Happy Valley Helper aims to inform campus and community

IST students develop smart assistant functionality to compile information for Penn State students, local residents and visitors

Steven Weber, a senior in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and a team of IST students developed smart assistant functionality that makes Penn State and community information available to users on Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Credit: Jessica Hallman / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As a Penn State student living off campus, Steven Weber wanted to have a more efficient routine while waiting for the bus to arrive. He thought, wouldn’t it be great if he could ask his smart assistant when the next bus would pull up to his stop?

Weber, a senior studying information sciences and technology, got the chance to bring that vision to reality, thanks to a class assignment in an information sciences and technology course last fall.

“The project I pitched was to develop both a Google Home and Amazon Alexa skill that would help provide information to Penn State students and State College residents,” said Weber. “The goal was to allow users to ask their smart assistants about events around town, bus locations and routes, academic calendar information and more.”

Weber was one of several students who pitched their ideas in the course, which mirrored a simulated startup environment. A panel of judges then selected three projects to receive hypothetical funding. Weber was able to use this funding to “hire” eight of his classmates as developers for the project. Fellow team members include IST students Alex Woodruff, Thomas Shoff, Tianchen "Tim" Zhang, Russell Brant-Gargan, Ryan O'Neill, Konnor Sidler, Nikolas Lecce and Bryce Williams.

“It was up to me to set up a hiring process, negotiate salaries and assign roles,” he said.

Thus, Happy Valley Helper was born. While the initial assignment was to develop a programming project for the class by the end of the semester, Weber’s team took their idea a step further. The students launched their platform on Google Home and Amazon Alexa in early December. The platform provides students on campus and local community members the ability to learn information about Penn State and State College events and activities by simply asking their smart devices.

Currently, the skill is able to provide details about upcoming Penn State sporting events, real-time CATA bus schedules, and information from any of Penn State’s academic calendars. The team hopes to ultimately include additional community happenings, such as First Friday in State College and other local events.

“The whole point of Happy Valley Helper is that it’s not just for Penn State, but also for people who visit the area that are interested in events downtown or on campus,” said Alex Woodruff, a senior studying information sciences and technology, who served as the Google implementation lead developer.

The freedom to build a usable tool and develop skills for the future

In the course, students have opportunities to practice technical skills acquired in previous software and application development courses. David Reitter, associate professor of IST and the course’s instructor, however, also worked to incorporate opportunities for students to learn valuable soft skills.

“It’s important to me that students learn to be productive in realistic environments,” said Reitter. “So I’m inventing class assignments that are realistic and emphasize everybody’s individual strengths and contributions. They’re playful competitions. Yet, in the end, results count.”

The team members say that the project enhanced their collaboration, negotiation and communication skills, in addition to gaining the hands-on technical experience that strengthened their base of knowledge.

“Just working on that large of a team and getting a project to production is a really valuable skill that I don’t think a lot of classes offer,” said Ryan O’Neill, a junior studying information sciences and technology, who served as the Alexa implementation lead developer. “A lot of times you’ll have a project that you submit to a professor, but pushing something to production is a lot different.”

Weber said that as the team’s leader, he gained experience that will ultimately help him in his career, as he aspires to one day be a project manager.

“This class helped point me in the right direction,” he said. “After the initial pitches, it was entirely up to us to schedule, to program everything, to meet outside of class, to get it produced, to figure everything out on out our own.”

“[It] is a big jump from most classes where they’re requiring step-by-step milestones,” he concluded. “Mostly everyone in the class benefited from that freedom.”

How to access Happy Valley Helper on your smart assistant

Amazon Alexa: Open the Alexa app, navigate to ‘Skills & Games,' and search for ‘Happy Valley Helper’ or simply say, “Alexa, install Happy Valley Helper”.

Google Assistant: Happy Valley Helper is already deployed on the Google Assistant platform. All users have to do is say, “Hey Google, talk to Happy Valley Helper”.

Once either smart assistant has been accessed, there will be a response and in some cases a question. If applicable, answer the question and then begin asking questions about busses, sports events, academic calendar dates, or Bryce Jordan Center events.

Questions such as, “Hey Google, when is the next blue loop?”, or, “Alexa, when is the next men’s basketball game?”, and even, “Hey Google, when is Spring Break?” can all be answered. Try it out for yourself!

Any bugs that are found can be reported to Please be sure to specify which assistant was used.

This story is informational in nature and should not be considered an endorsement of any product or application.

Last Updated January 16, 2019