The University of Utah claimed its spot in tech history as one of the four original “nodes” of the computer network that later evolved into the internet.
But 50 years later, the state’s flagship school doesn’t have any dedicated space for the thousands of students who want to study computer science and be part of the next big development.
“We have students interested, and graduates are really in demand,” said Richard Brown, dean of the U.’s College of Engineering, which includes the School of Computing. “We just don’t have adequate places to put them so that they can learn.”
It’s an acute problem for the biggest major on campus and in a state where the tech economy is the fastest growing in the country, according to one recent report. With the expansion of Silicon Slopes, it’s become a $20-billion-a-year industry here.
“We certainly don’t want to limit the number of students,” Brown added.
The U. is working on a solution now that, like a computer, will involve some 1s and 0s. It announced last week that it received a $15 million donation as the starting funds to construct a $120 million building to finally house computer science students, giving them their own space for the first time decades after the university connected to the ARPANET in 1969.
The historic gift is the largest ever for the College of Engineering, coming from the prominent Price family known for its business acumen, whose patriarch is also an engineering alumnus (as well as a former U.S. ambassador).
“We are pleased to lend our support to this effort that is so crucial to Utah’s expanding economy,” John Price said in a statement, with the funds coming jointly from him and his wife, Marcia.
The demand for graduates is so high, in fact, that Utah Valley University followed the announcement by unveiling its own competitive plans days later to also build a new engineering building on its campus in Orem. And that’s still not enough to fill all the open jobs here in the field.
Together, the U. and UVU have about 3,400 computer science students — with the U. having the larger share of 2,000 of those.
The fundraising campaign there will be led by three notable engineering alumni who have left their marks: John Warnock of Adobe, Ed Catmull of Pixar and Shane Robison, who has led at Apple, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Fusion-io.
The hope is that the next and bigger generation of computer science students won’t be completing their studies in random rooms across campus like they did.
‘We’re out of space’
Last fall, the introductory computer programming class at the U. had 465 students. That was a record … until this fall.
This semester, there are 696 students enrolled. That’s a 50% increase — an additional 231 students interested in the program — in just one year’s time, Brown said.
“It’s really exponential growth,” he added. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.”
The school has an engineering building — named after Warnock — that was built in 2007. That’s filled up by the six other engineering departments in the college (apart from computer science), which also have all expanded.
The computer science students were using the 61-year-old Merrill Engineering Building, but it’s literally falling apart and the classrooms are much too small. Graduate students in the program continue to use those — making do with space that predates the World Wide Web — with up to 200 students in a class.
But the undergraduate cohort has completely outgrown it. So they have been shuffled off to other classrooms across campus, mostly in the social and behavioral health building.
The auditoriums still aren’t big enough there, either — even with the group split in half. Students are sitting on the floor and in the aisles to fit in, Brown said. The collapsible tables, meant for taking notes, also don’t have enough space to put a computer — making them pretty much moot for the work they’re doing. And the technology connections there are older than anything they’re studying.
“It’s just a mess,” Brown said. “It’s not working. We need space. We’re out of space.”
The computer science and computer engineering programs there, combined, enroll nearly 2,000 students total. (Computer engineering overlaps with some of the computer science classes, so they’re often counted together though they are separate fields.)
Some students are getting frustrated and dropping the program or transferring because they can’t get into classes or they can’t learn effectively even when they do. And there are more students that have expressed interest, too, but have held off. It’s stymying.
More jobs than graduates
Even with the limitations, the U. still graduates the most tech workers of any higher education institution in the state. Of the eight public colleges and universities here, it accounts for 46% of the degrees in computer science or computer engineering.
UVU comes in close, with 1,435 students, combined, in computer science and engineering technology. It has another 830 students in information systems and technology and technology management.
Both schools believe expanding and creating space for those students will allow them to excel and attract more to a field hungry for software programmers and technicians.
The way Brown sees it, it’s a cycle that won’t stop turning any time soon.
“The more students we graduate in this field, the more the industry hires, the more the companies grow and the more graduates they need,” he said.
Brown said students being cramped or pushed aside doesn’t serve the state’s economy and the “talent thirsty” tech businesses that are increasingly driving it. That has shifted immensely in the last 15 to 20 years. And Brown thinks it will grow even bigger and faster in the next decade.
A report this year from Cyberstates, which monitors the industry across the country, shows that Utah’s tech sector accounts for 12% of the state’s economy and 10% of the workforce — employing 152,000 people, including accountants and managers and sales people, in addition to engineers.
It also cites Utah’s Silicon Slopes in Utah County as the fastest growing tech sector in the nation. This year alone, it is expected to expand by 6%. There are currently 8,132 businesses.
Brown said he’s talked with tech leaders here who have told him they’re starting offices in other states or recruiting for employees elsewhere because they can’t find enough in Utah. There are 4,000 unfilled positions here, according to UVU, with four times as many jobs as there are computer science graduates each year in the state.
Silicon Slopes leaders, for their part, have pushed for more computer science education.
“It actually becomes a constraint on the growth of companies here,” Brown said. “And we can help. It’s an exciting time to be in engineering and computer science and in Utah.”
Work still needs to be done to diversify the workforce and bring in other voices to tech. Utah’s computer science workers are 1% Black, compared to 2% in other occupations; 7% Latino, compared to 13%; and 21% women compared to 46%, according to Cyberstates.
Brown said that will be a large part of the initiative to expand.
At UVU, a $25 million donation for its building is coming from Scott Smith, the co-founder of Qualtrics, a Provo-based customer-experience software vendor, along with his wife, Karen. (The other co-founder of Qualtrics is Ryan Smith, now the owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team).
UVU President Astrid Tuminez said in a statement that the “generosity will benefit thousands of students — many yet to be born. They will change peoples’ lives and help fill a critical need to increase the number of engineers in Utah now and in the future.”
The Orem university also said that “space is a premium” there, with hallways being converted into meeting spaces for computer science students and professors and no real spaces designed for the technology they need and use.
With a new building on its campus, the U. anticipates it will be able to double its number of computer science and engineering graduates, with 3,200 for the first year the new space is open — an expected completion timeline is set for fall 2024. It will include a financial technology center and an area specializing in cyber security. (It currently has a data science center that has no home.)
There will also be more opportunities to learn about artificial intelligence and robotics, seen as the next frontier in the business.
UVU’s building will likely open a year later, in fall 2025. Both schools will seek funding from the state Legislature, as well as from donors.
That means, for both schools, there will be one more freshman class likely finishing their degrees before the construction is complete.
Still, it fulfills a mission that the state really started investing in at the start of 2000, Brown said, under then-Gov. Mike Leavitt — who famously vowed to spend more time in Silicon Valley then, studying how it was structured, than the governor of California did.
At that time, Leavitt sat down with Warnock, who was working there, and asked how to make Utah just as attractive for the industry. Warnock pushed the governor to focus on education for computer science. Student interest tripled from then to today. (Even Warnock moved back here.)
Now, they just need more space to teach them.