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CCN Focus: Dr. Laura Berry and Rick Williams of North Arkansas College

Join us this week for a trip to North Arkansas College in Harrison, Arkansas to meet Dr. Laura Berry, Dean of Art Sciences, Business and IT and Rick Williams, Director of IT Services and a part-time faculty member. As you know, National Convergence Technology Center regularly features members of our CTC’s “Convergence College Network” (CCN) community, a select cohort of community colleges and universities from across the country that connects IT educators with a wealth of resources to enhance their programs.


Rick Williams and Dr. Laura Berry pose for a picture before their presentation at the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

What do you teach?
Laura:  I started as a faculty member at North Arkansas College many years ago in the math and science department. I don’t teach regularly now, but I am teaching a finite math course as part of the business program. I oversee the IT department. We wrote and received an NSF ATE grant a couple of years ago to add security to the program and also to deliver coursework remotely to other locations. I’ve been very involved with the program and the faculty as we’ve been writing and implementing the grants. I have taken some programming courses; I am an IT wannabe. Many, many years ago, I took Fortran. I’ve taken C++; I taught Basic back in the “dark ages.” My focus is primarily statistics so I can do some work in SAS and SPSS and some of the programming that’s involved there.

Rick:  I teach Cisco Networking, Network Security 1 and 2. Network 1 is foundational and 2 is more advanced and has more involved labs. I also teach Advanced Technology, which includes IoT.

How long have you been a teacher?
Laura:  I believe I’m in my 30thyear at North Arkansas College. I was in graduate school on a teaching assistantship a few years before that.

Rick:  This is starting my second year. I’ve only been a part-time instructor now for three semesters.

Did you have a job in the industry before you became a teacher?
Laura:  No, I was in graduate school for a few years and taught high school for four years. My undergraduate degree was in biology and when I went to grad school, I was working towards a Master’s in zoology. As it turns out, to do research you need to know statistics and to know statistics, you have to take more math, more than I had taken in college. As part of my graduate school’s zoology program, I started taking math courses so that I could take more statistics and more research courses. And I fell in love with those courses.  I was at Oklahoma State University for a while and then the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. My Bachelor’s is from Howard Payne University in Brownwood, TX.

Rick:  I started out in DeVry Institute of Technology in Kansas City. I received my Associate’s degree in Electronics Engineering Technology then got recruited by a company in Silicon Valley. I moved there and worked there for five years for a photomask, reticle (materials and items used to “burn” circuit images onto a silicon wafer), inspection company called KLA Instruments – now called KLA Tencor – that was a really good experience and I learned a lot while there.  I worked there for five years and decided that the big city was not for me. I met my wife while on vacation, came back and found a job at North Arkansas College. I was the IT person; it was a one-person department. After working there for a while, I finished my Bachelor’s at John Brown University in Organizational Management. I then went on and finished my Master’s in IT at Capella University not long after.

What sparked you interest in teaching?
Laura:  What sparked my interest in teaching was as a grad student, I needed to earn some money. The department chair gave me a job as a teaching assistant. He literally handed me a textbook and said, “Your class meets in the Graduate Education building. Cover the first eight chapters of the book; give them three tests and a final.” And that was my introduction to teaching. I was scared to death. It took me several weeks before I realized that I absolutely loved to teach, because there were students who were desperate to learn stuff, and I could help them learn stuff. I think that I have been an effective teacher, largely, because math didn’t come that easy to me. So, I understood when math and science don’t come that easy to other students as well.

Rick:  Mine was more out of necessity. A year and a half ago, the lead instructor for the IT program became ill and had to step back from a lot of duties. Laura and Cheryl, the department chair, helped coach me to take over some of those classes. So, I taught my first class and loved it.  I really enjoy getting to know the students and seeing future nerds going through the pipeline.

What is the secret to successfully teaching IT to the student?
Laura:  Let’s consider math to be similar to IT. I do think a big part of it is understanding the many ways the student can do it wrong. It’s not enough to say, “Here’s what you do.” You also have to be able to say, “Don’t do this; this is the wrong way to go.” And again, as someone who had to work really hard to understand things when I was a student, it helps, because I know the various ways it could go wrong.

Rick:  For me, I like to provide real world examples. Being in the position that I’ve been in at college and everywhere else, I’ve collected all these different things, especially in cybersecurity. I’ve saved every phishing email, everything that comes through so I can actually say, “Hey, this really is an issue.” I can show the students exactly what some of the things are that is going on in the real world. I can say, “This is how we’re supposed to teach it, but there’s always more to the story.” The book may not take into consideration how people work in the offices so you may have to do something different to resolve the issue. I believe that real world experiences and real-world examples are excellent ways to help students learn.

Laura:  And to follow-up on that even in the math side of things, my interest in math came from my interest in science. To do research, you had to know statistics; to know statistics, you had to know math. Statistics is like a subset of math. My love for statistics in particular has always been as a tool to help me understand the world around me and help me understand science. Today – we used to call it statistics – we’re seeing a huge need for Data Science and Big Data. I think that something I’ve loved for years has finally found a “foothold” and it’s a growing and highly needed job at the technician level or at the Ph.D. level.

What is the biggest challenge teaching IT?
Rick:  Change, it constantly changes. We don’t use many textbooks anymore. So, everything we do is either online or through our own development. By the time it’s in a textbook, it’s already out-of-date. I think change is the hardest thing to keep up with when trying to teach.

Laura:  It’s not easy; it is hard. Students have to build up an understanding of some other components. So, a history course can be hard also, but when you go to chapter II, you probably will not have had to master everything in chapter I. Whether it’s math, statistics or an IT course, everything builds on itself.

