Skip to main content

UA Little Rock Celebrates Computer Science Educators

Dr. Albert Baker, chair of the Department of Computer Science, works with students in the Emerging Analytic Center. Photo by Ben Krain.
Dr. Albert Baker, chair of the Department of Computer Science, works with students in the Emerging Analytic Center. Photo by Ben Krain.

It’s Computer Science Education Week, an annual call to celebrate the contributions of students, teachers, and partners in the field.

We are highlighting our innovative Department of Computer Science with an in-depth interview with Dr. Albert Baker, chair and professor since 2018.

What is the current state of the department?

We currently have 210 undergraduate majors, of which 46 are pursuing our new cybersecurity degree program. We also have 35 students in the MS in Computer Science program. When I started, we only had nine. We also have 15 doctoral students. With this growth in our graduate programs, we’ll see more of our graduate students moving on to academic as well as industry careers. With the initiatives we are undertaking to develop and promote our interactive immersive technologies (AR/VR) programs, I think we will begin to see solid growth in that area as well.

What kind of opportunities are available in the department?

Our programs open opportunities on two career paths. One is software developer, which is a pretty broad area that includes  programming, software design, performance testing, quality assurance, etc. We also have a game option. The game industry is very competitive, but the skills our students get are applicable in interactive immersive technologies (AR/VR) applications in education and training, medical applications, and industrial design. There are an increasing number of opportunities for our students in this emerging area.

We have much to highlight in this emerging area of interactive immersive technologies. The Emerging Analytics Center has fabulous facilities for hands-on development and research in that area. Drs. Ivan Conde, Arya Basu, and Jan Springer all have expertise in this area. This is an area of strength for the department, and I am happy about the opportunities that we provide students.

I tell prospective students and their parents that we have good opportunities in interactive immersive technologies, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and machine learning, mobile applications, user interface and user experience, and computer graphics/data visualization. If a student has an interest in any of these areas, this is a great place to study.

The opportunities for undergraduate students are particularly noteworthy because we have funded positions for students to work on grant funded research as well as industry projects. Those kinds of opportunities for undergraduate students are rare at other universities.

How has the department changed since you started?

Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, former director of the Emerging Analytics Center and former chair of the Department of Computer Science, asked me to develop a stronger sense of community in the department, particularly with undergraduate students. We restored the charter for the UA Little Rock Student Chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery. The ACM is the largest professional society for computing professionals. The dhapter is very active. One of their impactful service projects has been the program to refurbish donated computers and make them available at no cost to students through the COVID pandemic. They have placed over 90 machines repairing hard drives, reinstalling operating systems, and handing out computers to students who needed them.

We have continued to innovate the department’s curriculum. In computer science, things are constantly changing. We’ve added courses accessible by students outside our department. For example, we will now have in the catalog a sophomore-level course that is an introduction to machine learning using a no-code environment. This means students who have no coding experience can take the course.

One of the most important changes in the department has been the new degree in cybersecurity and some very important industry partnerships. Why has your department taken a lead in promoting cybersecurity education?

We’ve been very strategic in the way we’ve laid a foundation for cybersecurity. Huge credit goes to Drs. Philip Huff and Erin Finzer for the creation of CyberLearn. (UA Little Rock received a $1.96 million workforce development grant from the Arkansas Office of Skills Development in the spring to form the Cyber Learning Network, a consortium of seven University of Arkansas System campuses to expand and diversify workforce education in emergent cyber technologies.)

With CyberLearn, we are implementing a resource and course sharing network between the partner campuses. For example, if a UAPB student needs to take a cybersecurity course this summer that is not being offered on that campus, they can register for that UAPB course, pay UAPB tuition fees, and actually take the course offered here at UA Little Rock.

In addition, with the addition of the National Cyber Teaching Academy funded, in part, by a grant from the NSA, we are training high school teachers so they can teach cybersecurity in Arkansas high schools. The State of Arkansas is requiring one credit in computer science as a graduation requirement for all students starting with the Fall 2023 freshman class. Cybersecurity is one of the ADE-approved computer science pathways meeting this requirement. We have a partnership with cyber industry leader Forge Institute and have really good outreach to the cyber industry in Arkansas. I’m excited about the holistic strategic approach we are taking with cybersecurity training and workforce development.

What is coming up for the future of the computer science department?

Certainly, cybersecurity will continue to grow and progress rapidly. We are also receiving tremendous feedback on our interactive immersive technologies initiatives.

The Emerging Analytics Center (EAC) has been recognized as one of the top AR/VR research and development labs in the country. Between the EAC and the Cyber Arena, we are offering students opportunities unique in the State of Arkansas and beyond.

What else would you like to add?

I’m proud of the way the department office is running now. Chris Thompson (administrative assistant III) has been fantastic. I would also give a shoutout to Seth Cook who has worked as a GA in the office for the last three years and maintains our social media presence and department website. We are now much more organized and efficient through their efforts.

Being in Arkansas has been a productive place to work in that I’ve had an opportunity to meet people at levels that I wouldn’t have had access to in larger states. Lee Watson, CEO, Forge Institute, and Bill Yoder, Executive Director of Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, are at the top of the list. They are doing tremendous work. Tina Moore and Kelly Griffith at the Arkansas Department of Education are also great to work with. These are just some of the talented Arkansans I’ve had opportunities to work with. The Industrial Advisory Board of the department is proving to be a tremendous asset as well  and providing excellent guidance to me and the department. Brian Stack, Chief Scientist & Cofounder, LeapXL, chairs our advisory board. I appreciate the leadership he is providing.

UA Little Rock and the State of Arkansas are proving to be fertile places to develop innovative, state-of-the-art programs and initiatives in the computing sciences that will help us develop a future-ready workforce. I genuinely appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to serve the Department, College, University, and State of Arkansas.