Students embody 'service learning'


Special to the Advocate

With so many evacuees coming to shelters in the metropolitan Jackson area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, locating them became chaotic.

Workers had to track them manually, fumbling through hundreds of handwritten cards. Volunteers Thad and Sandra McLaurin devised a plan that would expedite this system. They contacted Millsaps College officials for permission to use the computer lab in Sullivan-Harrell to input data.

 “We had many people who were trying to find family members and friends who had been evacuated to the Jackson area,” said Sandra McLaurin, a former executive-in-residence of the Else School of Management. “No method was in place to determine which of the 10 or so shelters had received these evacuees.”

 So the McLaurins got busy. Sandra McLaurin knew the resources that were available at Millsaps — specifically, the numerous computer systems located in computer labs. And with the help of staff members and students, a database containing the names and addresses of all evacuees to the Jackson area from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was created. Next, workers created additional databases: one that listed all 911 calls made to the area and another that listed all volunteers who were working in locations ranging from Richland to Ridgeland.

 When classes were resumed after a break caused by Katrina, Dr. Don Schwartz, chair of the computer science department, created a service-learning course in advanced database. “Students designed and implemented a web-based application for organizing and managing the information about the volunteers,” Schwartz said. “Through this system, volunteers could register, list their skills and specify those time periods during which they could work.”

This allowed volunteers’ skills to be matched with Red Cross needs.

 “Initially, the most critical task was to create a template for volunteers to follow that allowed input of all the information,” said Jeanne Bodron, coordinator of user services for the Department of Computer Services. “We have entered the names of hundreds of missing persons, coding the state of each person’s health. This information is uploaded to the Coast Guard secure web area, which initiates the organization for search and rescue efforts.”

 Millsaps graduate Kristine Kinsella, the wife of head softball coach Joe Kinsella, has logged several hours a day at the computer lab, alphabetizing shelter data and entering 911 calls for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Senior Adam Huffman of Philadelphia and junior Andrew Harris of Hattiesburg worked with Bodron and Raymond Heatherly, student computing manager, to launch the project. More than 3,000 names had been entered by Sept. 5.

Huffman and fellow senior Jonathon Spencer decided to continue working on the Red Cross Volunteer Database System as part of their senior project required for graduation.  As a component of the project, they have built a server computer and installed all of the necessary software to host and run the database system created for the Red Cross.  This means that all that should be required to host the system is an Internet connection and maybe some adjustments to the configuration settings.

Huffman and Spencer presented the computer system to the American Red Cross on April 26 at the Red Cross headquarters building on Riverside Drive.

The project is not only receiving acclaim locally. Spencer, Huffman and Schwartz will be presenting a paper describing this project at the 2006 International Conference on Software Engineering Research and Practice. The conference is  part of the 2006 World Congress in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, and Applied Computing, and the largest annual gathering of researchers in computer science, computer engineering and applied computing.