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The Code Academy Challenge

By Bjorn Bergeson

Jonathan Paxson, head of the computer science department at Montana State University (MSU), has no doubt that computer-driven curricula, especially cyber security, will become increasingly important in the years to come.

“If you look at the big picture of the last 15 years or so, computer science is one of the fields that is really moving the dial,” Paxton said.

MSU and the University of Montana (UM) are in good places right now for training future computer scientists and cyber security specialists, Paxton said. Nationwide, student recruitment numbers have been on the rise since 2008.

Paxton said cyber security is one of the grand challenges facing people in the next 30 years, and both campuses could benefit from dedicating resources to the field. Neither MSU or UM have cyber security classes in their catalogs this year.

But MSU is working on plans to boost several areas of the computer science department, including cyber security, Paxton said. MSU also hosted a security conference in September 2013 where industry experts discussed cyber security and investigations.

“It’s an area that, if we would expand it, it would attract more students to the program,” Paxton said.

At UM, a cyber innovations lab is being planned. The idea is to boost student access to big data and cyber security campus-wide, said Nancy Hinman, interim associate provost for dynamic learning.

Some students in the computer science program at UM find it languishing on the verge of obsolescence. Joe Devine, a junior majoring in computer science,said his time at UM has been a waste of hours and money.

“Everything they teach is outdated,” Devine said. “The course selection here is limited. It’s definitely a horrible department.”

Yolonda Reimer, chair of the computer science program at UM, disagrees.

Reimer believes the department and UM’s administration are doing a good job, staying on top of the field. Echoing Paxton, she said enrollment numbers dropped in the program from 2006 through 2011, but have started rising again, from 160 in 2012 to 179 in fall of 2013.

“It’s a challenging time,” Reimer said. “Nationwide we need more computer scientists. We’re very proud that we’re on an uphill trend.”

She said UM has secured 10 new scholarships in the last year for the computer science program and has been focusing on recruiting students from local high schools through summer camps and special classes designed to encourage students in the field.

MSU has been doing similar work with high school students and recently received a $200,000 donation for recruitment efforts.

But the lack of dedicated curriculum for cyber security still frustrates students, including Devine.

“Obviously, you can’t just Google how to hack,” Devine said.

Bjorn Bergeson is a reporter and columnist for the Montana Kaimin and a senior in the professional program at University of Montana’s School of Journalism.