When Eastern Washington University started its computer science program, the boxy little Macintosh was making waves and personal computers were still exotic. A quarter-century later, things have changed a bit. Most of us carry hundreds of times more computing power on devices in our pockets than the original Mac had.
And the EWU program has trained hundreds of computer scientists, programmers, game designers and animators, and others working on the computer systems entwined in every area of modern life.
The department is celebrating its silver anniversary this week, as it looks ahead to the latest trend in computing – the explosion in handheld devices – and ways to create programs to serve them.
“They really continue to be on … the cutting edge of up-and-coming technology,” said Jack-Daniyel Strong, a 2001 graduate of the program and owner of Strong Solutions, a computer consulting firm and Apple store. “They’re not stuck in a rut, teaching the same thing over and over and over again.”
Steve Simmons, an EWU professor since 1969 who was part of the founding and development of the program, said that around 2,000 students have graduated with computer science degrees or minors since 1984. Many of those students, like Strong, have started local companies or entered the regional work force, he said.
The flip side of that is the relationship between the program and local businesses. The department has a 17-member advisory board made up of local industry representatives, who help the program stay in touch with developments in the business world.
“We’re very industry-oriented,” Simmons said.
Since the program was founded, computer science has evolved from a rather narrow discipline, applicable primarily in tech fields, into one that takes in almost every aspect of modern life, Simmons said. Databases and computer systems are a part of almost every business. Aspects of daily life – from cell phones to medical technology to large transportation systems – are built on computer technology.
“It’s everywhere,” Simmons said. “You see the sun rising on a certain horizon and a few years later it turns into a program or a few courses or a new degree. Lately, it’s been mobile systems.
“This summer we’re teaching our first course in iPhone application development.”
During the 1980s, students in the program worked on a NASA-funded project to improve safety on space shuttle flights. The program expanded its graphics capabilities and worked on projects associated with the opening in the early 1990s of Sirti, the high-tech economic development agency.
In 2005, EWU opened its first new building in 25 years for the department, a high-tech facility with specially designed classrooms and an advanced computer network. The program developed a focus on cyber security in 2003 and a new degree in 3-D animation and video game design in 2006, something that few schools had done.
About 300 students are now enrolled in undergraduate programs at EWU, and about 40 are in the graduate program, Simmons said.
Strong landed at EWU after moving to Spokane from Los Angeles in the late 1990s to study civil engineering. With a full-time job during the day and a growing interest in computers, he decided to transfer to EWU for night courses.
“Luckily, Eastern has a really good computer science program,” he said.
Stephen Heath is a master’s student at EWU who earned his bachelor’s in computer science in 2005. Like Strong, the availability of night courses was important to him. During the days, he’s the senior information technology specialist for the Spokane Public Library, focusing on protecting the system from hackers, among other responsibilities.
Heath said the EWU program helped train him technically, as well as helping him develop communication skills for dealing with people who may not be as tech-savvy as he is.
“A decent number of (professors) have actually worked in the industry and have that experience,” he said. “That’s really nice to have in a professor – people who haven’t only experienced it on the academic side.”
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