People of SU / Science / Technology and Health

Solving Real-World Problems One Project at a Time

Written by Andrew Binion and Tina Potterf

May 18, 2023

a graphic and photo featuring Project Center team Camp Korey
The Fisher Lodge/Camp Korey team (l-r): Bianca Casem, ’15, (Degenkolb Engineers), Aaron Aguon-Africa, Danny O'Brien, Lucas Lazaga, Huynh Huynh and Clare Terpstra (Degenkolb Engineers).

This year’s Projects Day will feature engineering, computer science and data science students collaborating on projects in partnership with some of the region's most impactful companies and organizations.

Master of Data Science student Fidan Aydamirova, ’23, is working on real-world problem solving, with real-world outcomes for a globally known company. It’s experiential learning in action.  

Adyamirova is part of a team of students tasked with building a machine learning model for Costco Wholesale that aims to predict the likelihood a customer renews their membership. The students are working closely with Costco’s marketing team to identify members who are at risk of not renewing and are exploring ways to be more targeted in their marketing outreach to those customers. 

“The biggest advantage of working with a company is that you need to think from a business perspective as well,” Adyamirova says. “Sometimes the best solution might not be the solution that the company would want to proceed with as you need to consider the budget and types of marketing campaigns that are going to be used.”

For Adaymirova and her teammates Pooja Bhatia, Swathi Kolar Ravikumar and Nitharsan Sivakanthan, this work is being completed as one of the projects coordinated by the College of Science and Engineering Project Center, connecting current engineering, computer science and data science students with sponsoring businesses and nonprofits. While there are major sponsors such as Costco and Amazon, there are also startups and more neighborhood-focused organizations who are working with SU this year. In total, there are 47 projects—featuring 41 sponsors—which includes the highest number of small businesses and startups ever, says Rachael Brown, director of the Project Center.

The results of this work, from prototypes to posters and everything in between, will be on display at Projects Day, Friday, June 2, with presentations both in-person in Sullivan Hall and via Zoom.

“Projects Day 2023 is very special because this is our first year featuring students from our Master of Data Science program,” Brown says, “and we are excited to celebrate all they have achieved this year.”

These capstone projects span a full academic year, kicking off in fall with the students learning about their sponsor and scope of the project. Then in winter and continuing throughout spring quarter the main work is happening. During this period students build on their technical skills and interpersonal awareness as they learn how to best communicate and collaborate in a team setting.  

“It’s great practice for their upcoming careers since communication and collaboration are highly sought after skills that only come to fruition with practice,” says Assistant Professor of Computer Science Nathaniel Kremer-Herman, PhD, faculty advisor to the student team working with Ellebit. 

“We are grateful to the industry sponsors and to our faculty advisers who mentor the students throughout the year and to our staff who provide essential support to the student teams in the completion of their projects,” says College of Science and Engineering Dean Amit Shukla, PhD. “Together, we are educating a generation of leaders in STEM who are ready to solve grand challenges with innovation and make an impact throughout the Puget Sound region and beyond.”

In this first in a two-part series, we focus on projects with Costco, Ellebit and Camp Korey.

Project: Predicting New Member Behaviors 
Sponsor: Costco Wholesale
Student team: Fidan Aydamirova, Pooja Bhatia, Swathi Kolar Ravikumar and Nitharsan Sivakanthan
Faculty advisor: Brian Fischer, PhD  

Background: With warehouses in 14 countries, Costco offers one of the most extensive membership-based shopping experiences. The primary focus of Costco’s marketing team is to acquire and renew memberships. Seattle University’s team was tasked with identifying first-year members who are unlikely to renew their membership. Leveraging data analysis and statistical methods, the team will provide Costco with features that help determine whether a member is likely to renew or not. These features are integrated into machine-learning models. By identifying members who are at risk of not renewing their membership, the marketing team can target them with selective advertising to retain their business and ensure Costco’s continued success. Additionally, these features may also be used in a customer acquisition model.

So how, individually and as part of a team, did Aydamirova go about tackling the project posed by Costco? 

“The initial step was to try predictive modeling from different perspectives and weekly gather our findings and identify further steps. In addition, we decided on each role in the project such as to create dashboards, communicate with liaisons, prepare class assignments and create weekly slides for Costco meetings,” Aydamirova explains. “My individual contribution was mostly slicing and dicing data, training different models and comparing results and trade-offs of each solution.”

Photo of students from the Project Center's Costco project.
Costco student team members Fidan Aydamirova, Pooja Bhatia, Swathi Kolar Ravikumar and Nitharsan Sivakanthan.

As the faculty advisor for the group, Professor of Mathematics Brian Fischer, PhD, views his role as something of a project manager and a resource for the students. He sees a multitude of benefits of this type of hands-on learning.  

