Montana State University

MSU students gain experience helping improve U.S. Army software

May 18, 2017 -- By Skip Anderson for the MSU News Service

Isaac Griffith, left, a doctoral student in computer science at Montana State University, Chris Huvaere, data systems project manager with MSU TechLink, and Ryan Darnell, a senior in computer science at MSU, recently finished developing computer software for the Army Corps of Engineers. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN - Montana State University computer science students are gaining real-world experience by helping to improve and commercialize software created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Over the past three years, 16 undergraduates and three graduate students in the Gianforte School of Computing in MSU’s College of Engineering have directly contributed to Army software testing and development at the TechLink Software Engineering and Analytics Laboratory (TSEAL) under paid internships.

TechLink, an MSU center funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to help U.S. companies license DoD technologies for conversion into new products and services, initiated TSEAL to help the DoD move its software into the commercial marketplace.

The Sustainment Management System (SMS) is a suite of software, originally developed by the Army Corps’ Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (CERL) to improve upkeep of the Army’s extensive facilities, which include more than 165,000 buildings, by helping managers decide when, where and how to best conduct maintenance. 

TechLink has already licensed SMS to approximately 25 companies throughout the United States, according to Will Swearingen, TechLink executive director, including Bradford Roof Management in Billings. These companies primarily use the software to help various U.S. federal agencies manage their vast facilities, including buildings, airport runways and ports.

“The Army continues to develop new or improved modules,” Swearingen said. “TSEAL students test these new modules to ensure their functionality, reliability and security.”

State and county governments, universities and private companies can use the software to manage infrastructure, said Chris Huvaere, who oversees TSEAL at TechLink. “TSEAL’s goal is to improve the quality of the software,” Huvaere said. “We could not do the quality assurance work without the (MSU) students,” he added.

The students’ work consists primarily of writing computer code that simulates how a human user would interact with the SMS software across a range of applications, such as scheduling roof inspection and repair. Students document any bugs or other limitations of the software encountered by the code and sometimes recommend solutions.

Senior Ryan Darnell, who focuses on fine-tuning the code that interacts with the SMS, is one of eight undergraduates currently employed part-time by TSEAL, which currently receives roughly $200,000 annually from DoD. He appreciates the real-world experience he’s gaining working on the project.

“There’s a lot I’ve learned in this internship that I couldn’t have learned in a computer science class,” he said, adding that the skills he’s learned have attracted job offers from companies specializing in cybersecurity.

Graduate student Isaac Griffith, whose Ph.D. research is directly funded by TSEAL, is exploring how the methods of testing the SMS software for maintainability, security and other variables could be automated and conducted on a continuous basis as new software is being developed.

“The ultimate goal is getting this to where it’s ready to work with other software vendors,” he said.

Clemente Izurieta, MSU associate professor of computer science who, along with professor John Sheppard, is a faculty adviser to the project, said it’s unusual for students to get to work so directly on software with such significant applications.

“We provide (CERL) a very good value, and the university benefits because our students are being funded to work on a real project that’s going out into the world,” he said.

Contact: Chris Huvaere, chuvaere@montana.edu or (406) 994-7729; Clemente Izurieta, clemente.izurieta@montana.edu or (406) 994-3720.