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Training the Architects of The Networked Future

How a public/private friendship is benefiting students, an institution, and the local economy
University Business, Jul 2010

In the summer of 2004, as athletes from 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, George Mason University's Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering embarked on an ambitious plan to create a world-class curriculum to train the "architects of the networked future."

Partnering with Cisco to sponsor a Networking Academy, the program became a solid example of a partnership between public and private organizations that has benefited students, the university, and the local economy.

As colleges and universities compete to attract top IT students, they must provide programs and courses that offer students a competitive edge once they enter the workplace. Incorporating programs such as Cisco Networking Academy helps provide students with the 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 that provides students with networking and technical skills. Committed to delivering the highest standard of information technology education to students across nationalities, economic circumstances, or means and genders, the program is designed to offer students real-world skills that will position them for successful careers. Cisco Networking Academy goes beyond teaching "hard" technical skills to also teach young people the "soft" business skills they need to articulate the value of the technology to their 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 that possess solid fundamental knowledge along with the hands-on skills to enable their employers to meet business objectives. 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. George Mason University has developed affiliations with 16 local Academies from school districts in the area. These local Academies are now active with approximately 300 students in total.

GMU shares core educational goals with Cisco, in particular, the support of secondary and community college technical education. The Academy participation has substantively enhanced GMU's linkage with the educational community. Through Networking Academy relationships, the university has developed many advocates for the IT program among the local Academy instructors and high school administrators. This has provided GMU's IT program with a competitive edge in recruiting students graduating from high school or transferring from community colleges.

Providing a breath of opportunities to students are key long-term goals.

Staying at the forefront of technology education and providing a breadth of opportunities to students are central long-term goals, ensuring that the knowledge and skills that are taught at GMU are relevant, purposeful, and quickly adaptable. Students seeking technology degrees and certifications see college as the critical stepping-stone to employment. Therefore, it is important that technology programs also teach business requirements and connect students with the local business community.

To be responsive to the market and offer the best opportunities to students, GMU has worked to develop an interconnected and mutually supporting relationship with the local business community. Having leadership committed to the market-responsive mission of the college, including the allocation of resources among the most in-demand programs, and outreach and ongoing communication with the local business community, allows for the development and deployment of curriculum that meets changing workforce demands.

Partnering with local businesses and educational organizations to develop appropriate training and academic curricula enables GMU to understand local workforce needs and promptly respond to changes, ensuring students are well prepared for rewarding careers and local businesses have access to the qualified talent that they need to grow successfully.

The IT program's relationship with Cisco has extended beyond educational initiatives. The Cisco sales representative to GMU meets regularly with the IT program faculty to assist them in interfacing with the larger corporation. This assistance has led to Cisco engineers becoming adjunct faculty for the IT program as well as contacts with Cisco partners to help students find jobs. For us 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 at The Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering at George Mason University (Va.)

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