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Skunkworks assists students with software projects

For innovative students at Brandeis, ideas run freely and have great potential. The problem? Sometimes, the technical details are too difficult for students to figure out on their own, especially if their major lies outside of the computer science realm. Luckily, Skunkworks is a group at Brandeis that can help students with their projects.

A Skunkworks project, a term which originated in World War II, is defined as a project developed by a small group of people who do research and development primarily for the goal of radical innovation. At Brandeis, the group is described by Department Administrator Michael Golitsyn MA ’17 as a “student-run experimental organization that provides technical solutions to problems within the Brandeis community.” The group has existed for the past three years on campus but has recently grown in size.

It began as a project that one or two students undertook through an independent study with Professor Tim Hickey (COSI) and Golitsyn “to learn about and experience product, project and software development life cycles and, in the process, use technology to innovate and solve problems around campus,” wrote Golitsyn to The Brandeis Hoot.

This year, Charlie Kim ’19, a major in Computer Science and Global Studies and group leader of Skunkworks, used his experience from Brandeis classes and also experience from the business and military sectors to expand the group and increase the number of projects worked on every semester. Currently, the Skunkworks team is composed of 24 students, faculty and staff working on five concurrent projects.
As Golitsyn explained in an email to The Hoot, “The primary mission of the group is to give students more opportunities to expand their knowledge, gain practical experience, collaborate and improve experiences of the Brandeis community.” Students are able to apply their coursework to real-world problems and assist those who need help with important software issues but do not necessarily have the funding to hire professionals.
As Skunkworks operated in the 1940s, so does the modern Brandeis interpretation, as it combines both students, faculty and staff together on projects. Some projects are funded as on-campus jobs through departments, others operate as independent studies and some are completely on a volunteer basis.
“This semester, the group collaborates with a number of Computer Science faculty and staff, the Maker Lab, the Rose Art Museum, and [the] Anthropology department,” wrote Golitsyn.
The students involved in Skunkworks could earn project and product development experience for their resumes, independent study credits, a possible part-time wage, teamwork experience and the satisfaction of solving a problem in the Brandeis community. Faculty and staff involved gain joy of working with students on creative projects and also can receive help with projects that would not be cost effective for them to build otherwise.
This semester, Skunkworks is working on five projects. Nicole Huang ’19 is working to build an augmented reality exhibit for the Rose Arts Museum. Charlie Kim ’19 is working with the Virtual Reality Club and Hazal Uzunkaya of the Maker Lab to develop a virtual campus tour. Allison Tien ’20 is also working with the Maker Lab and the Anthropology department to explore the benefits of digitizing historical artifacts for accessibility and protection of the items. Shannon Livingstone ’21 is helping The Hoot with website improvements, and Fernando Estrella ’20 (GRAD) is leading a team to build a tool to help department administrators schedule courses within Brandeis’ block schedule.

A long term goal of Skunkworks is to turn mentor Professor Pito Salas’ (COSI) idea into a reality: To create a clearing house where anyone with ideas for projects and the need for interdisciplinary help can find those interested in “bringing dreams to life.” Another goal is to explore funding more student projects and to integrate with the International Business School to make projects even more efficient and interdisciplinary.

As Golitsyn explains to students “fail fast and fail often.” When faced with an obstacle in a project, to shift focus and pivot to a new idea instead of always facing the issue from the same side. Golitsyn hopes that Skunkworks will be able to form a network of students that can share advice and other connections.

Students interested in Skunkworks or who have ideas to share can email them at skunkworks@brandeis.edu.

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