Student EXPO Project Allows State Board of Education to Mine Vital Data

Thursday, April 21 2011

By Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – Mapping out a successful future often depends on the ability to understand the past. But a look into the past requires ready access to historical data. In the computer age, that can be a challenge if you can’t recall the key words that retrieve it.

University of Idaho computer science students are providing unprecedented access to historical documents for the Idaho State Board of Education. A 2011 capstone engineering design project that spanned two semesters included first semester team Dallas Stinger, Aaron Phillips and Wenlong Huang, and second semester team Kaleb Houck, Zack Kimball and Seth Thompson.

The result of their combined efforts is a software tool that enables SBOE staff to find and retrieve documents based on incomplete search specifications.

“Large organizations like SBOE collect files of minutes of meetings and other documents recording issues discussed and decisions made,” said Houck. “Years later, while considering related issues, officials want to retrieve text from old documents for the insights they might contain. Often, they cannot recall when these things were discussed, and do not have precise keywords to search for. This tool makes retrieval of that information much easier.”

The project was conceived when professor Larry Stauffer, senior associate dean of engineering, met with SBOE members who expressed frustration regarding their ability to access documents. Together, they worked out an approach to the problem. Stauffer then presented electrical and computer engineering professor Gregory Donohoe with the project proposal.

The resulting tool enables users to access data using word stems and synonyms of keywords.

“We had to design a tool that was capable of taking the user’s input and finding words that were related either by synonym or different tenses of a key stem word – for example, ran/run/running or speed/hurry/move. Then, we had to figure out how to find those words within various types of documents,” said Thompson. “The first semester team researched different techniques for searching and stemming, and together we produced a working tool that will be delivered to the SBOE.”

As the policy-making body for all public education in Idaho, the SBOE provides oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.

The Data Mining Tool developed by University of Idaho engineering students provides SBOE staff access to Microsoft’s Word and Excel documents, as well as PDF and plain text versions of the documented policies that have gone before the Board for approval. The student designed program is powered by Microsoft Windows.

Accessible data now includes all official meeting minutes, organized by year, dating back to 1991, as well as other documents related to agendas, budgets, audits and other matters requiring the board’s approval. The Idaho students’ data miner will be used by SBOE office staff at the capitol and remotely. It will not be made available to the public.

The project was sponsored by the Idaho SBOE. Donohoe served as the team’s faculty adviser.

For more student designs or information on EXPO 2011, set for April 29 at the University of Idaho, visit
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is classified by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation as high research activity. The student population of 12,000 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For more information, visit