Linking to the Real World

January, 2012

IT students partner with community businesses.

by Emilie Coulter

Look into the back offices of certain Plymouth-area businesses any spring day, and you’ll see a flurry of activity that rivals the bustle of returning birds, budding trees, and re-emerging skateboards. Young men and women congregate around computers, injecting twenty-first century technology into systems of a certain age. Who are these young tech superheroes?

For more than a decade, PSU juniors in the Systems Analysis and Design class taught by Peter Drexel, professor of computer science and technology, have partnered with community businesses to share and test their skills in concrete, hands-on projects. Classroom teaching provides the foundation for learning, but as students approach graduation and all attendant decisions about future careers, a step into the “real” working world can be the defining moment when everything falls into place. Drexel keeps this thought in mind every spring as he guides students through the process of working on real-world projects. “The idea is that students either have the project implemented by the end of the semester, or they have a plan to implement it,” Drexel says. Sometimes budget constraints or other organizational issues limit what students can accomplish, but, he notes, “they can at least show a path for it, how to get there.”

Making Connections
Drexel’s class requirement is more than just a lesson in applied computer science. He does not assign projects to students; rather, students must do their own legwork, seeking out local businesses that need assistance with some aspect of their information technology, and offering innovative ways to solve problems and update systems. This also gives students an opportunity to follow their own interests, thus boosting their investment in the work. Ryan Kaake, Dylan Drake, and Fares Perez (all class of 2012), for example, are skateboarders, snowboarders, and skiers. When it came time to find a business to approach, Plymouth’s Progression Board Shop was a shoo-in. As it turns out, the owners needed assistance beefing up their website with the hope of selling inventory online, networking the drives of their computers to access files remotely, and improving or replacing their point-of-sale system.

Similarly, PSU’s radio station, WPCR, was a natural choice for Daniel “DJ” Mack and Curtis Hennessey (both class of 2012). At first, Mack, who is a DJ for the radio station, was at a loss when he was assigned the task of finding a project. Then, he says, “I was just sitting in the radio station, looking around at the disorganized CD shelves, and I thought, ‘Oh! One and one together, this works!’” He and Hennessey proposed to the station that they digitize the CD inventory, update the website, and work toward setting up a webcasting system.

Over the years, Drexel’s students have taken on a number of interesting projects, including orchestrating a complete computer conversion at Rhino Bike Works in Plymouth; designing a point-of-sale system for Hillyer’s Tackle Shop in Waterford, CT; resolving audio system operational issues in Kendal at Hanover (a continuing care retirement community); and creating a vehicle maintenance and inventory tracking system for Lombardo Loam and Gravel Company in Acton, MA. Students have worked even closer to “home”: designing automated ticketing kiosks for PSU’s Silver Center for the Arts and helping to develop a security device to allow students off-hours access to Memorial Hall and specific labs, among others.

Confronting Reality, Reaping Benefits
For Drexel’s students, working with real people on real enterprises comes with a set of rewards that generally outweighs the unique challenges the projects also bring. David Allen and Richard Frederick (both class of 2012) worked with Campton Elementary School computer teacher Paul Yelle ’95 to update the school cafeteria’s point-of-sale system. Allen, who transferred to PSU from another university, says students did not have the opportunity to work with people outside his former university. “We had basically the same class [at my other school],” Allen says, “but you would have to make up the project and pretend there was a problem. Here we actually get a chance to work with people.” Kaake, who worked with Progression Board Shop, agrees. “This is getting us out into the real world. There are people out there with the title of systems analyst, and this is what they do. They go to businesses, see what they need, and how things can be improved to make their businesses run smoother and easier. I could definitely see myself being a systems analyst. This is putting us on the right track.”

When students experience actual challenges faced by functioning companies, their horizons expand. Often, says Drexel, there’s a natural crossover from information technology (IT) into the business world. His students generally need to make a cost-benefit analysis of systems: “Will it pay for itself over time?” Drexel says. “How long will it take?” Kaake and his partners explored options for Progression Board Shop, even knowing that the small shop’s budget was limited. “They didn’t need a huge, extensive inventory management system,” Kaake says. “We could offer them a service that automatically orders inventory for them when it gets low, but they really don’t need that … We’ll give them some figures they can run with.”

Productive Collaborations
Clients, too, appreciate the reciprocal relationship they have with the students. Yelle, who has advised several PSU/Campton Elementary projects, says, “The nice part about working with the students is they are willing to keep morphing with the project. I could keep throwing stuff their way. I was very pleased. A lot of this was new for them [but] as they figured it out, they were easily able to explain the reasoning to me. This was the most productive collaboration yet.”

Some partnerships have been so rewarding that students have extended them into senior year. A member of the team that worked with Rhino Bike Works several years ago transformed his junior-year project into a senior capstone experience. Two other students who worked with a Seacoast school district designed computer science and technology senior projects that were offshoots of that earlier collaboration.

Over the years, as the greater community has learned about Drexel’s class, business owners have come to him to discuss projects with which they’d like students to help with. As with traditional internships, these student-business liaisons provide students with a way to apply what they’re learning in class and to gain professional experience. At the same time, the partnerships allow businesses a chance to refresh their practices and systems with the help of the bright new perspectives and technologies students offer. Meanwhile, both businesses and students get a chance to test the waters for possible future employment opportunities.


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