Technology students reach out to community through computers

A new community service program is helping students with technical skills give back to the community by providing free tech support and computer consulting to local nonprofit organizations.
The Student Technology Outreach Center (STOC), founded by junior computer science and economics double major Zhi Qiao, aims to give students with technical skills a chance to do community service while helping local organizations. ?The objective is to help the community and provide a clearinghouse for people at CMU who like to help out,? said David Housman, a senior business and Human-Computer Interaction double major who helped Qiao start the project.
The program is designed to meet the needs of clients who need fast, occasional support, rather than those who have larger issues or need permanent help. ?Say a nonprofit in the community needs to have something done. They?ll call us, I?ll send people to get it done,? Housman said.
?Compared to a lot of people [outside] of the CMU community, we have a lot of skills,? said Housman. ?People at CMU could provide a service to the community by doing what they like to do and are good at.?
Housman stressed that the group?s goal was to help nonprofit organizations with high-level tasks like the use of common software packages and making decisions about hardware purchases. ?Not everyone at CMU is on the guru side of the technical ability scale,? Housman said. ?[STOC projects] are not hardcore programming.?
Despite its recent launch, several organizations have already approached the group for assistance. Over the summer, STOC provided consulting to the Center for Creative Play and trained staff at the Crohn?s Colitis Foundation of America in the use of Microsoft Office products. Almost a dozen organizations are now awaiting help from the group.
Throughout each partnership, staff members at the nonprofits work with students, so that the work done remains sustainable after the students leave. When the projects end, the students and clients fill out evaluation forms that let STOC improve its processes for the future and provide information for professors writing references.
STOC grew out of 15-391 Technology Consulting in the Community, a course taught every semester by computer science professor Joe Mertz. In that course, students get three relatively large tech-help projects to work on over a semester. ?[The course] is a 15-week engagement, which is good for a heavyweight project,? said Mertz.
However, Mertz and some students realized that the class?s design was not designed for and could not handle smaller, more common issues. ? ?Our printer keeps breaking? doesn?t need a huge project,? said Mertz.
According to Mertz, a few years ago the then-dean of the school of computer science, James Morris, had the idea of starting a ?rent-a-geek? program after tiring of constant requests for people from his department to help with computer problems.
Not long after, a donor gave the School of Computer Science funds to start a student outreach project and Qiao approached Mertz about coming up with a program. ?So I said, ?I have some money, what are you doing this summer??,? recalled Mertz.
Qiao ended up starting STOC over the summer, and now heads a group of about 30 people. Volunteers are divided into three groups: Project Coordinators, Project Managers and regular staff. According to Qiao, anyone can join at any of the three levels: coordinators perform more administrative tasks, staff members do the technical work, and managers serve in between. Additionally, Mertz serves as the group?s official advisor, working with an advisory council of other staff members.
?We got the word out this summer through some contacts that Professor Mertz and Shernell Smith had in the community, and it has grown from there,? said Qiao. ?We hope that by sheer word of mouth and demand, the people who really need us will find out about us.?
Qiao and Mertz both expressed their desire to see STOC grow into a more robust organization in the future. ?What I had always hoped for STOC was to develop ourselves into an umbrella organization of campus resources, like students, organizations, faculty, and departments, so that the community at large would have one place to go to look for tech outreach,? Qiao said. He stressed that he wanted to work with other groups rather than take them over, and said: ?Outreach is always stronger when it is unified and organized.?
?The one quote I learned from a non-profit leader this summer that I like to use in describing what it is we do is: ?It?s real easy to eat a banana, but if you don?t know you?re supposed to peel it first, it can get awfully messy,? ? Qiao said.
Students interested in volunteering and groups looking to partner with STOC can contact Zhi Qiao at zqiao@.