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The Meeting of Industry, Scientific Minds
The UA Race Track Industry Program and School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts have joined to develop technology meant to help solve age-old problems in the racing field.
In working to develop a mobile app intended to draw interest in horse racing among a younger population, Carlos Sanchez began surveying his friends.
Sanchez, a University of Arizona student in the School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts, or SISTA, found that his friends knew little to nothing about the industry, the rules of racing or the terminology used, making quite obvious what has been considered one of the greatest challenges the aging industry is facing.
But Sanchez and others who enrolled in ISTA/RTIP 497A, commonly known as "Building Apps for the Racing Industry," at the UA had both a plan and a mechanism to try and help solve some of the greatest challenges facing the race track industry.
A joint effort between SISTA and the UA's Race Track Industry Program, the interdisciplinary, action-oriented course involves students from both disciplines in projects meant to find technology-based solutions to the challenges.
The class culminates with students presenting their ideas to those in the industry during the 2012 Global Symposium on Racing & Gaming, which will be held Dec. 3-6 in Tucson.
"One of the biggest complaints in racing is that there needs to be younger people interested and participating," said Wendy Davis, a lecturer in the UA's animal science department, which houses the racing program, known as RTIP.
"Even for those people who love stats, it is hard to figure out how to make the stats work," Davis said. "But this generation understands technology, so we are using that format to find solutions."
If fact, the most ardent followers either grew up watching and attending races or were directly encouraged by friends to take an interest in racing, much like a mentor, Davis said.
That's part of what Sanchez observed with his friends.
Sanchez and Benjamin Dicken collaborated on a Web app development project called "Bet Buddy." Designed as an educational game, users move through levels, learning about the concept of racing, participating in races and learning the rules and terminology along the way.
"It's kind of intimidating for someone who has no idea what to do with these statistics on the different horses," said Dicken, a computer science and SISTA senior serving as a teaching assistant for the course. "But the app is educational and informative."
Dicken said, given the existing technology and the broad use of smartphones, many opportunities exist for expanding methods for reaching different audiences and for engaging potential race track followers in ways not ever seen before.
But at this stage in the process, students are working to develop an idea and to demonstrate how it is feasible enough for further development and, eventually, commercialization.
"They have a real deadline. It's not an academic deadline, but they will be presenting to 500 people," said Doug Reed, director of RTIP, which has graduated nearly 600 students.
The collaboration is grounded in the thought that one of the best tests of academic achievement is the ability to apply knowledge; to take what has been learned and attempt to remedy a problem or improve the experiences people can have.
Students do not have exams. They do not have to write papers.
However, they work under strict deadlines and present weekly on progress toward developing an end product. Also, the faculty members interview students at different points of the semester, offering guidance on their progress.
This semester, another team worked on developing a game quiz and "fantasy racing" app, which would allow users to follow and participate in virtual races, relying on a text-message-based voting system.
"There has never been a really good fantasy game in racing," said Joe Dougherty, a RTIP graduate student. "It's an easy way to get those people who are dedicated to the game by borrowing the same understanding about fantasy football and baseball."
Dougherty also noted that with two international students from Ireland, the students have been able to develop a more global understanding of the industry's needs. He also said it has been especially helpful collaborating with those from SISTA and computer science.
"You're asking, 'How do I get new fans?' So, it's great to get their perspective, especially because they don't know about racing. That's good when you are trying to cater to a whole group that knows nothing about horse racing," Dougherty said.
Jeffery Ahern took the course last year, the first time it was offered. During last year's symposium and along with UA alumni Keith Kowalski and Tom Smallwood, he earned a contract with the Stronach Group, which operates horse tracks across the nation.
Over the course of the class, Ahern and his team designed QR codes and integrated those codes into the race track industry. Essentially, those within the industry can advertise through the QR codes and users who scan the code are able to play a race and earn rewards.
"It was very interesting to get, in college, real-world experience on that level," said Ahern, who, like Kowalski, graduated from the UA last year with a computer science degree. "It wasn't just a class project; it was a real thing that was going to happen and show us what amazing things you, as a college student, could do.
Kowalski said the course was one of the most challenging, yet opportunistic classes he took at the UA.
"We gained a completely new perspective of what a student outside of our major sees and expects," Kowalski said.
"To me, the race track students were like a customer – they had a vision but needed the connections to make it happen," he said. "We constantly had to take the guidance from these students, and then make things work according to their ideas."
Kowalski also said he and his team did not expect that they would actually gain jobs as a direct result of their work in the course.
"The notion that our idea caught the attention of others at the conference is still a humbling and rewarding realization," he said, adding that the team has developed a business plan for the project they began at the UA. Currently, the project is being expanded and could go to the public as early as December.
"The significance to all this is that it ties directly to what we accomplished in that class," Kowalski said. "The class is why we are where we are."