NKU grads get high-tech education, jobs

When Northern Kentucky University wanted to better prepare students in its college of informatics for their eventual real-world careers, it considered everything, down to the building where their education took place. Griffin Hall, which opened in May of 2011 and won the school a 2012 CIO 100 award, doubles as a practical technology lab and meeting place for virtual co-ops with potential employers. According to NKU's CIO Tim Ferguson, the building was designed to get more students interested in informatics and to erase the perception that IT's job opportunities are nonexistent or unattractive.

"If you look around the country at higher ed, a lot of tech programs are being eliminated," he says. "Ours is booming, with record enrollment."

To capitalize on this interest, the quality of the technology in the classrooms had to match that of the programs being offered. Ferguson says the school's curriculum was already making an effort to bring the latest technology straight to its students, but it had reached a point where facilities needed to catch up.

"There are five areas we really are focused on: cloud, analytics and big data, info security, social, [and] mobile and journalism linked together," says Ferguson.

"It's really an education for the 21st century, and the building makes that all come to life."

NKU's $54 million Griffin Hall is digital throughout and sits on an intelligent building system, which manages utilities such as lighting, water and the HVAC system right on the university's network. Data from the building is collected and stored, and can be analyzed later by students. "Giving students this applied experience is like a living lab for them," Ferguson says.

All 32 classrooms have digital presentation capabilities that record lectures so students can review them later on their own devices. But Ferguson says the crown jewel of Griffin Hall is its large, digitally enabled auditorium that boasts a computer simulation center and provides a venue for seminars and entrepreneurial activities.

This "digitorium" has helped NKU make Griffin Hall a hub for the business community on campus. Over 150 local companies have hired students for virtual co-ops, bringing in software-development or R&D projects and allowing students to complete the work on site.

Jim Scott, CIO of Knowledge Works, a nonprofit foundation focusing on secondary education, is among those taking advantage of the program. He's employed NKU students to help with software development.

"I put the business requirements together, hand it off, and they build it for me," he says. "I've offshored, I've outsourced and been CTO for Fortune 25 companies. This is the coolest model I've ever worked with."

For Scott, the work is significantly cheaper and more flexible than offshoring. For students, it provides not just pay but valuable work experience and the potential for a future job. Scott just hired an NKU grad who participated in a co-op job.

Ferguson says informatics at Griffin Hall has become quite competitive and the school plans to use the program as a recruiting tool. "We take the cream of the crop."

Follow Editorial Assistant Lauren Brousell on Twitter: @lbrousell.

Read more about education in CIO's Education Drilldown.

This story, "NKU grads get high-tech education, jobs" was originally published by CIO.

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