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Program the Future

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  • | 9:25 a.m. February 25, 2011
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Janusz Zalewski is about as close to a rocket scientist as there is.

The computer-science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University trained at the Institute of Nuclear Research in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1970s before moving to the United States and working as a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and NASA.

But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that universities play a central role in the development of a cluster of technology companies.

Just ask the folks in Silicon Valley or the Boston area.

On the Gulf Coast, Zalewski has operated as a sort of one-man university link to the budding tech world in Fort Myers and Naples. In recent years he's invited CEOs of local technology companies to speak to his students about how they created their ventures. He was on sabbatical last year to help Sarasota-based METI, a manufacturer of computerized mannequins for medical training.

Recognizing this, FGCU's Office of Research and Sponsored Projects gave Zalewski $5,000 a few years ago to canvass local tech CEOs and chief technology officers to find out what skills they needed from university graduates. “You have to make connections,” says Zalewski.

As a result of this canvassing, Zalewski persuaded the university's school of engineering to shift the computer-science degree to software engineering. To fund this effort, Zalewski recently obtained a $261,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The SBA grant will help Zalewski develop software engineering and programming courses for FGCU students and to improve skills of the area's existing workforce. In addition, the money will be used to train high-school teachers to help students enter college programs in computing.

Zalewski also will use some of the SBA money to enhance the software and robotics lab at FGCU. “You cannot educate students without access to the latest technology,” he says.

FGCU's computer-science department is relatively small with three faculty, including Zalewski, and about 100 students in the program at any given time. The 14-year-old university already has more than 12,000 students.

But despite the small size and limited resources of the computer-science department, Zalewski says he's encouraged by the school's entrepreneurial spirit. “FGCU offered me freedom,” says the pony-tailed Zalewski, 62, who joined the faculty in 2002. “That's the best thing than can happen to a scientist.”

When the software engineering bachelor's degree is offered later this year, it will be the only such accredited degree from a public university in Florida, Zalewski says. “The vision is to at least double enrollment within five years,” he says.

The hope for the region is that they stick around after graduation and start the next great tech company.


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