CIS students teach Amazon Alexa new skills

Created: October 4, 2017  |  Last Updated: July 16, 2020  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

WASHINGTON, PA (Oct. 4, 2017)—Ever wondered how your smart device knows what to do when you use voice command to ask a question?

Students in Dr. Charles Hannon’s Human Computer Interaction course took a deep dive into what makes Amazon’s Alexa tick, and ended up designing their own “skills” for the helpful home assistant based around Washington & Jefferson College (W&J), covering topics like Intersession abroad, what’s going on at U. Grant Miller Library, and where various buildings and departments are located.

“Voice user interfaces are a new interaction experience for students to learn about. At the same time, the project will teach students a very traditional lesson—in order to make meaningful and useful products, designers and developers need to understand users, what goals they are trying to accomplish, and how they conceptualize systems that are supposed to help them with these goals,” Dr. Hannon said.

To get an idea of what questions different users might ask their device, the students interviewed their peers, using the language from these interactions to program their Alexa skills.

“It was a great experience. I know a lot of people don’t get to do programming like this,” computing and information studies major Sarah Majercak ’19 said. “If you’re a student who’s interested in working with new technologies, something like this could go on your resume. Even knowing how to program an Alexa is a skill not many people have since it’s so new.”

Take a closer look at the work the class did in the video below.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.

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