Navneel Dutt was unsure what Cathryn S. Balas meant last June when she told him and 11 other Clark State Community College students that their cybersecurity internships funded by a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education grant would "open doors" for them.
By mid-summer Dutt had a better understanding of the opportunities that could come from his internship at AT&T Government Solutions. There he worked on a research project with two other Clark State interns and a high school teacher extern. He liked learning in a work environment so much that he applied for other internships. During the 2016-17 academic year he did three other paid, employer-sponsored internships while attending classes full time.
Four weeks after his May 6 graduation where he received two associate degrees—in cybersecurity and computer networking—Dutt will embark on his fifth internship in 12 months. This one at the prestigious Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, is the pinnacle of undergraduate work experiences. He hopes the 10-week internship at the Department of Energy lab will strengthen his resume and boost his prospects for landing a federal government job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base when he returns home to Springfield, Ohio, in August.
"Now we have students from Clark State Community College, a small Midwestern college, applying for and getting appointments to national labs. This just never would have happened without the NSF ATE grant," Balas said.
As co-principal investigator of Cyber Pro, the recently completed ATE project grant that had student interns and educator externs work in teams, Balas made the connections for the research-focused projects with defense contractors near Wright Patterson Air Force Base. The 8,145-acre base located about 15 miles from Clark State's Springfield campus employs more than 27,000 people and is "the largest employer in the state of Ohio at a single location and the largest employer among Air Force bases worldwide," according to the base's website.
Clark State Initiatives Rooted in MentorLinks
The circumstances that facilitated Dutt's sequence of successful internships pre-date his 2014 enrollment at Clark State immediately after high school.
In fact, Balas traces the pathway for Dutt's five internships back to 2009. That was when Clark State was selected for MentorLinks, a STEM technician program development initiative that the American Association of Community Colleges offers with support from the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program.
Danis J. Heighton, professor of computer networking and cybersecurity at Clark State, used the small MentorLinks grant for release time and professional development that helped him add the cybersecurity/information assurance certificate and degree program to the college's computer networking offerings. Ann Beheler, principal investigator of the Convergence Technology Center, served as his mentor during the two-year project. Balas, who had previously served on Clark State's board of trustees, participated in MentorLinks as education director of Avetec, a non-profit scientific research organization that was interested in enhancing the STEM workforce near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The professional contacts that Heighton and Balas made at the ATE Principal Investigators Conference led to Heigton participating in three faculty professional development programs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. During two of those three summers, Clark State Community College students worked on research projects with him at the national lab in Washington and remotely from Clark State's computer lab in Ohio.
Intern/Extern Teams Mix Academic Levels & Disciplines
Clark State's intern/extern program emulated aspects of Heighton's professional development experiences at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Its approach was also unique in several ways.
First, it included high school teachers along with community college faculty as externs. Three of the high school educators who had externships then went on to earn the credentials necessary to teach Clark State's introductory cybersecurity course in their secondary school buildings. High school students earn high school and college credit for the course.
As a result of these dual credit courses, Clark State opened the internship program to high school students. In one instance, a high school student intern was on a team with a two-year college faculty extern, a high school teacher extern, a four-year college student intern, and a Clark State student intern.
"That's phenomenal," Heigton said, of the results of the intentional blending of academic levels and disciplines. There were dynamics to work out, but that was part of the project's process, too. "Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses—that's the key to work from your strength and help everybody from their weakness, the area where they have the least knowledge and skill," he said.
The diverse blend of people on the research-focused, project-based intern/extern teams was intentional, Heighton explained, "So not everybody's thinking in the same way; not everybody has the same background."
Heighton and Balas have served as principal investigator and co-principal investigator, respectively, on two cybersecurity ATE grants. Heighton is also the co-principal investigator on a current ATE grant that focuses on precision agriculture. Balas serves as the evaluator for that project.
Heighton and Balas both wrote recommendation letters for Dutt's application to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. They anticipate that Dutt will have more substantial job opportunities because of the people he will meet at the lab and the skills he will develop there.
Dutt can cite the technical skills he has gained from the four internships he has completed. (Two of the internships were four weeks long; two were 10 weeks in duration.) Since he was the sole associate-degree candidate at a start-up where he provided technical support to a team of six PhDs, he has also been adjusting his career goals and is now thinking about eventually earning a bachelor's or master's degree.
College friends who are pursuing degrees in other fields have noticed Dutt's confidence and the enhanced prospects that seem wrapped up with his internship earnings and experiences.
One friend told him he wished that he too had gone into cybersecurity. Dutt appreciates the possibilities of his career choice. "Getting a degree in cybersecurity is such a broad degree. You can do so many things with it ... you can do all kinds of jobs," Dutt said.