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Kristen Cyr
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Internship at Brown gives students real-world experience in information services

Sept. 17, 2015

Photo of Jason Klas and Michael Perez Michael Perez (left) and Michael Klas completed a 10-week internship at Brown University this summer.

For some, summer means a break from the books to hit the beach. For three Community College of Rhode Island students – Dwyer Deighan, Jason Klas and Michael Perez – it meant stepping out of the classroom and out into the real world for a more experiential style of learning.

The three students completed a 10-week paid internship with the Computing & Information Services (CIS) department at Brown University in the second year of what is, by all accounts, a successful and mutually beneficial partnership between the two institutions. Mike Kelly, assistant professor of Computer Studies at CCRI, said the relationship began via Robin Smith, associate vice president, Workforce Partnerships, who had contacts at Brown.

"For us, it's a great opportunity for our students to become more and more marketable, and to see an extension of the things they learn here applied somewhere else," said Kelly, who vets and recommends internship candidates to Brown. "It looks like it's going to be an ongoing process, and that's great. It's a real win-win for our students, there's no question about that."

For Brown, the partnership speaks to a drive to open all of its resources – not just academic departments – as opportunities for education. "We have so much potential within CIS," said Amar Jasti, Brown's lead storage administrator and manager of the internship program. "And Rhode Island's small size makes it easy for us to connect with other schools and share knowledge."

Klas and Perez confirmed that the hands-on knowledge they acquired through the work at Brown would be invaluable both in and out of the classroom in the future. Both students said they have had a positive learning experience at CCRI owing to the caliber of the professors and the range of classes.

Photo of Jason KlasKlas plans to graduate next year with an associate degree in Computer Programming, and Perez should graduate around the same time with an associate degree in Computer Science.

Though the pair of students come from different backgrounds, Klas hailing from Cranston and Perez a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, their interest in the inner workings and interconnections of technology tell a similar story.

Deighan, of Lincoln, who added his perspective on the internship later by phone interview, said he had been programming so long as a hobby that he'd forgotten how his interest started. That same passion was undoubtedly what led his programming professor, Kay Johnson, to recommend him for the internship.

"Technology was always interesting to me because of how prevalent computers are," said Klas. "It's the backbone of everything that's going on in the world. I wanted to learn how computers worked, specifically how they function on the coding level, and I wanted to figure out how that is done and to do it myself."

"I like complex stuff," added Perez, eliciting knowing chuckles from his supervisors as he told stories of rogue disassembling and reformatting escapades when he was younger and had access to a family computer. "What I like about computers is also that you can just write code and see it work."

"Nice instant output," chimed in Klas. "You can see what you did right – or wrong."

That instant feedback has been helpful for the students as they worked on learning new skills and refining existing ones during their time at CIS. Klas was part of Brown's Web Services team, where he worked on what the university calls BrownSites – its official content management system, built using Drupal.

Michael PerezPerez was on the team at the Center for Computation & Visualization (CCV), where he worked to integrate both commodity and commercial input devices into a complex virtual reality framework. This work will allow researchers to seamlessly transition their work into desktop virtual reality systems and also allow them to more effortlessly make use of CCV's world-class virtual reality facility (the YURT).

Meanwhile, Deighan said that his project fell under the purview of the data science department, where he wrote code that allows computers, through optical character recognition and other imaging techniques, to read historical business registries. Once compiled, those registries are being analyzed to create a "heat map of businesses that may have or may still be creating pollutants, either because they weren't regulated by the EPA because they were too small, or because they existed before the EPA did," Deighan explained.

In Deighan's case, his experience in the internship has been instrumental in his decision to pursue data science in the future. He'll be leaping headlong into those studies at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where he has transferred after a year of studying computer and information sciences at CCRI. "It's given me a taste of the sort of things I'll be working on after college," he said.

Jasti said the field of information technology is expanding as time goes on. "It's not just programming," he said. "The whole world is moving toward collaboration. Everything requires a computer or some kind of data analytics. Now, when you say you're in IT, the whole world is open."

It seems that there's always some new technique or technology to harness, and Jasti pointed out that for businesses hiring fresh graduates, the internship experience was a critical differentiator on a résumé that otherwise would speak only to in-class learning. "Opportunities like this one offer real world experience," he said. "They aren't just shadowing someone. They get hands-on experience to really do something in the field."

Although the responsibilities and rewards they reap from the exposure to the professional environment are many, the students said they appreciated the patient, educational aspect of the internship.

"They know we're interns," said Klas. "We're still learning a lot, we're still students."

Brown's Chief Information Officer Ravi Pendse, who also serves as the vice president for CIS, said the education definitely flows both ways. Pendse, who prioritized this and other internship programs in the hopes of encouraging educational outreach, said that the best teams are the most diverse. "I always like to say to my leadership that if everyone looks alike, if all of us went to the same schools, grew up in the same neighborhood, we'll all make the same mistakes every single time. That's why diversity is so critical. ... And this is a great learning experience for us; these young people teach us every day."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16