In the summer of 2004, as athletes around the world converged in Athens for the Olympic Games, another Olympian venture was taking place half a world away at George Mason University (Va.). Just as the ancient Greeks had formed academies of higher learning, Mason's Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering embarked on an ambitious plan to create a world-class curriculum to train "architects of the networked future." Through a partnership with Cisco to sponsor a Networking Academy, the program became a solid example of public and private organizations working together to benefit students, the university, and the local economy.
As colleges and universities compete to attract top IT students, they must provide programs that offer students a competitive edge for the workplace. Programs such as Cisco Networking Academy help provide students with practical skills that will help them hit the ground running in the IT field, prepared for industry recognized certifications, with an understanding of the critical role network operations play in everyday business functions.
Created in 1997, Cisco Networking Academy is a global training program. It goes beyond teaching "hard" technical skills to also teach "soft" business skills needed to articulate the value of technology to peers and executives once they are employed.
Working closely with Cisco, George Mason officials designed a program to meet the growing IT talent needs of the local business community. Being part of an engineering school requires GMU's IT program to produce graduates who possess solid fundamental knowledge along with the hands-on skills. The university's IT faculty perceived Cisco Networking Academy's relationship as an opportunity to enhance curriculum, as well as deepen visibility with the pool of college applicants from technical programs in regional high schools and community colleges. GMU has developed affiliations with 16 local Academies from area school districts. Academy participation has substantially enhanced linkage with the K-12 community. The university has developed advocates for the IT program among the local Academy instructors and administrators. This has provided the IT program with an edge in recruitment.
Staying at the forefront of technology education and providing a breadth of opportunities to students are central long-term goals. Students seeking technology degrees and certifications see college as the critical stepping-stone to employment. Therefore, technology programs must also teach business requirements and connect students with local businesses. Campus leaders work to develop an interconnected and mutually supporting relationship with the business community. Being committed to the market-responsive mission of the college - through allocation of resources among the most in-demand programs, and outreach with the local business community - allows for the development and deployment of curriculum that meets changing workforce demands.
The IT program's relationship with Cisco has extended beyond educational initiatives. Cisco's GMU sales representative meets regularly with the IT program faculty to assist them in interfacing with the larger corporation. This has led to Cisco engineers becoming adjunct faculty and contacts with Cisco partners to help students find jobs. At George Mason, this public-private partnership has provided a number of benefits, including access to the latest technologies and equipment, educational materials, mentoring, and introductions to the business community at large.
After six years of development, Cisco Networking Academy at George Mason University and the Academies throughout Virginia are collaborating with each other and the local and national business communities like never before. As a result of this mutually positive private sector-public sector partnership, we have improved and enhanced our recruitment, retention, and reputation. Most importantly, the Cisco Networking Academy has been exceptionally successful at meeting its goal of providing an unprecedented training ground to help students find clear paths to rewarding careers in IT and networking across all types of industries.
Don Gantz is chair of the Applied Information Technology Department in The Volgenau School of IT & Engineering at George Mason University (Va.).