The future of tech education


Cushioned chairs in Tech Station's "Florida Room" allow for privacy and collaboration.

Cushioned chairs in Tech Station’s “Florida Room” allow for privacy and collaboration.

By Gisela Valencia

The modern workspace has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years. Tech companies in particular are creating communal workspaces that encourage collaboration and creativity among employees.

FIU’s new $3 million Tech Station in PG 6 is raising the bar for educational institutions, promoting and reflecting the kind of creative workspace that companies have begun offering their employees, and that are essential ingredients in the work space.

“It’s critical that our students be prepared for the best jobs possible and Tech Station can be a major force in preparing students for the work force,” President Mark B. Rosenberg said.

Designed for students of FIU’s School of Computing and Information Sciences (SCIS) –part of the College of Engineering and Computing – Tech Station will help them learn about the tech industry in a dynamic way.

“We understand that what really matters is the quality of education for our students,” Rosenberg said during his speech at Tech’s Station’s Inaugural Ceremony Aug. 26.”We understand that our students have to graduate timely and then go out and find those great jobs. And if they can’t find a great job, they have to create a great job. And there’s no doubt that we have the elements here to foster the likelihood of that objective, always keeping our students and their well-being in mind.”

The facility was paid for by both an Information Technology Performance Funding grant and a Targeted Educational Attainment (TEAm) grant, funded by the Florida Legislature with the intention of producing more graduates for careers in the state’s highest-need areas.

Part of helping students be prepared for the workforce means exposing students to future employers. Multiple tech companies have partnered with the School of Computing and Information Sciences and Tech Station in this endeavor.

“This is essential for a technology ecosystem to thrive and for companies in South Florida to compete worldwide,” said College of Engineering and Computing Interim Dean Ranu Jung.

Planners of the 8,000-square-foot facility hope students will be able to experience a new atmosphere and develop a new perspective about the computing field.

“We’re trying to break a mold. We’re trying to get students to think differently about what an educational environment looks like and what the experience is,” SCIS Director of Technology Steve Luis said.

Tour of Tech Station

Tech Station’s labs were designed with a home floor plan in mind, since part of creating a comfortable, innovative environment involves having students feel at home working at the Tech Station.

In the Software Design Lab, a long table with computers makes up the “dining room” and the cushioned seats near the windows act as the “living room.”

“I grew up in Miami,” said Luis, who oversaw the development of the Tech Station. “And the Florida room was where all the old furniture ended up. But it was also where the family spent the most time because it was comfortable.”

Tech Station’s “Florida room” includes cushioned chairs with shoulder arms that increase people’s privacy as they work on their laptops while sitting on the chair. The chairs are also movable, to allow collaboration and discussion with those nearby.

“The Software Design Lab has a Google feel when you’re working,” SCIS Tech team member and sophomore computer sciences major Fernando Mendez said. “Google is known for having really laid-back, relaxed environment, and Tech Station creates that environment.”

This lab also includes a Japanese tatami-inspired feature with a low-ground table and low-ground seats meant for sitting cross-legged while students work on their laptops.

“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done in any of our labs,” Luis said. “You have to see it. You have to experience it.”

The “garage within a garage,” as Luis likes to call the IT Hardware and Services Lab, is where students can get first-hand experience tearing apart computers from FIU’s Surplus Department and then putting them back together. Since it’s the garage of the Tech Station, a real-live garage door with glass panels separates this lab from the Software Design Lab across from it.

SCIS student Shadeh Ferris-Francis said the Hardware Lab speaks directly to the needs of students, giving them another space to work in a tool workshop ambiance.

“It’s really helpful having that large area so we can work on our own personal projects in an environment suited to us.”

And, if you’re wondering about the kitchen, near the dining room, Half Moon Empanadas set up shop and offers breakfast, lunch and dinner empanadas, and coffee, the number one item requested by students during the building of the Tech Station.

Team work

Among its many innovative features, Tech Station offers students team rooms that help them channel their creativity.

Luis said the team rooms are “not cubified,” in the sense that cubicles usually all look the same. “Each team room has its own personality. Some are playful for brainstorming and others are more focused.”

Several brainstorming team rooms sport movable cushioned seats, spiral-shaped lamps, extra white boards, and glass windows that let light shine in from the outside. One room even offers a playful horse-seat where students can sit astride or sidesaddle and rock back-and-forth.

“The team rooms are great because they let students have their study groups in there. And everybody can share their code or whatever they’re working on, they can share it on screens without having to have a special type of computer or device,” Mendez said. “It makes it easier for students to get together and collaborate.”

Active learning classrooms

The university has also provided four active learning classrooms within Tech Station. The rooms are designed to emphasize hands-on activities and collaboration among students to solve problems together, with professors acting as mentors to the class.

“This is the largest collection of contiguous active learning classrooms in one location on our campus. This is the future – it puts us on the map in terms of how we want our students to receive education and what kind of an environment we expect our students to work in. It’s a game changer for that.” Luis said.

Engagement and partnerships

Tech Station will also become a hub for community engagement programs. Open Hack Nights hosted in the IT Hardware and Services Lab will allow community members to experience and learn more about the computing field.

“Hacking has a negative connotation, but it’s about disruption in the sense that we want to make something better, disrupt the status quo” Luis said.

An important aspect of Tech Station’s initiatives is SCIS partnerships with several companies that can help mentor students and also recruit potential employees from FIU’s students. This connection to future employers is something students like Fernando Campo are thinking about.

“If a company wants to see what we can offer them, now we have a place and a platform to showcase our work at the Ultimate Software Innovation Showcase in Tech Station,” Campo said.

Ultimate Software has supported FIU’s SCIS for years, and has hired more than 100 FIU students.

“We’ve been thrilled to be part of FIU’s Computer Science and Engineering road since 2007.” said Adam Rogers, Ultimate Software’s chief of technology officer.

Rogers credited SCIS for helping Ultimate Software grow into a highly successful business.

“Since we started, we’ve grown from four employees to more than 2,600 employees and we could not have done it without the talent in South Florida, but more specifically, we could have not done it without the work with FIU. That is the absolute truth.” Rogers said.

Academic Advising Center

Timely graduation is always on the minds of FIU administrators, as part of the university’s strategic goals. With that in mind, the SCIS Academic Advising Center is housed in the Tech Station to help students complete their degree and graduate on time; the SCIS STEM coordinator will help students find internships and jobs. Tech Station already serves as the first impression for SCIS freshmen at orientations.

“It’s a lasting impression,” Luis said. “When they leave, we want them to leave feeling, ‘wow, what an experience’.”