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How North Texas Universities Are Improving Tech Education

Local demand for computing-related jobs is sure to grow, even as automation wipes out some positions. Here's a look at how students are being prepared for the workforce.
By Jeff Bounds |
It’s doubtful that Gopal Gupta’s predecessors faced the same challenges the India native does in growing the computer science department at the University of Texas at Dallas. Student enrollment in the field at UTD nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, from 1,675 to 3,250—making it one of the biggest academic departments in any subject in the United States, he says.

Gupta, who became department chair in 2009, added 29 faculty members during that timeframe, giving him 86 now. He will need more funding to continue growing, an issue he says UTD is working on. “The biggest challenge is in increasing the faculty size while maintaining the quality of our instruction,” he says.

It’s a good thing Gupta’s department is growing. Dallas-Fort Worth is predicted to add more than 14,300 high-paying jobs across 13 information-technology categories between now and 2022, according to projections from EMSI, a labor-marketing research unit of CareerBuilder.

That 10 percent rise (from a combined 142,331 jobs now to 156,649) is especially sweet because most of those career categories pay $40-plus hourly—and require only bachelor degrees at the entry level. As has been true since 2013, local job growth in IT fields will come in largely services-related areas, such as designing computer systems and custom computer programming, EMSI projects.

To churn out more computing-trained grads, Gupta, like other North Texas academic leaders in technical fields, is increasingly focused on helping students succeed both in the classroom and beyond, in their new careers. That’s happening partly because funding is a more pressing issue than ever, whether students pay their own way or get help in some fashion. Academics in math and science fields must now compete for scarce resources in a way their predecessors might not have.

“The biggest thing is that, 20 or 25 years ago, higher-ed didn’t recruit,” says Jane Moore, chair of the department of math, computer science and physics at Fort Worth’s Texas Wesleyan University. “Now they’re all out there recruiting top students and trying to get more financial aid.”

The result: Local schools are experimenting with everything from mentoring and tutoring for students to overhauling elective coursework to help undergrads and graduate students bond with their peers. Academics also are reaching out to primary and secondary schools to improve the teaching of math and science from kindergarten through high school. In addition, local universities are connecting students with companies earlier than ever to foster job opportunities after graduation—and even providing leadership training to boot.

One of their toughest challenges, however, is teaching skills that will survive automation’s inevitable encroachment. Take, for example, trends in the white-hot field of “data science”—the rough equivalent of crunching information to search for answers much like biologists use petri dishes and test tubes.

Forrester Research, a Massachusetts-based research and advisory firm, in 2016 called data scientists the “superheroes and unicorns of today’s business.” But Michael Walker, president of the Denver-based Data Science Association, notes that automation is taking over tasks like “cleaning,” formatting, migrating, and storing information that data scientists work with—tasks currently performed by engineers, mostly with bachelor-level training in computer science. “Even traditional computer coding is being automated with machine-learning innovation,” Walker says.

Gupta acknowledges that straightforward computing-tasks will get automated or outsourced out of most North Texas companies. Even so, he says, “There are enough challenging jobs to keep everyone employed for at least five or 10 years.”

Still, Gupta says people possessing only undergraduate degrees will likely have trouble competing for jobs in hot fields like machine learning, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence. So he, like many of his peers in math and science fields in North Texas academia, has begun to do things differently.

Job One: Career Preparation

he reasons for skyrocketing university tuitions are the subject of intense debate. But, whatever the root cause, department heads must grapple with the resulting issue of luring top students—and providing scholarships to help them avoid burdensome debt once they graduate. “At the graduate level, we have started active international recruiting, where various university administrators travel and do on-the-spot review and admission in different parts of the world,” says Hong Jiang, chair of the computer science and engineering department at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The University of North Texas also is active in venturing near and far in pursuit of top doctoral students, according to Ram Dantu, director of its Center for Information and Cyber Security. “We are visiting many universities in the U.S. and other countries,” he says. “We are also signing agreements with local community colleges to get their highly talented students.”

To increase students’ chances of getting through challenging coursework, UTA’s math department uses a technique called “cohorting.” Says Jianzhong Su, the school’s math department chair: “We help form learning communities, where students receive mentoring from their peers and from faculty.”

