Since Allen Tucker retired from teaching computer science at Bowdoin four years ago, he’s been busy creating software. And though he could probably be making a respectable income in the booming market of customized software, Tucker only works for nonprofits, pro bono, designing free, open-source software that helps agencies improve their operational efficiency.
He is also involving Bowdoin students in his mission. This past semester, for instance, he taught a class, Projects in Computer Science, in which nine students worked on software projects for three agencies.
One group designed software for the Ronald McDonald House, in Portland, Maine, to help staff schedule volunteers. Another group built software to make it easier for shut-ins in Brunswick, who might be elderly or disabled, to check in daily with the local police and with staff at People Plus, a nearby social service agency. And the final student group created a new system for Second Helpings, a South Carolina nonprofit that picks up close-to-expired food from supermarkets and restaurants and delivers it to soup kitchens, food pantries, senior centers and churches that feed the poor.
This summer, Tucker and student Richardo Hopkins ’13 are continuing to work on behalf of Second Helpings. Hopkins ’13 received a Gibbons grant to support his collaboration with Tucker, and the two are developing an app for Android tablets that works in conjunction with the original software students created this spring. Hopkins is one of three students who worked on the original project, along with Hartley Brody ’12 and Nicholas Wetzel ’14.
Tucker is familiar with Second Helpings because he has a home in South Carolina, where he lives in the winter. “I got involved with the organization and was impressed with it,” he says. Last year, Second Helpings distributed about 1.8 million pounds of food throughout Beaufort and Jasper counties in South Carolina, and the organization works with 119 donor businesses and nonprofit food agencies. “And they do all their record-keeping with a clipboard,” Tucker marvels.
The 251 drivers who volunteer for Second Helpings are required to report the weight of food they pick up and drop off. If they could do this with an app, it would help Second Helpings provide more reliable data for its financial backers, explains Tucker. The app will be designed to drop these entered food amounts automatically into a centralized data center.
But the app must be simple and straightforward enough to be used by older, often retired volunteers who might be unfamiliar with mobile technology or even computers. “Some of them don’t have emails,” Hopkins says.
Hopkins, who’s a computer science major from Texas, says he enjoyed the work he did in Tucker’s class last spring, partly because he likes any and all computer science courses. But he adds, “In other computer science classes, or other classes in general, very often you do an assignment and pass it in, and that’s the last of it. With this software, we’re developing it for people, we have responsibility for it, we have to back-up what we write. It’s the first time I’ve done something of this sort.”
Tucker says it’s rare to find a computer science class that’s also engaged in community service. “The students buy into this. They view it as a service-learning opportunity, as part of the common good,” he says.
John A. Gibbons, Jr. ’64 established the Gibbons Summer Research Program to enable students who are rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors to work with faculty on projects that use technology to explore interdisciplinary areas and to develop fresh approaches to the study of complex problems. The competitive grant program is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects or internships.