12 Weeks at the Microsoft Garage

Oct 5, 2017   |   Dominic Whyte, Microsoft Garage Intern

What happens when you bring together 45 college students into a space that encourages big ideas, inspires creativity, and provides delicious (free!) snacks? As I walked into the Microsoft Garage at the New England Research and Development Center (NERD) 12 weeks ago, I had no idea I would leave with a boatload of new skills, work on a team to build an end-to-end prototype for the education space, and make a new set of life-long friends.

At the start of the Microsoft Garage internship in June, representatives from Microsoft product teams arrived in Cambridge to a room of excited interns anxious to start building the next big thing. One by one, the sponsoring teams pitched their ideas, leaving us with the difficult decision of choosing which project we would spend the summer working on. After much deliberation (and even a quick visit by Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO!) I chose the Microsoft Ink Analysis team as my sponsor, joining a team of eight equally excited intern developers, program managers, and designers.
A Microsoft Garage intern team at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center (NERD)

Our Ink team sponsor, the team in charge of developing the cutting-edge Ink Analysis technology for recognizing and classifying input from the Microsoft Surface pen, came to us with one challenge: they needed a brand-new showcase application for their technology that would have the potential to reach and empower millions of people to do more. With this ambitious (and daunting) goal in mind, I spent a week with my intern team trying to conceive of a new way to use this contemporary technology.

After batting around several ideas, we finally settled on building a product that would solve a challenge that we ourselves had seen time and time again both in our K-12 educations and in our college lectures. Specifically, we recognized the pain of typing math equations on computers, coupled with the lack of good ways for teachers to check their student’s understanding of new concepts during class. Each of us had experienced the often suboptimal techniques that teachers use to make sure that students are learning, whether that be having to grade stacks of quizzes after class or resorting to clicker devices which only provide multiple choice input options.

With teachers often limited by time and resources, we asked ourselves: what if there was a way for teachers to ask students math questions during class and have students handwrite all their work on their computers? Even better — what if all the responses were graded automatically, with students able to see exactly which step they performed incorrectly and teachers able to immediately discern how the majority of the class is doing?

After surveying more than 80 teachers and interviewing Microsoft employees who regularly hold workshops for students in K-12, we iterated on our idea and got the all-clear to begin developing — time to get cracking! Using math solving and recognition technology that has been in the works at Microsoft since the 1980s, as well as our sponsor team’s latest Ink recognition technology, we began building a Universal Windows Application to bring our ideas to reality.

A Universal Windows Application uses Ink Recognition technology to help teachers grade student work faster

Within weeks we had a working prototype. Teachers could go onto our application to make questions and easily have them sent to their students’ devices during lectures. With the support of our sponsor team and many other helpful employees from Vancouver, Cambridge, and even Serbia, our application was now able to analyze student Ink strokes and tell students exactly where and when mistakes were made, all while providing teachers with holistic feedback about their students’ entire thought processes.

Furthermore, to allow teachers to effectively manage their database of questions, we built a tagging system and a “similar question finder” so that teachers would be able to easily propose follow-up exercises when students were struggling. When our customer feedback indicated that teachers wanted a custom analytics pane for viewing aggregated and individual results, we got right to it and built it out without missing a beat!

a Universal Windows Application uses Ink Recognition technology to help teachers and students.

In the midst of developing our product, I also had the opportunity to participate in the fourth annual Hackathon, the largest private hackathon in the world. Though the Microsoft Garage Internship program embraces the hackathon mindset by encouraging rapid prototyping and new ideas, the Hackathon gave me the opportunity to build something entirely different with the Microsoft Security team.

In three days, we built a prototype for a product called “Fact or Fiction.” Fact or Fiction lets anyone submit a news article for analysis and uses Microsoft technology to classify statements as either “suggested fact” or “opinion.” It then provides a platform for people to discuss the validity of claims by providing supporting evidence from recognized sources. Each source is labelled with a bias rating, giving people an indication of whether a certain article might have a political bias or if the source itself might be known to publish erroneous information.

During our demos and the hackathon judging process, our team was recognized with the New England Development Center Science Fair People’s Choice Award.

Garage interns participate in Microsoft's 2017 One Week Hackathon
Members of the “Fact or Fiction” team

After the exciting time with the hackathon, it was time to get back to business with our Ink application. Days after we had finalized the end-to-end version of our product, we flew out to Microsoft’s Global headquarters in Redmond, Washington to demo our project in front of our sponsors and other interested product teams. Solving quadratic equations during a live demo is more stressful than you might think!

The trip was a blast — I experienced the buzz of the more than 40,000 employees who work at the Redmond campus and got to hear speakers like Amy Hood (Microsoft’s Chief Financial Officer) and Kathleen Hogan (Microsoft’s Chief People Officer) speak about inclusion in the workplace and general advice for choosing a meaningful career path. As if the trip wasn’t fun enough already, Microsoft organized a concert at the Boeing Future of Flight Aviation Center — what a way to celebrate our successful demos!

I’m very proud of what our team was able to accomplish in only 12 weeks at the Microsoft Garage — building out a polished application from scratch that required everything from performing customer research with extensive brainstorming sessions to developing a scalable backend and database to communicate with our beautifully designed frontend. When you bring together passionate people in an environment that is both supportive and open to risk-taking innovation, it’s amazing what you can put together all while having fun in the process.

Dominic Whyte is a student at Princeton University studying Computer Science with a minor in Engineering and Management Systems. This post originally appeared on the Microsoft Garage blog

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