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U of U considering curriculum with NSA's spy center in mind

U of U considering curriculum with NSA's spy center in mind

By Steve Fidel | Posted - Mar. 25, 2011 at 4:51 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Talks with the National Security Agency may lead to a new University of Utah curriculum that would prepare students for jobs in the massive data center the spy agency is building at Camp Williams.

Once the data center is finished, a complex network of computer hardware will cover 100,000 square feet of space with machines consuming enough electricity to power a small city. The NSA says the data center will be a component of its Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative.

The NSA has been vague on the kinds of work that will be done by employees at the center itself, but indications are the workforce there will primarily be engineers who take care of the cadre of computers, as opposed to analysts or programmers.

"They need kind of a new generational workforce that is specialized in managing this type of center, where they are dealing with large amounts of data," said Valerio Pascucci, an associate professor in the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute in the School of Computing at the U. "We are in discussion with (the NSA) about creating basically a new undergraduate track, possibly in multiple departments" to join computer science disciplines with mechanical and electrical engineering.

If it proceeds, the idea would be to first build an undergraduate program using existing courses and ideally have graduates ready when the data center becomes operational in 2013. "Eventually we would have new classes as well," Pascucci said. "We would build an undergraduate program first, and then we would actually consider going to the graduate level."

The U. first contacted the NSA in 2009 when plans for the Utah center were first announced. "I contacted their local office about our desire to conduct some research and teaching activities with the NSA," said Tom Parks, the U's vice president for research.

"The NSA has close research relationships with universities in the D.C. and Baltimore area. It was our hope we could establish some similar relationships with the NSA if they are going to be doing research here, which is not clear yet.

"We also see the NSA as an employment opportunity for some of our graduates," he said. "Since they employ a highly educated workforce, we also thought there might be some opportunities for us to offer training for NSA Utah employees."

Pascucci said training that would prepare U. graduates for jobs in Utah with the NSA would also prepare them for careers in the private sector with other data-intensive companies, like Oracle, eBay, Facebook and Twitter. "In general, we see this as whether we can build in this growth area of large data."

Not all of the NSA's attention in Utah is focused on the computer science know-how of college students. NSA representatives from Washington were in Provo Friday to visit grade school students in the Chinese immersion program at Wasatch Elementary School.

While it might be a bit of a stretch to say the spy agency is recruiting among first graders, the NSA's expectations for its linguists require advanced language skills, and the agency is interested in the language programs Utah is offering in both elementary and secondary schools.

"The NSA doesn't look at anybody unless they're at a superior level," said Gregg Roberts, the world language specialist with the Utah State Office of Education. Roberts was part of the group visiting Wasatch Elementary with the NSA.

The skills foreign-language students can have are expected to be above those gained from an in-country learning experience typical among LDS missionaries sent abroad. "These young kids are projected to be way beyond a returned missionary when they graduate from high school, at an advanced level of reading, writing and speaking," Roberts said, adding that the typical returning missionary tests at an intermediate level.

Steve Fidel


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