Unique virtual co-ops are win-win for Center for Applied Informatics

For immediate release…
Monday – Aug. 19, 2013

By Feoshia H. Davis

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky.
- Northern Kentucky University graduate Nick Sullivan found a full-time job in his field two weeks after graduation. Remarkably, the computer science and media informatics major didn't even start applying for jobs until days before donning a cap and gown last May.
In a highly competitive job market, Sullivan credits his real-world work experience at NKU’s Center of Applied Informatics (CAI) for helping him stand out.

“It had a massive impact on my skill set. My classes laid the foundation for my field and my studies, but through CAI, we went deeper into these technologies,” said Sullivan, of Florence, who is now a web applications developer for Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions. “We learned far more than we could in the classroom.”

Real-world learning through internships and co-ops gives college students an early taste of their chosen career paths. But companies aren’t universities, and sometimes an on-the-job learning experience is less than rewarding for both the student and the employer.

That’s why NKU took a different approach with the CAI, which is housed in the NKU College of Informatics at Griffin Hall. At the CAI, students work with area businesses creating problem-solving mobile, web and IT solutions. But instead of going to an office, students work on campus, getting the oversight and structure that a university offers.

CAI takes a new approach to work co-ops

The program is a win for students and businesses. Students get experience, decent pay and access to potential employers. Businesses get cutting-edge tech talent at an affordable cost, and a chance to connect with potential employees.

“Coming out of college, students have real work experience they can list on their resumes,” said Maureen Doyle, associate dean of the NKU College of Informatics. “It really gives them a leg up in their career.”

The program, also known as a virtual co-op, comprises three main components:

  • Mobile Academy: Mobile app creation, project development, branding and design
  • Web Academy: Web-based design, strategy and implementation, database solutions, SEO research and more
  • Virtual CIO Program: IT assessment, strategy, business continuity and disaster recovery plans, information security research and best practices

“Small companies can’t afford many people in their IT organization,” said Frank Caccamo, a retired Procter & Gamble vice president of IT and a member of the CAI advisory board. “They can’t develop web applications, especially mobile ones. Today, so many people access the Internet on tablets or smart phones. There is growing, unmet business demand that CAI can meet.”

During his two years as a student in the CAI, Sullivan worked on a variety of projects for businesses and the university. He created websites and interactive digital displays, and worked in database management. He says the center stoked his curiosity and pushed him to test his capabilities.

“As I joined CAI, I gained more interest in things I didn't need for work or for school,” Sullivan said. “For example, I wanted to learn about making games using the latest technologies. I hadn't really ever done that before.”

NKU has more undergraduates majoring in IT-related fields than any other university in the region, with approximately 963 enrolled this fall.

The university’s virtual co-op model is believed to the only one of its kind in the country. The center was developed in 2006 and joined the College of Informatics in 2010. An average of 100 students work at the center at any one time, and they come from a wide variety of informatics-based disciplines. Although many have a computer science background, others come from media or business informatics, graphic design or journalism.
Other institutions have taken note.

“Many organizations have come to us, including Central Michigan University and the University Notre Dame,” said NKU CIO and CAI Executive Director Tim Ferguson. “They want to pick our brains to find the secret sauce that allows us to work.”

Key to CAI's success is the onsite, professional management of students, which is vital to facilitating a quality learning experience.

“The work is supervised by professional project managers and administrators,” Caccamo said. “This allows students to work without sending them to the companies where managing them can be a real challenge.”

CAI student work meets a global need

Since 2006, CAI students have worked on more than 1,000 research and development projects and hundreds of mobile applications. The center is open year-round and works around student schedules, helping them balance project and classroom learning. The center estimates students spent more than 51,500 hours working on projects in 2012 alone. Students are paid for their work at the center.

CAI students have consulted with organizations and businesses across the globe. More than a third of CAI's clients are startups and entrepreneurs, with the remainder being nonprofits, small businesses or government organizations. Even large brands like Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble have turned to the CAI. Many organizations return to the center with new projects, Ferguson said, and about half of CAI clients are from outside the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region.

“Students are exposed to the digital, global economy,” Ferguson said.
Among the recent international projects is a partnership with a Switzerland fire department. The Switzerland Fire Department app was developed for internal department use. It helps track vacation and sick time as well as firefighter and paramedic location. It also displays emergency events on a map. Using the location of the rescue workers, fire departments can find which rescue workers are closest to an emergency.

Students also developed an app for the San Ramon, Calif., fire department that alerts people trained in CPR when someone nearby needs assistance. (Learn more about that project at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPXyxQUbZ4I).

St. Elizabeth Healthcare partnered with CAI students to upgrade its tech capacity. The college tapped into software technology that allows medical data from St. Elizabeth’s mobile health screening vehicle to be securely sent to the hospital instantly. The unit provides cardiovascular screens that can detect high blood pressure and heart disease. Before the CAI upgrade, data couldn't be collected until the vehicle returned to the hospital.

In addition to experience, the center has had an unanticipated impact increasing student retention, Doyle said. Ninety-eight percent of CAI student return for the following academic year. “Students feel a real sense of community,” she said. “That increases the probability that they will graduate.”

Plans are to aggressively grow the center’s student workforce.

“Given the CAI's positive impact on student success, we want to provide these experiential learning opportunities to more of our students,” Ferguson said. “We hope to double the number of students working for the center as soon as possible, and have plans for even more aggressive growth beyond that. All of this requires additional investment, and there are always funding challenges, but we believe this is important if NKU is to play an even bigger role in addressing the IT talent shortfall in the region.”

Find out more about the NKU Center for Applied Informatics at http://cai.nku.edu.

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