

Austin, known as one of the primary hubs of the video game industry, may soon find the next generation of game artists, designers and programmers studying within the walls of UT this fall.

Bruce Porter, chair of the computer science department, sent an email to computer science students this week announcing a new game design curriculum at UT. The game development program is a collaborative effort between the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Fine Arts and the College of Communication, each of which will be offering their own courses in game design.

In spring 2013, UT will offer its first Game Development Capstone Project class, which will gather students from each of the three schools in a team effort to create their own video games. Although colleges have offered game development classes in the past, Porter said the goal of the game development program is to offer those classes consistently and introduce new classes, all in an effort to prepare students for the Capstone Project class, which will be taught by guest lecturers from local game developers.

“I expect that more students will go into the industry as we develop this program,” Porter said. “And as more industry moves to Austin, those two will feed into each other.”

The project has been developed during the past 18 months with help from the program’s advisory board, which includes staff members of local industry developers such as Zynga (“Farmville”) and Ricochet Labs (“Qrank”), he said.

The College of Communication’s radio-television-film program has offered 3-D animation and digital media classes in the past, but associate RTF professor Andrew Shea said he hopes to see a broader focus on game design this fall.

“We started over the last couple years to offer a series of classes in digital arts, and this seems the logical step to take, given the interest in the industry and our student body,” Shea said.

The Electronic Game Developers Society, a UT student organization that designs games collectively, was surprised by the announcement of the new program.

“We heard for a long time that UT wasn’t having it,” said EGaDs president Andrew Pish. “Even [UT alumnus and influential game designer] Richard Garriott pitched to Bill Powers, but he never did anything. So it’s kind of surprising and out of the blue, but at the same time it’s great to have academic opportunities.”

Pish said that the hardest thing of being a member of the group is finding the time between classes and homework to design games. The prospect of being able to combine his school work with his passion, game design, has him interested in the new program, he said.

“I think a lot of the spirit of this is about collaboration with natural sciences and fine arts,” Shea said. “It’s about bringing together the different units on campus, which is a big part of the current entertainment world. It’s a big part of social media and people’s lives today. It’s something that our Texas students are interested in.”