To those uninitiated in the complex world of information technology, the subject of setting up Web sites, databases and electronic infrastructures may be unfathomable.
Yet for some 60 master's degree students in the Hopkins Graduate Division of Business and Management, solving computer conundrums for area corporations and government agencies provides the invaluable, practical experience found in the "capstone" portion of the Master of Science in Information and Telecommunications Systems Program.
For the companies, agencies and nonprofit organizations that qualify to become a capstone project, the help they receive from Hopkins students is equally practical--on a dollar and cents basis.
Maryland- and Virginia-based corporations are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually--and information technology students at Hopkins are earning extraordinary hands-on experience--as part of a remarkably successful symbiotic relationship now in its seventh year.
Such major companies as AlliedSignal Technical Services, GE Information Systems, Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems, Mitretek Systems and BGE--as well as such government agencies as the Howard and Montgomery counties' departments of economic development, the city of Gaithersburg and the Federal Communications Commission--have heard through the grapevine about the Graduate Applied Projects in Technology portion of the Hopkins program.
And all of them managed to come up with problems that met the strict academic criteria required by the Hopkins MS/ITS program to qualify for designation as a capstone project.
"We've had only 'word-of-mouth' promotion among businesses for this aspect of our program because otherwise we'd be inundated with proposals," says Carol Keyser, the IT capstone program director. "We're very selective."
First, the prospective capstone project company needs to meet the program's organizational criteria by being a good, stable firm. Then it must meet the academic criteria by offering a problem that deals with an area the students have studied, Keyser explains.
"It has to be a project that puts the students' academic work to practical application," explains Keyser, "and it has to be something that can be completed in a semester. The students must be providing the company with a product of value, and they must learn a new technology--quickly."
The 700 students currently in the Hopkins MS/ITS program generally are in their late 20s or early 30s and already are veterans of the telecommunications field. They come to Hopkins either to enhance their career or to obtain the knowledge necessary to change it, Keyser said.
For the 60 or so students in the final stretch of the two- to three-year MS/ITS program, the capstone project is their "graduate thesis," Keyser says. Teaming up in groups of four or five, the students concentrate solely on a capstone project during their last semester, playing important roles as strategic consultants for the firms.
At AlliedSignal Technical Services in Columbia, Md., Barry Geldzahler, program manager of the Center for Operations: Research and Engineering, known as CORE, says the company views its association with the Hopkins capstone students as "a real partnership"--one that is saving the firm $40,000 this semester alone. Geldzahler adds that Hopkins capstone projects have saved the company an estimated $130,000 over the last three semesters.
"We want to foster as many of these partnerships as we can. Everyone gets something out of this. We get the labor and the front-line knowledge initially, and the students get a master's degree plus some real-world experience," Geldzahler says.
This semester, AlliedSignal Technical Services, a Fortune 500 company, has two capstone projects under way, with a five-member team of students working on each. The students all have backgrounds in the information technology and database administration fields, Geldzahler says.
One of the Hopkins capstone projects involves creation of an Extranet, an Internet-like site for use only by specific customers of AlliedSignal, an advanced technology and manufacturing firm serving clients worldwide with aerospace and automotive products, chemicals, fibers, plastics and advanced materials.
The Hopkins students' project is to develop an Extranet that will enable AlliedSignal to operate its own technical training programs more efficiently.
"We have customers signing up for training classes in workmanship, such as in fiber optics," Geldzahler explains. "In the past, we've spent far too much time getting people signed up for classes and printing certificates once they've finished. We've had a number of people in the company spending up to 10 percent of their time generating certificates. That's crazy.
"Instead, we want to completely automate all of this," he continues, "from registering for classes online, to tracking student performance and certifications in a training database, to automatically generating course completion and certification certificates. The recipients or their supervisors can then download the certificates to their own computers or receive them via email."
The Extranet on which the Hopkins students are working will be designed to accomplish this.
The second capstone project at AlliedSignal Technical Services aims to refine a database created by a different capstone group the previous semester.
"We needed a database that can tell at a glance how many people in our company are skilled in particular areas, such as those skilled in determining the orbit of satellites. We [also] wanted an easy, efficient means of keeping it constantly updated. That database was set up for us last semester. This semester we want to make it a little more 'robust,' have a few more features--such as an ability to automatically alert the employee and his or her supervisor when one's certification in a particular skill is about to expire or has lapsed," Geldzahler says.
"The bottom line is the [Hopkins] capstone teams have helped enhance our workforce planning ability, which leads to greater productivity," he says. "The capstone projects will help us bid on new business. We'll know exactly what skills are available and what capabilities we can provide to new customers. On a larger scale, although the capstone projects have so far been used only in our satellite operations business, we have been careful to design them to be applied easily to other businesses within AlliedSignal Technical Services. This will produce an expanded savings for the company over time."
The bottom line for the students is that the MS/ITS capstone project crowns their information technology education at Hopkins, giving them the best possible experience of how to apply in the workplace what they've learned in the classroom.