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This article appeared in the USC Chronicle February 3, 1997 (Volume 16, Number 18)
Library Gives Real-World Challenges to Student Software Designers
by Eric Mankin

A collaboration between the computer science department and University Libraries has put students to work on real, state-of-the-art software challenges with extraordinarily successful resuts.

In one case, the work done by the students in the graduate-level software engineering class of computer science professor Barry Boehm will almost certainly go into service at the library later this year. And the work done on others will be a boon to libra ry fund raisers in coming months.

Stereoscope cards, medieval manuscripts, antique maps, archived planning studies, clunky government databases, movie stills, student films, videotaped engineering lectures, biological photographic images, Latin American pamphlets and more - students have produced rough drafts of multimedia solutions for these hard-to-manage collections, at essentially no out-of-pocket cost to the library.

The students, who in previous years in the course chafed at assignments requiring them to impersonate client librarians or fire department dispatchers, have been delighted to have a chance to work on real-world issues. Boehm has had a chance to develop hi s ideas on methods to simplify and rationalize the creation of software for specific users.

Meanwhile, the library has received services that would have been prohibitively expensive on the open market.


Photo- IRENE FERTIK

Barry Boehm, professor of computer science. Students in his graduate-level software engineering class are working on innovative projects for the library.
Stereoscopic Card Collection

The university has an extensive collection of more than 2,000 stereoscope images that originally belonged to the C.B. DeMille studio library. The pictures, taken before World War I, were originally marketed as a parlor amusement during pre-television days : Edwardian families could sit at home and see 3-D pictures of Paris or the Panama Canal.

At the dawn of the 21st century, these images are potential treasures for scholarly researchers, illustrators, historians and even the public. And new multimedia web techniques could make them more accessible than ever - even presenting them in stereo to remote viewers.

But John Ahouse, curator of the collection, wondered what would be the best way to catalog and present such images in multimedia form. What would be affordable, in terms of library resources, for digitizing images and entering data?

Similar challenges faced each one of the 13 teams that Boehm assembled, and the resulting student proposals drew raves from library officials.

"Every one of the 13 projects succeeded, at least to some extent," said Denise Bedford, the special projects librarian who, with science and engineering librarian Julie Kwan, initiated the project. "At this point, I think it can be called an unqualified s uccess," Bedford said.

"Every single project that came out has fund-raising possibilities," said Kwan, who had been the first to start discussions with the computer science professor.

"This collaborative process has significant potential for everyone involved," said Jerry Campbell, dean of university libraries and chief information officer.

Risks were involved, Boehm acknowledged. "When we went in, there was a lot of apprehension on both sides that we would waste each other's time. I was really extremely happy with how it came out."


Photo- IRENE FERTIK

Six of the librarians who took part in the computer science/library project with a stereoscopic holder and pictures that will become part of the Internet information project. Front, from left: John Ahouse, Julie Kwan, Barbara Robinson and Jean Crampon; back row, from left: Ruth Wallach, Charles Phelps and Dace Taube.
How Collaboration Began

Boehm, a member of the national academy of engineering and internationally known expert on software, is holder of the TRW Professorship in Software Engineering and director of the Center for Software Engineering. He teaches CS 577, a four-credit course in software engineering that consistently attracts more than 100 students at a time, the largest enrollment of any graduate course in the department.

The germ of the collaboration occurred when Kwan learned that Boehm was having his students develop, as exercises, database access systems that were extremely similar to the one the library was using to update its venerable HOMER electronic card catalog. In fact, Boehm's students were practicing their software design skills on a simulated library system, with students not-very-convincingly playing the roles of client librarians.

The conversion of HOMER to the new SIRSI system, a proprietary product produced by a company in Huntsville, Ala., was well underway. (HOMER actually changed over to its new, multimedia "Unicorn" interface system early this year.) But, Kwan knew, the libra ry had dozens of special collections of art, video, photographs, sound recordings, public reports and other hard-to-manage materials.

It was Bedford who came up with a concrete proposal. What if Boehm's class could use as raw material the actual collections that were candidates for digital delivery of multimedia materials, drawing on the expertise of professional archivists and libraria ns?

Boehm was extremely re- ceptive; he had, in fact, been hearing from students that the exercises assigned as classwork weren't sufficiently realistic for fully effective education. This would be a chance for his students not only to organize challenging da ta, but also to work with real customers.

"What we're trying to do in software engineering is help the students understand some of the softer aspects of the engineering system - such as the people aspects and the economic aspects," Boehm said. Having the students deal with actual clients, not com puter specialists, was a "tremendous learning experience for them," he said.

Boehm and computer science department chairman Ellis Horowitz quickly began to meet with Kwan, Bedford and other library staff.

An August memo by Boehm set forth the situation. The proposal was to create between 15 and 20 teams of six students each. Each team would work with a librarian on a specific collection presenting unusual access problems to create a software architecture p ackage for the desired capability.

Boehm said that this would take a "large amount" of library staff time, and testing and bringing up to speed new software would also use library computer resources. And, he admitted, some of the solutions brought forth by computer science students might be "off target." But, he noted, "With 15 to 20 projects, even if some fail, there will be a good number of useful solutions."

Against the downside, Boehm laid out the other benefits:

Above all, the collaboration would give the library the luxury of exploring possibilities. As Bedford pointed out, "To have a professional even look at the software problems of many of these special collections is tens of thousands of dollars or even more ."

