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Imagining Possiblities, Creating Solutions – Ferris State University

As the philosopher Aristotle once said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” For students in the Computer Networks and Systems (CNS) program at Ferris State University, learning includes intensive hands-on labs, exposure to multiple networking technologies, and off-campus field trips to organizations.
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Ferris State’s computer networking program began in 1996 and expanded in Fall 2002 when the Cisco Networking Academy became part of the program. During the first two years of the CNS bachelor’s degree program, students take four immersive Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) courses, which they can use as preparation for the Cisco CCNA exam. First-year students learn to design OSI and TCP/IP networks, gain experience with tools such as Packet Tracer and Wireshark, and develop an understanding of routing protocols and operations. Second-year students gain valuable experience and understanding of local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN), covering topics such as switching, quality of service, wireless, and network security.

After completing the four CCNA preparation courses, students can take the optional CCNA exam between their sophomore and junior years, earning a certification that can help students distinguish themselves with prospective employers after graduation. Students who pass the exam can also earn a CCNA Certification Incentive Scholarship of $100 that can be applied towards a CNS course.

“Unguided” Lab Environment

In addition to the CCNA courses, students complete courses in computer programming, physics, electrical circuit analysis, and microprocessor applications. All of these courses help prepare students for the “unguided” labs of the Network Theory and Test course, which is taken during a student’s junior year.

During the labs, Ferris State University Professor Keith Jewett challenges his students with real-world situations, acting as a pseudo-boss and creating challenging network situations for his students to recreate. Jewett designates each row of workstations in the computer lab to represent a company and then divides the row into “East Coast” and “West Coast” segments. Students are then challenged to build Windows and UNIX-based servers and then set up their networks from scratch. They create their own DNS and set up everything related to network, whether it’s a frame relay network, a virtual private network (VPN), an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) fiber-optic network, or wireless network.

The students gain valuable knowledge through their hands-on work, learning how different types of network connections perform and how to independently troubleshoot problems. They can observe how much faster one connection type performs over another—whether it’s an ATM fiber connection, a T3 connection with coaxial cable, frame relay, or something else—and they gain an in-depth knowledge of WANs and LANs.

“Students learn the ability to think outside the box and research a problem to its solution,” Jewett said. “They do more than just follow instructions but rather they actually solve problems. They get real experience with different kinds of network technology.”

Most students average 20 hours a week in the lab during the course. “They ‘own’ the lab, and can come and go as they please. It’s not unusual for some of them to work all night since they’re college students and are really interested in what they’re working on.”

The computer networking courses at Ferris State expose students to a variety of networking equipment, most of which is donated to the university. In Cisco Networking Academy courses, students gain extensive experience with Cisco routers and switches. In other courses, students can practice on varied technologies, including Packeteer, Nokia FW, Cabletron Systems Smart Switch Routers, Enterasys switches, Nortel Business Policy switches, Hewlett Packard G3 & G4, Sun Systems T5220, Adtran Atlas 550, Netvanta 5305s, and Bay Networks ATM.

“We purchased the Adtran Atlas 550 for $8,000, and through our connections at Adtran, we were able to get another $8,000 in donated equipment,” Jewett stated.

Senior-Year Work

For their senior-level lab work, students improve the networks that they developed during their junior year and incorporate greater security, adding RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial In User Service) and Cisco’s TACACS+ (Terminal Access Controller Access Control System Plus) for network authentication and control. They also set up firewalls and Packeteer, which assists with packet shaping and analysis.

Seniors also collaborate with students in the Electrical/Electronics Engineering Technology Program on a year-long senior design project, where they work together to create a proof-of-concept design that solves a real-world problem. Recent projects have included: a mobile device application that uses global positioning satellite (GPS) data and real-time construction zone detection to notify users about road construction; a car starter that parses SMS (text) messages sent from a mobile device; and a device that allows a person to check their body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and blood-oxygen level and then store the data on a home computer.

The multi-disciplinary approach to the class project gives students a glimpse of what problem solving is like at a business, with team members combining their unique talents to create a finished product concept.

IEEE Chapter

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is an organization that has over 375,000 professional and student members worldwide. The Ferris State University chapter of IEEE consists of students in the computer networking and engineering programs, who meet regularly in Big Rapids to exchange ideas and learn professional techniques. The group hosts speakers from industry and periodically takes off-campus field trips. The organization gives students an added way to increase their knowledge beyond the classroom and develop professional contacts.

“Students are encouraged to join IEEE as freshmen. Students organize the meetings,” according to Jewett, who serves as an academic advisor to the IEEE chapter. “The field trips are basically an opportunity to get out and see what the real world is all about.”

In February, students spent a day at Merit Network in Ann Arbor, where they toured the facilities and met with senior engineers and management. They learned about the technology and challenges of running a high-performance, research and education network.

On another trip, IEEE chapter members visited organizations in Holland, Michigan. Students visited Haworth Office Furniture, where they toured the company and learned about its network and the toll bypass system for its voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone system. The group also traveled to Gentex to learn about the business operations and how the corporation’s automation systems are networked.

The chapter’s longest trip took them to Wisconsin. The group toured John Deere in Horicon, Wisconsin, and learned how the company’s assembly lines operate. During the Wisconsin trip they also had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the operations at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) field office in Milwaukee.

In addition to the field trips, IEEE students have had the opportunity to participate in the IEEEXtreme programming competition, an event that challenges IEEE student teams to solve a series of computer programming problems during a 24-hour period. The 2010 competition pitted three teams from Ferris State against competitors around the globe, with nearly 1,000 teams from more than 350 universities participating. Fueled primarily by caffeine, snack food and Domino’s pizza, the Ferris State students worked dilligently both day and night to solve the problems. The top Ferris State team finished in 305th place, in the top third of the field.

Through their involvement in IEEE and the program’s intensive coursework, CNS students gain a solid footing that prepares them for a professional career. Ferris State’s slogan is “Imagine More,” and through their experience during “unguided” labs and a challenging senior project, students imagine the possibilities and then develop solutions that can be applied in the real world.

About Ferris State University

Ferris State University is located in Big Rapids. Over 14,000 students attend classes at the main campus. 135 students have graduated from the CNS program, with 85 earning degrees since the inception of the Cisco Networking Academy at Ferris State.

Some Ferris majors are offered at no other university in Michigan or the United States. More than 170 undergraduate and graduate majors include 2-year degrees that “ladder” into 4-year, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees, seven master’s degrees and Doctor of Optometry and Doctor of Pharmacy degrees.

Ferris State joined Merit Network as an affiliate member in 1992 and became a governing member in 1998. The Big Rapids campus has two 10 gigabit-per-second fiber connections to Merit’s backbone network.