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SOU reboots its computer science program

After local high-tech businesses criticized Southern Oregon University for graduating students who didn’t have the job skills they needed, the Computer Science Department retooled its programs.

Computer science graduates are critical to meet the labor needs of Rogue Valley businesses, especially those in the high-tech sector. With the right skills, they are in high demand and can launch lucrative careers — even in an uncertain job market and in an era when many college graduates struggle to pay off their student loans.

But until recently, SOU’s computer science students were taking less rigorous coursework and graduating without enough programming languages to be viable job candidates, according to some local high-tech businesses. These businesses also said the Computer Science Department still needs to boost its math requirements.

John Lee, chief executive officer of the high-tech Ashland company Folium Partners, said the Rogue Valley needs a steady stream of computer science students and graduates to serve as interns and new employees for start-up companies.

“Labor has been our biggest issue since we opened our doors,” Lee said.

The need for programming skills is especially strong, he said.

Folium Partners, which makes apps for the publishing industry, was so dissatisfied with the quality of SOU’s computer science program that it hired interns from the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls for a summer. But those students had to head back to OIT in the fall, said Steve Christensen, co-founder of the company with Lee.

Lee and Christensen are now moving their company to Portland to tap into that city’s high-tech labor pool.

The move is a blow to the local high-tech industry, especially since Folium Partners secured a $300,000 investment from the Southern Oregon Angel Investment Network in 2011 and was a rising star among area start-ups.

SOU responds

SOU Assistant Professor of Computer Science Lynn Ackler said the department listened to criticisms from Lee and others in the high-tech business community.

“To an extent, we’re fortunate John raised hell because we did need to rethink the curriculum and give it more integrity than what it did have in the past,” Ackler said.

SOU just finished its first full academic year after making changes, according to administrators.

“We did have tracks students could slide through,” Ackler said.

SOU had five computer science tracks in order to try and boost enrollment and revenue. That diluted the quality of the computer science student pool, he said.

The tracks emphasized multimedia, business, computer security, computer science or computer science with math.

“We were attracting people who maybe were not cut out for computer science degrees,” he said.

In response to recommendations from a University of Oregon consultant and business community criticism voiced during a 2013 roundtable discussion, SOU paired down its offerings to more rigorous, core courses.

Several of the less challenging tracks, such as a multimedia track and a business track, were eliminated, although students who started in those tracks were allowed to continue on and graduate.

Anecdotally, Ackler said students who had taken the multimedia and business tracks sometimes had difficulty finding good jobs after graduation.

SOU lacks the staffing to track whether computer science graduates land jobs, said Greg Pleva, associate professor of computer science.

In the 2013 discussion, business leaders said computer science students should be exposed earlier to a variety of programming languages. While SOU prioritized the Java programming language, most businesses said others were more important.

“I noticed they focused on Java,” said recent computer science graduate Skyler Sommer, who is working for SOU as a desktop systems administrator. “Other languages would have been more beneficial than Java.”

SOU students now must learn the C programming language to complete their degree and are exposed to several more languages, Ackler and Pleva said.

With the programming language landscape always evolving, local business leaders said students not only need to learn languages, they need to be able to keep learning new ones on the job.

“SOU is teaching them the fundamentals of how to be great employees and to keep learning,” said Jim Teece, president and chief executive officer of the high-tech company Project A in Ashland. “SOU is teaching the ability to learn a new language. Can you learn a language in one work week?”

Teece said he has hired several SOU graduates and found their broad-based liberal arts education to be an asset.

“I think they’re top-notch students. I tend to grab the best,” he said.

Plexis Healthcare Systems Inc. Human Resources Manager Melika Casale said she considers an SOU computer science degree to be a strong degree when she is screening resumes. The Ashland-based company creates healthcare software.

“People we hire out of SOU are fantastic. I’m all for hiring recent college grads. They’re moldable. They’re very eager to learn. All of our stuff can be taught with the right motivation and personality,” Casale said.

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Director of Information Technology James Walker said OSF began hiring SOU graduates for high-tech positions only within the past few years.

Those graduates are doing well in operations and systems engineering, but OSF has yet to see strong candidates for jobs that require programming, he said.

“I haven’t seen many candidates for developer positions and the ones that did apply were weak. I’d love to see more computer programming,” Walker said.

He noted it may be taking time for students to filter through SOU’s revamped computer science program, graduate and become available to employers.

Business leaders continue to advocate for tougher math requirements for computer science graduates.

Students currently must take two out of four math courses, with the choices being Statistics, Calculus I, Calculus II or Discrete Structures. The computer science department favors eliminating the less-challenging Statistics course as an option, Pleva and Ackler said.

The department is also considering requiring students to take a math class before they begin their first programming class, Pleva and Ackler said.

In both math and programming, students gain skills in understanding problems and figuring out steps to solutions, they said.

Looking ahead

Outgoing SOU Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs James Klein said changes made to emphasize core programming skills are yielding positive results.

Businesses continue to ask SOU to produce software engineering graduates, he said.

Klein said SOU could possibly work with the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls to bring OIT software engineering courses to the Rogue Valley.

SOU bills itself as a liberal arts university. But this spring, it reorganized to group together all departments related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

In Oregon and across the nation, STEM graduates are in short supply, even though they can secure well-paying jobs.

Former Math Department Chairwoman Sherry Ettlich has been named the new director of SOU’s Division of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“I want to evaluate. Are we meeting our goals? Do we need further adjustment? We should be a resource to the high-tech community,” she said. “There are lots of exciting opportunities. I’m anxious to see what we’ll be able to do.”

As the new division director, Ettlich said she will be able to interact with the various STEM departments and the community, and work on efforts to promote STEM education from kindergarten through high school and college.

The reorganization of departments comes as SOU continues to grapple with retrenchment, a process of prioritizing programs and dealing with budget difficulties. Interim President Roy Hirofumi Saigo is leading the university after former SOU President Mary Cullinan left in July to take a job as president of Eastern Washington University.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, who has been involved in the discussions between the high-tech community and SOU, said he has heard a great deal of frustration from the high-tech community about the university’s computer science program.

But he said retrenchment and leadership changes at SOU could push the university in positive new directions. With so many high-tech businesses in the Rogue Valley, including start-ups, Buckley said he would like to see more SOU computer science graduates stay and contribute to the local economy.

Buckley said he believes worthwhile conversations will continue among computer science faculty and business leaders.

“This is an opportunity for discussions to be held about what graduates actually need coming from the computer science program,” Buckley said. “Many people in the community are willing to have productive conversations with SOU about how to make a better connection between the skills computer science graduates leave the university with and the skills that are needed.”

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Joel Ferrier is one of three Southern Oregon University computer science students and graduates working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's information technology department. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell