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Innovation Fund grant designed to turn computing program into talent pipeline

Area business leaders said program matches company core value

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Grand Valley computer science students will have increased access to a growing program intended to give students real-world experiences, thanks to the university’s first Innovation Fund grant.

The grant was awarded to Jonathan Engelsma, director of the university’s Applied Computing Institute (ACI), to grow enrollment and participation in computing programs by hiring graduate and undergraduate students for projects with companies that need real-world computing problems solved.

The grant is the first distributed from the Innovation Fund, a program piloted by President Philomena V. Mantella (see sidebar). The increased funding will allow for as many as five undergraduate students to participate in new residencies, and as many as 10 graduate assistantships, depending on support from sponsoring companies.

“What we wanted to do was broaden the scope of the ACI and increase levels of industry collaboration in the computing area,” Engelsma said. “Right now our students already get a good experience with their senior projects as they complete software deliverables for a real client. 

Innovation Fund pivots to COVID-19

“The grant allows us to get select students into longer-term placements with companies not only to work on computing needs, but for the company to learn about the student and vice-versa.”

Engelsma said the arrangement and inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students makes the expansion of the program a real talent pipeline for local companies that partner with ACI. 

“This grant will serve as seed money to get ACI into what I call a ‘virtuous circle,’ in which companies can utilize the expertise of our faculty and students,” Engelsma said. “There’s tremendous value in having these kinds of experiences as a student when you still have a faculty expert working with you, helping you through challenges. It’s a wonderful way for computing students to apply what they are learning in the classroom and take it one step further.”

Engelsma said ACI has worked in partnership with dozens of local companies on projects including app development, website design and implementation, software solutions, data science and visualization, machine learning and more. 

Companies who partner with ACI also see benefits. 

Michigan Labs, a software and app development company co-founded by Grand Valley alumnus Josh Hulst, has partnered with Engelsma and ACI for several years. Hulst said he views the opportunity a significant win for his company.

“At Michigan Labs, we focus on software for clients, and having talent at all levels is an important part of delivering those solutions,” Hulst said. “This partnership with ACI is really a great talent pipeline for us. Many of our current employees are GVSU grads, and we really value the new solutions and ideas they bring to the table through this program.”

Hulst said the program matches a Michigan Labs core value, which is employee growth and development. Employees work with a coach to grow skills and develop in their career.

“The coaching environment allows students to learn and grow and practice new things, and it helps us look at things in a new light,” Hulst said. 

“Grand Valley is a huge piece of who we are, and it’s been critical to be so close, both geographically and culturally, because this pipeline and these students allow us to deliver results that make a difference in people’s lives. A lot of my team comes from GVSU, and we really value the ongoing relationship.”

Engelsma said the growth of ACI will turn the partnerships with many other companies into talent pipelines, and allow students a “test run” of a company as they field multiple job offers after graduation.

“Companies are interested in this model because computing disciplines are in high demand right now,” Engelsma said. 

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