The Grill: James T. Wilkes finds connections between beekeeping and IT

Teacher, farmer, beekeeper and technologist -- this IT professor combines his life's pursuits.

As chair of the Appalachian State University computer science department, James T. Wilkes is helping prepare the next generation of IT professionals. But even though he holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Duke University, he's no ivory tower intellectual. Wilkes understands how computing can impact even earthy pursuits, including his other two professions: farming and beekeeping. Here he shares his insights on education and IT applications and discusses how these disciplines mix.

You originally wanted to teach math. How did you get into computer science? I wanted to teach math, but I didn't like the teaching classes. And there was a speech class I had to take, and I hated speaking in front of people, so I changed my major. I took all the math and science and physics and computer science classes I could fit into my schedule. I came in when PCs were being born, and I was just intrigued by the computing and programming side. I enjoyed that puzzle-solving piece, and that allowed me to continue to do the math things that I enjoyed. I also recognized early on that there were more opportunities in computer science than in math in terms of both job opportunities and breaking new ground.

There are concerns that not enough U.S. students are studying computer science. Is that true, and if so, why? Part of [the problem of attracting students] is that students don't know what computer science is, so there's an awareness problem, and once you get into it, it's difficult. It takes a lot of time, effort and perseverance. You have to think creatively. All those things combined make it a challenging discipline.

But I've really seen a transformation. In 2006, we bottomed out. There was a worldwide decline in computer science enrollment after the dot-com bust, and I think that was a perception problem. People thought the jobs all got offshored, but I've seen a a resurgence in not only jobs but also in enrollment. Our enrollment is up 20% this year over last year, and last year was up 20% over the year before.

Does that increasing enrollment match employer demand for people with IT degrees? All the projections are that demand [for IT professionals] is outstripping the number going in. I see that from the employers knocking on our doors. There's definitely more room for more people to get into it.

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