Inside a third-floor research lab on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, students are spending their summer hard at work.
Alex Barrier solders a circuit board that will control an avatar kiosk used in border enforcement. Nearby, Leslie Flores graphs on a computer the circuit board's performance results. A few doors down, Jordan Willett programs a robot gathering GPS data.
It sounds like a normal enough scenario for the brainy, information technology-minded students who study at UNO's College of Information Science and Technology, a place where robots, computers and new ideas about technology are plenty.
But consider these particular students' ages: Barrier is 17. Flores and Willett are both 16.
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They're three of 14 Omaha high schoolers who are part of an inaugural IT internship program at UNO that is designed to offer hands-on research experience in the field. It's one effort to expose younger people to an industry that desperately needs workers, said Deepak Khazanchi, who is associate dean for academic affairs at the information science and technology college.
“Traditional myths (about the IT profession) are that it's nerdy. You don't work with people. You don't interact. It's not very social,” he said. “We want to change those myths. That's one of the goals of bringing young people in. They can get excited about a part of IT that's not very apparent to them.”
UNO also is holding interactive technology camps all summer for middle and high school students. The camps cover topics from making music inside the computer to robotics.
UNO isn't the only area institution trying to boost youths' interest in the profession:
>> Metropolitan Community College offers a data center career academy for high school students in Fremont, Neb., where students get to work in an actual data center and “war room” built in partnership with IBM. Metro also has a summertime College 4 Teens program at various Omaha locations with weeklong classes on IT topics like Web design.
>> At Iowa State, kids can participant in camps with NXT robotics — which are made through the LEGOS brand — and talented and gifted students can enroll in a course on exploring computer engineering. Through the course, students in eighth grade through their senior year of high school work with sensors and learn the basics of a language to code robots.
>> The University of Nebraska at Kearney assists in a “Build a Computer Day” program for high school students and has hosted on campus a regional science olympiad contest and robotics competition. UNK also has the only online program for an IT teaching endorsement in Nebraska. Teaching teachers “is the best place to start to educate our young people about the technology skills needed for their future careers,” said Sherri Harms, chairwoman and professor of UNK's Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.
The flurry of programs reflects the high demand for IT professionals in the U.S. as job listings outpace computer science or IT majors.
The output for IT-related fields is expected to grow at an average of about 6 percent each year from 2010 through 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing computing education, reports that by the year 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer jobs but only 400,000 computer science students.
Careerlink.org, a service of the Omaha-based AIM, lists more than 500 IT positions open in the Omaha area.
In the fall, UNO had 936 students enrolled in its information science and technology college. This fall, the school is adding master's and doctoral programs in biomedical informatics. Khazanchi called the college one of the larger IT colleges in the country and one that's grown because it's quick to adapt and offer new things, like the internship.
“We don't expect all of them to come here,” Khazanchi said of the interns. “We just want to change their minds (about IT).”
During UNO's eight-week internship, teens are paid a $1,200 stipend to work on research alongside professors and graduate students who are experts in areas like robotics, bioinformatics and IT innovation. Eligible students are those at least 16 years old interested in math, science, performing arts or computer science. They must work 20 hours per week.
Khazanchi said the internship was established through the college's operating budget using research funds.
It's a win-win for both parties, said research lab manager Gregory Hoff, who's working with Barrier and Flores.
High schoolers get to see what UNO is like and may decide to study there one day. Some may leave the internship as published authors, Khazanchi said. Graduate students and professors get another set of hands and, in many cases, a fresh perspective on a topic they've spent months or years researching.
“Bringing in the best and the brightest, it benefits the research and benefits the university,” Hoff said.
Undergraduate IT innovation major Rachel Ostrander agreed, calling the opportunity an advantage to learn more about what it's like being on a college campus and working on real-life research.
“I'm glad they have the chance,” Ostrander said. “I didn't.”
Sotirios Diamantas, a visiting postdoctoral research associate from Greece, said he has always been excited about working with young people, particularly in this scenario because it's long enough that both can make headway. With an interest in robot navigation, he and Willett are focusing on how to program a robot to understand more precisely where it's located based on GPS data.
“Young people can give you an idea you've never had before,” he said.
Willett called the experience valuable because of the wealth of knowledge he has access to and equipment he gets to tinker with. After taking a programming class at Brownell-Talbot School, his instructor mentioned the internship at UNO. Willett wants to work in robotics engineering someday and plans to major in computer science.
“I was fairly sure I wasn't going to make it,” he said, noting he was just a freshman when he applied. “It was a pleasant surprise.”
Barrier, who will be a senior at Creighton Prep, and Flores, who will be a senior at Omaha South High, said they already know they want to study IT innovation at UNO. Both find computer classes and robotic development “cool,” and Barrier has already narrowed his area of expertise: video games.
He said the UNO internship — and the inaugural IT Innovation Cup held in April where his team placed second for a game they built — is helping him get close to his goal of designing video games. More hands-on experience is making Barrier's dream career feel more attainable.
“That's my thing,” he said. “I've always wanted to leave a footprint in the industry.”