Information Communication Technologies & Digital Media Sector Team

Thanks to support from ICT-DM Deputy Sector Navigator Paula Hodge, a team of students from Cuesta College was among the top finishers in the national Amazon Web Services Alexa Skills Hackathon.

Out of 1,084 participants, the Cuesta team tied for fifth place. Team members Royce Ferriday, Thomas Shoulders, and Adair Gomez Garduno created Quest Assist, a chatbot designed to help students find information about everything from campus food to tutoring services.

The project was part of Cuesta’s Introductory Cloud Computing course taught by computer information systems instructor Robert Sfarzo. Quest Assist is now available as a skill in the Alexa store, and the team received an Alexa Spot, Amazon Web Services credits, and Amazon gift cards.

In just six weeks, students without any prior programming experience learned everything necessary to create a basic chatbot – showing how easy and accessible these technologies can be.

“As a first-year computer student, I was intimidated a bit entering the Alexa competition,” Shoulders said. “We had an outgoing, focused team that worked well together.  Each member had unique skills that contributed to our entry.”

Sfarzo and the students hope the Alexa hackathon will be the first of many opportunities to work with Amazon and Alexa.

“Since having been a part of this project I have grown to understand that it takes a lot of work to develop a program. I am thankful that I took part because I will be using the Alexa platform in the future,” Ferriday said.

Sfarzo said Hodge has supported innovations like this and encourages faculty to seek new opportunities that can benefit students in cloud computing and beyond. She encourages faculty to align skills with industry certifications and badges and create opportunities for entrepreneurship across the sector.

“Paula Hodge has been a uniquely profound beacon of knowledge and encouragement,” Sfarzo said. “Much of our current and future cloud computing successes are rooted in elements that Paula has fostered.”

Moving forward, Sfarzo is working with Cuesta faculty member Neil Higgins to establish a student entrepreneurship club. He sees opportunities for students to create Alexa skills for free and monetize them on Amazon’s platform.

“Chatbots will likely help us achieve student entrepreneurship goals,” he said. “I know business law and accounting, and we will explore opportunities to see how we can further shepherd our students into this direction.”