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 ISSUE 8   December 2004  
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Shaping careers


They come for the practical job experience and perhaps the extra spending money. They leave with much more.








"Student internships and work placements offered through The Network's Software Development Group (SDG) (http://sdg.cllrnet.ca) are opening minds and shaping careers by providing students with the opportunity to do hands-on work for a real audience. The experience is so enriching, about 10 percent of the students have chosen to pursue work in language and literacy or other social science fields," says Aaron Finkenzeller, Manager of Technical Services for The Network.

More than 50 students have interned or completed co-op work placements with the SDG, a Core Facility of The Network that creates the necessary software to deliver data and results from language and literacy research to those who can benefit from it.

The undergraduate students are coming from a variety of disciplines. While most are studying Computer Science or Engineering, Finkenzeller has also had students of Biology, Languages, Administrative and Commercial Studies, Media, Information and Technoculture Studies, and Business. Only about half have had previous experience in software development and design principles, and none have had experience with the software tools used by The Network's SDG.

"There's a common thread in that most have never done any kind of computer work relating to children, education, social science or language and literacy," says Finkenzeller. "Those with computer science experience, he adds, are geared for careers in business or industry. They can't visualize anything else."

The students initially receive training in Web-based data delivery, multi-media software or complex programming, depending on their interests and experience. Tutorials have been created to give the students a basic understanding in each area.

The students are then teamed to work on actual projects, which involve interacting with a Network researcher or graduate students.

"We get them doing productive work," says Finkenzeller. "The projects are service delivery oriented. There are concrete reasons for the work and they have to think about their target audience. It's a different attitude than exists in the normal fields they would be pursuing."

Third-year computer science student Michael Jardin says the experience gave him new perspective on his field of study. "Naturally, when people mention computer science, most of us envision someone sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer and typing endless lines of code," he says. "My summer experience working for the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network was nothing at all like that. I was interacting with people and actively participating in most of the projects that were going on. This allowed me to learn a thing or two about the intricate relationship between language and technology. I have had many previous jobs before but none as rewarding and enriching as working for The Network through the Software Development Group."

Student Andrew Tyrell is on his second internship with the SDG. "I've learned a great deal about how computer programming interacts with real world applications," he says. "I have also gained more knowledge in the field of speech and audiology through the games and programs that we have created for children," he says. "Aside from programming, I also got the chance to do some audio processing for these same games which showed me the other side of how these games are made."

Student Iwey Tan had previous experience with multimedia software for children but gained a broader view of the possibilities through her internship. "After working with the Software Development Group, I am able to see the importance of developing multimedia software for children with language or literacy impairments. This type of software is crucial in aiding children with these types of difficulties to learn and have fun. This has been a great experience and I am grateful to have such an opportunity."

The students quickly discover that theory learned in class is just the tip of the iceberg," says Finkenzeller. "They discover that the way in which you go about making software or finding a solution to a problem is different for different fields. They get a good opportunity to learn what works and what doesn't."

The four-month internships, which are paid positions, are advertised at The University of Western Ontario. They are open to undergraduate students who can work a minimum of three to five hours a week and up to 15 hours a week. A student may also find their way to the SDG through a Fanshawe College co-op program.

Many students return to do multiple internships or co-ops with the SDG, and some never leave. Six have been hired for full or part-time work.

"Overall, the students' work has been valuable and the quality outstanding," says Finkenzeller. Even more gratifying, he adds, is that several students have been inspired to pursue careers in social sciences where the need for information technology development is great.


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