Name of the participant

Dr David Cutting.

Senior Lecturer and Director of Education for Undergraduate Computer Science with a strong background in providing consultancy support and working with voluntary sector organisations in my working life before coming in to the university.

Name of the module and discipline, level and  year of study and any useful background info

BSc module Software Engineering Projects 

Final year undergraduate Computer Science students work in teams to solve problems that are put forward by external client organisations, typically industry. It is worth the equivalent of 20 ECTS.

 This module is set up to run team projects involving the development and construction of an Information Technology solution with each team member responsible for the development and construction of a sub-section of the completed solution.  Promotion and demonstration of the completed solutions to judges, peers and representatives of the computing profession. A project requires the construction of a software system (specification, user interface design, system design, realization of system design and associated testing).

 Learning outcomes include development of a range of technical and interpersonal skills. These include demonstrating IT enterprise, system and architectural design, research into application areas and independent learning, an ability to identify and assess the societal, commercial and economic advantages/disadvantages of any proposed application, its goals and requirements; an ability to elicit and react to feedback from users and other experts in order to gauge the degree to which the project has delivered, or is likely to deliver in the longer term, the societal, commercial and economic benefits that were anticipated. project management skills.

 Assessment is 100% on the final project.

 In this case, four groups of students chose to work on CERL projects (12 students in total working on 3 projects). Other students on the course worked on a wide range of industry facing projects. 

Names of community partners

Doggy Dynamos

The Corrymeela Community

North Belfast Senior Citizens Forum 

CERL project title(s)

Design an app for a dog park in Greater Belfast for Doggy Dynamos

Develop a phone app for peace trails in Belfast for The Corrymeela Community

Develop a dementia-friendly communities app for North Belfast Senior Citizens Forum 

Have there been any tangible changes to the curriculum – e.g. module descriptor, learning outcomes, assignments, assessment criteria?

The descriptors for the Software Engineering Projects module are very broad and focus on students working on projects with and for external clients. It was therefore relatively easy to incorporate building CERL projects in so there was no need to change the programme. Administratively making changes would also have been challenging since the module was co-ordinated by a different member of staff and they would have responsibility for making changes if necessary. Any changes would need to apply both to CERL and non-CERL projects. 

How was it taught:

·        number of students

·        student groupwork or individual,

·        how they worked with the partner,

·        how the project proceeded,

·        any reflection done with students,

·        evaluation or formal assessment of their learning,

·        Could or should we follow up with students?

·        tech used

·        Anything else interesting?

Overall the module had 70 students. For the CERL projects there were 12 students who worked in groups of 4. The remainder of the students worked either on group or individual projects sponsored from industry or by an academic. 

Students work in small groups of 3-5 and are closely supervised by academic staff with meetings at least once every fortnight.  Students make regular presentations on their progress throughout the academic year. Some student groups worked closely with the partner and the project output was usually better for this. But some partners also had restrictions on the time they could put in and not all students needed to work closely together with the community partner. 

Also key to the success of an individual project is the academic role in in translating community needs into a project that was suitable for the students, especially when working for the first time with clients who aren’t tech professionals. I took a key role in designing the projects before the students started working on them. This was helped a lot by my experience of this from my previous work in consultancy. The module is designed to help students hone and develop their skills in this area of engagement with clients. Some students are very good at this but not all. 

The students were excited by meeting the partner and it enhanced their interest. Where the students and partner organisation were closely engaged with each other there was less of a need for a strong supervisory role. One project had poorer results because the organisation didn’t generate the materials needed until too late in the project timeline. However this is good learning for the students as it mimics what they will see post graduation in the real world. For the third project, the students didn’t engage with the client even though they had a strong brief to work from, students were anxious about what the organisation might ask for. 

I did try to follow up with a questionnaire to examine the experiences of the students however the uptake was poor. I also have a concern about the maintainability and evolution of the software. To guard against that, I made sure that the students used open source and widely available software and documented the process so that it could hopefully be kept alive. 

What did your students learn or how will they benefit?


Students that work on real projects get so much more out of it. When it’s set up well with a good community organisation and strong students it is a win win – there will be good outcomes for them and students have a much better experience doing it – better interview skills etc. It is good to have flexibility to do it on a team basis. 

For the CERL projects in particular, students learned a lot from working with clients who are not tech specialists. This is really useful because while a lot of students do a placement, often it’s in a tech firm so they don’t get that experience of working with non-specialists. When industry partners offer project ideas out to students they often do this as a recruitment tool so there isn’t the same sense of projects that really are needed and will be used. 

What do you think the benefit was to the partner? Do they have any feedback from the partner?


The partners received benefit from the start through the guided sessions to help them shape their requirements and understand technically what was possible, a key part of any technical project. The benefit was provided both through the students asking questions and also the academic acting in some way as a consultant as they would on a commercial project. Further, the partner received development work on their systems to implement their goals. Not all projects would complete to a level of function and quality to be immediately usable by the partner and for these projects a second group of students comes in to build on and improve the work that has done before. Feedback from partners has been even when the initial project wasn’t fully delivered the process was very useful to help them learn and understand how technical projects can work for them. I also kept in touch with some of the client groups to build on projects from one year to the next. 

How could/will you improve your CERL teaching practice next time?


I don’t think I will change things a lot but I was able to build on a lot of consultancy experience to designing the projects. I will engage with other staff members to support them to offer CERL projects to their students as I can’t scale up numbers significantly alone.

Any challenges and how you overcame them 

I have just retooled one project to use it as a beginning for another project. Academics need to think carefully about how to scale up to bigger numbers of students and the capacity they need to do that. This is why I will engage with colleagues 

Advice you would give to someone starting a CERL project with students?

Make the entry bar very low – start small and build up. It is also useful working with the Science Shop. The other question is whether there is sufficient community need in order to embed something across a module – make sure that you can generate enough projects etc 

Any last thoughts?


I did consider whether to build in an element of team based challenges into this module (with winners and losers). However on balance I had ethical reservations about pitting students in competition with each other in what should be a developmental activity.