Nov 19, 2002
Calvin Profs on Externships
The Calvin Externship Program puts professors into the for-profit business world for a semester, giving them a chance to see first-hand how their discipline connects to business.
For many professors the experience is an eye-opening one. And it often results in a direct benefit to Calvin students.
This semester, for example, two computer science professors at Calvin are on externships with local businesses. Earl Fife (above) is working with CPR, a West Michigan technology services provider whose many products include information system security, while Keith Vander Linden (below) is working with Siemens Dematic (the company created when Siemens Production and Logistics combined with Rapistan Systems) on user interfaces for material handling products.
Both professors say the experience has been challenging and yet energizing too. And both plan to take lessons they've learned to the Calvin classroom when they return to teaching. In fact Fife will offer a course already in the spring 2003 semester on computer security, while VanderLinden has a course planned for Interim 2004 on user interfaces.
Fife is a mathematician who has a life-long interest in cryptography, the art of taking a message and scrambling it so that only someone with special knowledge can read the message. For many years cryptography was considered mostly a pure mathematical application. That changed, says Fife, as the digital age became more and more pervasive.
"Cryptography now," he says, "is the basis for the very necessary privacy we need in a digital age. It's used to encrypt traffic between computers and servers so that even if someone intercepts the flow they won't be able to interpret it."
For Fife the connection between cryptography and computer privacy cemented a burgeoning interest in computers (he is co-founder of the Mathematics Archives). And he soon branched out from computer privacy to computer security, looking not only at how to keep traffic flow private but going back a step to how to keep someone from intercepting it in the first place.
That emphasis led to a sabbatical at Purdue University in computer security and now to the externship at CPR, where he is working on an intrusion detection system. It's a device, a stand-alone computer (perhaps even a desktop computer), that combines both hardware and software into a package that will allow companies to keep their networks secure. Basically it monitors traffic on a company network and sends an alert to the system administrator when something anomalous appears.
Fife says the difference between a firewall, a more traditional method of keeping intruders out of a company network, and an intrusion detection device is like the difference in a school between a simple locked door and a locked door with a hallway monitor outside the door. The firewall attempts to keep people out but often can easily be circumvented. The intrusion detection device can watch the network and look for what might be attempts to get into the network prior to alerting someone who can take action.
One critical component in an intrusion detection device is the systems administrator who receives the alerts. That person needs to be able to interpret the information she receives. That's why Fife plans to offer a class at Calvin this spring that will help students understand computer security and among other things help them read network traffic to look for problems.
VanderLinden also will be adding a course to the Calvin computer science major based on his externship at Siemens. He has been working on user interfaces and is convinced that area of computer programming is among the hottest things in industry right now. And so he plans to add a course at Calvin that will see computer science students design a user interface system. And not just design it, but also watch users try to use the interface. Then they'll be asked to modify the design based on user feedback, a real-world experience says VanderLinden that will give students a sense of how programming impacts a person doing a job.
Siemens sells a variety of products that are used for everything from shipping and receiving to product to sorting and picking. It's all dependent on computers to make it work well and efficiently. And where there's a computer there's a place where the user, say a warehouse manager, and the computerized system communicate with each other. That place is the user interface. And how well it works, or doesn't work, can determine whether a million dollar system is purchased, or not purchased. In addition tiny efficiency gains in an interface can save a company a lot of money.
"Since coming here," says VanderLinden, "I've come to realize the importance of the user interface in what Siemens does. How the user of a Siemens product interacts with the product is a big thing. The product is significant but the interface is too."
The Calvin Externship Program, say both VanderLinden and Fife, is a must for computer science professors who deal with a field that not only changes continually, but also is intimately connected to so much of the business world.
VanderLinden appreciates that the program does not cost Siemens a cent. His salary continues to be paid while he's on the externship. And an externship endowment fund pays for the cost of his replacement teacher at Calvin.
"It," he says, "is an amazing program. Every Calvin faculty member should look into it."
The program is run under the direction of the Spoelhof Family Institute for Christian Leadership in Business.