Once a week, Washington Post sports editor Mark Selig and four sports writers put together rankings for local high school teams. They scrutinize game scores, team records and other statistics. They discuss standout students and the strategy of coaches. And they toss in their personal observations about where teams are headed and why.
This fall they’ve added an additional tool to the mix. It’s a sports-ranking software system designed by students at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).
“You can use it for any sport, but we’re doing a pilot this fall with football because that’s our most high-profile high school sport,” Selig said. “The results are interesting not just for the rankings but in coming up with story ideas. For example, we may be missing some team that is turning up in a high position when we use the software.”
The program was designed by two groups of students—11 in total—in the Software Engineering Project capstone course taught by Michael Brown, Ph.D., who is chair of the Department of Software Engineering Information and Technology Systems in UMGC’s Graduate School.
Selig said the idea for the program grew out of an email exchange he had with Brown, followed by an in-person conversation over coffee. Brown’s daughter played field hockey, and the UMGC professor was curious about how the Washington Post determined rankings.
“He questioned some of our rankings, in a nice way, and suggested that there may be a more numerical way to do this,” Selig said.
The sports editor said high school games are the lifeblood of newspaper sports sections across the country, but tracking teams’ performances within divisions, and even collecting the tsunami of game scores every Friday night, is a challenge. Even more, some area private schools have deep-pocket athletic programs that recruit students nationally while public schools may have powerful players but their sports programs are not supported. Schools that play one another are not always well-matched.
“This is a distinctive metropolitan area. I don’t think other cities would have a situation as complex as ours,” Brown said. “We have teams in the District of Columbia. We have teams in Maryland, and we have teams in Virginia. We have private schools in separate leagues, and they may never play each other. Some teams are allowed to recruit and some teams are not.”
Brown admits that when he hears about a problem, he immediately starts to think about ways software systems could solve it. In the case of high school sports rankings, he said his students’ project carried an additional advantage.
“It can be applied to any sport. And you don’t have to limit the rankings to the Top 10. You can do it for the Top 100 if you want,” Brown said. “You’d have high school kids who could check out where their team is ranked regardless of whether it is No. 1.”
Ariel Watkins was one of the students assigned to the software project. She said it was a thrill to know the hard work from the capstone course had an application in the real world. She also said it helped her land her current job as a software engineer at GEICO.
“This project made my career. I am 100%, without a doubt, sure that this class helped me get the job,” said Watkins, who graduated in May with a Master of Science in internet technology and a specialization in software engineering.
“I hadn’t completed my degree yet when I interviewed for the job, even though there was an IT degree requirement. My undergraduate degree was in Chinese,” she said. “When I interviewed for the job, the [Washington Post] project wasn’t finished yet. I told the interviewers about it and, literally, an hour after I left the interview they wanted to make me an offer.”
In the capstone course, Brown typically lines up multiple projects with real clients he finds through alumni or other connections. He lists the projects and asks students in the class to indicate their level of interest in each. He uses their answers to help build the work teams.
“We put students in groups and we get organizations, sometimes internal but normally external, that need software,” Brown explained. “Our students design and build software and they get good experience for their resume. Meanwhile, our outside organizations get free software, and they agree to do some testing.”
UMGC’s capstone project reputation has grown over the years and it is currently doing work for such high-profile organizations as NASA. When Watkins heard about the Washington Post project, she was anxious to be on the team.
“This project was priority No. 1 for me,” she said. “In high school, I played tennis, so the sports element really stood out for me. I also went to a high school focused on science and technology, so that’s where I became interested in programming and IT.”
Watkins and the five other students on her team never met in person. All their interactions were online, in weekly calls or via shared emails. “Even though there was no face-to-face contact, we got as close as you can in a semester,” she said.
For Watkins, the joy came in seeing the project take shape.
“Any project, especially when you’re designing a system or an application, starts with words on paper,” she said. “You have to take those words and make them into the system that they describe.”
Watkins added that for this project a certain style format had to be used to get the data from the Washington Post. “And we had a lot of trouble trying to figure out how to make that come together. I spent a ton of hours on the computer trying to figure this out. But once we got it working, it was such a happy relief.”
The project was set up in two phases. When Watkins’ course ended, the baton was passed to the next semester of students, which included Justin Helton, to continue the work. Like Watkins, Helton described the project as “heavy coding.” Many of the students were working with coding they had never used before, and that made the project an even bigger challenge.
Helton was a mid-career mining engineer with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) when he decided that it would be helpful for his job to learn coding.
“I started going to the community college, but my adviser told me to go online and get my master’s degree,” Helton said. He enrolled in the M.S. program in IT at UMGC. He subsequently was hired by Martin Marietta as a project manager.
“Students in the course a semester earlier had already begun work on the foundation of the program, so it was interesting to take a project over from people we’d never met and never talked to,” he said.
Helton and the four others on his team pushed forward on the capstone project from different time zones, arranging WebX and screen-sharing meetings.
“The group we had was really good about it. We met three or four times a week even though we were all busy—everyone had jobs,” he explained. When they started the project, Helton was living in Utah while the rest of the students on his team were on the East Coast.
“I’ve worked on other group projects but they were never as involved as this one,” he added.
In between meetings, he said members of the team coded—and tested—separate components of the software system. “If it didn’t test properly, we’d have a flurry of emails back and forth,” he said. “Then right near the end, we had a large bug in the software that we had to find—and we did.”
Although the program is up and running at the Washington Post, Brown said there was one feature the students did not have time to add to the program. Additional fine tuning may be addressed by another round of students in a future capstone course once the Washington Post finishes testing the program.