Summer IT Academy offers students chance to experience workforce before college

Oct. 29, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by Dakota State University.

When employers are searching for the perfect job candidate, they’re looking for someone with a notable background, well-developed skills and, perhaps most of all, an abundance of experience.

For high school and college students, gaining experience within the workforce before graduation has become a necessity – yet not always easy. Fortunately, that is changing thanks to the Summer IT Academy. Now, high school students in Madison and the Sioux Falls area can obtain work experience in cybersecurity and other information technology fields before college.

The academy runs for six weeks and gives businesses the chance to discover new perspectives on plans and strategies, and to complete projects – through an intern. It also gives them an opportunity to market their brand to potential employees and be a part of  community outreach.

The students are able to earn college credit for computer courses while also completing their internship, giving them the ultimate work experience in a technology-related position.

Bergen Weiland, a DSU computer science student, participated in the academy the summer going into her senior year of high school.

“The academy gave me an opportunity to get a head start in both academia and the workforce. It helped me visualize what a job in my field would be like and connected me to DSU faculty who are now helping me excel in college.”

Weiland, who interned in the Karl Mundt Library at DSU, spent the summer organizing the library’s LP collection and helped redesign its website.

“I was given time to work on an independent web design project. Through the internship, I learned a lot about web programming languages (CSS and Bootstrap) but also about accessibility in web design.”

The academy, which was created by Mark Hawkes, dean of graduate studies and professor of instructional technology at Dakota State, and Mel Ustad, project director for South Dakota EPSCoR, began in 2018 and was funded by an Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant through the National Science Foundation.

“Businesses are always looking for strong, creative, technologically astute candidates to support their business ventures, communication tools and data management tools,” Hawkes said. “Our students who come through the academy and DSU have these skills.”

To get students like Weiland interested and involved with the Summer IT Academy, Hawkes met with school administrators and teachers within the region.

“In our first year, I met with a number of business and educational leaders, and we developed internships for the students. We had about 15 students working. They were able to take this experience and translate it to their paid internships.”

Once schools signed on, Hawkes and Ustad took into account what the curriculum should look like and who should teach it. Because the IT Academy is only six weeks long, the condensed timeframe required a fast-paced environment and equivalence to the classes taken by DSU students throughout the academic year.

Tom Halverson, associate professor of computer science at DSU, helped shape the academy from an instructional standpoint and identified the teachers who could cover specific areas. Designing the curriculum was a challenge, however, because it required planning and creativity by the instructors.

“We developed a model to have students in the classroom in the morning and working on internship projects in the afternoon. Longer class periods allowed us to cover in-depth material and build lab time for students to practice.”

The curriculum, which includes CSC 150 and CIS 275, gave Weiland and other students the chance to focus on relationships among problem-solving, logic and programming processes.

“Students gained valuable experience and skills working in a professional environment. They completed real projects and assisted the employers,” Halverson said. “We were able to shape their perception of education and experience that will hopefully pave the way for their future.”

Students also received an overview of web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and how these pieces fit together in the modern web development environment. That understanding is essential in becoming a successful professional in the technology field.

Students who enroll in the Summer IT Academy must be entering their senior year of high school and have a 3.0 GPA and significant technology background. Assuming the program is funded again, applications will open in April. For information, visit

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Summer IT Academy offers students chance to experience workforce before college

Students (and parents): It’s not too soon to start thinking about how to keep learning and gaining work experience during the summer.

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