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UMD Undergrads Impress IBM, Industry Pros

May 14, 2014

Greg Muraski 301-405-5283

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - This spring, IBM challenged University of Maryland undergraduates to develop ideas for implementing its recent customer service innovation, the Watson Engagement Advisor. The competitors were UMD Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams (QUEST) students. An IBM grant in 1993 helped establish QUEST as a multidisciplinary, reality- centered program for UMD undergraduates from the Robert H. Smith School of Business, the A. James Clark School of Engineering, and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.

    Team HomeWiz took home the First Place Prize in the 2014 IBM Watson Engagement Advisor Case Competition
  Team HomeWiz took home the First Place Prize in the 2014 IBM Watson Engagement Advisor Case Competition

The UMD teams developed organization-specific strategies to acquire and implement the Engagement Advisor driven by "Watson," the supercomputer that defeated former grand champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy.

The competitors applied techniques including value analysis and quantitative and qualitative analysis in developing their proposals and "brought them together and presented them cohesively," said one of the judges, Michael Fitzgerald, global technology strategy leader in IBM's Strategy and Analytics Center of Competence. "Those were some of the best oral sessions I've seen in some time – to be done by undergraduate students in a cutting-edge field is very impressive."

"The Watson Engagement Advisor has a lot of different applications. We applied it to the home improvement industry," said UMD computer science major Brendan Rowan, who proposed HomeWiz as a one-stop home improvement knowledge base for expansive do-it-yourself projects. The idea garnered first place for Rowan and teammates – computer science major Jason Rubin and Smith School students: Praneet Puppala (computer science-finance), Yash Mehta (marketing) and Jessica Manzione (accounting and finance).

A broad sports knowledge repository including game recaps and experts' columns named Bringing IBM Watson to ESPN drew second place. The presenting students were Leah Xu (computer engineering), Stephen Barbagallo (materials engineering), Eric Bailey (materials engineering) and Eric Coraggio (civil engineering).

Third place went to an app to streamline Environmental Protection Agency compliance information for individuals and companies. The team, which created Next Generation Compliance, included Eileen McMahon (mechanical engineering), Allison Thompson (aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering), Hannah Breakstone (international business/supply chain management) and Caitlin Myers (civil and environmental engineering).

Beyond their specific ideas, the students' business-technology acumen and poise in presenting their work impressed industry professionals who judged the event.

QUEST Director Joseph Bailey, a research associate professor in the Smith School, said UMD partners, like IBM, "look for us to prepare specialists who think differently about problems with the wherewithal to acquire new knowledge. Our students were able to give some suggestions to a talented team from IBM. They also learned a lot for themselves – about how they can think about technology and apply it to markets and industries," he said.