CSC News

April 22, 2004

From project team leader to software testing, co-ops provide real-world experience

Photo showing co-op participants meeting with Vickie Williams, assistant director.Four computer science students are among the more than 66 this academic year who are blending their education with real-world experience through North Carolina State University’s Cooperative (Co-op) Education Program.

Three, Stephanie Lynch and Michael Ramirez, both juniors, and Ken Marker, a senior, are heading back to work for previous co-op sponsors this summer, while Neha Jain, also a senior, has now moved into a research support position at NC State’s Department of Computer Science. Lynch, at the left in the photo; Jain, second from left; and Ramirez, right, met recently with Vickie Williams, assistant director of the Co-op Program.

Ramirez will again be working as team leader for an ongoing project with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) Command. Based in San Diego, SPAWAR is the U.S. Navy’s chief engineer for command, control, communications, computer and intelligence systems. Ramirez, a scientific aide, is team leader for a sensor integration systems design project, working in Charleston, SC.

When asked how he manages as a student leading three full-time staff members, he acknowledged some initial skepticism on the part of his team. “But I have a love for this type of work and I think I’m a fairly decent leader, so with a combination of the two, we’ve now meshed,” he says.

He acknowledges that “the amount of responsibility that I’m getting is far beyond anything I expected,” and notes that he has several mentors and project managers that he can turn to for guidance “if something breaks down or there’s a deadline problem,” he says.

Ramirez began working on the project in the summer after his freshman year. He learned about the position while living in the Jacksonville area before coming to the university.

“I was working as a computer technician for a store in town and did some work for some of the government agencies on the (Camp Lejeune Marine Corps) base,” he says. “They let me know that as soon as I was eligible for a co-op position, they would have one available for me.”

A programming class in the 10th grade launched him on his career path. “I became so passionate about it that I completed the coursework in ten weeks, and then I finished the next level by the end of the year,” he says.

Lynch is heading back for a third semester with the Department of Defense (DOD) at Ft. Mead, MD. She met a recruiter for the agency while serving as an ambassador during a minority career fair at NC State.

Her assignments have varied with each stint, Lynch says. “The first time, I worked on a database for deployment services, developing a system for matching needs and wants of the personnel. In her second assignment, she served on a help desk for a DOD database that provided information about different countries. She’ll learn about her assignment for this summer when she arrives.

Lynch says the Co-op Program is providing her valuable work experience that will help as she begins her fulltime job search. She’s also begun building her professional network, another valuable asset for launching her career. “Even if I don’t get selected (for a position with her current agency) I now have people I can contact.”

“It also helps me know what I want to do in the future,” she says, noting that she’d like to work with database management.

Marker is returning this summer to IBM in the Research Triangle Park, where he has worked four semesters already in pervasive software testing.

“Testing is a great way to gain experience with a wide variety of technologies,” he says. “I’m working with many different server hardware and software platforms and testing many cutting edge software applications.”

The assignment is right on target with his career plans. “I am interested in doing consulting in the future,” Marker says. “Testing is a starting ground for building a broad understanding necessary for consulting. Most managers will allow co-ops to cover specific jobs if you show initiative. I’m going to focus on the database related tests and hopefully get some DB2 certifications along with my experience. All this should help me move on to the next level.”

He has found the experience to be a plus on campus as well. ”Working in a full-time co-op position in the industry allows me to see what will be expected when I get a ‘real’ job, so I pick up a better work ethic. It’s helped me pick a few of the areas within the IT industry that I enjoy and learn skills that will help me get a job working with those technologies.”

Jain, who now is in the computer science department’s Accelerated Bachelors/Masters Degree Program, has completed her co-op experience.

She worked last summer and fall with Sony Ericsson’s mobile communications unit, setting up flashing stations where new software was put in the GSM phones. SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards were used to simulate environments for testing purposes.

"There were days when we were asked to flash 1,000 phones in a day," she says. “The flashing stations enabled workers to flash 15 phones at a time making the entire process very efficient.” She also trained the new co-op students to use new phones and equipment and worked with a diverse group of people.

The SIM cards, actually tiny computers, are the key to over 600 million GSM (Global System for Mobile) mobile phones. The tiny computer has memory, a processor, and the ability to interact with the user, and also can be moved from one mobile phone to another.

Jain is now completing research that she’s been working on with Annie Antón, associate professor of software engineering, regarding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). This is the law behind the privacy forms that individuals sign when going to the doctor or a hospital. Later this summer, Jain will begin working as Antón’s research assistant.

About the program
The university’s Co-op Program enables students to retain full-time enrollment while working off campus on alternating semesters, for at least three semesters of work. Students normally can begin a co-op during their sophomore year, or after accumulating 30 academic hours and matriculating into a major, says Arnold Bell, director of the program. Those who enter the university with advanced placement credits may begin sooner than their sophomore year, after accumulating the required credit hours.

The program gives students the opportunity to apply in a work environment what they learned in their classes, Bell says, and then return to school with a new appreciation for learning more, because they’ve seen at the workplace what more they need. “The students can also share their experience from the workplace” with their fellow students.

Employers benefit from the new knowledge and practices that students bring to the work experience.

Housing for students is typically arranged by the Co-op Program sponsor. For example, Lynch shared an apartment with three other co-op students, splitting the rent and other expenses. This is typical, Williams says.

The Co-op Program office holds information sessions about the program several times a year. A spring semester session held in Withers Hall drew over 250 students, including 65 computer science majors who were interested in exploring co-op opportunities.

Students interested in the co-op experience may contact Vickie Williams, assistant director of the Cooperative Education Program, for further details or check online.

- rzewnicki -

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