Feature Story

Cisco Networking Academy Students Wire Political Conventions, Area Schools Receive Free Gear

Cisco Networking Academy students help wire the Republican and Democratic national conventions to get "real-world" experience. And area schools receive the equipment afterwards

October 23, 2008

By Bill Roberts

Cisco Networking Academy Students

Attending one of the U.S. presidential nominating conventions this year was the experience of a lifetime for Joy Das and Ryan Robison. But for these two budding information technology (IT) professionals, the chance to observe history was only part of it, and not even the best part.

Das and Robison were among the 11 IT Cisco Networking Academy students and three instructors chosen by Cisco to participate in month-long, hands-on internships at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Saint Paul, Minn., and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver, Col.

Seven students and two instructors participated at the DNC; four students and one teacher at the RNC. Das, of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., worked at the RNC, and Robison, of Aurora, Col., at the DNC. The students worked alongside Cisco engineers to install, manage and disassemble the computer networks at the events.

"What I would learn in a whole semester I learned in a week," says Das, 37, a student at Inver Hills Community College.

"Aside from being having fun, learning a lot, as well as seeing new technologies, I hope the experience will help me get work in the future," observes Robison, 33, a student at Westwood College in Denver. "It is a golden brick on my resume."

Clydene Stangvik, Area Academy Manager and the Cisco project lead for the internships at the RNC site, agrees. "Gaining real world experience will be invaluable for the students." The Cisco Networking Academy curriculum is tightly integrated into the degree programs at their schools. They share the common goal and objective of teaching students the 21st century skills that lead to high demand jobs in a global economy.

The feedback from the students' teachers has been positive. "I got a note from one instructor that after the convention was over and classes started, he noticed a remarkable difference in the students' professionalism, focus and attitude," says Mags Doty, the Cisco project lead for the internships at the DNC.

The 2008 events were the third time that Cisco has provided the networking gear, setup, service and maintenance to the two national political conventions. It is also the third time that Cisco is donating the routers, switches, cables, and other networking infrastructure used at the sites to area schools. Networking Academy students also participated in wiring the 2000 political conventions.

The internships covered the three-week setup period before each convention, the week of the convention, and a few days after to disassemble the networks. Each intern had gone through an interview process before being chosen.

Robison spent the weeks before the DNC helping to install independent distribution frameworks (IDFs) around the convention area, hooking up the fiber cable between the IDF and the main distribution frame (MDF) in the data center. For each IDF, which is about the size of a small refrigerator, Robison helped to configure the interfaces for the switches, install and test printer ports, and perform related tasks. He worked alongside a Cisco engineer, who eventually let him work on his own and checked the work later.

"When you get in the real world there are techniques and things you do that you don't learn in school," Robison says. For example, he spent about five days making sure the each IDF port had the proper interface, something he would not have a chance to do in the classroom or lab.

Cisco provided the following equipment for the DNC:

  • 27 routers;
  • 149 switches;
  • 16 voice gateways;
  • 69 wireless access points; and,
  • 1,190 IP telephones

The first three days of the DNC were held in Pepsico Center, and the final session at Invesco Field at Mile High, the stadium where Sen. Barak Obama gave his acceptance speech. Most of the cables and gear had been set up beforehand in the stadium, but the Cisco team had about four hours to move three switches to the second site before the last night's session.

For the three days before the closing session, however, there wasn't much to do. "If we did our job right before the convention, there wouldn't be much to do," Robison says. "And we didn't have much to do."

Robison, a part-time IT worker at Cochlear Americas, Centennial, Colo., a subsidiary of Cochlear Ltd., Lane Cove, Australia, hopes the experience will help him achieve his goal of running his own network consulting business someday.

Das had a similar but somewhat different experience at the RNC. Das is a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh, and a veteran of the U.S. Army, where he served as a medic. He decided to go back to school and immerse himself in technology and reorient his career.

Das, too, helped with network setup before the convention. Specifically, he helped to install the IP telephony call managers in the RNC site at Xcel Energy Center. For the RNC, Cisco provided about:

  • 10 routers;
  • 30 switches;
  • four voice gateways;
  • 15 wireless APs; and,
  • 500 IP telephones

The network itself was designed with an extensive amount of redundancy, given the situation.

Most important to Das was the training the RNC interns received in Cisco's intrusion detection software for IT telephony, called Monitoring Analysis Response System (MARS).

"We had a few days of intense training," Das says. During the convention, he and his fellow interns were on 8 hour shifts around the clock to monitor for potential security attacks on the convention network. The MARS training alone is a valuable addition to his resume and invaluable training for his career, he says.

MARS training also was a highlight for Mark Rawlings, an IT teacher in the Saint Paul, Minn. school district, who was the teacher intern at the RNC. The MARS monitoring can be done remotely from a laptop; Rawlings launched the MARS program in his classroom one day and posted it on a multimedia projector for all students to see. While they were looking, an attempted attack took place, and the students were able to watch how the software dealt with it in real time.

"It never occurred to my students that something like this was out there and that there are a lot of jobs in network security," says Rawlings, 40, who has been teaching IT for a dozen years at the high school and community college level. "I explained to them that to prevent hacking you have to learn how to hack, and they really got excited about that."

Rawlings, who did the same tasks as the student interns, says experiences like the RNC event come once in a lifetime. It enriched his ability to teach his students not only the theoretical aspects of networking, but to relate theory to his own experiences.

"This gives me real world stories to tell the students about the real world, real equipment, the relevancy of what they are learning in our labs," he says. "The Cisco engineers were the top of the class and very generous with sharing their knowledge and answering any of our questions."

Bill Roberts is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley.