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Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Making IT Work

September 4, 2013

Students in the Living Lab

Students in the Living Lab

by Ric Burrous, IU Communications

IUPUI's Living Lab may be tucked away in the lowest level of the Engineering and Technology building, but the lab and its director, Connie Justice, find themselves increasingly well-known throughout the school, across the campus and in the community.

A track record of hands-on expertise will do that for you. And the Living Lab provides that type of personal performance for more than a dozen students each semester.

"We train them to become information technology professionals by emulating their real-world IT counterparts," said Justice, who launched the lab more than a decade ago. "They solve problems, build faster and more effective systems, improve security and network operations, and more."

It wasn't always that way.

"When we started the Living Lab, we didn't even have labs for IT," Justice said. "How can you teach IT to students if you don't have labs?"

So she and her fellow Living Lab founders built their own server rooms and helped other units in Engineering and Technology troubleshoot issues. Curious students began showing interest, and that was all Justice needed.

"We started with a philosophy of offering real-world experience to our students by taking care of our own (school's) equipment," the lab director said. But things didn't stop there. As the months rolled by, the Living Lab connected with other eager clients, first on the IUPUI campus, then to nonprofit organizations, and finally into the Indianapolis community.

The latter group eventually included the Simon Property Group, which oversees Simon Malls across the country.That partnership provided numerous work opportunities for IUPUI students and multiple success stories for Simon. The relationship continues to grow; Justice has even teamed up with Scott Barnes, Simon's vice president of information technology infrastructure and operations, on several national and international presentations. Barnes has provided equipment as well as opportunities, Justice said, and he often sits in on students' presentations.

The work and presentations are a vital part of her students' training, Justice believes. "Everything they do here is resume worthy," the director said. "They learn how to do it all, because the work is a real product that goes out the door."

The Living Lab allows students -- usually 15 per semester, though enrollment has climbed as high as 22 -- to serve clients by applying the networking, security, database, website and application development concepts and techniques they've learned in their course work.

It also "prepares them for the kinds of job they'll face in their careers," said Justice, who admits that she still finds herself excited about sharing her knowledge and passion with her students, more than a decade past the Living Lab's launch.

"I never really thought I'd be doing this," Justice admitted. "But the Living Lab has come into its own the last three or four years, and taken on a momentum I didn't expect. It's been a fun ride."