Computer science students collaborate with environmental educator

As an environmental educator, Maggie Pletta wants children to learn about estuaries, which are bodies of water found where rivers meet the sea. But she knows that kids are a lot more likely to learn from computer games with names like Swamp Sweeper and Estuary Adventure than they are from books, lectures or posters.

Pletta recently partnered with the University of Delaware’s Terry Harvey to provide Pletta with a suite of interactive games that she can incorporate into her work with the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNERR) while offering Harvey’s computer science students practical experience with a real client.

“Maggie and her team at the St. Jones Reserve are currently redesigning the exhibit space on a very limited budget,” says Harvey, who is an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences. “By partnering with us, she was able to get the educational products she needs while helping prepare our students for the workplace.”

The health of estuaries, which support abundant life and diverse habitats, is affected by human activities including overfishing, construction of piers and other structures, the introduction of invasive species, and human and industrial pollution.

To initiate the project, Pletta gave the students in Harvey’s Introduction to Software Engineering(CISC275) course an overview of DNERR, explained the basics of an estuary, and shared the six estuary principles as defined by the estuarine education sector.

The eight teams in Harvey’s class demonstrated their games at a computer and information sciences showcase held at the Perkins Student Center on Dec. 11.

“The class gave us valuable experience designing a project for a client and working together as a software engineering team,” says senior Danielle Wegrzyn, an Honors Program student. “There were many iterations before we could create something that communicated information about estuaries well, worked technically, and was also fun to play. The best part, of course, was seeing everyone try out the games at the showcase.”

Pletta says she was “honestly blown away by the quality of the end products.”

“They took the information I gave them during the lecture session and the storyboard review session and applied it to their games in creative and fun ways. It was very clear from the end products that the students took the task seriously and spent many hours on the games to ensure that they met my needs.”

From Harvey’s perspective, his students learned how to work through an iterative process of software design, implementation, testing, and deployment — on a project that will actually be used in the real world.

“Kathy Pusecker and Kevin Guidry of UD’s Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning have been important partners in the development of this course,” he says. “They observe, interview students and clients, and then give me feedback on how the course is meeting my goals, student goals, and UD goals like community engagement and problem-solving.”

“When I started, I thought this course would just be about techniques of software engineering, but now it is a full, yet compact, engineering experience.”


The Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNERR) is one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves across the country whose goal is to establish, protect, and manage natural estuarine habitats for research, education, and coastal stewardship. Established in 1993, it is a cooperative program between the state of Delaware and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The DNERR has two main components, the Blackbird Creek Reserve in Townsend and the St. Jones Reserve in Dover. These sites include both brackish and freshwater estuaries and represent the diverse estuarine ecosystems found throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Maggie Pletta serves as education coordinator for the DNERR.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Lane McLaughlin