Much of the idea behind cohorting focuses on having students see the same faces regularly, an issue in large U.S. universities because of the elective credit system, Su says. “When I received my undergraduate education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, students of the same major stayed together for four years, both in the dorm and in the classroom,” he says. “We became lifelong friends, which is critical in fields like math, where the exchange of ideas is crucial to learning.”

Su’s department also received a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant to spread the word about its work among area youth. The money supported appearances by doctoral students at Arlington schools, where they told kids and teachers about their research.

The UTA project is part of a broader effort by local academics to build the pipeline of area kids who pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) careers.

In Denton, UNT runs training programs for K-12 teachers in computer science and engineering, according to Barrett Bryant, who chairs its computer science and engineering department.

Bryant’s crew also puts on summer camps for middle and high school students to introduce them to the field. “This has included outreach to girls and minority students, who are underrepresented in our field,” he says.

Another area of focus is churning out more graduates who can teach STEM subjects at the K-12 level. Wesleyan this spring is adding a bachelor’s degree in secondary certification, aimed at producing high school math teachers. And UTA researchers are looking for better methods for teaching calculus.

Government could help the effort by providing additional incentives to go into K-12 teaching for people who earn STEM-related degrees, according to Don Edwards, chair of the mathematics and computer science department at Texas Woman’s University. “Many of our graduates go directly into the private sector after earning their degrees,” said Edwards, whose Denton employer is the nation’s largest serving a primarily female population. “Incentives for women in the tech industry to teach and mentor grade school students would increase female participation from public education institutions.”

A program in “informatics” that Texas Woman’s announced last May provides a good example of North Texas universities’ willingness to work with the corporate sector to build curricula that meet companies’ tech-talent needs.

Informatics boils down to analyzing data to find fixes for real-world problems. The program’s genesis was a meeting between Texas Woman’s chancellor and president, Carine Feyten, and the CEO of Methodist Health System, Stephen Mansfield. A dinner get-together soon followed between Feyten and several other CEOs of area health systems.

Annual Jobs Available vs. Degrees Granted. This chart, which compares the number of U.S. jobs available in given fields to the number of degrees granted in those fields, shows a mismatch in most categories.
Annual Jobs Available vs. Degrees Granted. This chart, which compares the number of U.S. jobs available in given fields to the number of degrees granted in those fields, shows a mismatch in most categories.

“We did not provide any special funding, but we did give candid feedback, suggestions, and help to market and launch the informatics program,” says Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council. “They developed a curriculum that would meet the needs of students and hospitals and responded in a very timely manner. This is an example of our collaborations with universities across the region.”

Love and executives from local health systems provide on-going input to the Texas Woman’s nursing informatics program chair, Mari Tietze.

“We noticed that some of our students were losing interest in traditional computer science, which involves a lot of math and mechanical computations and isn’t necessarily a great fit for everyone,” Edwards says. “Informatics can be a compelling alternative, as it focuses on computer applications and how society interacts with data.”

Texas Women’s graduate program in informatics doubled its enrollment in one semester. And since the school offers the subject in broader areas like health studies and library science, applications to informatics programs in those areas have increased as well, Edwards says.

Student, Meet Employer

Aside from working with the private sector on tech and math curricula, universities are providing more avenues for students to connect with companies that could turn into future employers. Perhaps the most aggressive North Texas academic on this front is Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a 145-year-old school in Dallas that historically has had a large African-American enrollment.

Every Quinn student works 10 to 20 hours per week at a job related to the skill sets he or she needs to learn, Sorrell says. That includes people in math and science fields who benefit from a Quinn team that finds appropriate gigs for them. “It gives them a professional advantage,” Sorrell says.

“Our students often work on real problems that real companies have, and interact with managers to try to address the issues.”

Amit Basu, Southern Methodist University

At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, students in Amit Basu’s department helped Dallas-based AT&T use big data and analytics to wring more value out of the company’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV. That came about from sponsorships that area businesses provide for projects students do during courses in Basu’s department of information-technology operations management, part of SMU’s Cox School of Business. “Our students often work on real problems that real companies have, and interact with managers to try to address the issues,” Basu says.

In recent years, Basu has created pioneering programs to train managers in the thorny task of managing analytics professionals and serving as conduits between the number crunchers and the rest of the C-suite.

SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering did something similar in 2014, when it launched one of the first master’s programs in data-center operations. A member of the advisory board of one of Lyle’s departments told the school’s brass that the industry needed engineers to receive training in everything from designing and building the facilities to managing and running them.

“We had to be convinced,” says M. Volkan Otugen, senior associate dean in the Lyle school. “The person knew someone from a large California company. When we sat down with them [and listened], we said, ‘Holy cow.’”

In addition to math and engineering courses, all students at the Lyle school receive coaching in leadership, according to its dean, Marc Christensen. That coaching comes from SMU’s Hart Center on Engineering Leadership. Lyle students can also get hands-on experience in problem solving (via the Deason Innovation Gym) and using engineering to tackle issues in under-served communities (through the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity), Christensen notes.

Women, he adds, “fill our classrooms at more than twice the national average. The companies that hire our students tell us they can put them in front of customers faster than any other school in the nation.”

In a similar vein, SMU’s Cox school incorporates business training into a master’s program on data analytics. In analytics, like most technical areas, engineers can forget the reason they’re crunching numbers in the first place: to help their employers function better.

“You can’t do analytics properly without considering both the business impact and the data impact,” says Hettie Tabor, a longtime Accenture partner whom Cox recruited to run the program. “Just because you’ve built the best analytics program doesn’t mean somebody will use it.”

Students learn about presenting data visually for lay executives, along with managing large databases and the computing systems they reside in, she notes. “We’ve had more than 50 companies come in to talk to our students about what they’re doing in the analytics space,” she says.

Hiring Projections for DFW Tech Jobs

Where the tech job needs will be over the next five years in North Texas.

description2017 Jobs2022 Jobs2017-2022 Jobs2017-2022 Percent Change
Computer and Information Research Scientists5806385810%
Computer Systems Analysts25,26628,6003,33413%
Information Security Analysts3,6014,01541411%
Computer Programmers9,3579,4651081%
Software Developers, Applications22,30225,4213,11914%
Software Developers, Systems Software15,74617,2101,4749%
Web Developers4,7255,50778217%
Database Administrators4,0734,4153428%
Network and Computer Systems Administrators13,23914,2791,0408%
Computer Network Architects5,5925,9843927%
Computer User Support Specialists23,87226,1962,32410%
Computer Network Support Specialists8,5809,1245446%
Computer Occupations, All Other5,4085,7953877%

Source: EMSI/Career Builder Analysis of Data from American Communities Survey and Texas Workforce Commission

“Future-Proofing” Education

Getting students schooled on people skills is part of how North Texas academics are trying to do so-called “future-proofing” of their teaching. Technology evolves so rapidly that Basu, for one, has had to change curricula midway through given quarters after students discovered new developments via the internet. “It keeps us on our toes,” he says.

Part of the trick is focusing students on areas where they can be valuable to employers as times change. As automation moves into places like factories and integrated circuit design, humans still must design and control the processes that the machines use to do their jobs, according to Mitch Thornton, research director of the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security at SMU.

“Automation in cyber defense will quite likely advance, and help free up professionals to defend against threats” at higher, less detailed levels, he says. “But we don’t think it can ever fully replace human cyber defenders.”

The story is much the same in building computer games, according to Gary Brubaker, director of SMU Guildhall, the Plano-based school for that industry. “We don’t teach students a particular technology,” he says. “We teach them how to be a creator in the digital online world.”

Still, in some niches it’s starting to look like automation is eroding one of the big career advantages that computer-related careers have for years enjoyed over life sciences: The ability to earn big money with only a bachelor’s degree. For now, this issue is affecting specialized areas like biomedical engineering. But experts say analytics and data sciences are increasingly becoming the domains of people with masters’ or doctorate degrees.

As one tech expert has pointed out, commercial software tools can already handle many of the number-crunching needs of small businesses. And big companies generally need people with doctorates to handle the monstrous data issues that come with billion-dollar enterprises.

For now, many computing-related jobs could become more specialized, UTD’s Gupta says. And while the North Texas job market is robust for people who have only bachelor’s degrees in computing fields, people who work in them must stay up to date on the latest developments to prevent their skills from becoming outdated.

“We train our students to ‘learn to learn,’ so that as the technological landscape changes, they are quickly able to adapt,” Gupta says.

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