GCU launches its first computer science grads
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Computer science students who dabble regularly in data mining — and just wrapped up projects for their Principles of Compilers Design class — compiled other sorts of data recently.
They toted in thumb drives and other items that will be placed into a time capsule to be opened at their 10-year reunion in 2028.
A time capsule — part digital, part traditional — seemed like the perfect way to commemorate the College of Science, Engineering and Technology’s first graduating class in computer science, said Dr. Isac Artzi, CSET’s computer science lead.
Fifteen computer science graduates will be walking the stage on Thursday in one of eight commencement ceremonies over three days – the biggest commencement run ever for the University – including eight specializing in games and simulation development, five in big data analytics and two in business entrepreneurship. Also, two computer programming majors will be among this week’s grads.
“We plan on opening the time capsule in 10 years minimum,” Artzi said of the project, which will include giving each student a small mints tin box where they can store whatever items they want. The boxes will be placed in a fireproof and waterproof safe. And just in case technology changes drastically over the decade – chances are it might – “I will also need to store a Raspberry Pi computer so we have a device that can read the USB drives in 10 years.”
It was in July 2014 that GCU opened CSET, and it launched its computer science and information technology programs that fall. The University’s first information technology graduates walked the stage in December 2017.
Artzi was part of the team that built the program more than four years ago.
“I prepared the land, so to speak, and then we planted the seeds,” he said while about a dozen students on the second floor of Building 57 burned the keyboards on their laptops as they tried to finish a number of projects.
“Anyone interested in checking a job with PetSmart?” Artzi asked the students, his mind focused on helping them with the next step after graduation – getting a job.
Artzi said, “Almost everybody who wanted to have a job after graduation has one. Many of them have been working since their sophomore year in the field. In particular, for big data, we received huge validation from industry that said we are going in the right direction: the fact that these big companies – IBM, Autodesk – are hiring our students.”
Big data analytics major Connor Segneri, who will be among those first GCU computer science graduates, said that being the vanguards in a brand new program has meant helping the faculty improve that program for the next cohorts of students.
“There are some areas where it feels like we’re fleshing it out ourselves,” he said.
But at the same time, he added, “We have a lot of say in changes made to assignments. We work with the professors a lot more than we feel most of the students would. We can offer feedback and we know they will use it. We know they appreciate whatever we say. There are times when I may talk to Professor Artzi and say, ‘Hey, I would really like to do this instead of what the assignment says.’ He’s normally OK with it as long as I do enough work or as long as it’s just as important or interesting. It’s really cool to have that say.”
Artzi agreed: “I have had a very collaborative relationship with the students.”
Segneri received a lot of attention at CSET’s Technology Capstone Showcase this spring for work he did on developing an interactive app for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The app is designed to help law enforcement officers scan through data more easily instead of having to go through hundreds of thousands of rows of data on Excel spreadsheets – something vital when trying to recover missing and exploited children as quickly as possible.
But he said one of his favorite projects during his time at GCU involved trying to shut down a terrorist network – an exercise for his Analytics for Dynamic Social Networks class.
“That was cool to see — well, I can legitimately identify the weak ones (weak cells) that we should take out to hurt it (the terrorist network) the most. So that was a really fun project.”
Segneri said he chose to major in big data because he liked algebra and was looking for something that “sounded more like a statistics/math-ey way to do things – displaying large amounts of data in a comprehensive way.” His choice of major, he admitted, was a “blind guess, but it just worked out well where I did enjoy it a lot.”
Ultimately, Segneri said, he wants to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Michael Hesseltine, a graduating senior whose emphasis is in game and simulation development, said it has definitely been a collaborative venture when it has come to helping shape GCU’s computer science program: “Ask any computer science student and they’ll tell you the same thing – that we’ve had to sit down and say, ‘Hey, this needs to be different.’”
Hesseltine, who is from Southern California, said that, like Segneri, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college. He was planning to attend an area community college when he heard through his church about GCU’s computer science degree with the game development emphasis: “That’s what caught my attention,” he said.
He and fellow graduating computer science student Tim Lowther created a throwback video game called “Anachronistic Detective: Quest for the Lost Slushee” for their capstone project, though Hesseltine said he has liked tackling several projects during his time here, from designing a text-based video game (“I very thoroughly enjoyed that,” he said) to creating a virtual board game.
Lowther ended up at GCU after his dad, who served in the military, decided to move to Arizona.
“I was originally planning on being an education major with an emphasis in math. They said, ‘Well, how about computers?’ I said, ‘OK.’ I feel like computers is definitely more along my skill set.”
The road to graduation hasn’t been an easy one. His Principles of Compilers Design class has been tough, he said.
“Even our textbook, the first paragraph in the textbook says that it can’t be completed in a semester, so we tried our best. I came into the program not knowing anything about programming, so getting up to speed and keeping up was always kind of a big deal.”
What Lowther liked about the computer science program here is the career-focused degrees and specific emphases in gaming and big data.
“I don’t really think you can find that at a whole lot of places,” he said. “Normally if you get a traditional computer science degree you’re focused on theory, theory, theory.”
And although the road to getting his computer science degree has been challenging, Lowther said, “Computer science is difficult but you just figure it out.”
“You figure it out?” Segneri asked with a laugh.
Besides helping to mold the classes at GCU, what the first graduates of the University’s computer science program said they have liked about paving the way in a new academic program is that they got to make good friends.
“In our core classes, there will be the same familiar faces,” Hesseltine said. “The only time you’ve got people we didn’t know was when they transferred in. After that, we’ve had those people in our classes, so we all know each other.”
Segneri is working on a project with fellow graduating computer science senior Alec Ferko, a big data analytics major who is from Colorado. His favorite project so far: “It’s a tool that helps detect if a store is helping launder money to a cartel,” he said.
He and Segneri have worked on so many assignments together that they decided to become roommates, along with LaMarr Pace, who will graduate with a computer science degree with an emphasis in game and simulation development.
“It’s really good, actually, to be close to people you’re partners with, or just having somebody else who knows the content you’re working on,” said Pace, who is from Mesa.
Artzi said he is proud of this first group of computer science graduates and that it will be interesting to see, 10 years from now, what they left behind in their time capsule. “I told them this is the last time they will be called seniors until retirement, so relish it.”
When it comes to graduating “firsts,” CSET isn’t done.
The first engineering graduates will be next in 2019.
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 602-639-7901.