Ex Labs Boot Camp Provides Unique and Empowering Training

(April 6, 2018) – After weeks of intense training sessions and countless hours of work, Sara Rocks and her team presented their award-winning business plan called Art Assist, in front of industry leaders, peers, faculty, family and friends on March 29.

Ex Labs winning team.

Ex Labs winning team. From left: Diana Bryson, Sara Rocks, Chris Rotolo, Malachi Greaves, and Jonathan Fanshaw.

Rocks, a sophomore psychology and marketing major, along with her teammate Christopher Rotolo, a senior accounting major, and 18 other students were part of the first ever Ex Labs class hosted by USF St. Petersburg.

Exploratory Labs Boot Camp (Ex Labs, for short) is a collaborative effort between USFSP, Tech Data and Gehant and Associates. It provides students from all majors the opportunity to participate in a highly competitive program that exposes participants to the latest trends and strategies used in the technology industry.

“We worked on our own projects in teams and discovered what we are good at individually,” Rocks said. “I had a completely unique experience, different from the generalized education in a classroom setting. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made!”

According to its business plan, Ex Labs guides students in discovering the range of jobs available in Tampa Bay, learning and honing their own skillsets and what they can bring to various businesses. In a robust list of over 20 skills participants gain during the six-week training, business acumen, communication, design thinking and collaboration are just a few. These are skills that are often challenging to develop in a classroom environment, without a real-world setting.

“Classes can be hypothetical, and you’re given many of the answers to memorize,” Rotolo said. “In our groups, we had to solve real-world issues and look for the answers ourselves.”

The 70-hour program of 28 sessions is based on a curriculum developed by Tech Data, one of the world’s largest technology distributors and currently ranked No. 107 on the Fortune 500®. Sessions are delivered by professionals from Tech Data and area companies, who also share personal career and pathway stories.

“We learned what companies are looking for in potential employees,” said Rotolo. “They care more about what you’re willing to learn and less about what you already know.”

Rocks also expressed that the value of the Ex Labs experience has made her more confident in herself, learning what her unique skills are and how to apply them in her future career.

Part of the Ex Labs experience includes the chance to win a specialized Cisco training package worth $2,300, awarded to the team who creates the best business plan. The highly coveted training package teaches students how to design solutions based on customer needs and includes a certification that is required to take Advanced Architecture and other Cisco technical training.

Rocks and Rotolo’s team won the Cisco package for their innovative and applicable business plan, Art Assist, created to connect communities and support art using creative technology. Art Assist would offer services such as event location and a calendar, security and the ability to sell and buy products.

“We had a terrific group,” Rotolo said. “We spent the early part of this experience learning about each other and how to trust each other, creating a plan where everyone was heard, and personal work preferences were met.”

USF St. Petersburg students have participated in Ex Labs Boot Camps in the past, however, after seeing its success, the university decided to host its own to make it more available to students.

USFSP Ex Labs Spring 2018 graduates.

USFSP Ex Labs Spring 2018 graduates.

“Our college deans and vice chancellor of Academic Affairs recognized how Ex Labs would benefit USFSP students by providing an intensive personal and professional development program,” said Dr. Kathleen Gibson-Dee, Academic Affairs Fellow and professor in the College of Education.

Rocks said she signed up for the boot camp to try something new and different, to push herself.

“This opportunity is one of a kind,” she said. “It seemed stressful and out of my league going into it, but it wasn’t. It was so worth it, being able to express my own creativity, find skills and make friends and life-long connections.”

Pat Gehant, Managing Partner of Gehant and Associates, and Angie McCourt, Vice President of Cisco Solutions at Tech Data, are co-founders of the Ex Lab Boot Camp multidisciplinary model. In their proposed business plan submitted to USF St. Petersburg leaders last fall, Gehant and McCourt noted the overwhelmingly positive value this collaborative opportunity provides for students – combining the standards of educational excellence and industry knowledge with student achievement and job placement.

“Students were asked to rate the overall value of the experience and 60 percent of them said it was life changing and 40 percent agreed Ex Labs Boot Camp was career enhancing,” Gehant said. “One hundred percent of the spring 2018 participants reported that the program was extremely valuable.”

Gehant and McCourt said this partnership will expand career exploration activities, increasing student connections to jobs in the Tampa Bay area, inspiring industry involvement with education and increasing graduation rates.

“I believe the biggest value for our students is the recognition of a richer self-awareness and appreciation of their unique talent and skillset combination,” Gibson-Dee said.  “I hope many other students embark on this empowering journey!”

Rotolo said the value of participating in the Ex Labs Boot Camp, beyond all the skills learned, sets him up for great internship opportunities, networking events and a chance to shadow professions of interest.

“My resume has increased tremendously,” he said. “I’ve made new friends both professional and personal and have enlarged my network by 400 percent!”

Article by Karlana June, USFSP Content Specialist.