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Students, Faculty and Companies Converge at SHU for Tech Challenge and Hiring Fair

Competition enables young tech talents and local tech businesses to assess each other

Frank Catania, right, and Nate Barone of the winning team Trevor, Nate & Co., present their product during the final judging round.

The heat was high at Sacred Heart University’s West Campus recently, though the temperature outside had dropped below freezing and a snowstorm was fast approaching.

Creating a spark in the cool “Jetsons”-like hallways and classrooms at the former General Electric headquarters, now home to SHU’s computer-oriented programs, was the College Tech Challenge and Hiring Fair, which the University hosted for the first time in the competition’s three-year history. The challenge occupied the morning from 9 to 11:30 a.m.; the hiring fair took place from 12:30-3:30 p.m., with a break to present awards to winning teams.

In the challenge’s engineering category, the winning team was Trevor, Nate & Co, from SHU, with members Nate Barone, Frank Catania and Trevor Neal. (Neal was not feeling well the day of the competition.) The coding team co-winners were the Fat Dads from University of Connecticut (Christopher Vasallo, Jack Violet and Thomas Finn Navin), and the Bobconcatonators from Quinnipiac University (Joseph Germain, Daron McIntosh and Aaron Paterson).

Bruce Carlson, president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, which created the challenge, said it was conceived because there was “not enough recognition by Connecticut companies of the talent at local colleges, and equally not enough recognition by students of these companies.”

The competition this year involved 16 Connecticut-based colleges and began in September. A challenge took place at each campus (both public and private institutions), assessed by three to four judges who were a mix of local tech representatives and faculty. Winning students from each campus were tapped to go on to the finals at SHU. In all, 250 students, predominantly sophomores through seniors, initially competed, with 79 students going through to the final challenge and 20 judges on hand for assessment.

Coding students at each campus first took a coding test. Top students were identified, formed teams and were charged with developing and presenting a “hack” that helps opioid addicts and those in recovery find supportive resources quickly and effectively. On the engineering side, students were challenged to provide a means to reduce driver-induced accidents.

Carlson likened the competition to speed-dating, wherein the students were stationary and the judges moved around from team to team. In this way, he said, company reps could assess students’ tech skills and see if they were team players, thereby getting a rounded preview of potential talent they might want to hire.

Human resource representatives originally were the company types invited to the challenge, but that transitioned to technology staff, who were in a better position to “talk the talk.”

The first year’s challenge took place at RentschlerField in UConn’s football stadium in East Hartford. Last year, it was at ahotel in Bristol. Wanting a more academic environment, the CTC partnered withSHU at the invitation of Tolga Kaya, SHU’s director of engineering and associateprofessor of computer engineering in the University’s School of ComputerScience and Engineering.

“Sacred Heart has been tremendous in making this available to us,” said Carlson. “Fairfield is not often thought of as central to the state, but it turns out that it is. The facility is beautiful.”

Kaya was equally pleased the CTC accepted the invitation. “The vision for the West Campus was to have it be an innovation hub. We want to foster creativity, idea generation and organic industry collaborations,” he said.

Among the finalists were six SHU students, all in the engineering sector, split into two teams. Kaya was excited to have their representation, given that SHU’s computer engineering program is only in its second year, and the students were able to interact with local technology companies early in their academic experience. The six SHU team members included freshmen and sophomore engineering students as well as business students.

When the challenge first took place, seniors were the main competitors, according to Carlson. The CTC soon realized, though, that by November of every year, many seniors already had or accepted job offers, so the council started to target and groom younger students, while also identifying intern candidates for a mix of technology companies, ranging from Metronic to Pratt & Whitney. In Carlson’s view, “The best way to keep students in the state is to offer them opportunities in cool companies.”

In fact, Christopher Szpryngel, a program manager at Microboard Processing Inc. of Seymour, who was serving as one of the judges, said his company just hired a SHU student from the School of Computer Science & Engineering as an intern for IT. Microboard Processing makes printed circuit boards for commercial and industrial applications. He said of the challenge, “This is a great way to spot talent and also understand what students are learning so that we can create positions that accommodate their skills.”

One SHU team that appeared to have skills was the self-dubbed Engi-Masters, comprising freshman Wesley Hammerschmidt, sophomore Lucinda Cahill and junior Jay McEachern. They claimed to feel like “kids in a candy store,” given this unique forum for interaction. The students aspire to become a public accountant, hardware engineer and mechanical engineer, respectively.

The other SHU engineering team, aforementioned winners Trevor, Nate & Co., also voiced that being onsite was “amazing,” and they were proud to have survived to the final round. Catania aspires to be an investment banker, while Barone wants to be involved with carbon nano tube printing. They both felt their interactions with the judges were like “informal job interviews.”

Among the other college teams competing in the engineering category were the Bantam Engineers—Alison Adams, Shannon Phillips and Hanna Engstrom from Trinity College. They said they were excited to represent their school and felt confident about their prospects as more experienced seniors.

In the coding sector, the Webtrotters—sophomores Paul Pasquerelli,Anthony Latorre and Khameron Chaddha from Manchester Community College—werejazzed to be making a custom website that would be judged on accessibility,presentation and functionality. 

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