Montana State University

Gianforte funds efforts to bring more computer science students to MSU

October 3, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – RightNow Technologies founder Greg Gianforte has pledged to give Montana State University more than $200,000 over three years to initiate three programs to recruit students into computer science and help meet the state’s demand for high-tech workers.

“This gift from Mr. Gianforte will help spark future student interest in the high-tech careers that are at the center of a fast-growing area of Montana’s economy,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “We have seen in the past that great things happen when entrepreneurs become partners with Montana’s land-grant university.”

The gift from the Gianforte Family Foundation comes on the heels of the Montana Economic Development Summit in Butte in September, during which Gianforte said there is demand for at least 400 computer science jobs per year in Montana with starting salaries of $45,000 to $85,000.

“We have an opportunity to have a very vibrant high-tech industry that creates good-paying jobs for our kids,” Gianforte said. “But right now we just don’t have enough students graduating with the computer science degrees to fill those jobs.”

Beginning with Gianforte’s gift of $80,400 for the first year, the MSU Computer Science Department will pursue three initiatives to help recruit more high school students into the ranks of degree-seeking computer scientists:

  • Looking to interest students in computer science, Hunter Lloyd, teaching professor and robotics specialist, will make 50 presentations per year at high schools and junior high schools in Montana with Looney, his custom programmable robot, as his sidekick to give presentations aimed at inspiring students to pursue computer science degrees.
  • John Paxton, professor and department head of MSU’s Computer Science Department, will offer an introductory college course, “The Joy and Beauty of Computing,” to Bozeman High School students as a dual-enrollment course through Gallatin College MSU for college credit. Paxton will then hand the course over to a teacher at Bozeman High School in future years and offer the curriculum statewide for other interested high schools.
  • Finally, Lloyd will develop a one-week course on computational thinking and robotics for MSU's Master of Science in Science Education program, to train junior high and high school science and math teachers in ways to bring computer science into the classroom.

Brett Gunnink, dean of MSU’s College of Engineering, said MSU’s initiatives would be an important complement to Gianforte’s own efforts to spur interest in computer science through the CodeMontana.Org project. CodeMontana.Org offers all Montana high school students the ability to learn computer programming while competing for prizes through a self-paced, online course developed specifically for high school students.

“We’re thrilled to work collaboratively with Mr. Gianforte toward generating more computer science students,” Gunnink said. “And our goal is simple – to produce more high-tech-ready graduates.”

Both Gunnink and Paxton said the Computer Science Department also is taking a number of steps to boost the success rate of those who choose a computer science major, notably the upcoming opening of a state-of-the-art, active-learning computer lab.

“In the short-term we are ready to bring in increasing numbers of students and get them prepared for fulfilling careers,” Gunnink said. “And in the long run, we are confident that, along with a continued expansion of our high-tech economy, we’ll see our partnerships with industry strengthen and MSU will be a leader in educating Montanans to fill those jobs.”

When he visits with students across the state, MSU’s Lloyd, a standout in international robotics who came to computer science later in life following a career as a stand-up comedian, will have his robot along to show that career possibilities offered by computer science are endless.

“Hunter Lloyd is great at relating to young students and, through his work in robotics, making computer science interesting. He will be a great ambassador for MSU and computer science,” Gianforte said. “I think it’s important for high school students to understand that computer science provides rewarding careers and is not just about playing computer games.”

Gianforte said he also hears the misconception that high-tech companies only hire high-tech workers: “In reality computer scientists only make up a minority of the workforce at software companies. The rest of the employees come from across the academic spectrum and fill jobs on sales and marketing teams, in customer relations, as well as in administration and finance.  

“But the computer scientists are the seed corn that makes the rest of those jobs possible,” said Gianforte, who in 1997 founded Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies, which was purchased by Oracle in 2012.

Spurring growth in the demand for computer science degrees is just one of the economy-focused endeavors keeping Gianforte busy. He consults with up-and-coming entrepreneurs through his Bozeman Technology Incubator project, and he previously funded the Bootstrap Montana microloan program for Montana entrepreneurs run by the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship. Gianforte also serves on the board of trustees for numerous for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, locally and nationally.

It makes sense to support MSU, Gianforte said, because the university produces the educated workforce required for businesses to grow.

Gianforte’s gift builds on other support he has given to MSU’s Computer Science Department in recent years. Between 2008 and 2011, Gianforte, through RightNow Technologies, gave the department $240,000 that was used in part to recruit and hire an accomplished senior professor, John Sheppard. Additional funds have subsequently supported two junior professors. Furthermore, RightNow Technologies, and more recently Oracle, have been members of the department’s Industry Affiliates Program, providing funding for pressing needs and supporting student scholarships. Gifts from Gianforte and the two companies total $637,000.

“Greg Gianforte and RightNow Technologies, and subsequently Oracle, have been so supportive,” Paxton said. “We are inspired to have that kind of commitment coming from an entrepreneur like Greg.” 

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu; and Greg Gianforte, greg.gianforte@gmail.com.