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SO-ELL program nurtures student-led projects

Four students wearing blue sweatshirts stand in the indoor conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, surrounded by greenery.

Tuesday, 12/19/2023

On a snowy day in southern Michigan, the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens counters with a show of lush green vegetation. Four undergrads wearing University of Michigan sweatshirts wander through flowering orchids, broad-leaved palms and bromeliads — they seem almost giddy.

A close-up image of the bright green leaves of calathea zebrina
Calathea zebrina in the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. (Photo: Jeff Smith)

“We felt like it was a tropical vacation,” Owen Worchell says.

Ideal temperature aside, this visit wasn’t just for fun. This semester, Worchell, Thomas Drawbaugh, Louden Fuchs and project manager Brady Teichman completed a big project for Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum: selecting the best database software to house the gardens’ vast collections, based on the needs of employees and visitors.

As current U-M sophomores, Drawbaugh, Teichman and Worchell are hoping to join the School of Information’s Bachelor of Science in Information program next year on the information analysis track, while Fuchs is majoring in economics. The team, which is part of Reach Consulting Group, was matched with their client through a new UMSI program: Student Organization - Engaged Learning Leaders

SO-ELL, pronounced like Noel, helps student organizations set up and manage project teams within their organizations. 44 UMSI students participated this fall, alongside U-M students from other disciplines. Each team is assigned a real-world information problem, giving participants the opportunity to develop their skills and deliver practical solutions for clients. 

“We knew there were students out there who wanted to do project work outside of courses, and UMSI hosts over a hundred client-based projects each semester, always ending up with a surplus of interested clients,” says Angie Zill, student engagement program manager in UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office. “The problem was, there wasn't really a great way to capture and bring those two needs together.” 

The SO-ELL program was born from that impetus. This semester, the six participating student orgs — five of which are affiliated with UMSI and all of which are popular among UMSI students — include the School of Information Bachelor's Association (SIBA), Michigan Open UXReach Consulting GroupNational Organization for Business and Engineering (NOBE), Net Impact and Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction (SOCHI).

Now 21 student-led teams are pursuing projects for a diverse set of civic and industry clients sourced by UMSI, including Green City Market in Chicago, Curio Genomics, Ypsilanti District Library and Michigan Theater.  

SO-ELL supports the project leaders, including student org officers and project managers, through curated resources, project management workshops and peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities.

“You can actually do the program three different times and be in three different roles,” Zill says. “You could be a team member, then you could be a project manager, then you could be an officer for your organization. That's my favorite thing about the program.”

Seeds of knowledge

Founded in 1907, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum represent a diverse living collection of over 20,000 specimen records across more than 100 gardens and natural areas. That’s a lot of data to keep track of. 

Teichman, Fuchs, Worchell and Drawbaugh began their project this fall by assessing Matthaei-Nichols’ data needs through interviews with staff. “It turned out that almost everything was stored in their heads,” Drawbaugh says. “So when an employee left, they would lose a lot of their information.”

“There were a lot of things that needed to be modernized,” Worchell adds. 

The team was tasked with evaluating botanical garden databases to select one that would best meet the needs of staff and visitors.

Four students wearing U-M sweatshirts stand in the indoor conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
U-M students Thomas Drawbaugh, Brady Teichman, Owen Worchell and Louden Fuchs worked as a team. (Photo: Jeff Smith)

As the grandson of a botanist, Teichman had some familiarity with plants. But while terms like bulb, rhizome, noxious and perennial might hold meaning for the layperson, terminology specific to botanical garden databases is a separate beast. He describes the team’s surprise after they got off their first call with Matthaei-Nichols staff.

“Here’s a whole range of information and concepts that none of us are masters in,” he remembers thinking. “How do we immerse ourselves in it and really understand it in order to apply our skillset?”

They learned that an “accession” is a group of related plant material from a single species, collected from a single source at the same time. An “accession register” is an official record of all the plant holdings of a botanical garden, documented in sequential order by an assigned number. 

“We had to get acclimated to the way botanists thought and talked,” Fuchs says.

Information challenges require these deep dives into disciplines students might have little or no familiarity with at the start of their projects. For the intellectually adventurous, this is one of the most exciting parts. 

“In information classes, you learn a lot of technical skills. But at the same time, most of the data that you're analyzing has been curated,” Worchell says. “To go out into the real world, an existing system, where the data is not clean, the data is not organized, and you have no idea what anything really means — learning how to go through that transition was really important for us.”

As he stepped into the role of project manager, Teichman felt supported by the SO-ELL program. He describes leaving a project manager feedback session with a cartoon lightbulb over his head, thinking, “OK, now I know where to go with this project.” 

You can't put a price tag on that kind of conversation, that kind of experience.

Another lightbulb moment was a SO-ELL guest talk by Nathaniel Borenstein, a UMSI adjunct lecturer who helped create the internet as we know it. Teichman followed up with Borenstein after, and they ended up having an hour-and-a-half long phone call about leadership — both as it related to his team’s project and his career plans. “You can’t put a price tag on that kind of conversation, that kind of experience,” he says. 

