Monday May 15, 2017

Code for Success

By Eric F. Spina

At the Stander Symposium highlighting undergraduate research and discovery, I listened with fascination as senior computer science major Josh Buck talked about his efforts to create a new software model for human-computer dialogue that’s more sophisticated than personal assistant technologies like Apple's “Siri.”

I was impressed by the depth of the research and the fact that Josh had received a national award for his research from the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery and had published three peer-reviewed papers, one presented internationally in Brussels last July.

A couple weeks later, I was surprised to run into Josh again, this time at Tech Town, where Kevin Klawon, leader of UDRI’s software systems group in the sensors systems division, is developing a new paradigm for how we recruit and educate software engineers.  

Josh is one of 17 full-time entry-level software technicians who work closely with UDRI senior developers to create new software technologies for companies like LexisNexis, Emerson and Honda as well as the Army Research Laboratory and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Kevin’s brainchild — Work-to-School™ — is a remarkable program, one that may even be a new model for higher education. These technicians work full-time and take classes through the University’s tuition remission program as they pursue undergraduate degrees. Most will graduate with bachelor's degrees in computer science, computer engineering or electrical engineering, but one is a fine arts major, and another studies geology. Many are transfers from Sinclair Community College, where they learned software proficiency, but Kevin will hire promising high school graduates with programming experience, even if self-taught. 

As I walked out of Tech Town — a highly collaborative office, laboratory and research space at the edge of downtown — I marveled at UDRI’s forward-thinking approach to educating students for high-tech, in-demand careers in Dayton and beyond. This hybrid program better prepares students for their classroom work and jobs in industry because of the wealth of experience they're receiving every day.

Our city is accelerating innovation and technology commercialization as it plays on the region’s rich inventive history, and we are a key player in this renaissance. Instead of outsourcing programming and software development to another time zone across the world, local companies are finding cost-competitive, quality help right here with these high-performing technicians who are programmers by day, students by night.

Upon graduation, these young professionals are a hot commodity in the job market, where Kevin says they are commanding salaries 25 to 50 percent higher than their peers because of their thousands of hours of real-world experience. The program, now in its fifth year, has become a pipeline of talent for local companies and federal labs.

I'm impressed with the way our researchers and faculty inspire creativity and curiosity in our undergraduates. After Josh received the prestigious ACM award this spring for his work with human-computer dialogue, he credited his faculty adviser, Saverio Perugini, for encouraging him to pursue his research passion.

Every year on our campus, 200 undergraduates work alongside researchers and faculty on research that runs the gamut from studying the eye of a fruit fly for keys to unlocking the mystery of Alzheimer’s to improving mobility and balance for people with multiple sclerosis. They’re being mentored by some of the finest scholars and researchers in their fields, and the quality of their work is extraordinary, rivaling that at the best research universities.

At Tech Town and on campus, some of these students, like Josh, are writing computer code — and programming their futures. It's inspirational.

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