Students learn about developing software systems through the software life cycle and are thoroughly prepared for the service learning component, starting with in-class discussions on the dual commitment to the course and community partner. The Service Learning Coordinator supports this by attending a class session to clarify expectations and work ethic, provide discipline-specific knowledge about the population students will be working with, and explain logistical aspects such as confidentiality policies and required documents. Students also receive an orientation at the community partner site.
The service learning project takes place at Northwood, a retirement community and long-term care facility. About 30 computer science students collaborate with residents to develop inclusive software applications, referred to as "the Sandbox." Students begin by consulting with residents and occupational therapists on the wants and needs for applications used on their phones, tablets, computers, or other devices to better support them in their daily life. Working in groups, the students use feedback gained from the initial meeting with residents and begin designing the apps.
Students return to Northwood multiple times throughout the semester to present their work to the residents, collect feedback, and tweak the apps based on resident needs and concerns. Examples of projects include an easy writing system for online publishing (including poetry and painting), a specialized messaging system for bridge players within Northwood, an organized planner, and an easy-to-use photo management system.
Students are assessed individually on the drafts and final project for their assigned role, as well as their reflective assignments. As a group, students are assessed on presenting two draft prototypes and a final prototype at the end of term.
The service learning component is assessed through pre- and post-experience student surveys, community partner surveys (at the end of term), and an in-person follow-up between the Service Learning Coordinator and the faculty member. Results are shared by the Service Learning Office with the community partner and faculty member, and are used for reflection among the stakeholders and future program planning and development.
Students keep a reflective journal to document their experience throughout the semester and use it to write a reflection paper at the end of the term. Since students work in groups, there is space during class time for groups to meet and debrief site visits, discuss changes to the software design, and plan their next steps. Groups present each iteration of the software during the site visits, which allows for group discussions, real-time feedback from the residents, and clarifying questions. This is often facilitated by the main contact at the organization, the professor, and on-site occupational therapists.
Key success factors
The community partner is engaged, supportive, and acknowledged as a co-educator and co-learner.
Students understand the value of service learning and reciprocity. The software created by the students is also open source, meaning that Northwood and the residents can use, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.
Residents gain self-confidence and take on more of a teaching role to advocate for their specific needs. Seven of the thirteen projects created in a recent term feature individualized software interfaces to meet residents' exact needs and preferences.
This is a rare service learning opportunity in the field of computer science.
The opportunity represents an intergenerational collaboration between students and Northwood residents, who form a team that openly shares ideas and feedback.
The software created wasn't originally open source, which created issues around intellectual property. This caused reflection on the professor and community partners’ behalf, and they decided to work toward making the projects open source in future terms.
Questions around data storage were also addressed by the faculty member, who collaborated with the community partner and solved problems within the university and department.
This is a highly unique project where the challenges can be unpredictable. The stakeholders work collaboratively to solve problems that arise.