State funds UW Computing School to boost economy

State funds UW Computing School to boost economy

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The state known for its coal and cattle traditions will nurture a new technology sector this fall: computing. The University of Wyomings School of Computing will open as the hub of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership, an initiative meant to build workforce resilience and boost the state’s economy.

The initiative is not a departure from the state’s bread-and-butter industries, said former state Representative Tyler Lindholm, who is now the director of Wyoming for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group.

They are the ones who have kept us alive for decades and decades, they are our brave champions, Lindholm said. But it’s also because Wyoming exports our most precious natural resource, and that’s children.

After graduating from high school and college, young Wyomingites leave their homes with some of the highest out-of-state migration rates in the nation, though this has slowed during the pandemic. Between 2014 and 2020, Wyoming’s millennial population aged 24 to 39 decreased by 6 percent, according to a report from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

So a lot of the ideology behind being technologically advanced and finding a way to attract these businesses is honestly [about] while keeping our children, Lindholm said.

Governor Mark Gordon acted on this issue in 2021 by ordering the implementation of innovation partnerships using funds from the American Rescue Plan. The program focuses on driving statewide development through digital infrastructure and entrepreneurship. The efforts emphasize coordination between state government, community colleges, and the UW.

Educational technology

The School of Computing, as a key component of the initiative, is touted as a hub of innovation and knowledge exchange that provides UW Wyoming students, faculty, and businesses and citizens with a backpack of computational tools and approaches to drive transformation.

While the initiative is recent, Wyoming’s tech movement began around 2016 while Lindholm was still in office. The state became the first in the nation to implement K-12 computer education and spearheaded pro-blockchain law. It remains ranked as the most crypto-friendly state in the US

The state also took its computing efforts a step further by bringing the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center to Cheyenne in 2012.

Wyoming has really innovated in computing, said Gabrielle Allen, director of the computer school. I think what we haven’t had is the ability to pull it together to be really strategic in how that affects the university and the state.

How the state has coordinated the innovation partnership has garnered national attention, said UW president Ed Seidel, who is married to Allen. Seidel serves on the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Board for the Department of Energy.

There were people in the White House specifically talking about the importance of all these digital areas and artificial intelligence and how we have a national crisis and we need to invest, Seidel said at the Board of Trustees meeting in June. I can argue that in Wyoming we have the entire state organized around this. It’s really getting a lot of nationwide attention.

The top priority is implementing new computer tools that are especially relevant to solving the problems, challenges and opportunities we have in the state, Allen said. We have many great applications covering environment, climate, weather, animal migration, controlled environment, agriculture, farming.

The school is designed as an interdisciplinary hub to reach the state’s various markets and students in all academic areas through applied computer skills, the practice of integrating computer science with another discipline.

Bryan Shader, a math professor Seidel selected to organize the UW faculty behind the school, said the academic unit also focuses on reaching students across different academic levels and interests.

By providing an applied computer science degree, which allows a broader swath of students to be part of the computer science field, Shader said. So computer science is no longer just the purview of people who want to be a computer scientist.

Earn on education

Despite the school’s inclusive aspirations, Shader said it has been a long process to engage and engage people in the school’s mission.

It’s partly a social and economic issue, Shader said. And it has to do with change. I think you have to be very careful not to impose anything or shove things down people’s throats. I strongly believe that if people have the opportunity to see the added value and are welcome to sit down at the table, most people will find ways to seize the opportunities.

With transferable computer skills, students can become entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in the state, whether they are from Sheridan, Cody or Jackson, Allen said. We want to show them that there are modern opportunities. But we have to build that infrastructure.

I think that’s the importance of things like the Wyoming Innovation Partnership and the goals there, because we need a whole ecosystem, Allen said. I’ve talked to small tech companies in the area who, for example, have to keep a portion of their business in Colorado, purely for workforce needs, and would like to expand into Wyoming.

Shader said it can name 15 to 20 Wyoming companies looking to hire UW students with backgrounds in data science, artificial intelligence, and software development.

UW School of Computing director Gabrielle Allen speaks at the university’s Gateway Center on National Lab Day, where computer science was a central topic. (Cody Schofield)

This fall, the school is preparing to infuse Wyoming with a more computer-savvy workforce. During this inaugural year, undergraduates will be able to pursue a minor in computer science. About 16 graduate computer science scholars interface with the school to guide its growth and design.

Right now, the school is implementing a Bachelor of Science in Applied Software Development degree as a program where students will begin their degree at one of the state’s community colleges and finish the program at the university. There are already 15 participating students at Sheridan Community College.

Also in the works is a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts in applied computer science. Eventually the school also hopes to offer a master’s degree in artificial intelligence computer science and certificate course options.

Aside from formal programs, the university will see its largest group of 220 students attend the school’s introductory computer science class this fall, Shader said.

I think there’s an initial sense among students, that, hey, having a little bit of computer science can benefit them, no matter what their major is, Shader said.

But the development of a young tech workforce needs to be bolstered by a strong postgraduate market, Lindholm said.

My concern is, can we keep up this momentum, stay on top of our laws, and stay hungry on this? Lindholm asked. If we can do that, if we can stay hungry, and keep up with these laws and find new ways to advance our state economically, then indeed, Wyoming’s future is exceptionally bright.

WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places and politics of Wyoming.

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