The University of Virginia has a reputation for being progressive when it comes to technology. For years the school has gone out of its way to obtain the best equipment, teach high-level technology courses and employ technology-proficient professors. That fact hasn't escaped the attention of technology businesses, who wait with baited breath for students to emerge from the college with the skills necessary to fill many vacant high-tech positions.
Last April, Cisco Systems and MCI donated 12 routers to the University of Virginia to encourage it to continue preparing students for high-tech careers. Not only is the school doing so, but it has gone one step further, using the gift to fuel a national pilot project designed to teach students about Internet technology.
"The University of Virginia has had a focus on computer technology for many years," said Jim Massa, director of Global Government Alliances for Cisco. "Over the last two decades, the focus has changed from hardware to software to specializations within those areas. Now they're leading the way with a specialization in Internet technology, and are one of the first universities to do so."
The equipment Cisco and MCI donated -- worth more than $1 million -- has been installed in the Virginia Internet Teaching Lab, making the university one of the top facilities of its kind in the country. In the lab, students learn to set up networking hardware and software, take and interpret traffic measurements, learn how protocols of the Internet interact and become proficient at setting up and managing Internet networks.
"The idea is to create a whole suite of courses and develop an Internet engineering curriculum," said Jorg Liebeherr, the university's Internet engineering professor. "Basically, it's going to be a new subspecialty of engineering -- a hybrid of computer science, systems engineering and electrical engineering with added instruction in the information infrastructure of the Internet."
Liebeherr said the new curriculum will be the model for other universities who want to form their own Internet engineering programs. "It's a growing field, there are jobs out there, the demand is there," he said. "The time is right for it to be its own field of study."
Protocols and Algorithms
Liebeherr, who was instrumental in integrating the equipment donated by Cisco and MCI into the lab, uses his Internet engineering course to teach students about the protocols and algorithms used on the Internet. Students then go into the lab once a week to apply the knowledge they've gained by conducting exercises on actual Internet equipment. "Students go from absorbing the information to applying it in an almost real-world context in the lab," said Liebeherr.
"A lot of schools offer networking courses," Massa said, "but this is the first to look at what's under the hood as far as the Internet -- from the scaleable algorithms that allow large networks to grow, to new technologies that may allow for certain things to be done more efficiently."
According to Liebeherr, students who go through the Internet engineering curriculum will be qualified to get a job in just about any area of IT. That prospect is making Internet engineering a very popular course at the university. "Three years ago, I was offering the first computer networks course for undergrads," he said. "Each year, the enrollment level of 70 to 80 students was reached. This year, demand was so high that we offered two courses, and they are both already full. Right now we have approximately 150 students taking computer networking. The demand has been overwhelming."
Ironically, that demand comes at the same time organizations like the American Electronics Association (AEA) are reporting declines in the number of students pursuing high-tech degrees. AEA's CyberEducation report, released in late April, found that high-tech degrees -- including engineering, math, physics and computer science -- dropped by 5 percent between 1990 and 1996.
But Liebeherr doesn't agree with that assessment. "My impression is completely the opposite. All fields that relate to computer technology have experienced a surge in the number of students. We've seen a doubling of the students who want to major in computer science every two years."
For Liebeherr and other faculty at the university, those increases actually pose a challenge. "Since this is a hands-on course, the availability of space in the lab itself limits the number of students we can take," he said. "I could only allow 35 students to take the course, but I had around 100 people trying to get in. There are so many positions open in the IT field, and these positions carry such promise for excellent careers with high salaries, that there is great demand from students to get into these fields."
The key to helping schools handle this demand may lie in industry/education collaborations like the one between the University of Virginia, MCI and Cisco.
"Education drives new areas of research. We'd like to see universities domestically as well as internationally working together to push the envelope on the Internet," said Massa. "We understand that if we don't support education, not only will it be harder for them to do that, but our workforces will suffer in the future."
"Collaboration between industry and education is always a win-win situation," said Liebeherr. "Cisco and MCI have donated equipment which would be too expensive for us to buy. Now we're using this equipment to teach courses that better prepare students for the workforce. If we can do a better job teaching students in state-of-the-art technology, we prepare them better for industry."
The university has been busy preparing to expand its networking courses, including the Internet engineering course, for the fall semester. Liebeherr and his assistants developed new lab exercises using the Cisco equipment, and the university hired new networking faculty. It's all part of a continuing plan to make the university one of the nation's premiere institutions for technology education.
"Information technology is one of the four key areas of excellence identified in our school's strategic plan," said Richard W. Miksad, dean of the university's School of Engineering and Applied Science. "We are developing programs in computer science and engineering that will be crucial to the advancement of society in the 21st century. Internet engineering is clearly one of these."
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. E-mail.