Partnership with Express Scripts has computer science students developing projects the company can license and use

Express Scripts project

Students (seated from left) Gary Yerby, Yifei Xu and Richard Chaidez talk to Express Scripts’ Mike Shoemaker (center) about the web application they created in a collaborative project between UMSL and the company. The students did the work for Express Scripts while enrolled in an Enterprise Web Development course taught by Associate Professor Wenjie He (at left). (Photo by August Jennewein)

Gary Yerby and his teammates had more riding on their work than a letter grade last fall, and it showed during their Enterprise Web Development course.

The computer science students at the University of Missouri–St. Louis came together to build a responsive web application, complete with advanced features such as drag-and-drop capability – to aid users accessing a database. More important than pleasing their instructor, Associate Professor Wenjie He, was satisfying their client, Mike Shoemaker, the director of application architecture and engineering at Express Scripts.

The project was just the latest produced by UMSL students for the Fortune 100 company, headquartered on the northern edge of campus, as part of a program that started a decade ago.

“I think I learned more in this class than most of my other classes,” Yerby says. “I can’t really say what the magic gain was, but I think there’s this portion – it’s a real-world problem so it kind of intrigues you. It kind of pulls you in.”

So too does the competition created with other teams of students in the course attempting to meet the same objective. They’re also keenly aware of the opportunity they have to show off their creativity for a company that could one day become their employer.

Students might even find extra motivation to do well once they learn of the financial prizes given to all teams whose projects meet the base requirements. There’s even greater reward – not enough to cover tuition, Yerby says, but not nothing – for the winning team.

The agreement between the Department of Math and Computer Science and Express Scripts is one example of collaboration that developed around the time the pharmacy benefit management company was moving into its new space along Interstate 70.

Cezary Janikow, chair of the Department of Math and Computer Science, met with his counterparts at Express Scripts and came up with the idea for computer science students to develop class projects that the company could license and use.

“They pay us royalties on those projects, and the royalty money we turn into scholarship endowments and into some other student support in the department,” Janikow says.

The department has used the Enterprise Web Development course and a Software Engineering course – both open to undergraduate and graduate students alike – as the workshop for developing the projects.

“For other classes, the pressure’s not that high,” says He, who has overseen an Express Scripts project while teaching the Enterprise Web Development course seven times, the first in 2008. “It’s just routine work – although they’re taking tests, but they’re used to it. For this one, we have so many deadlines in a short period of time, they need to do presentations to reach the milestones, so there’s a lot of pressure.”

It has a way of bringing the best out of students, who usually don’t know they’ll be working on a project for Express Scripts until after they’ve enrolled in the course.

A screenshot of the winning project for Express Scripts

A screenshot of the winning project developed by the computer science students shows the CRUD application –create, read, update and delete – based off the React JavaScript framework. It’s equipped with a copy functionality that impressed Express Scripts’ Mike Shoemaker.

Yerby and his teammates – Yifei Xu, Richard Chaidez, Chaitanya Krishna Pilla and Snehasri Thumma – weren’t focused on winning the top prize when they started the project. They just wanted to meet all the requirements set for constructing a CRUD application – create, read, update and delete – based off the React JavaScript framework. They took extra care to ensure it ran without bugs.

But once they were certain they’d achieved those objectives, they built on the advanced features that set them apart from their competition.

“The copy functionality is fantastic, something I hadn’t even thought of,” Shoemaker says.

Shoemaker, who earned an MBA from UMSL in 2011 through an Express Scripts-focused section of the university’s Professional MBA program, has grown accustomed to quality work from UMSL students. And he says getting the chance to evaluate students who could one day work for the company is a big reason Express Scripts has funded the collaboration.

But the experience has proved valuable even if they land elsewhere after graduation.

“For the students, especially those students who did well in this class,” He says, “they’ve told me it’s probably the biggest bright spot on their résumé.”


This story was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of UMSL Magazine. Have a story idea for UMSL Magazine? Email magazine@umsl.edu.

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