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Totally awesome by Maggie L. '12

Incoming GEL students win big in the OnStar Student Developer Challenge

This is an entry I’ve been meaning to write for about a month because it’s about MIT students doing what they do best: Awesome stuff.

Last April, a group of four sophomores, who are all incoming GEL students, won the OnStar Student Developer Challenge with their speech-recognition application, EatOn. This program helps drivers choose restaurants by offering descriptions, directions, ratings, and reservations. It can also let the user send a text message to invite friends or post to the user’s Twitter account!

The contest was hosted by OnStar, GM’s in-vehicle operator, which includes navigation, diagnostics, security, and emergency features, and was open to students at Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, University of Michigan, University of Texas and University of Toledo.

What’s the story behind their victory, you ask?

Sarah and Marie are two course X (chemical engineering) students on the Cross Country and Track teams who took Engineering Innovation & Design (EID), a class in the GEL program, together last fall. EID requires an individual and group project involving speech recognition, so that’s where Sarah and Marie learned a lot of the basics of writing prompts and designing this kind of system.

The first time they heard about the OnStar Student Developer Challenge was when EID instructor, Blade Kotelly, mentioned it in class. A few months passed and then Sarah met Drew, a course VI (electrical engineering and computer science) sophomore, during UPOP (mentioned previously) over IAP. When a GM campus representative emailed GELs about the contest, Drew contacted Isaac, a fellow course VI sophomore, and Drew and Sarah went to the information session.

In terms of group dynamics, these four melded together quickly and impressively. They said they experienced little trouble while working together, although it did take a lot of Saturday marathons of work since their schedules during the week were pretty hectic. Working on this project was “almost another class,” according to Isaac.

The work itself started with an intense brainstorming period, which generated more than 30 ideas. “We just made sticky notes,” said Marie, who added that the premise for the restaurant app was “just one of the things on our super long list of things” they thought everyone could use.

One issue they faced was the fact that there is no comprehensive list of restaurants they could simply copy, so they had to manually write in keywords to help the system recognize possible responses from users. In the end, they came up with 173 categories of food types (From reading this blog you all know I’m a foodie, so this number really makes me happy).

But that’s not all. They also had more than 20 pages of state tables, which list the prompts and directions (for example, “end call” or “go to another page”) for every point in the speech-recognition program.

To publicize their program, they named themselves “Team dreamON” and the system “EatOn” to be consistent with the OnStar brand. They also designed their own logo and website for the project.*

From my discussions with the group members, it was easy to see the mutual respect they had for each other. “These guys are amazing,” Marie said about Drew and Isaac’s coding skills. The group balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so while Marie and Sarah worked on the structure of the presentation using their experience from EID, Drew timed subtitles perfectly for the sample call, and Isaac, who “is apparently a pro at making powerpoints,” according to Marie, worked on the overall design of the slides. This Spring, Isaac and Drew took EID so they learned a lot of the important design elements along the way.

A few days before their project was due, the group showed Blade their system. He suggested a lot of changes, so the group pounded out work for two nights before finally turning it in.

As it turns out, the hard work paid off: The group was one of six finalists for the contest, which meant a free trip to California to present their system. When they finally practiced their presentation in front of Blade, his response was simply “—ing awesome!” This was their final green light before heading to the April 19-21 Where 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara.

In California, the group set up a podium in their hotel room so they could practice even more. That night, they had dinner with the VP of OnStar and the contest teams and judges. Since their minds were still on Eastern Daylight time, they got up at 5:00 the next morning, so they practiced again before heading to the conference to watch the keynote address.

Team dreamOn was first to present, which they treated as an advantage. The team agreed that watching all the other presentations was much more enjoyable without having to worry about their own. The other teams presented a variety of in-vehicle apps, including environmental and entertainment themes. A second group from MIT, also comprising of GEL students with EID experience, was also one of the finalists.

That night, the results were announced, and team dreamOn was the winner! The group went out to dinner to celebrate, and got on a flight back to Boston, arriving on campus at the crack of dawn the next morning.



The winners in team dreamOn: Marie Burkland, Drew Dennsion, Isaac Evans, and Sarah Sprague.

The sophomores have been surprised by the amount of publicity from their win. The way Sarah describes it, they expected to get back to campus and continue on with life without anyone really giving attention to the contest. CNET, BostInnovation, the Boston Herald, and the MIT News Office all published articles about these sophomores winning the grand prize of Apple gear. Marie even got a message from a family friend in Michigan saying that she saw the group’s photo on the front page of GM’s newsletter.

So what advice does this winning team have for you as you embark on future group projects? Here’s their list:

Marie: Make sure you have a really good idea for your project. It has to be an idea you really like.

Drew: Start early, and get a good group with opposite strengths so you can balance the workload.

Isaac: Go for depth, not breadth. That is, focus on a few key features that work great rather than offering a whole array of less robust features.

Sarah: Go the extra mile in your deliverables and presentations because you really want to make your project stand out since you put so much work into it. Additionally. design a really good logo for your project.

*The phone number to EatOn is listed on their website, but it’s no longer functional since the contest is over. The features are demonstrated in a couple of sample calls on their site, though, and I really encourage you to look over their highly detailed documentation. In a word, it’s awesome.

2 responses to “Totally awesome”

  1. kewi says:

    first!!!!

    haha xD finally smile

  2. Priya '15 says:

    That’s so cool! It’s so great to hear about the innovative projects MITers are doing. I can’t wait to get there and see for myself. =D