Dakota State Prepares Students to Improve State's Infrastructure

Dec 2, 2013

SDPB Radio continues its series called “State of our State,” looking at infrastructure across many platforms. The people who eventually run those programs have to start somewhere—and one South Dakota regental school is regarded as a national leader in preparing students to use technology in their chosen fields. South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Gary Ellenbolt visits Madison and Dakota State University for this story.

It’s a scene being played out at college campuses across the U-S. College students heading for breakfast, in varying styles of dress and varying degrees of consciousness—energizing with rock music and caffeine.

At nine A-M, in this classroom at Dakota State University in Madison, it’s time for students to bring their A-Game. They sit at the desks with their caffeinated beverages of choice, listening to Professor Josh Pauli discuss cyber-security. Pauli obviously knows what he’s talking about, and he’s part of a faculty whose work is being noticed around the nation.

Pauli says, "In the last two or three years, Dakota State was fortunate enough to be designated one of the original centers of academic excellence in cyber operations, and that came from the National Security Agency. The agency came up with that program two years ago; that program has grown to eight schools across the U-S, and DSU is still the only undergraduate program designated by the NSA.”

Dakota State’s slogan is “Technically—We’re Better.” The school’s mission is to demonstrate how technology affects what students do, and what they will do, in the so-called “real world.” Professor Mark Hawkes says faculty can teach the students what they know, but many enter the school with strong foundations.

“They come with wonderful skills,"Hawkes says.  "I don’t know any students who don’t come with marvelous knowledge of basic applications for office tools; who know how to use their devices, especially hand-held devices, for really unique communication and/or applications.”

One Dakota State student whose passion for technology started early is Kyle Cosman; all because he was trying to find out who hacked his Facebook account, and how they did it, three times while he was in high school. Cosman’s passion and interest grew when he arrived in Madison.

Cosman says, “One of my teachers told me 99 percent of the hackers won’t even target your stuff—but they can. And if they want it bad enough, they can get it. And I’ve just seen, like, pretty weird websites that tell you how. They give you step-by-step directions.”

But the D-S-U curriculum isn’t all about thwarting hackers or finding out who’s saying what about the U-S. All academic disciplines have that techno-emphasis. English professor Justin Blessinger says that’s a benefit for students, and faculty. He says anything students are using, faculty gets to use on at least a comparable level.

According to Blessinger, "That means that I’m able to answer a lot of questions in class that the student doesn’t have to go to computing services for. And I think that’s a mistake a lot of universities make, thinking that faculty aren’t the first line of computer support; we are.”

Blessinger’s colleague and friend, John Nelson, uses technology and social media in his classes, as a demonstration of one more way for creative types to get their points across.

Nelson adds, “One of the things that I think is so beneficial is that the new media allows new students to re-package some of the things they have to say. Students are well aware of the ubiquity of YouTube and the ability they have to create videos or other forms, and to share those with other people.”

Students in Dakota State’s programs find out why things work—and also get to find out how.

In a room on campus, a 3-D printer, the wonderfully-named “Maker Bot Thing-O-Matic” is melting a long string of white plastic filament—a bit thicker than fishing line, not quite as thick as the line in a weed trimmer. When a metal plate heats to 115 degrees Celsius, the hot plastic moves onto the platform and constructs a three-dimensional design. In this case, the DSU initials. Kyle Cronin is at the controls of the 3-D printer that came in a kit and was put together by students and instructors. Cronin says new uses for these machines are discovered almost daily.

Cronin explains, “It’s really cool, because you don’t need a mold to form the plastic in, and then the mold gets cold or something like that. It’s used a lot in auto parts, too—for example, with old cars, if you can’t buy whatever part it is that needs to be replaced, you’d actually have to machine it out of a block of steel; and that’s expensive to do. And if you’re off an eighth of an inch, or a 16th of an inch, the part doesn’t fit and you have to start all over.”

Like every college around the world, Dakota State has things to improve on, or worry about—the school’s new president, Dr. David Borofsky, says a big concern for him is retention of students past their first year. Borofsky says D-S-U is using a different approach to improve the experience as needed to get students to stay.

Borofsky says,“We’re actually gonna ask students why they stay—instead of asking students why they left. Because, if we have almost 70 percent of our students who stay, we did something right. Let’s find out what that is, and see if we can get the other 30 percent to stay, because we built—they’re all students. And we’ll build on what those students tell us, and hopefully be getting more of them to stay.”

Borofsky says a faculty willing to work with new ideas and concepts, make a stronger foundation for students who use technology to transform our state.