This semester, the students in Susan Mitchell’s Software Design and Development course were hand-picked. After applying and being interviewed, ten students were chosen based on their “go-getter” attitude.

Why the selectivity? Susan ’s CMSC 345 course this semester is a trial course that’s being taught in collaboration with Next Century Corporation, a Maryland-based technology company. Though Mitchell has been teaching CMSC 345 for ten years, this is a first.

Designed around the completion of one software-design project, the course provides students with a “customer” (normally a faculty member) who gives them specific guidelines for the “product” they need to complete. In years prior, students were given the task of developing a program that plans a student’s UMBC course career. Mitchell explains that the product for this semester will be especially real-world focused.

In fact, essentially everything about the course is meant to simulate working in the software industry. A writing intensive course, students are asked to write formal documents, and at the end of the semester, they must give a formal presentation.
Mitchell explains that the course isn’t so much about coding as it is about understanding the “software development lifecycle.” It’s the process that’s important, she explains, from conception to carry through. Understanding what the customer wants and then turning out a product that fits those guidelines is the goal.

Chris Stepnitz, a software engineer at Next Century, is the “customer” of this semester’s pilot course. Stepnitz, who graduated from UMBC in 2006 with a degree in Computer Science, took the very same course with Mitchell years ago. “We wrote an accounting system,” remembers Stepnitz, who admits she was considering changing majors before taking the course. She credits it with opening her eyes to the reality of a career in software development and the rewarding experience of programming with a team.

So, when Stepnitz heard that Next Century, who has been reaching out to the community through local colleges, was about to reach out to her alma matter, she jumped at the chance to participate. “I’m very excited,” says Stepnitz. “For the students, I really want to make sure that they both enjoy [the class] and get the taste of what it’s like to really be in the development world.”

The arrangement is meant to be mutually beneficial. Students in the course learn how to succeed in an industry setting, while Next Century builds bonds with universities that may provide them with future staff members (In fact, roughly 20% of their staff are UMBC alumni). If all goes well, Mitchell hopes to collaborate again and maybe even branch out to other local businesses.