Rick:  Something that we’ve found that the students don’t realize is the amount of math that is involved in IT. They have to learn binary, a totally different number system, or hexadecimal and how to do subnet masking. All of that requires a fair amount of mathematical reasoning. They’re surprised when they get to that.

Laura:  We just talked with some people who are trying to build math into their (IT) program so students don’t actually know that they are learning math because so many students have such a math phobia. Sometimes it is best not to tell them what they’re learning.

Do you have a favorite class to teach? If so, why?
Laura:  I always love teaching a course called “Survey of Calculus,” because you get all the really fun and cool stuff about calculus without having to go through all the limits and the proofs.  You learn about all the “rates of change” applications, which applies to population growth, physics and all sorts of cool electronics stuff. You get to skip all of the less exciting parts of a real Calculus I sequence.

Rick:  My favorite thing to teach, probably is “Network Security,” simply because there are so many examples and so many things you can show the students. When they’re in the labs, you can show the students how the attacks happened, and how they can then turn around and try to defend them. And they really get engaged on those kinds of things. Whereas, some of the other IT courses are more mundane such as “put this here, type this here,” but with security, they’re seeing that it is relevant through current events, news articles, etc., and apply it directly to what they’re learning.

What is the best thing about being a teacher?
Laura:  Working with students; working with other faculty; getting paid to be in an academic setting where I’m learning all the time.

Rick:  For me, it’s students. Since I have a foot in both worlds and through the internship program, we can select students and take them through the pipeline and use them as our interns in our IT department. We’re rotating them through and giving them real world experience in our department while they are taking classes. I like seeing the progression of where they are.

Two of our students in the past year and a half went to the PBL (Phi Beta Lambda, Inc) National Conference and they won first in the nation in Network Design, and we are “tickled pink.” They qualified and were able to go to nationals, competed and received first place.

Laura:  A side benefit of what has happened over a couple of years, we have a real strong collaboration obviously between our Administrative Institutional IT Services department and our Academic IT department since Rick is in both and one of our other teachers is also straddling both fences. In the Academic IT department, they’re teaching the concepts and in our Institutional IT Services department, they’re hiring them (students) and seeing the day-to-day of how IT actually works. What a great collaboration between those two areas.

Rick:  The two students that won the at the PBL conference, both took the course work and were interns at the college. I think that shows what we’re doing must be working.

Laura:  It’s kind of like on-the-job training.  Then, we have a very active business industry leadership team; we’re able to let them be connected with our institutional IT services as well as our academic IT services.

What advice would you give an IT student about to graduate and enter the workforce?
Rick:  Don’t give up because there are lots of jobs out there. But, also, a lot of employers are particular about who they hire. Just make sure you utilize those skills. Fall back on the services that the college has to help them get prepared – resume preparation, interviewing skills, work on their soft skills – that is a big thing. They need to be able to communicate well with their potential employers. When I worked out in the industry in California, we would get hundreds of applications and if there was a single misspelled word, we would toss that application out. There were so many applicants that were fairly qualified that we had to figure out a way to reduce the pool. That’s just one of those things, so be meticulous, focus on your details and don’t give up.

IT is always changing; how do you keep up with the ongoing evolution of IT?
Laura:  I hired really good faculty to teach in the program. (laugh)

Rick:  Things like this conference (HI-TEC) is crucial, not only do you hear from industry experts, but you hear from other faculty members and what they’re doing, the changes. I’m connected with various organizations as far as news feeds. I’m a member of the FBI InfraGard so I get daily digest of things that’s happening in the IT world. You have to stay connected, but it’s difficult. If you take a week off or go on vacation, come back and a lot has changed. It’s an ongoing process and you have to be willing to learn every day.

Laura:  And I think the collaboration between our institutional and our academic teaching side of IT really helps. The institutional IT services, they’re doing IT, and they’re seeing all these issues on a daily basis. They’re talking to vendors and other partners. It’s an automatic sharing of what’s going on with the academic side of things.

How do you see the IT landscape changing in the next five years?
Rick:  I think IoT is going to drive a lot of that. Now, your average home has several different devices so that’s driving the need for more networking experience, which is pushing the need for more bandwidth, everything trickles down. Years ago, I would have said the gaming industry was driving everything, but IoT is now coming forth with advanced manufacturing and 1000’s of sensors and devices. IoT is going to be huge and shaping what the next five years is going to look like.

Laura:  We’re trying to figure out how things are going to look in our “neck of the woods.” We’re in a rural area and there are a lot of great IT jobs an hour and a half away from us, but some of our rural residents have a hard time commuting that far so we fear that our area will be left out economically. Something we’re thinking about and looking at is where are the remote jobs going to be so most of our local residents don’t have to pack up and move a couple hours away or spend four and five hours commuting on winding roads. Are there going to be opportunities for remote IT workers so that we can start training up a workforce to meet those needs?  We don’t know what it’s going to look like, we’re trying to figure it out.

Rick:  I personally would like to thank CTC and HI-TEC. You guys are awesome, putting all these things together. Summer Working Connections is probably one of the best training experiences I’ve had. Those are the things I think we need to keep us up to speed. Also, gaining friends from all over the country and sharing some resources with them. I think that is extremely valuable. The more people you can connect with you realize you’re not alone. You don’t have to recreate the wheel, somebody’s probably already done that better or similar.

Laura:  In summary, if you don’t have resources like this, I don’t have a clue how in the IT industry nor the educational industry, particularly, you can stay on top of things. Thank you.


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