Writer: Minerva Baumann
New Mexico State University is one of only 12 universities in the country to receive a cyber infrastructure training grant from the National Science Foundation. The award, worth more than $460,000, will help local high school students gain experience on how information technology is integrated into various disciplines to help them be better informed and skilled when they choose a career.
The three-year grant will fund NMSU’s Cyber Infrastructure Training and Mentoring (CI-TraM) program to train and mentor up to 50 students per year who will spend seven hours a week for two semesters at NMSU’s Computer Center as a job site to learn not only technology skills, but also receive career coaching. The grant is the second awarded to NMSU’s Information and Communication Technologies department; the first grant created NMSU’s Cyber Infrastructure Architect position, held by Diana Dugas.
“The earlier students can understand how important information technology is and how to use technology effectively, the better off they’ll be throughout the rest of their careers,” said Dugas, principal investigator of the CI-TraM project. The CI-TraM team consists of Dugas, co-principal investigators Satyajayant Misra, computer science professor, Hameed Badaway, electrical and computer engineering professor, and Brian Ormand, a mentor and project manager in NMSU’s Information and Communication Technologies department.
“One of the big bonuses of this program is that students are required to research the factors that typically determine success in their field of interest,” said Ormand. “This includes talking to people who are currently working in their career interest area, researching where the jobs are expected to be for certain degrees, what technical and soft skills will make them competitive in the future job market, how to acquire experience while in school, and how to build a network of mentors and professional contacts.”
“The biggest thing for students at my age is learning what they do not want to do,” said Jillian Hughes, a senior at Centennial High School in Las Cruces and lead technology intern in the program. “However, this program is not just about weeding out what you don’t like, it is about digging deeper into something that does interest you so that you have experience in the field before you try to get an actual job for it. As interns learn more about a topic of interest, they typically become even more excited and motivated,” said Hughes, who was part of a smaller pilot group to test the concept last year.
Ormand works with Las Cruces Public School students in the Experience-based Career Education Learning (ExCEL) program, which places students in workplaces around the area to gain career and workplace readiness. He coordinates the high school students placed at NMSU’s Computer Center and worked with Dugas to initiate the small pilot program that has since become CI-TraM, and able to accommodate much larger student cohorts.
“CI-TraM is an excellent program because it goes beyond the bounds of the work skills other ExCEL students receive,” Hughes said. “One part of the program is that Dr. Ormand is solely focused on helping students learn more about how to operate in the workplace. He has helped me better my resume, learn how to interview others, figure out what I should major in for the job I want in the future, and discover more about the IT field and the different pathways in it. For the other half of the program Dr. Dugas leads a technical pathway that has students learn more about technology, critical for success in all STEM fields.”
Dugas is working with NMSU faculty to generate modules for the students to expose them to the various information technologies interesting or unique to a field. “Faculty members are really excited about the program. Even those who are unable to participate this year are asking if they can make a module for the next group of students,” Dugas said. “It is a goal of the program to develop into a self-serve system where students can pursue modules within their interest field, independent of the rest of the group, allowing for a personalized tailoring of knowledge and skills for each student. Those who are still exploring will be encouraged to continue to do so. We’re encouraging knowledge and future success, not any particular path or career.”
The team agrees that technology is fundamentally reshaping careers of the future and the CI-TraM program is one way to make sure students can enter the workforce better prepared.
“We’re trying to make sure the new generation understands cyber infrastructure much more so they can use it more effectively in their research and careers,” said Misra.
The CI-TraM program aims to assist students in all fields in gaining knowledge about how no career is isolated, each depends on information technology and other disciplines. The team also emphasizes career exploration and gaining social capital in the program.
“The students are developing skills that will benefit them their entire lives: from learning how to promote themselves to creating connections with people in their particular field that may benefit the student’s career down the road,” Dugas said.
“The NSF is looking to us to create a model that can be used by other institutions,” said Misra.
“We want to see if the students are gaining knowledge, that they’re gaining technical knowledge that can then be applied, and proving to the NSF and the students that this program is valuable,” said Dugas. “The NSF wants to see that not only are students learning in the short term, but also that they are remaining in the STEM fields and using technology in whatever fields they’re in.”
The CI-TraM program will continue to follow these students’ progress after they graduate from college to see how they incorporate technology into their careers.
“There will be long-term tracking,” said Ormand. “We’ll be contacting all of the students and asking them how things are going with their degree program or their new job. We will be doing follow-ups for as long as the grant goes, although we intend to continue both the program and the follow-ups after that.”