Team nets funding for Virtual Advisor prototype through Nittany Watson Challenge

Alyssa Inman
May 08, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of four Penn State students and faculty were selected to enter Phase I of the $100,000 Nittany Watson Challenge and were granted $5,000 to create a working prototype of their Virtual Advisor idea.

The team included Michael Morelli, a senior majoring in information sciences and technology (IST); Parantap Tripathi, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering; Matt Dalesio, business intelligence developer for Penn State World Campus, and Jeff Rankinen, associate professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology. The group was one of 10 teams selected to receive funding, out of 39 teams competing.

Each group submitted a proposal for its idea to improve student experiences on campus and assist with challenges they face in some way, such as scheduling, transferring credits or job searching.

A panel of judges awarded the seed money to create a working prototype using IBM Watson, a technology platform focused on data analysis, natural language processing, and machine learning.

The team’s Virtual Advisor, named “Leo,” can answer student questions using artificial intelligence (AI). The goal of Leo is to unburden advisers of different colleges by programming the system to answer simple questions that do not require an appointment. If the system can’t answer a question, it can schedule an appointment with an adviser for the student.

“I love artificial intelligence, it’s always fascinated me,” Morelli said. “I think the future is going toward that, so I want to get ahead of the game.”

Leo would be available at any time and would grow smarter with each question it was asked. The Virtual Advisor learns the more it is used, as it retains the information from the questions asked and stores the data to help in the future.

Morelli describes a main goal of the prototype is to make access to advisers easier for students at Penn State World Campus, who may be in different time zones or otherwise try to connect with advisers at irregular hours.

After a second round of judging on April 25, the panel selected the team’s Virtual Advisor prototype as well as only four other prototypes to receive an addition $10,000 to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) of their idea. The team will also be paired with a mentor at IBM to assist with further development of their MVP.

EdTech Network, which collaborated with IBM Watson, provided this challenge to Penn State students, faculty and staff. The network is part of Penn State President Eric Barron’s $30 million Invent Penn State initiative, where partners collaborate with the University and share the dedication to drive technology forward.

“Penn State is developing a culture that encourages, nurtures and rewards entrepreneurship, not just in STEM, but in the arts, health and human development, education and more,” Barron said. 

As a graduating senior, Morelli is not only working on Leo but also preparing for the next chapter of his life: moving to Seattle after graduation to work for Boeing in ITCFP, a rotational program for new employees.

Morelli described the challenge as a great experience. “[The participants] get to work with IBM professionals, which is a great networking opportunity,” he said. “It was a great way to use my IST skills in a hands-on way and I hope it can be used in the future to help students.”

Last Updated May 31, 2017