– – – Brian spoke with Ted Natt of The Pilot to give him a heads up on the Design Pods initiative.  This is a copy of his article for the paper.  Enjoy!

Ted M. Natt Jr., staff writer | Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 11:55 am

Brian Sykes had two internships in college that were interesting but unfulfilling because neither gave him true workplace experience nor a sense of accomplishment.

“A traditional two-week window is a very limited exposure for accomplishing any in-depth track of learning,” said Sykes, director of marketing at Meridian Zero Degrees in Aberdeen. “Most of the time, there is little true job training, just free-reign access to the tools of the trade.”

So Sykes developed a workplace initiative called Design Pods, which he believes creates an environment for students at Sandhills Community College to collaborate, explore and discover.

A Design Pod is a small work-study that partners departments into a unit to tackle defined projects within a block of time — in this case, the fall quarter at SCC.

“I wanted to create a solution to give college students a real-life work experience that would take them out of the classroom,” Sykes said last week. “Nothing like this has ever been done before.”

The initial Design Pod team consists of nine second-year SCC students, including four majoring in computer programming, two from simulation and game design, and one each from network technology, computer engineering and digital media.

“They have decided to create a self-service indoor kiosk that will simplify student interactions within the campus,” Sykes said. “I’ve told them to step outside the box. They’ve got some very creative concepts, such as wayfinding, students forms and quick-notes to faculty.

“Their solution then becomes something we can productize and take to other campuses.”

In addition to new products, Sykes sees the initiative as a way to recruit future employees to Meridian Zero.

“We need two computer programmers right now,” he noted.

Chris Gilder, founder and CEO of Meridian Zero, said the initiative fulfills the self-service solutions company’s longtime desire to work closely with the college.

“We’d love to be able to hire more people locally,” Gilder said. “Right now, all of our software developers are in Canada. We’d like to build a software development team here to work hand-in-hand with them. We’d like to create a talent pool down here and actually have jobs for them to go to.

“I think this is a great opportunity not just for us, but for the students and the college. I think there will be a lot of opportunities for everyone involved.”

SCC President John Dempsey called the initiative “a dream come true for us.”

“Meridian Zero is a very creative, very interesting company,” Dempsey said. “Design Pods is a cool thing. This is pretty cutting-edge stuff, so we are extremely excited to have our students involved. It’s a mutually beneficial situation.”

Joshua Oglesbee, 36, a computer programming major who went back to school after a back injury ended his career at an industrial plant in Sanford, said the students control the project but are under the gun to complete it by December.

“The biggest challenge is the time frame we’ve been given,” Oglesbee said. “We basically have eight weeks left. It’s going to take a lot of time, effort and resources. But it’s a great experience for everybody.”

Oglesbee said the initial team also wants to “build a solid foundation” for its successors.

“It’s an exciting project that is going to continue,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”

Paul Steel, department chairman of computer technologies at SCC, said the college has partnered with a “world class” company in Meridian Zero.

“The students are engaged with Meridian Zero, which is giving them a lot of resources,” Steel said. “This is as close as the students will get, while still being in school, to having a real job. I am absolutely astounded at how the students are engaging in this project, taking it to heart and going full bore.

“I’d love to see the project continue in perpetuity.”

Dempsey said the initiative helps the college “erase the disconnect” between Meridian Zero’s hiring needs and its inability to employ qualified local workers.

“Everybody knows the good old-fashioned jobs are in decline and aren’t going to be around,” he said. “Meridian Zero is a real ray of sunlight in our economic landscape.”

Sykes said the students will share their progress on Facebook and YouTube before making a formal presentation in December.

“They’ll be able to showcase the development in real time,” he said, “and then present their project just as you would in a corporate environment. This initiative involves students, from the ground up, in real-life scenarios without the stress of the real world.”