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Columbia's Service Learning in the Community Environment to Graduate Inaugural Class from Expanded 16-month Program

SLICE Instructor Richard Weiss reviews a quiz submitted by one of his students in his Java programming class.
SLICE Instructor Richard Weiss reviews a quiz submitted by one of his students in his Java programming class. The weekly classes are characterized by near-constant interaction between 15 students and the instructor as they sort out complex computer code in a collaborative atmosphere.

Photo by Alex Lyda

It's happened without a lot of fanfare, but the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science's Botwinick Gateway Learning Laboratory has become one of the most viable, visible academic connections Columbia has with the surrounding community.

The 12th floor lab in the Seeley W. Mudd building usually is home to the Gateway design course, in which first-year engineering students are assigned to community service projects and apply what they learn in class to real-world clients. "Service learning is a proven pedagogy," says Jack McGourty, associate dean of the Engineering School. "It allows students to immediately apply new engineering skills and expertise in real-world settings."

But several days a week the lab also educates a different student population with similar aspirations: a group of 15 men and women studying at the Engineering School as participants in the Service Learning in the Community Environment (SLICE) program.

From teenagers to students in their forties, these men and women juggle work, family responsibilities and, yes, school as they seek to transform themselves into highly sought after information technology professionals. The program itself is an alliance engineered by McGourty and Arthur M. Langer, a Columbia Continuing Education faculty member who founded and runs Workforce Outsource Services, a non-profit agency that provides a solution to what educators call the "school-to-hire dilemma."

That's what can happen when well-meaning not-for-profit ventures take students from inner city programs but don't provide them with enough skills or credentials to compete once they graduate. After short-term internships, such students end up "back on the street because they lack experience or a proven academic credential," Langer says.

The SLICE program, which is free to participants, is designed to overcome this. Its students obtain certification from the Engineering School after completing the program. WOS provides services to companies such as Prudential and AIG as an outsource alternative that "levels the playing field" in unique ways that create a competitive advantage for companies that might otherwise use off-shore workers. In short, WOS gives young adults the skills to go head-to-head with other IT talent on a global scale through its innovative philosophy of incubating home-grown talent from the local community.

Five graduates of the program are now full-time paid WOS consultants providing services for Prudential. WOS has also recently won the contract to provide help-desk technology services to Thirteen/WNET.

It's 7 p.m. on a Monday night, the first of two nights of weekly classes for the participants. Langer has canvassed the room, engaging students individually, ribbing them if they were late and asking how things are going. Another instructor, himself a Continuing Education graduate, paces the floor engaging each student in banter about their home life and offering bits of pointed wisdom for students.

"What's the issue here?" demands instructor Richard Weiss, whose day job is director of business development for Sungard, a financial software and IT services company. "I need everyone to gear up because the final exam is in two weeks and this is stuff you can't cram for."

SLICE teaches skills in software engineering, Web and database design, and Java programming. It is composed of seven integrated courses, including academic and social mentoring, communication skills and interaction with global high-tech companies and leading insurers, such as Prudential and AIG.

The curriculum spans complex computer code to the basics of office decorum. It is designed to get adults of any age, who ordinarily might not have any experience with the corporate world, comfortable with the workings of an office environment. The goal is to help them secure a well-paying tech job building websites or running an IT help desk, as one graduate is now doing for New York's Thirteen/WNET television.

To be eligible students must have a high school diploma or GED, and they must go through a lengthy month-long application process while completing two interviews. Getting in is considered a coup, and students from as far away as Newark commute to the Columbia campus, while most others live in Washington Heights, Harlem and the Bronx.

Langer knows that his students face many obstacles that contribute to classroom absenteeism, low morale, frustration in new job settings, and ultimately career failure. He and McGourty hope that SLICE can break this cycle, which is often compounded by dangerous neighborhood conditions.

"On the most fundamental level, there are some real barriers to succeeding that some of these students must work exceedingly hard to overcome," Langer says. "The office workplace is a whole new environment for some of them, one that can require a big attitudinal adjustment."

Student Alex Caamano, 18, spends his days is handling his father's business as a building superintendent. With his father recently diagnosed with cancer, Alex has to tend to the 100 or so tenants, handling everything from late-night plumbing repairs to taking out garbage for the elderly. "They are teaching us skills on how to behave in the corporate world and that's priceless," Caamano says. "I would love to be a programmer someday and this experience is helping be gain the knowledge to do that. With this training, I hope to become one of the best programmers out there."

As rewarding as it is for the students, it is for the instructors, too. Weiss, the business development director, is teaching the students Java programming. "It's so rewarding to have students who are starting out on a baseline, who really don't know anything about computer programming in Week One and then by the end of the semester they have everything fall into place," Weiss said. "Somewhere along the line something clicks for them and the day or week that that happens, it is one of the most rewarding experiences a teacher can have."

The success of the service learning curriculum has prompted Dean McGourty to expand this model to other populations beyond full-time Columbia undergraduates and SLICE students. High school students participate in the same sorts of service learning projects during intensive summer sessions. In 2004, McGourty founded the Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement to provide an institutional home for all of the Engineering School's service learning activities, including SLICE. So far, the Center has received funding from Prudential, AIG, the National Science Foundation, and Thirteen/WNET, among others.

The Engineering School's graduation ceremony for SLICE students is Dec. 13 from 6 - 8 p.m. in the Harison Room of Columbia's Faculty House, 400 W. 117th St. For more information, on the Gateway Lab please visit: http://community.seas.columbia.edu/cslp/index.html. To learn more about Workforce Outsource Services, please visit: http://www.wforce.org.



Published: Dec 08, 2006
Last modified: Nov 14, 2007