“Gigs for Geeks” is a little-known program established by the NAU Department of Computer Science that connects students with local businesses needing computer engineering services. When local businesses and agencies like Gore, Southwest Windpower, Efficient Learning Systems, Southwest Forest Science and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) need help building a simple data-driven website, creating a more complex Web2.0 portal or writing a piece of custom software, they look to their local university.
“Geeks are in pretty high demand – we use that term in a friendly way – it’s a term of endearment around here,” said Dr. Eck Doerry, Department of Computer Science associate professor. “I call myself a geek.
“When I was the department chair several years ago, I kept getting requests from local businesses for students to work on websites, online stores or to get inventory systems up to speed. Businesses would go to contractors and get a bid for $100,000 and then [in shock] shoot out an email to their local Computer Science department chair asking for help.”
The high volume of inbound requests is why “Gigs for Geeks” was born. Now businesses are asked to fill out job request forms and then those job requests are posted on a highly visible bulletin board in the NAU Computer Science student lounge.
“Sometimes there is a misconception from businesses that they can hire students for really cheap,” said Dieter Otte, NAU College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences assistant professor, who now oversees the program. A quick look at the “Gigs for Geeks” job board shows aging job requests offering $10 per hour. Those requests were posted last spring and still have not generated much student interest.
“Finding a suitable student may be quite difficult,” cautions the “Gigs for Geeks” webpage. “Whether or not you find someone depends on how much you offer to pay, whether the work is interesting, and what hours and working flexibility you can offer.”
One agency that succeeds in wooing engineering students is the Astrogeology Science Center at USGS in Flagstaff. “NAU Engineering students are very important to our success,” said Jeff Anderson, supervisory computer scientist at USGS. “Our scientists are involved in analysis of data coming back from NASA missions. They’re doing planetary geology across the solar system – we do the software development to process the data sets.”
NAU Engineering students are involved with ISIS – Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers – a home-developed software program designed to manipulate imagery collected by current and past NASA planetary missions sent to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and other solar system bodies.
“Writing software for the ISIS package, they use C++ Linux or Unix platforms. They use their math backgrounds to write some fairly interesting and complex algorithms – all science- related,” said Anderson.
“The key is that we like to hire NAU students that are just leaving their freshman year so we have them for three years – it is pretty intensive. After a year of training, we rely on them heavily to do some of these complicated tasks. Students will say that the work often applies to their classes and makes class work seem more applicable. It’s a win-win for us, NAU and the students,” said Johnson, who also serves on the NAU Engineering Department Advisory Council.
“Once the interns are ready to graduate, we like to give them job offers, but they usually get significantly better job offers from out of town. They end up going to Phoenix, California and all over the U.S.,” Anderson said.
Stuart Sides, a USGS computer scientist who supervised six students this past year, said, “They have three years of significant software experience, and that, coupled with their degree, gives them a significant leg up on other students.”
“This program gives the students a more real-world experience than most internships,” added Sides.
Both Anderson and Sides are NAU alumni and started their careers at USGS as NAU interns. FBN
Local businesses that have long-term or short-term computer science engineering projects should go to the Gigs for Geeks webpage — www.cefns.nau.edu/Academic/CS/jobs/index.shtml — to get more information.
U.S. News & World Report ranks the undergraduate engineering program at Northern Arizona University among the best in the nation.