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Innovative course enables students to create web apps for impact

1/3/2017 12:20:19 PM Laura Schmitt

When CS Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar launched the Art of Web Programming course in 2014, few other universities offered upperclassmen the opportunity to learn how to design, implement, and deploy a full-featured web application. “At the time, none of the other top five CS schools had a course like this,” Kumar said. “Mastering the web stack gives students superpowers: we try to teach them all the technology they need to take a disruptive idea and bring it to market, on their own.”

Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar won the Dean's Award for Excellence in Research.
Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar won the Dean's Award for Excellence in Research.
Today, most peer universities offer a comparable course, however none can claim to have taught 300 undergraduates the requisite skills — design thinking, back- and front-end web technologies, and the theoretical underpinnings of JavaScript — they’d need to create their own deliverable web app that solves a real-world problem. 

This past semester, 100 students working in teams of three or four built a variety of apps, including a real-time Lost and Found app for campus users to report and reclaim missing property, a crowdsourcing app for planning and sharing workouts, and a searchable Instagram-like interface for the nascent online sport of Dogspotting.

In December, 26 teams participated in an app competition Kumar organized at the university’s Research Park. Industry judges from Granular, Turn Inc., Yahoo!, and Capital One selected the top apps, while also recruiting students after they presented their projects.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from companies in the course, because the skill set we’re teaching is one of the most in-demand in tech today,” said Kumar. “Students with real full-stack knowledge — who understand how to architect and build web applications from end to end — can basically write their own ticket for internships and jobs.”

Students participated in an app competition in December at the University Research Park. The apps were judged by reps from Granular, Turn Inc., Yahoo!, and Capital One.
Students participated in an app competition in December at the University Research Park. The apps were judged by reps from Granular, Turn Inc., Yahoo!, and Capital One.
According to Kumar, one of the biggest challenges of teaching the senior-level course, which is offered each Fall, is that the technology behind it changes rapidly. “You can’t just create the course once and then reteach it each year,” she said. “For example, this past Fall, we taught the MEAN stack, which is a set of technologies that cover front- and back-end web programming. But after watching adoption curves this year, we’ve already decided to switch to a new front-end framework in the next offering, because that’s the way we think the industry is headed.”

One interesting phenomenon about the course is the culture that has developed around it.  Many of the students who have taken the class or served as course assistants stay involved as members of the course’s Facebook group once they’ve graduated. “Now that they’re out in the world, they want to help current students get internships, or give advice on the interviewing process,” Kumar said. “We actually designed the last midterm based on feedback from alumni on the kinds of real-world problems they face in their jobs.”

In the Spring 2017 semester, Kumar is collaborating with Art & Design Professor Eric Benson to introduce a pilot class called the Underground Unicorn Program (in reference to the Silicon Valley term for “magical beings who can both design and develop software”) for students who excelled in the web programming course.  The seminar will feature guest lectures from industry thought leaders, give students access to professional mentors, and help them build project material for their portfolios. 

“We want to give students the opportunity to go all the way through a product design and development cycle before they graduate,” said Kumar.  “For students who are passionate about software and entrepreneurship, this is the shortest line to building things that have real impact.”