They flipped the planning model, they flipped the teaching and learning model and they flipped the technology parameters on the program that took in its first students in 2016, built its enrollment to 149 and will issue its first bachelor’s degrees in May.
This fall, the pair will launch St. Cloud State’s Professional Master of Science degree, which will integrate students and industry even more than the undergraduate program.
The opportunity to create the first bachelor and professional master of science degrees in software engineering in the Minnesota State system drew the pair to St. Cloud State University from teaching positions in the University of Minnesota system at Crookston. Both have experience working in industry as well as academia.
Mekni and Al-Azzam began by identifying key employers and their needs in today’s workplace and marketplace.
What they found was an industry with a fast-growing demand for employees who have a combination of technical skills, hands-on experience and strong skills in collaboration, teamwork and communication.
Companies wanted software engineers with a passion for problem solving and who know how to collaborate with others to find a solution.
Mekni and Al-Azzam’s built that as a primary component of their program.
“Pretty much every course has a semester-long project,” said senior and Ham Lake native Lucas Reller, whose second Medtronic internship turned into a full-time job offer before graduation. “You can think of your own idea or the professors help you come up with one.”
Reller’s projects have included work on a daycare website, work with a University of Minnesota group’s effort to launch a startup company and an effort to improve St. Cloud State’s course planner.
Rick Fitzer, vice president for software development at Ascensus, an independent retirement and college savings services provider in Brainerd, joined Al-Azzam and Mekni’s advisory a panel.
“A thirst for learning is a necessity in IT,” Fitzer said. “People who have the skills and are passionate about it are already in high demand and that is only going to grow.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics agrees. It estimates the demand for software engineers would grow 24 percent from 2016 to 2024. Salaries grow along side of that.
Fitzer has a personal interest. His son is taking courses in the program and is inspired by the hands-on nature of the coursework.
“He is excited by what he is doing,” Fitzer said. “He was writing code in the first two weeks.”
A curriculum focused on both hard and soft skills, makes sense to Fitzer.
“In their group of electives, I see the components that help them understand what it’s like to work with a team,” he said.
Al-Azzam and Mekni created specializations in top computer-engineering fields — gaming and simulation, big data analytics, mobile development, system transformation and cyber security.
“These are the hot technological topics,” Mekni said.
Then the pair leveraged St. Cloud State’s leading edge classroom technology to offer all classes simultaneously online and as face-to-face courses.
By doing so, they attract students who want a campus setting and those who want to graduate with a software engineering degree without giving up an existing career.
The reason is simple. Demand.
Students with two-year computer science degrees from a community college easily find work, Mekni said. But a bachelor’s degree with a good resume of experience with problem solving and project work will move them up quickly in a company.
“So we try to flip that situation,” Mekni said. “If you have a job, you can take that job, and you can say, ‘I can still get my bachelor’s degree through an online degree termination program in St. Cloud’.”
The program’s semester-long projects required 450-hour internships and senior capstone project put students in the workplace and in the classroom. In some cases, an employed student may create projects that align with an existing employer’s interests.
Internships are monitored, supervised and documented to ensure they are topic related and not just busywork, Mekni said.
In the final year, students must complete a yearlong capstone project involving an industry partner.
Students identify the scope, goals and milestones of a project. They monitor the project’s execution and stay with it through the evaluation and the assessment of the project outcomes at the end of the second semester of the senior project.
“Basically they apply everything they learn to real world problems,” Al-Azzam said. “We are setting the bar high, but we are giving them the confidence that they are ready.”
Students’ work has involved augmented reality for nurses training at Mayo Clinic and development and testing of improved software for GeoComm, a St. Cloud-based developer of computerized mapping software for 911 communications systems. GeoComm’s product was part of security for the Twin Cities Marathon, the X Games and the Super Bowl.
Other projects involve working on elements of a University of Minnesota project for a medical device company and devising a virtual reality app for redecorating rooms that they hope will be attractive to interior designers or furniture.
St. Cloud State’s leading-edge technology and tools are key to producing graduates ready to work for companies on the forefront of trends and innovation.
Classrooms in the Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility building are equipped for live-casting and recording classes to make them available at a time that works best for the student.
ISELF’s laboratories, and more specifically its Visualization Lab, are perfect for student projects involving augmented reality, virtual reality and advanced graphic and visualization techniques and equipment. Also available is “the Cave” for immersive virtual reality games.
Grace Thompson is specializing in game design in her fourth year at St. Cloud State with plans to graduate in Spring 2019. She was a creative writing major until she realized she could explore her interest in computing that had been sidelined because her North St. Paul high school didn’t offer courses in it.
The hands-on approach of Mekni and Al-Azzam’s program is ideal for her learning style, so she appreciates the emphasis on projects and access to the latest tools.
