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For 20 seniors in a capstone class, the grand opening Monday, Feb. 25, of four new Computer Networking and Cyber Security Labs at University of Wisconsin-Stout was a day to celebrate.

They have a dedicated high-tech lab with collaborative work spaces and video monitors. All the wiring and cables are hidden in a subfloor space. The lab includes a data center with about $1 million worth of equipment — 7-foot-tall sleek, black racks of industry-standard servers and routers.

As they spoke with visitors at the event, however, the students were just as eager to talk about their capstone projects — semesterlong, real-world work with five companies.

With guidance from professionals at the companies, students are trying to help them solve networking and security issues. The collaborations involve weekly updates, a white paper report, a live demo of a solution and a final presentation.

The companies, which are free to implement students’ recommendations, are Heartland Business Systems, Marshfield Clinic, Menards, Target and Dell.

The seniors are majoring in computer networking and information technology. Some of them are interning at the same companies, including all five of the team members on the Menards project.

Sam Wosika, of White Bear Lake, Minn., a CNIT senior, is the program teaching assistant this year. He is helping coordinate use of the data center by the capstone class.

“To have the dedicated lab classrooms is a definite improvement,” Wosika said. “I spend a lot of time here. This is truly hands-on learning. We’re actually touching the equipment.”

Wosika likes other aspects of the CNIT program, which is largely lab-based learning, such as the internship opportunities and connections to industry. He has had two internships and will have a third one this summer with Cisco in San Jose, Calif.

The four new labs, with team work stations and other networking equipment beyond the data center, are in rooms 176, 188, 192 and 193 of Micheels Hall. They replace smaller, older labs in Fryklund Hall.

The equipment in each lab matches the lab’s level of instruction: year 1-2 students, year 2-3 students, year 3-4 students and year 4-capstone students.

The new labs are near existing computer labs for the game design and development bachelor’s program.

“The opportunity to work at a table as part of a team has changed the whole dynamic of the classroom,” said Maria Alm, dean of the College of Arts, Communication, Humanities and Social Sciences. “This project has increased our capacity and class size.”

Learning and Information Technology at UW-Stout helped with the configurations and setups of the labs, Alm said.

Reid Sedlak, of New Richmond, also a CNIT senior, likes the clean layout and more efficient setup of the new labs. “It’s really nice because the rooms are more open and streamlined,” he said.

Within the CNIT program, Sedlak is focusing on cyber security. “I love that you can do a little bit of everything with the program — phones, wireless, servers, security. You can go anywhere in the world with this degree, and the salaries are high,” Sedlak said.

The CNIT program, which typically has 100 percent employment of recent graduates, works closely with its advisory board of industry professionals. A new cloud computing class is one result of the board’s recent input, said Professor Holly Yuan, CNIT program director.

Chancellor Bob Meyer spoke at the grand opening and toured the new labs, greeting students, instructors and industry representatives. “This is a great new space for CNIT offerings,” he said.

The university was named in 2017 as a national Center of Academic Excellence for Cyber Defense, the first in the UW System. The designation helps select higher education institutions with computer-related programs prepare the U.S. against cybersecurity threats.

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