IST students earn first place in two HackPSU challenges

Team develops AI chat bot that delivers automated answers to advising FAQs

College of Information Sciences and Technology students (L to R) Austin Gongora, Nitya Govind, Rommel Silva (front), Mukesh Kandamaran and Marshall Malino earned first place in two 2018 HackPSU challenges for their product AIODA, a chat bot that automatically answers students' frequently asked questions for advisers. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – An idea formulated by a group of students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology won first place in two challenges at the 2018 HackPSU competition, held Oct. 6-7 on the University Park campus.

The competition, a 24-hour social coding hackathon, brought 85 teams of Penn State students together to conceptualize, develop and present a product. Teams competed for various prizes through a number of challenges that focused on using different types of software or solving real-world company problems.

College of IST seniors Nitya Govind (IST), Austin Gongora (data sciences), and Mukesh Kandamaran (IST), and juniors Marshall Malino (data sciences) and Rommel Silva (IST) won first place in Google’s challenge for the best use of a Google Cloud platform and in the Nittany AI Alliance’s AI challenge, which encourages teams to develop an AI-based solution to a real-world problem at Penn State.

The group’s product, AIODA, which stands for Artificial Intelligence on Demand Advising, features a chat bot that automatically answers students’ frequently asked questions for advisers.

“We’ve all had trouble scheduling advising appointments,” said Govind. “But this isn’t just from the students’ point of view.”

She explained that while students complain that it’s sometimes hard to meet with advisers, advisers also want to focus on solving bigger problems and not be inundated with minor questions.

“That’s how we got the idea to improve advising to create an on-demand chat bot,” Govind continued, “so that advisers can focus on higher-level issues and on what they’re actually here for, which is helping students. Other questions, like how many credits a student has left to graduate, can be easily automated.”

The team members said that while this was their first time participating in HackPSU, they have worked together before. They are currently in the process of launching a club at Penn State that focuses on emerging technologies. They said that the level of teamwork they’ve established, combined with the foundation of soft skills they’ve built in the College of IST, helped them in the HackPSU competition.

“We were able to gel together as a group because we had prior experience working in groups and understanding what went wrong,” said Govind. “And having that logical structure of how to start our presentation and how to end it perfectly were all things we learned in IST.”

College of IST students (L to R) Austin Gongora; Marshall Malino; Brad Zdenek, innovation strategist, Nittany AI Alliance; Mukesh Kandamaran; Nitya Govind and Rommel Silva are recognized as winners of the Nittany AI Alliance AI challenge during the 2018 HackPSU competition. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“I think another good thing about our teamwork and the product that we created in HackPSU is that it showed us that if you really work with a good group and if you have a diverse amount of resources, that if you really put your mind to something you can actually get things done,” added Gongora.

The team’s dynamic also caught the eye of several companies in attendance, including Google.

“Everybody on our team recognized each other’s opinions, and I think that worked really well,” said Govind. “Google recognized that, and they came to us and said ‘You guys are so collaborative with each other.’”

“Obviously, a healthy competition is really great, but we were more just focused on coming up with the best demo that we could and that we could present it to all the companies that were coming to look at our product,” added Gongora. “Most of the common themes they told us were how well we gel together and how well we work together as a team. Some of the companies actually commended us on that at the end of our presentations.”

But, what ultimately sealed their first place wins is the technology that drives their product.

“At the end of the day this was a coding competition,” said Silva. “All of us here have taken coding classes. Some of the classes I took really helped me to get into that coding mindset.”

“IST gave us a great framework to start working with,” added Malino. “My Penn State experience helped me figure out the methodology, how to import new data sets and how to work everything together. I think that’s what was able to get us through the competition.”

The team has the opportunity to further develop their product as they advance to the next round of individual competitions held by Google and the Nittany AI Alliance.

“We were grateful to win two challenges,” said Kandamaran. “Those challenges didn’t just end there at HackPSU. It gave us a reason to build on our project and work further with Nittany AI and Google.”

Kandamaran explained that both companies are providing his team with resources to further develop AIODA.

“[At HackPSU] we were able to explain to them that the 24-hour demo was very good, but also how much more we can expand on it and how many directions we could go using the resources that would be provided to us,” he added. “I think that really stood out.”

The team hopes envisions that AIODA could impact the advising experience for students and advisers not just at Penn State but at institutions across the country.

“Hopefully the future of the project, if I’m not dreaming too big, would be to implement AIODA on LionPATH,” said Silva, referring the University’s student information system. “Being able to integrate it into LionPATH would make the entire system internal, and we’d be able to facilitate the entire process.”

“I believe that this chat bot could be the framework for something amazing, not just at Penn State but at all universities out there,” Malino concluded. “Having an online adviser is very convenient, and if a college wanted to implement that to make students’ and advisers’ lives easier, then they definitely should. We’ve already started the groundwork for that.”

Last Updated October 26, 2018