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6 Students, 2 Months, 7 Hours a Week

How much can a team of 6 University of Manchester undergraduate students achieve, working for 7 hours a week, in just 2 months?

The answer, it turns out, is: a lot!

We tried this experiment this spring, as we ran our final batch of projects under the aegis of the Institute of Coding. We’ve run full-time summer projects for a couple of years, covering the June to August vacation, and this has worked well for students. But it’s not great for our clients, whose deadlines don’t always fit nicely around the start and end of the academic year. So, as the end of our pump-priming funding from the Institute of Coding project approached, we decided to try something new: part-time projects running during term time.

We set up 3 projects, each with 6 students working approximately 7 hours per week. We wanted to pay students for enough working hours each week to make progress on the project, but not for so long that their studies were affected. 7 hours per week is comparable to taking a Saturday job, so seemed like a reasonable compromise.

We chose 6 person teams so that each calendar week corresponded roughly to 1 person week of effort (with a little extra thrown in to allow for the extra communication and coordination needed by 6 people working together).

We had hoped to run each project for 3 months, but delays due to COVID furloughs across the University meant we could only run the projects for 2 months.

I was nervous about how much we could actually deliver to our clients in these time frames, and about whether we were asking too much of our students – who were already having a challenging year studying in lockdown.

But our students, as usual, did a fantastic job and far exceeded our expectations. Here’s a summary of the projects we worked on during this COVID spring.

The Cohere Project

The Cohere team managed to go from a completely empty code base to a functioning prototype in just 2 months. Cohere is the brainchild of Dr Amanda Banks-Gatenby, of the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester. The aim is to capture learning experiences from students’ social media posts, in a form that allows others to see them and perhaps choose to try them too. The team was led by Karl Tye, of Wakelet.com, who volunteered his spare time and his copious technical expertise to keep the team on track.

You can see a demo of the system the team built, presented by Sam Hirst, on our YouTube channel:

The LCT Project

Six of our students teamed up with Professor Ser-huang Poon of the Alliance Manchester Business School and Micheal Corning of Secours.io to build a proof-of-concept customisation of LCT, a local contact tracing system, for the University of Manchester campus.

This was an exciting project for Imago as it gave us our first chance to work with an existing open source code base. The team added a map feature and a calendar, as well as tailoring the system for the UoM campus. Local technical leadership was provided by Vlad Geanu: Imago’s first full time intern.

Gabby Mannifield narrates a demonstration of the system in the video below:

The SEERIH Feedback Tool Project

Our third team revisited a project we started work on last summer, building a suite of tools to encourage feedback to be provided on public education campaigns run by Lynne Bianchi and her team at SEERIH. In improving and extending the system, we ran up against a number of technical problems with our Badgr server and API call limits with some of the free back-end services we were using. But the team coped with these challenges with persistence and vision, and managed to deploy a full version just at the end of the project.

Smooth Sailing

Finally, a quick vote of thanks to Albert Viilik, who worked as a solo developer team to continue our project to complete our suite of sailing competition management tools. Albert did great work over the project, migrating the code to Flutter 2

Overall…

The part-time project model proved to be very successful, both with our clients and the students. The teams managed to achieve a tremendous amount of delivered code in the very short timescales we gave them. The students reported great benefits in lockdown from having an activity to work on that gave them a break from their studies, while also contributing to their CVs. And many of our Imago alumni have gone straight into fantastic internships and part-time positions with companies around the UK.

So the experiment was a big success, and we’ll definitely be opening Imago’s doors for new part-time projects come the autumn.

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