For five years, Mercer University students have supported the community through the development of special web projects. As part of the curriculum, students in the IT and Informatics program and Software Application Development and Human-Computer Interaction program in Mercer’s College of Professional Advancement partner regularly with local organizations and agencies to bring their visions for websites and applications to life.
One of the latest projects they’re tackling aims to help adolescents take better charge of their health. Through a partnership with College of Nursing alumna Dr. Cashmere Miller and the DeKalb County Health Department, an app and website called MyNextLevl are now in development.
Dr. Miller, who earned a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on Family Nurse Practitioner and a Doctor of Nursing Practice from Mercer, is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Public Health Service and serves as a primary care nurse practitioner at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Prior to this role, she worked as a public health registered nurse for the DeKalb County Health Department’s Children’s Medical Services program, which supports families with children with special health care needs. She saw that the adolescents in the program were struggling with the transition to the adult health care world and finding the resources they needed. They weren’t engaging with their own health care needs because they didn’t fully understand them, she said.
So, she decided her doctoral project would focus on trying to improve this process in DeKalb County.
“I thought about an app and website to be able to streamline all the paperwork we were using to work with the participants. They could use this as a resource to have all of their health care needs at their fingertips,” Dr. Miller said. “I wanted to create this novel smartphone application and website, so it would help this population.”
Since she didn’t have any web development experience, her first thought was to see if someone at her alma mater could help. She stopped by the College of Professional Advancement (COPA) on the Atlanta campus one day and went door to door until she met Dr. Feng Liu, professor and program coordinator of Information Technology and Informatics, who loved her idea.
Dr. Liu said the informatics/software programs have incorporated service learning into the curriculum since 2016. In 2018, the informatics program was awarded a mini-grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities to advance civic learning and social responsibility within the major.
Mercer students get involved early with web design projects for clients within the community, and they often work on multiple projects, including a capstone before they graduate. Since not all students are pursuing careers as web developers, they can choose the complexity of their projects and the skills they want to learn, from basic web design on up.
Some projects requested by agencies are tackled by an entire class and then worked on by another. For instance, students in one class may work on the information structure for a website, another may focus on the design, and another on coding and development. Most projects are completed in about a year and a half, but some take longer.
A lot of the COPA students are working adults who don’t have time to do projects outside the classroom, and these service-learning opportunities allow them to master new skills while making a difference. The ideas they pursue are often inspired by their own life experiences.
“Collaborating with community partners on real-world projects is our tradition, and students grow with civic responsibility when they graduate through these kind of projects,” Dr. Liu said. “I think the benefit for students is they can meet the real client, and the program itself can have a positive impact later on the community.”
Mercer has been involved in the MyNextLevl project for over a year now, and about 30 students have worked on it so far. In addition to Dr. Feng Liu, Dr. Maria Berrios Rolon and professor David Phillips have been involved by teaching classes related to the project, and new faculty member Dr. Zhiling Long will join and teach a class in support of the project starting this fall.
Dr. Miller said she wanted MyNextLevl to help patients increase their knowledge about their condition, find support groups and providers, and keep track of their doctor’s appointments and medications. After interviewing Dr. Miller, Mercer students did the design, prototyping and coding for the project, Dr. Liu said
Ricks Anderson, who graduated in May with his informatics degree, worked on MyNextLevl during several of his courses. He did product design, wireframes and mockups his junior year and moved on his senior year to writing code, building the actual site, and creating a password system and user database. He also gained graphic design skills.
“It’s not just making a webpage; it’s adding code to the front and back end. We did a bunch of collaboration with the client to get the website just right,” he said. “A lot of the skills carried over to other facets of the program. From those experiences, I was able to add a lot more to my repertoire, and I can market myself better.”
John Waruhiu, an informatics/software student who will graduate in May 2022, was involved in building and designing pages for the MyNextLevl website during a web development course this summer. He transferred to Mercer from another college and said this was his first opportunity to contribute to a web project for a client.
“It really gave me insight into how it feels like to build a real website for someone or a company. Before that, I never had a chance to build something that is not just for class but is going to help someone,” he said. “It was interesting.”
Dr. Miller said the initial website design was shared with the health department, and participants tested it and provided feedback. The trial confirmed that MyNextLevl could be beneficial to adolescents with chronic conditions, who use technology often and see it as a reliable resource. The preliminary results showed a 20% increase in medical knowledge by those who participated.
The MyNextLevl project is about halfway done right now, and Dr. Miller hopes it will roll out by fall 2022. Once the app and website are finished, another round of testing will be conducted before they are put into use by the health department.
“I would love for DeKalb County to be able to use this in the program on a regular basis, so it can help streamline their process,” she said. “They’re having similar problems across the state. I would love to expand this statewide and, who knows, go to other states.”
Dr. Miller also sees potential for MyNextLevl to eventually help individuals in other vulnerable settings, such as veterans.
“I am looking forward to bringing all of my experiences together to innovate and improve healthcare outcomes for our veterans,” she said.