Experiential learning on campus

At 4 years old, Kate Boylan ’04—Wheaton’s digital initiatives librarian—received a life-altering diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes.

Since then, she has increasingly relied on technological innovations to help manage her blood sugar level. She currently uses an insulin pump, and for the past three years has worn a continuous glucose monitoring system that provides real-time glucose data, enabling her to manage her condition every hour of every day.

Boylan’s experience inspired the creation of a new course, “Start-up v1.0–Medical Devices, Mobile Apps and Machine Learning.” In this course, 20 students—primarily seniors and computer science majors—function like a startup company with the goal of developing an app to help patients with diabetes.

When Boylan offered to provide months of glucose data to Computer Science Professor Mark LeBlanc, he knew he had the basis for an exciting class that blended computer science and personalized health. (Boylan also recruited two others from her Diabetes Online Community group to give the class even more data).

Unlike a traditional class, LeBlanc’s course simulates the real-world environment of a business.

“We expect students, when they graduate, to be totally ready for the workplace. This is a time to practice for the real world,” LeBlanc said.

During the course, students are challenged to learn new skills, like how to program an iPhone using Apple’s new programming language, Swift.

“This is a valuable part of the experience. I don’t know Swift, so the students are seeing that their ‘boss’ doesn’t have all the answers. I’m not going to stand up at the whiteboard and say, ‘this is how to do it,'” LeBlanc said.

Also, the project requires students to delve into other programming languages, including R (a statistical language that helps analyze and visualize data) and SQL (a language for querying databases), as well as user interface development.

In addition, the students are gaining experience in product design and marketing. In fact, they came up with a name for their company, GluGo, along with a logo to brand their product.

The development of the app involves many moving parts. To help manage the tasks, the students divided themselves into smaller groups.

Saba Mundlay ’17, a political science major and computer science minor, is part of the group building the database for storing the glucose information of Boylan and the other patients. “We are working with Flask, a framework to set up a path between our database and any program that can make an HTTP request, like a website or a phone. It allows users to access the database remotely so it doesn’t have to be downloaded on their individual computers.”

Liam Grace-Flood ’17, a double major in art and math (who is a dual-degree engineering student at Dartmouth College), is providing expertise on design and product conceptualization. “I also have extensive statistical experience, so I’ve been supporting other students’ statistical work,” he said.

Both students enjoy the opportunity to engage in experiential learning in a classroom environment.

“I love learning alongside, rather than only from, my professors,” Grace-Flood said.

He noted that startups typically benefit from people skilled in a variety of disciplines, and normally they would not be staffed with only computer science experts. “That being said, this is a huge step in the right direction in promoting experiential and collaborative learning in Wheaton’s curriculum,” he said.

The class’s success, as in any business, relies on the ability of the “workers” to collaborate well, Mundlay said.

“At the end of the day, you’re talking about balancing the goals, opinions, schedules and skills of 20 students. It brings insight into what it might be like working at a tech startup,” she said.

LeBlanc said students make mistakes and fail at times during this course—an experience common in the private sector. “Even if it goes badly, this is a really safe place for it to go badly. It’s not so safe later,” he said.

Boylan, who has attended several classes, said she hopes the students learn the value of data sharing as well as the importance of technology in helping patients like her. In partnership with the class, she plans to engage in collaborative scholarship and showcase the students’ work on the college’s digital platforms.

“I’m hoping innovations in technology will result in serious advances,” she said. “Just having the students more aware, and recognizing how technology influences innovation and change, that is what entrepreneurship is all about.”