Making The Real World Connection

February 1, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Connecting high school students with real-world information technology experience is the goal of Ken Brower, Trivalent Group Inc. chief technology officer and a long-time supporter of the Kent Career Technical Center’s information technology program.

Brower, leader of an advisory board of IT professionals for the KCTC program, said he’s seen some amazing changes since he joined in the mid-1990s. The information technology program is one of 29 in six career pathways offered to high school students at KCTC, 1655 East Beltline Ave. NE.

“From where it was in the mid-‘90s to where it is today, the curriculum has changed quite drastically,” Brower said. “We brought in an addition of a soft skills set — communications, written and oral, listening skills — so they know how to work with customers.”

Trivalent Group, a Grandville system integrator and solutions company with about 70 employees, has opened its own doors to KCTC. The company has provided students with job shadowing and internships, and has provided opportunities for the center’s four information technology instructors to help with networking projects during the summer. Since they spend so much time teaching, the instructors get little opportunity to experience the industry, Brower said.

“There’s a textbook, and there’s what happens in the real world,” he said.

Instructor Ron Houtman said he and two other teachers joined Trivalent to work on networking for Rehoboth Christian Schools in a remote, low-income area of New Mexico.

“We keep our skills up to date and get to see what customers are requiring out there,” Houtman said.

About three years ago, Brower arranged for KCTC students to become the main computer consultants for Jubilee Jobs, a nonprofit employment training program located in the Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids. Executive Director Chana Edmond-Verley said the arrangement has saved her organization as much as $10,000 annually. “It’s been a huge cost savings,” she said.

Edmond-Verley said teams of students set up the network, which has about 35 computers including a 25-station computer, from wiring to assembling PCs to applications.

“They came in with a slew of students and built the network from scratch,” said Edmond-Verley, who had a career in computer science before moving into the nonprofit sector. That was three years ago.

Today, KCTC chooses four students per semester who act as Jubilee Jobs’ network managers, visiting the office each week and taking care of the network. Those students may apply for a paid summer internship, Edmond-Verley said. The KCTC instructors are available to back up their students, she added.

The program fits well with Jubilee Jobs’ mission of teaching job search skills and computer literacy to 800 youths and adults each year, Edmond-Verley said. In fact, several students who started in Jubilee Jobs programs now are KCTC students and are preparing to apply for college, she added.

“It’s kind of a neat thing,” Brower said. “It’s important for our company to have community-type involvement, to work with organizations that support us.”

Houtman said KCTC’s information technology program has 160 high school juniors and seniors in four tracks: personal computer technician, multimedia, Visual Basic programming and networking. The one- or two-year program is available to students in 72 schools within the Kent Intermediate School District and Tri-County Area Schools.

He said KCTC’s graduates are finding entry-level IT jobs and are going to college for further education in the field. For example, Houtman said, Davenport University gives two-year KCTC information technology grads 40 credits toward a 60-credit associate’s degree.

The information technology advisory board, of which Brower is a member, includes representatives from about a dozen companies, including Alticor, Wolverine World Wide and Lake Michigan Credit Union. Houtman said they’ve been open to showing students their businesses and give them an idea of what the IT industry is like from the inside.

“It’s nice to have organizations that really value education to the point where they are allowing our students to come in just to see what they do,” Houtman said. “And they can get some pretty good employees out of the deal.”

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