Bolong Zeng will serve as clinical assistant professor and program coordinator for the new software engineering program at Washington State University in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Bolong Zeng will serve as clinical assistant professor and program coordinator for the new software engineering program at Washington State University in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

WSU offers software engineering to meet growing demand

EVERETT — It’s a matter of simple economics ­ — supply and demand.

The short supply of software engineers has put them in heavy demand among the aerospace and technology giants in the Puget Sound area.

At a median salary that exceeds $100,000, such jobs pay more in Seattle than anywhere else in the United States after accounting for the cost of living, according to a July report from Glassdoor. Still, thousands of jobs sit unfilled every day.

For Washington State University, this presents an opportunity at its Everett campus, which aligns its programs to meet the needs of the Puget Sound area’s aerospace and technology industries. It recently began accepting students to its new software engineering degree program, which is ramping up quickly to begin classes in late August.

“Our state leads the nation in the creation of STEM jobs, but we aren’t producing those graduates,” said WSU Everett Dean Paul Pitre. “This program will help meet that demand from local businesses and give students more opportunities.”

Deborah Squires, director of the Snohomish STEM Network, said that like WSU Everett’s other programs, software engineering will play an important role in adding to the local talent pool.

“In our own county, we are quickly approaching the point where 90 percent of unfilled jobs will be in STEM fields and health care,” she said, noting that WSU Everett “has made wise choices in degree programs that provide students with a quality education and align with high-demand careers.”

Timing presents a challenge for Assistant Professor Bolong Zeng, coordinator of the new program.

It earned its official accreditation in mid-July, giving the university a late start on advertising and recruiting students for classes that begin at the end of August.

As a result, this year’s class likely will be in the single digits, but Zeng expects no trouble getting to 20-25 students by the 2017-18 academic year.

He said he’s been encouraged by the amount of unsolicited interest in the program, especially after a WSU Everett team took second place in a recent Mars rover competition against universities from around the world.

“About a dozen students have already emailed us without any formal advertising,” Zeng said. “They are looking at us as a local opportunity and they have heard the reputation of WSU North Puget Sound at Everett. Especially with the recent Mars rover competition, we have put ourselves on the map.”

WSU Everett graduated 54 students in the spring in its mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, hospitality business management and integrated strategic communication programs. It expects that number to exceed 100 for the next academic year. WSU’s capacity in Everett will continue to grow after it moves into its new building across the street from Everett Community College in fall 2017.

Its programs are designed to be cost-effective for local students, with community colleges serving as a pipeline to WSU in Everett.

Students take their initial two years of requirements at a lower cost, then transfer for their upper-level courses to complete their degrees. After their junior and senior years, they emerge with a WSU degree in a job market that’s eager to welcome them.

WSU Everett is the first public university in Washington to offer a bachelor’s degree specifically in software engineering, which is a sister discipline to computer science with an emphasis on real-world problem solving. Zeng said it will appeal to students who have an aptitude for coding and a desire to tackle practical problems with technology.

“They like to see their work get used by people day to day on a regular basis, and not just in computer settings,” he said. “They want to contribute to things that have a real, direct impact on people’s lives.”

WSU Everett is searching for a second faculty member to join Zeng in software engineering.

The program will also have teaching support from mechanical engineering and electrical engineering faculty in Everett and adjunct faculty who are professionals in the field. Students also have access to classes from the electrical engineering and computer science faculty in Pullman using video conferencing and online classes.

Even when it reaches its initial goal of 20-25 students per cohort, the program will remain small enough to give students a more intimate educational experience than they might get in a large computer science program with hundreds of students.

Working closely with students is one thing that attracted Zeng, who earned his Ph.D. last spring from WSU in Pullman.

“I really love this area and these topics, and I love teaching students. I was informed about this opportunity on the Everett campus and I jumped on it,” he said. “There’s no doubt in me that this will be a huge success in the years to come.”

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