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Each fall, two student interns in the Student Engagement Center (SEC) spend about half of their semester hours working to match volunteer mentors with mentees in the Whitman Mentor Program.

The process is daunting. Each Whitman College student volunteer fills out a Google Form with their availability, and it has to be matched to hand-written nomination forms that come from each of Walla Walla’s elementary schools.

Variables include how far the school is from Whitman, and whether the volunteer has a car or can walk, if the mentee needs someone who speaks Spanish, as well as multiple other considerations. 

“Last year, the interns spread it all out on a garage floor — manila folders and Post-It notes — over a weekend to get it done,” said Susan Prudente, assistant director for Community Engagement in the SEC.

But this fall, the SEC will have a new tool to dramatically reduce the amount of effort it takes to match mentors and mentees, thanks to efforts of students in the Department of Computer Science.

Creating a Capstone

Each year, computer science faculty reach out to other departments and community members looking for technology-related problems their seniors can solve. 

“We work on refining the project description and proposal so at the end of their junior year, we’ll provide sort of a menu of projects with associated partners, and then students let us know what their preferences are,” said Assistant Professor John Stratton, who is overseeing the capstone projects this year. Based on their preferences, backgrounds and skills, the department’s seniors were organized into project groups. 

The SEC put forward their hope to have students create a program that could help with mentor-mentee pairings two years ago, Prudente said, and it got chosen for this year’s capstone effort. She, along with program leaders John Smith ’20 and Ellen Hom ’20, served as the clients for a team of four computer science students.

The group was comprised of Kimberly Taylor ’20 of Reno, Nevada; Robert Qin ’20 of Prosper, Texas; Charlie Schneider ’20 of Lone Tree, Colorado; and Buyaki Nyatichi ’20, an international student from Kenya.

For Taylor, working with the SEC was particularly meaningful. She has volunteered and served as co-intern for the SEC’s Whitman Teaches the Movement program, and also worked in the school district in 2018-2019 as a fellow for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

“The main reason that I chose to study computer science is because I want to be able to use my programming skills to help people,” Taylor said. “This project was an opportunity to connect my academic interests with a community engagement program that does exactly that.” 

A Virtual Conference

This year, computer science had five capstone teams, made up of seniors in the major, and a few other students who studied in the department but didn’t officially declare, Stratton said. Typically, the capstone groups present their projects during the spring Undergraduate Conference. This spring, the in-person conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Stratton felt the opportunity to present the research to a live audience was valuable, and so the department organized a virtual conference on Saturday, April 18, 2020. 

Each group had 30 minutes to present their work and answer questions. In addition to the group working with the mentor program, other capstone projects included groups creating an automated crossword solver and a sophisticated autotuner app. Another group partnered with Associate Professor of Biology Arielle Cooley and her research collaborator to analyze the patterns on monkeyflower petals. The final group built on the efforts of a previous capstone group to perfect an algorithm that could place students into workshops for the biennial Great Explorations STEM workshop hosted at Whitman College. The full conference presentation is available on YouTube.

“We have been working on this project all year so I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment to have completed it,” Taylor said after the conference. “I am looking forward to staying in contact with the SEC after I graduate and hearing about how next year's mentor program interns utilize the program.”

Valuable Partnerships

Prudente was thrilled with the outcome of the project, and was excited to be able to watch the presentation virtually. Having a connection to Taylor and Schneider, who were both very involved in the SEC, made it that much more meaningful.

“We’ve been wanting something that would reduce the administrative labor of the interns, and free up their hours to do more logistic and interpersonal work,” Prudente said. “This provides a long-awaited solution.”

The final project is a Google Sheet, which is automatically generated by the forms filled out by the volunteers and school district employees. The program then looks at the mentor and mentees schedules, school location and other preferences, and create lists of potential matches. It even can make suggestions for organizing carpools of students going to the same school at the same time. But it also still allows for the organizer to do hand-matching where necessary, and retains existing relationships for mentors-mentees from previous years.

“The mentor tool will help the program leaders engage in more interpersonal aspects of the high-quality program management,” she said.

Taylor is excited to see how the project could be expanded on in the future, and how other programs that do volunteer matching can apply it to their own needs.

“Perhaps another capstone group will take on this project and build on what we made so that it can be applied to Whitman Teaches the Movement or Adopt-A-Grandparent,” Taylor said. “Our project will hopefully give the community service interns more time to develop their programs and engage with Whitman student volunteers and community partners, which will improve the programs for years to come.”

Watch the Computer Science Capstone Conference Presentations