Vanderbilt engineering MOOC leads talented Indian student to Nashville

A student’s round trip of 16,716 miles began with an invitation to spend a summer in Nashville, Tennessee, as a computer science intern at Vanderbilt University.

Chinmaya Samal

In January, Chinmaya Samal, 22, of Rourkela, Odisha, in India, won a Google prize of a Nexus 7 tablet for an Android app he developed in the capstone project at the end of a sequence of six massive open online courses, or MOOCs, called “Specializations” by the online learning platform Coursera.

Vanderbilt computer science professors Doug Schmidt and Jules White, who co-teach Coursera’s Mobile Cloud Computing with Android Specialization – along with University of Maryland computer science professor Adam Porter – were so impressed by Samal, they offered him a paid summer internship to the School of Engineering’s Institute of Software Integrated Systems.

“Chinmaya’s Capstone project demonstrates his deep understanding of key mobile cloud computing technologies, including the latest Android user interface mechanisms and tools, as well cloud services and communication protocols,” said Schmidt.

Lunch Break: Professor Doug Schmidt, Chinmaya Samal, and graduate student Mike Walker, who works with Schmidt on the Vanderbilt MOOCs.

Over the summer, Samal developed several mobile apps that applied the latest Android “material design” paradigm to provide real-time weather updates and capture, download, and upload videos from a mobile device to a cloud server.  These apps are being used as the basis for projects in Coursera MOOCs and Vanderbilt classes.

“Without Vanderbilt’s strategic investment in digital learning, we never would have had the opportunity to meet Chinmaya and host him as a summer intern. The MOOCs we teach help us connect with an international pool of global talent that we haven’t been able to collaborate with before,” Schmidt said.

Samal was eager to visit the United States since he had never traveled any farther from Rourkela than trips within the Indian state of Odisha and some family vacations to a nearby island in the Bay of Bengal. The youngest of three children, he’s the first to travel outside India.

Although Rourkela is not a small village, there was a glitch with the Google prize. “FedEx couldn’t deliver the tablet so it was returned to Coursera. So, Coursera sent me a $200 Amazon gift card, which I appreciated even more,” Samal said with a smile.

Coursera piloted its Mobile Cloud Computing specialization with Google last year. To give the students a more practical experience, the industry partner judged the projects.

Professor Jules White

“Having Google and Amazon participate in our Mobile Cloud Computing with Android Specialization greatly increased student motivation to develop impressive apps,” said White.

Samal’s project in the capstone was a symptom management app symptom management app that can track and help manage cancer patients’ pain. This app was judged as one of the top 30 apps out of more than 1,000 apps created by students, who chose their project from among three applications to build from the ground up. Google and Amazon recognized the top ten apps from the three assignments.

Samal and 1,416 other budding programmers had to pass all six courses with distinction to qualify for the capstone. Well over half the capstone participants chose the symptom management project, which was a concept developed in conjunction with Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, a radiation oncologist resident at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

2014-2015 Android MOOCs

204: Different countries with participating students

38: Percentage of Android MOOC students from emerging economies

4: Percentage of Android MOOC students with doctorates

90,000+ students enrolled in the Vanderbilt MOOCs

1,416 students enrolled in the capstone

The symptom management app is designed to help patients battling throat and neck cancer, who frequently need feeding tubes because the pain from cancer is too great to allow them to eat. “The app allows them to self-report their pain levels several times a day,” White said, “so their doctors can adjust medication or make suggestions on what to eat to decrease pain.”

All the hundreds of app solutions have been turned over to Friedman who will determine what to do with them, Schmidt said.

A habitual student of massive online classes, Samal has taken dozens of MOOCs, especially programming classes, while also enrolled at Veer Surendra Sai University of Technology and majoring in information technology.

“I didn’t have an interest in computer science in the beginning. In the second year of college, I really started to concentrate [on it],” said Samal, who easily spends 12 hours a day on his college courses and “MOOC time.”

A senior now, Samal is currently studying for the Graduate Record Exam and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, and he plans to return to the United States in 2016 for graduate school and earn a doctorate in computer science.

“There are so many opportunities in the U.S. In six or so years,” he said, “I could see myself creating a startup.”

Brenda Ellis, (615) 343-6314
Twitter @VUEngineering