A photo of a Kigelia plant, a tree that grows roots with hard casings, resembling sausages.
Brady Teichman discovered his new favorite plant at Matthaei: the Kigelia. “It’s this skinny-looking tree with a big overhanging shrubbery, and it grows these long roots with a hard case outside," he describes. "Its nickname is actually the sausage tree.” (Photo: Jeff Smith)

For their final recommendation, the team chose BRAHMS, a database software developed at Oxford University that features detailed accession records, interactive mapping features and rapid data entry.

“It has a mobile app, which is really cool, so workers can be in the field putting notes into their phones about everyday plant maintenance,” Drawbaugh says. 

The visitor experience would also be transformed through mobile device integration, allowing visitors to Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum to view information about plant species and pinpoint their locations on a map. 

Using data to foster interaction with living collections — that’s what this project is all about. 

“The students are full of innovative ideas and practical knowledge,” says Mike Kost, associate curator at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum and lecturer in the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. “They have the energy and enthusiasm to deeply evaluate a client’s needs and the fresh eyes to see clear solutions. Working with them has been a huge timesaver for us. It provided us with the knowledge and confidence to move forward with selecting a new living collections database.”

Pipe dreams come alive

Another SO-ELL project connected a team of U-M students with a Detroit organization that has a noteworthy mission. 

The peal of a theater organ used to be synonymous with the movies. In the early 1900s, pipe organs like the “Mighty Wurlitzer” created a live soundtrack to silent films. Their sound was versatile, moving and enormous. 

But you don’t have to imagine it. The Senate Theater, home of the Detroit Theater Organ Society, hosts concerts and film screenings featuring a historic Wurlitzer organ on many nights of the month. 

A photo of an organist performing on a Wurlitzer pipe organ.
Organist Lance Luce performs on the Mighty Wurlitzer prior to a screening of "It's a Wonderful Life." (Photo: Dustin Moore)

This semester, Aubrey Hickmott, Ansh Mehta, Arunika Shee and Shobhit Samar worked to address key challenges DTOS is facing. They belong to the UMSI-affiliated National Organization for Business and Engineering (NOBE) and study in the School of Engineering. While a couple of them had worked on client-based projects in the past, their experience through the SO-ELL program turned out to be unique. 

“Our client is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization focused on keeping the art of organ music and theater alive,” Samar says. “They have a bunch of disconnected systems for managing tickets, volunteers and donations. They wanted us to, if possible, combine all of those needs into one system.” 

As a computer engineering major, Samar is used to leveraging his technical skills. “But the information analysis skills we used here were a lot different,” he says. “Even if you’re on a more technical, single-track path, it can be good to do stuff that might not directly relate but is building important skills.”  

The SO-ELL program allows students across disciplines to experience how information can be used with technology to improve people’s lives. 

Aubrey Hickmott, Arunika Shee, Ansh Mehta and Shobhit Samar pose for a team photo.
Aubrey Hickmott, Arunika Shee, Ansh Mehta and Shobhit Samar pose for a team photo. (Photo: Arunika Shee)

To familiarize themselves with the organization and its operations, the team worked closely with DTOS treasurer Lindsay Robillard. “Seeing her passion and enthusiasm kind of brought out our own enthusiasm,” Samar says. 

They paid close attention to the needs of different constituents. Many members belong to an older population, so it was important to prioritize approachability and ease of use when evaluating potential software systems. 

Shee, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, took the lead as project manager. She determined overall goals and delegated tasks to each member of the team. This was her second time working as a project manager but her first time participating in SO-ELL. 

“The first meeting that I had with Angie, she gave me a lot of helpful resources that I did not have access to when I was a project manager last semester,” Shee says. “Those included a project management checklist and templates on how to reach out to the client. That was really helpful.” 

The team’s final recommendation was a customer relationship management software, Bloomerang, that is geared toward nonprofits and has the ability to integrate member engagement, donation collection and event ticketing. 

A photo of the marquee at The Senate Theater, glowing red at night.
The Senate Theater is home to the Detroit Theater Organ Society. (Photo: Dustin Moore)

“The time savings involved are going to have a huge impact in helping us tackle other projects,” says Robillard, who emphasized how “incredibly responsive and self-sufficient” the team was throughout the semester.  

“If the CRM software that we chose is implemented, it will help the organization grow its outreach,” Mehta says. “We hope that having software with better marketing features and better tracking features will help them attract more donors and volunteers and keep the organization running as long as it possibly can.”

All four team members spoke about the value of completing a project in the nonprofit realm. It’s important for an organization like DTOS to be able to focus on their mission, but without the proper systems in place, volunteers can easily become bogged down in administrative duties. 

“We weren’t working for the highest revenue,” Hickmott says. “We were working for ease of organization.”

“Given that this was a nonprofit organization, it seemed that any recommendation we did give them would have the potential of really changing what they were doing and having more of an impact,” Shee adds. “That was a really good motivator.”

Real-world information projects give students the opportunity to do work that might, like a note played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, linger and resound. 

Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer


Learn more about the SO-ELL program.

UMSI invites organizations from all industries and sectors to propose information-based projects for students to work on through capstone projects, client-based courses and programs like SO-ELL. Find more information here.