Purdue University North Central students in the Computer & Information Technology program took on a challenge to apply their Information Technology skills to assist the Porter County Salvation Army.
Students John Straka and Joshua Sutton, were in the "Topics in Information Systems and Technology" senior capstone course, taught by Mark Smith, associate professor of Computer & Information Technology and department chair.
Their challenge was to develop a new computer system for the Porter County Salivation Army Angel Tree program. Salvation Army Major Jon Welch explained that the Angel Tree is a holiday donation program that provides families in need with food, clothing, and children's gifts for the holidays. In Porter County, 530 families and more than 1,000 children were assisted last year. The number is expected to grow substantially this year.
This vital program became very labor intensive because information had to be handled and filed manually, the computer program had a tendency to crash. Thus, things "took forever," Welch said.
Straka and Sutton took on what they considered to be an ideal service learning project for them - developing and implementing a computer system that would serve the Angel Tree program. It had to be versatile enough to handle a data base, store information, generate letters, create tags, incorporate graphics, generate reports and be flexible enough to grow and adapt to the Angel Tree's needs as required.
"After meeting with the Salvation Army personnel handling the program and listening to what they hoped to achieve, we analyzed what needed to be done," explained Straka. "We did our research, we reasoned things out. Then we designed a system."
According to Smith, the students used many of the skills they acquired in their PNC classrooms: database design and implementation, object-oriented application and SQL programming, networking, project management and communication with project stakeholders.
"It was challenging," Straka admitted. "But it gave me some real-world challenges and I was able to use the knowledge I learned in class and see the results."
Everyone involved with the project acknowledged that some challenges popped up along the way, but Straka, Sutton and Smith together found a way to make things work.
"It was the optimal learning experience," said Straka. "To create a system that actually has an impact on people was amazing."
Welch said that the Salvation Army personnel who used the computers were thrilled with the new system. In fact, when it was implemented, the users were so thrilled that hugs of happiness were exchanged.
According to Smith, the lessons learned include the importance of understanding the requirements of the project and goals of the stakeholders, being open to new technology solutions that have not been previously experienced and being prepared for the hard work it takes to implement a project like this.
Experiences like this directly relate to the types of jobs students will ultimately pursue as computer software engineers (applications), computer systems analysts and computer support specialists. The 2009 Hoosier Hot 50 Jobs List and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics note that these are high-wage, growth occupations.
Today, the Salvation Army is using the system designed by the PNC students to collect and sort its Angel Tree information for the 2009 holidays. Children in need of gifts that include warm clothing and gifts to enjoy will have their information printed on tags that will be hung on trees that will be featured in area banks, stores, restaurants and places of business. People willing to purchase items for the children may take a tag and return the gifts with the tag attached, to be given to the child.
Information about the Angel Tree program may be obtained by contacting the Porter County Salvation Army at 219-762-9191.
Information about the PNC Computer & Information Technology program may be obtained by calling 785-5200, ext. 5556 or visiting www.pnc.edu/cit/.
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