“The students benefit from this type of project in many ways. They get to be involved in the full cycle of a data science project with the possibility to create something of great value to the partner,” Dr. Fischer says. “They are able to integrate the data science skills learned in many classes and are required to make decisions about how to solve complex problems throughout the project. Significantly, they gain experience communicating with multiple stakeholders about their work and its impact for Costco.”

Beyond the gratification of collaborating to create a workable solution for a major organization—and the value-add for a resume and future job interviews—it’s rewarding for students like Aydamirova to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to something tangible in the real world and with positive outcomes.

“And we learned to manage the whole project ourselves, which made us more independent,” Aydamirova says.

Project: Ellebit All-in-One Private Dining and Catering Booking Platform 
Sponsor: Ellebit 
Student team: Mari Kwee, Casey Nguyen, Clayton Nguyen and Richard Ty 
Faculty advisor: Nathaniel Kremer-Herman, PhD  

Background: In 2022, Kathleen Pow and Anna Del Toro created Ellebit to simplify booking private dining experiences. The platform automates venue and menu selection, enhancing efficiency for both restaurants and customers. This allows restaurant managers to focus on guest experience and patrons to easily book their private dining. The student team was tasked with developing a web app with menu editing, booking notifications and sales-tracking for restaurant managers. Patrons can search venues, select menu items and finalize reservation details. After completing the requirements, the team will publish the web platform and provide the code and documentation to sponsors to ultimately enhance the accessibility of interactions by leveraging the website and Ellebit’s services.

“Our goal is to revolutionize the private dining booking process through our comprehensive booking platform that minimizes the need for back-and-forth communication,” says co-founder Pow. “With that in mind, we tasked the students to create a web app to address our target customer needs.”

For the startup, which is working with the Project Center and SU students for the first time, the experience has been especially rewarding, particularly as a new company with limited resources.

“Developing our prototype into a web app allowed us to showcase features and begin testing with our restaurant partners, which has been crucial,” Pow says. “While we were able to mockup our product on a website, along with different tools, we weren’t able to create the database and structure that linked all the features together. We are so grateful to have the support of Seattle University, the student team and faculty advisor Dr. Nathan Kramer-Herman to help guide the process.

“… We could not have asked for a better team. It is truly fulfilling to witness the growth of students, seeing them share their knowledge and experience in software development and observe their growing confidence in presenting their ideas and presentation skills in meetings.”

a photo featuring Project Center team with Ellebit
The Ellebit student team of Mari Kwee, Casey Nguyen, Clayton Nguyen and Richard Ty along with Ellebit co-founders Kathleen Pow and Anna Del Toro and faculty advisor Nathaniel Kremer-Herman, PhD.

For team member Richard Ty, ’23, a computer science major, the most enjoyable part of this experience has been the collaboration among the team—students and Ellebit alike—and the process that goes into building a new platform.

“Witnessing our progress week after week, and refining it with each iteration, was incredibly satisfying,” says Ty. “When I reflect on how the platform looked when we initially began versus its current state, it fills me with a sense of pride to have contributed to such a significant transformation.”

Part of doing this work is trial and error, being able to troubleshoot when things don’t always go as planned, something Ty learned firsthand.

“Starting a company from scratch and collaborating with a non-tech focused organization presented some initial challenges. We had to ensure that we conveyed information clearly and concisely, and explain technical terminology in a way that could be understood by everyone involved,” he says. “Despite this, our sponsors have been incredibly supportive, offering guidance and exhibiting patience toward our team. They have been invested in our professional development and consistently seek opportunities to help us improve.”

As the faculty advisor, Dr. Kremer-Herman really serves to support the students in shepherding the project and being there to answer questions and counsel them about design and how to implement their work. “The cool thing is I mostly ask questions to understand their thought processes rather than dictating to them what the project should look like at the end,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to watch them build something from nothing, together.”

Another outcome of the work of the Project Center is that many of the students are able to use what they learn in the classroom, apply it to these real-world challenges and be inspired to take what they gain from their engagement with sponsors into their future careers in the industry or wherever their professional path takes them. 

“This experience has been instrumental in improving my understanding of team dynamics and has helped me to work more effectively with others. I have learned to recognize the areas in which my team members excel, as well as the areas in which they may struggle,” says Ty. “Leveraging this knowledge has allowed me to foster an environment in which everyone can contribute their strengths to the fullest extent. This newfound skill will undoubtedly benefit me as I progress in my career.”­

Mari Kwee,’ 23, says this project and the experience as a whole aligns with her personal mission to do meaningful work that makes a difference and helps others.

“It has been such an honor to work on this project with a fabulous team and amazing sponsors. Being the first team to tackle this project gave us a lot of flexibility to make choices regarding the technology and design, but I also felt pressure to make the right choices,” says the computer science major who is minoring in data science. “As we are nearing the end of the project, it has been amazing to see the components all come together. I am very proud of what our team has accomplished so far and I am excited to showcase our work at Projects Day.”

