The Christian Healthcare Providers Organization needed an app to compile medical records from its mission trips to the Dominican Republic. Sycamore Services wanted a video game to help children with autism become more social. WFYI asked for a cataloging system that allowed the station to track videos it shot.
They all turned to EPICS, the Butler University Computer Science and Software Engineering class in which students work with local non-profit organizations to solve their computer software and information technology needs.
“I’m a strong believer that the value of software engineering education comes from relating it to real life,” says Computer Science and Software Engineering Professor Panos Linos, who was recruited to Butler in 2000 to help create the first software-engineering undergraduate degree program in Indiana. “If you want to get a degree in software engineering, you have to be exposed to real-life scenarios. EPICS is a great platform to give our students the opportunity to take all the skills they learned in our software engineering courses and use them in a real project with a real customer that is actively interested and has a concrete issue to deal with.”
In a typical EPICS class—the acronym stands for Engineering Projects in Community Service—upwards of 20 students gain experience and expertise not only in developing software but in working as a team, dealing directly with clients, and doing projects that make a difference. The students, who come to the class from all majors, typically work in groups of three to five, with Linos serving as coach/advisor. (More information is at epics.butler.edu.)
At the end of each semester, the students present their work to their peers and clients, explaining what they were asked to do and what they had been able to achieve. Some projects go on for years as different groups of EPICS students create and refine the work.
The Christian Health Providers Organization (CHPO) app has been an EPICS project for more than three years. The group, which works out of Butler’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, goes on an annual mission trip each May to offer medical services in the Dominican Republic. It needed a better way to compile and keep medical records as patients go through the clinic from check-in to examination to the pharmacy, and through community outreach.
“It’s very easy for anything that’s paper to get lost or confused,” says Butler senior Emily Lawson, president of CHPO. “There’s so many things that can go wrong with paper. And we don’t have the advantage of storing patient data over the course of years.”
The Electronic Medical Records (EMR) app the EPICS students built enables the mission students and doctors to avoid having to keep track of paper. With a few taps on an iPad, they can track the patients’ history as well as their medications and doses.
“The fill-in-the-blanks makes it so much easier,” Lawson says. “And it’s all standardized.”
A three-member EPICS team worked to refine the app during the fall 2018 semester. Ryan Perkins ’20, Ugo Udeogu ’18, and Cisco Scaramuzza ’18 said they spent the first six to eight weeks of the course learning the technology they needed.
“It’s a fairly hefty piece of software,” Perkins says, “and yet we’re coming into it with rudimentary knowledge of app development. That was one of the struggles we ran into, but it was a good challenge to help us in the industry.”
“Having a project that’s been worked on for three and a half years, it’s like having experience in the real world,” Udeogu says. “In the real world, a lot of things are already written. So, on the job you have to learn the application, learn the language, and then implement the new functionalities.”
EPICS alumni say the course has been invaluable. Chris Hoffman ’04, who was in one of the earliest EPICS classes and is now an engineer with Raytheon, says what he learned in EPICS helped in his career. Hoffman worked on a project that helped Butler’s annual Undergraduate Research Conference create a database to help register participants and track the submission of information connected with their projects.
He says EPICS replicates a working environment more accurately than any classroom project.
“We learned pretty quickly that dealing with a customer is not necessarily straightforward,” he says. “Even though our customer was a group of college professors, they were treating it like a project that they were invested in and not like a classroom project. Dealing with the customer was very realistic. “
Sean Gibbens ’15, now a software engineer for Emplify, a startup in Fishers, Indiana, was part of a team that worked on an accessibility app to help students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired navigate the campus. During his senior year, he led an EPICS team that worked to revamp the website of The Social of Greenwood, a provider of programs and activities for those in the community who are over 50.
“When I got into the professional working world, I was really thankful for being exposed to that early on in EPICS,” Gibbens says.
Now he helps EPICS by being among a group of 15–20 alumni who serve as consultants to the program.
Gibbens says Linos recognized that many of the EPICS projects were something a professional software developer would take on—and that could be daunting for students. So having consultants— people actually in the field—was a good idea.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to teach what I’m actually using every day at work, and it’s definitely good for the students to get a taste of a professional project while being guided by someone who is working full-time on similar technologies,” he says.
In creating EPICS, Linos was ahead of the curve not only in giving students professional experience but in community service. EPICS predates the Indianapolis Community Requirement, which mandates that all Butler students take one course in any part of the University that involves active engagement with the Indianapolis community.
“We did what we felt was a win-win scenario for everybody,” says Linos, whose innovative program was rewarded with a $35,000 endowment gift from the Sallie Mae Fund in 2003 for its potential to attract female and other minority students to Butler.
Chris Bowman, the Internet Projects Manager for WFYI public radio and television in Indianapolis, would agree with that. In 2009, Richard Miles ’91, then WFYI’s Vice President of Audio Services and TV Programming, told him about EPICS and wondered if they could work with the students to develop a cataloging system to track what videos were being shot on tapes, on what days, and where they could be found at the station.
That was a four-plus semester project for EPICS.
In 2013, Bowman again worked with an EPICS team, this time to improve the search algorithm for WFYI.org, their main website.
“It’s been an excellent learning experience to be able to interact with people developing managerial skills and communication skills, and it’s been rewarding to offer mentorship opportunities at times,” Bowman says. “And being a non-profit, WFYI appreciates that schools offer these kinds of programs. A lot of times, we don’t have the monetary resources that a commercial entity would either to hire staff or pay outside vendors. So having this kind of resource is just invaluable.”