“If I practice with something, I get a better understanding,” she said.
As an undergraduate, she wouldn’t find that at some other schools.
“The lab is actually our backyard for software engineering students to perform their projects especially from graphic user interface perspective,” Mekni said.
“If that equipment were at the University of Minnesota, you would need to be a PhD to manipulate that type of investment,” he said.
At St. Cloud State, any software engineering student who has an idea and would like to use The Cave can expect to find the expertise and staff to assist them and ensure the learning while maintaining the viability of the equipment.
“Any student can have his hands dirty with the technology related to that type of advanced features,” Mekni said. “You won’t find that in any other institutions.”
The close relationship between students and faculty is as important to the pair of professors as the relationship with industry partners.
Much of the bond comes from small class sizes, the program’s requirement for assessments on nearly every aspect of students projects and the professors’ interest in feedback on the program’s design.
“We’re going through the first time,” Reller said of the first graduating class. “The professors would ask us for feedback especially my sophomore and junior years? We had deal with what we were given but they wanted our feedback for future years.”
It also builds on the teamwork and collaboration principles cited so often by industry as valuable skills.
“We tell students that you won’t have this close of a relationship between faculty and students anywhere else,” Al-Azzam said. “I have students coming to me asking where do you think I should go after graduation. I will advise them based on their answers and what they are trying to do with their career.”
Mekni was observed doing the same with a student as a class wrapped up and students scattered.
But the bonding is not just academic.
Al-Azzam smiles when he recalls students who dropped by his office to ask the professors to join them at Taco Bell for the day’s 3-taco deal, and discussions with Thompson on ways to increase the number of females in the program.
Students even invited the professors to a rock-climbing event in the school’s gym.
“I tried it once,” Al-Azzam said.
He’s not committed to a second trip up the wall.
They hope the relationships will continue after graduation.
— Omar Al-Azzam, software engineering professor
“I want them to tell me what was the most important quest I helped them answer that helped them obtain their successful career and what I can do better,” Al-Azzam said. “I would love to see even criticism. After hosting them here for four years, getting their feedback is crucial, and I would love to see that.”
When will the teaching duo know whether their methods work?
“Seeing how industry is waiting for them gives me a great deal of satisfaction that we are on track,” Al-Azzam said.
The first class of 10 students will graduate in May. All of the graduates have job offers. Many had those a year ago when they finished their internships. Some students had multiple offers. Two or three, including Reller, became online students because their employer asked that they work full-time right away.
Reller has seen first-hand the value in aligning the learning to industry needs.
During his internship at Medtronic he had the occasion to talk with a professional higher in the department. “When I explained the courses, they said, ‘they’re finally getting it right,’ ” Reller said. “That really shined a light on that for me.”
His senior project is a cellphone application that acts like the Life Alert systems people use in their homes.
Beyond boosting his technology skills, Reller has seen improvement his communication and presentation skills.
“Every assignment has presentation associated with it. You have to go in front and explain why and how it’s the best solution and you defend it if people disagree,” he said. “You need to convey your thought processes so you don’t come across as defensive. I’ve been getting rid of those tendencies.”
While he admits to “still being pretty introverted,” he said he doesn’t get nervous anymore.
“It definitely made me more sociable,” he said.
Long-term, the software engineering program’s success will be measured by the students who successfully move higher in the industry’s hierarchy, Al-Azzam said.
“We have bright students, and I’m expecting bright career for them,” he said. “If I see some of my students starting their own startup companies, or if I see some of my students are moving to top-notch companies like Google and Amazon, this would be the indicator that our students are successful.”
The class statistics impress Mekni as well.
“We don’t want our students to compromise. We don’t want our students to pass on opportunities,” he said.
— Mehdi Mekni, software engineering professor
That will become even more important as the department launches its professional science master this fall.
The Professional Science Master is aimed specifically at professionals, Al-Azzam said.
“We expect that all of our students will be working in the software engineering field and that they want to improve themselves and help their company. “
Candidates should be people who can transform a business opportunity or an idea from a project into a tangible product or service.
“These are going to be the managers, the leaders that promote the business,” Mekni said. “The person should be able to sit down with the customer and understand the need, transform that into a project, sign a contract, build a team, acquire technology, develop the product, reveal the project.”
Because the Twin Cities offers a larger base of potential candidates for the Professional Master’s, it is based on the Plymouth campus. It will offer two tracks.
One is a capstone portfolio on an independent project that demonstrates management, leadership, software development concepts and theories. The other is an internship in which a student will apply all the concepts to an operation and to daily activities in the workplace.
Even at companies or agencies that demand confidentiality, a student/employee can work on a project that is close to what the company is working on.
Both are experiential and hands-on learning. No theory, no research, no paper, no thesis, Mekni said.
A student’s dream.