May 13, 2013

Cornell NYC Tech’s Beta Class Shows Off Work to Public

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Technology allowing children to create their own interactive stories; software creating office hours for massive open online classes; browser extensions that customize the ads users see — these were some of the five projects presented by Cornell NYC Tech’s beta class at the school’s first open studio Friday.

The projects, which the beta class’ seven students worked on throughout the spring, included both creating pitches for potential startups and partnering with existing companies to work on programs.

Throughout the semester, Alex Kopp grad and Andrew Li grad worked with industry giant Google’s Crisis Response team.

The team assesses and responds to disasters by providing emergency information, tools to locate people and maps marking useful checkpoints, the students said at the open studio.

Kopp and Li sought to see if they could use machine learning to predict the severity of an upcoming storm based on information published in public alerts. Throughout the process, the access Google gave them to the company’s cloud computing platform was invaluable, according to Kopp.

Other students brainstormed and refined ideas for new startups. Erich Graham grad said his pitch for a startup — dubbed “Massive Open Online Office Hours” — aims to improve the low completion rates of MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

“If it doesn’t make any sense — you’re scratching your head — it’s the beta class,” Graham said. “Next semester, I don’t get to use that excuse, so I’m going to milk that today.”

The startup, experimental nature of Cornell Tech’s curriculum was also made evident in Alfred Nelson grad and David Jiang’s grad account of how they developed an interactive children’s story generator.

Nelson and Jiang, who were paired with Tapestry — a startup that allows users to create interactive stories that users can “tap” through on an iPhone — were asked by the company to come up with their own ideas for a “tappable” story.

“We realized after walking out the door of the meeting that our ideas were no good,” Nelson said. “We realized that our illustrations sucked, our skills weren’t as great as a talented designer and we’re not good at doing stories from start to finish that people actually wanted to read.”

Nelson said the initial setback eventually led him and Jiang to their final idea: creating a story generator for children, who he said represented an ideal target audience for their product.

Throughout the semester, Nelson said, the two learned that figuring out what product they aimed to produce and navigating the nature of their collaboration with Tapestry called for trial and error, much like other projects in entrepreneurship.

Cornell Tech’s open studio day gave a rare glimpse of the kinks that can emerge when launching a new academic program. Still in its early stages, the partnership between students and companies to work on projects — a key aspect of the Cornell Tech program in New York City — has called for some minor adjustments as it unfolded, said Cathy Dove, vice president for Cornell Tech.

“Given that this was a beta class, we were in touch with the students quite a bit to get their feedback,” Dove said. “They were excellent in pointing out what was working and what needed to be tweaked. The faculty regularly coordinated among themselves too. It turned out there were no major issues, but based on feedback, we made some minor adjustments as we went along.”

Despite the semester being “challenging” for the beta class, Dove said that the students were “excellent and did very well.”

The tech campus’ first semester also allowed administrators and professors to learn and adapt from the experience, Prof. Deborah Estrin, computer science, said.

Drawing a parallel between Cornell Tech’s beta class and the release of beta versions of a product, Estrin said that, “traditionally, you don’t release a product or service until it has been thoroughly tested, until you’ve gotten rid of all the bugs. But the release of a beta project lets you get a lot more people to help you find the bugs, and you do earlier learning.”

Similarly, Estrin said, part of being the beta class of the tech campus requires “working out some of it as it goes along.”

“It’s a fundamentally important part of how information technology evolves — we push it out there and see what the users make of it, and we improve it by measuring what the users do,” Estrin said.

Original Author: Emma Court