Just the process, moreover, of having librarians talk to student software engineers was doubly beneficial. The librarians would learn about the parameters of what is possible with state-of-the-art software designs. The students would gain expertise in a s pecific area of software design. Additionally, the project would "create a talent pool of USC-trained software engineers with interest in and familiarity with library applications," Boehm said.

Launching the Partnership

With trepidation laced with optimism, the project designers went forward. The first hurdle was to see if the curators of the libraries' special collections would be willing to invest the necessary time working with students.

A recruitment plea went out by e-mail - and the response came back. Eleven librarians - Kwan and Ahouse, Jean Crampon, Ken Klein, Robert Labaree, Sandra Joy Lee, Charles Phelps, Barbara Robinson, Caroline Sisneros, Dace Taube and Ruth Wallach - agreed to work with the students. Some volunteered to double their time commitment by working with two teams of students on separate projects.

"The participation of library people was crucial," Kwan said, "and I think I can say without exaggeration that every one who worked to prepare a project genuinely cared about their project."

The projects illustrate the change that multimedia has brought to library sci- ence, and highlight the variety and richness of collections at the university.

"Librarians," Bedford said, "traditionally are comfortable dealing with formal, secondary information, final published compilation, the finished result, two levels up from primary research materials - lab books, analytical data, readings, photographs and the like."

Libraries have traditionally maintained archives of these materials, but for researchers "they are extremely inaccessible," Bedford said. "And not just here ... During the project, I got on the phone with the Smithsonian. They had the same problem we do."

Multimedia technology offers extraordinary possibilities for solving some of these problems. For example: archivist Barbara Robinson at the Boeckmann Center maintains a remarkable collection of Latin American pamphlets, which contain valuable information for specialists but which are old and fragile.

New optical character recognition technology makes it possible to put the contents of the pamphlets on-line. Scanning techniques can reproduce the covers. The entire collection can be put on the net for researchers anywhere in the world - and computer sci ence students created a working demonstration of how it could be done.

Such a demonstration is critical for library fund-raising for special projects. As Bedford says, "A fair amount of money is available from various sources for library archiving. But if you go and ask for the money, they will tell you, 'Show me how you can do this, show me a proof of concept.'

"What this project has done is give the library 13 proofs of concept, which we can - and will - take to funding agencies."

Project to Go On-Line

Of the 13, the project on the fastest track is one developed at the Crocker Business Library by students working with Caroline Sisneros.

Almost all business students routinely must access the so-called Edgar Database of Corporate information compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce and available as text (ASCII) files - but which typically consists of tabular information that must be ref ormatted.

Crocker librarian Sisneros worked with two separate teams to find ways to let students access Edgar data more quickly and eliminate time spent manicuring garbled files - and time spent by Crocker staff teaching students how to do so.

One of the solutions produced by the class was more than promising: the Crocker is planning to implement it this year. During the second, spring semester of CS 577, students are finishing the prototype, adding refinements and enhancements.

"I think it worked out quite well," Sisneros said. "I enjoyed working with students, who gave me a different perspective on my problem. I think it was nice for them, too, to examine a problem outside their usual realm. I'd have no hesitation getting invo lved with this project again."

Bedford adds one other advantage for library personnel in working with students: "The semester time-frame was wonderful. What slips in system development in the commercial world is delivery date: programmers can almost never deliver things by the date the y say. But these students had to finish to get grades - they were motivated."

Boehm singled out teaching assistant Alex Eygyed as a crucial element in the mix. "He was always there to bridge the gap, to answer questions, to do what had to be done. I think he did a spectacular job."

Students, too, found the process rewarding. Egor Elagin worked on accessing the cinema-television moving-image archive. "I learned that the computer sometimes is not the best answer. My conviction before the class was, digitize the whole world and dump in on the web - what's the problem? But I found, for example, why it doesn't make sense to digitize the movies they have at the archive and why they have to spend money on a huge storage with fancy climate control to keep the rolls of film instead of videot apes.

"I believe our project, once completely finished, will be a great help to raise the money for the archive, because it will be an advertisement on the web," Elagin said. "It was a marvelous idea to have us help the school and do something useful. It was le ss technical than most of the classes, at least for me, but I don't regret that I took it.

A "Win-Win" Solution

Of the 13 projects completed in the fall 1996 semester, six are continuing in intensive development in spring 1997. Boehm said he doesn't see any reason why the collaboration won't continue next year. "We've built up a strong relationship with the library people, with Denise Bedford and Julie Kwan, who have additional possible projects they've already mentioned. This was definitely a win-win."

Ellis Horowitz, the department chair, added his own perspective: "It is rare when a course has direct impact on a community outside of the students who attend it. I am pleased that one of our courses has managed to reach beyond the confines of the classro om and has actually had an impact on computer technology consumers. The learning experience for the students was tremendously enhanced by their interaction with the librarians."

Dean Campbell agrees: "These student projects carried out in Dr. Boehm's class are exciting and important - exciting because they bring the fresh perspective of a new generation to the challenges of managing human knowledge; important because our ability to succeed in this endeavor will be a key ingredient in our continued intellectual growth in the next century. Dr. Boehm and his students and the library faculty members who worked with them are to be commended for creating a learning environment where en gineering skills are immediately applied to real problems."