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Students test computer program in Panama

Over Spring Break, three computer science students traveled to Panama to perform on-site testing of a computer program they helped develop.
The three students, seniors Mark Overholt, Will Herring and Ed Gillen, also blogged about their experiences on Bradley’s Web site.
“We were in Panama to work with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on a data entry system for rainforest data plots,” Herring said. “We were also there to go through the prototype we had developed with our contacts at [the institute] and see what changes needed to be made.”
Steve Dolins, a computer science professor, has advised the students on the project for several years and accompanied them on the trip.
Though Dolins sat in on all the meetings with the institute, he said it was the students who did all the work.
“The students ran the meetings – I just listened and offered advice when necessary,” he said.
Gillen said although he has been out of the country before, the trip to Panama was a unique experience because of the project the group was there to research.
“Probably one of the more interesting ventures was when Rick [the group’s contact at the Smithsonian] took us on a hike through the rain forest,” he said. “Our project is a data entry system for a database used by the Smithsonian to collect and log tree data from different plots around the world.”
Since one of these plots is located in Panama, the group received a tour of the test area.
“Rick gave a tour of their facilities as well as the plot so he could better explain the collection process and give us a better understanding of all the data and numbers we had been working with for a year,” Gillen said.
Overholt said he thinks his experience with the project will help him in the future.
“So much of business today is customer relations and being able to deliver exactly what the customer wants,” he said. “We experienced being able to meet our customers and actually working with them to tailor the project specifically to their needs.”
The students’ work will be utilized by the institute at plots such as the one in Panama all over the world.
“We got to have lunch with the leader of the [Center for Tropical Forest Science],” Overholt said. “He was a cool guy who was telling us all of the places where he has been and where [the center] is setting up forest plots that will be using our software – one of which was in Shanghai, China.”
Gillen said the group’s contact at the Smithsonian said there may be a position open for one of the three students at the Institute after graduation.
“Rick is very interested in hiring one of us on to help finish the project,” he said “There is still a lot of work that can be done and I am sure that they would favor having one of us work on it since we are familiar with most aspects of it.”
Though the students are not guaranteed a job because of this experience, Gillen said actually getting to work on a project like this was a great learning opportunity.
“You can only get so much out of reading a book and listening to lectures, but when you get a chance to work on a project like this that is actually going to be utilized by something as big as the Smithsonian, it’s a whole different experience,” he said.