Project: Fisher Lodge Renovations
Sponsor: Camp Korey/Degenkolb Engineers 
Student team: Aaron Aguon-Africa, Huynh Huynh, Lucas Lazaga and Danny O’Brien
Faculty advisor: Güven Kiymaz, PhD

Background: Camp Korey’s Fisher Lodge in Mount Vernon, Wash., provides summer camp for children with life-altering medical conditions. The student team was tasked with performing a seismic evaluation and developing retrofit design concepts for the building to bring it up to current standards and improve its functionality. They followed ASCE 41-17 guidelines and proposed structural upgrades, as well as designs for a wheelchair lift system and a kitchen. The team will submit a final report with calculations, design drawings and a summary of their approach and results to Degenkolb Engineers and Camp Korey.

What started as a project to evaluate the 55-year-old Fisher Lodge at Camp Korey took a turn when the project expanded beyond just seismic retrofitting.

The project, co-sponsored by Degenkolb Engineers and Camp Korey, brought together current and former SU students, including one of the professional engineers on the project—a 2015 engineering graduate who participated in the Project Center program—and the CEO and Executive Director of Camp Korey, who graduated in 1997.

Camp Korey was founded in 2005 by Tim Rose and was supported by actor/philanthropist Paul Newman to honor Tim’s late son, Korey Rose. Since its founding, more than 40,000 young campers and families have attended the camp for free, helping campers build confidence, independence and friends. The camp serves a wide range of life-altering medical conditions such as skeletal dysplasia, sickle cell disease, craniofacial disorders, organ transplants and other acute and chronic medical conditions.

Fisher Lodge is non-compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. In addition to the seismic retrofit analysis and recommendations, the student team was tasked with design accessibility alternatives, including a lift to allow travel between the main entry and the great room and modifying the second-story restrooms, says team member Aaron Aguon-Africa, ’23, a civil engineering major.

“Currently, there is only a kitchenette in a classroom/multipurpose space, but Camp Korey is looking to convert a few storage spaces into a full kitchen and dining space,” says Aguon-Africa.

Working with the sponsors, Degenkolb engineers Clare Terpstra and Bianca Casem, ‘15, was a very rewarding experience, says team member Lucas Lazaga, ’23, a civil engineering major.

“It is all a matter of safety and serviceability,” Lazaga says of the proposed upgrades.

The lodge seismic retrofit analysis and renovations is the second Project Center project Camp Korey is sponsoring this year, but CEO and Executive Director Jay Henningsen, ’97, says they are complementary.

The goal of the other project, a donor database analysis, is to improve data quality and provide insights to help steward donors. The students on the database team, working with Camp Korey Data Systems Manager Kathleen Banks, are Liya LaPierre, Radhika Magaji, Aishwarya Saibewar and Karthika Selvaraj, with faculty advisor Assistant Professor Ariana Mendible, PhD.

“The beautiful part of these projects is that we now have structural plans, detailed drawings and better estimates for the retrofit that we can share with potential funders to bring the project to life,” Henningsen says, noting that the camp can only provide free experience to youth and their families through donations. “It’s all about finding a way to ‘yes’ and a win-win for everybody.”

The lodge’s irregular shape and size, and that it was constructed from wood and built by architecture students in 1968, made the project unique, says Lazaga.

What was not especially unique was that once students and professionals from Degenkolb Engineers began, the effort morphed. It started as a relatively standard structural engineering project evaluating engineering requirements to protect the structure from earthquakes and forceful winds. Then it turned into a broader ADA accessibility and design project that included other construction industry professionals.

“I think this project allowed us to model construction projects in the real world, as no schedule is ever set in stone as a multitude of deviations could come our way,” says Lazaga.

Henningsen says after meeting with students, he explained the broader project and was excited that it would not only help the students develop workplace engineering skills, the project would also stretch their design skills and help them make connections for future internship and employment opportunities.

Acting as sort of a connector between all the parties was Casem, who as an SU engineering senior in 2015 worked on a Project Center project sponsored by Seattle City Light. She knows firsthand the value that the projects have in helping students tie together what they learn in the classroom and jumped at the chance to involve Degenkolb Engineers with SU and Camp Korey.

In addition to the seismic retrofit assessment, one of the most valuable lessons imparted on the students, Casem says, was assurances that they did not need to know everything at the outset, that starting a career in engineering means becoming a lifelong learner. Beyond that, putting structural engineering students in contact with architects and learning firsthand how cross-discipline collaboration works on a project gave them a head start.

“I didn’t really understand how all those relationships worked until I was in the professional world,” Casem says. “That’s why I think this project in particular is really cool.”

By the Numbers

Since 1987 there have been...

  • 904 projects
  • 3,781 students 

This year...

  • 1st year to have projects based in the metaverse
  • Two projects came out of the Harriet Stephenson Business Plan Competition (Ellebit & Votegrity)

Learn more about the Project Center and Projects Day