High-tech gives young something to come home to

LIHU’E – In this summer school, C++ is a good grade.

Some young Kauaians, mostly public-school graduates now studying engineering, computer sciences, physics and related majors in college, learned new computer languages this summer through internships with local high-tech companies.

One of the computer languages is C++.

The Science & Technology Summer Intern Program of the Kauai Economic Development Board once again exposed some of the best and brightest young people on the island to a glimpse of what for many will be a high-tech future on their home island.

But only a few years ago, no program like this existed. No real high-technology economy existed, either.

The internship program, and the high-tech industry’s potential to return the island’s best and brightest to the island after college and reverse the so-called “brain drain,” is a huge, positive story for the island, feels Dr. Bruce MacDonald, a vice president of the high-tech telecommunications firm Loea and acting president and chief executive officer of KEDB.

His son and daughter, both Kapaa High School graduates, participated in the program this summer, and are bound for college to study for careers that could be available on this island if they decide to return here.

Even very recently, that wasn’t necessarily the case, as parents wishing for better lives and careers for their children than they have for themselves, were resigned to the fact that after they sent their loved ones off to college, it normally signaled the end of their lives on Kaua’i as they knew them.

Those with specialized bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees once found Kaua’i a barren landscape with limited or nonexistent opportunities to work in their chosen fields.

For some of the interns, their summer experience opened their eyes and changed their minds about meaningful, long-term work on Kaua’i.

Melissa Fujimoto nearly changed majors, figuring there would be little opportunity for an electrical engineer on the island. She was leaning towards computer sciences and programming, before realizing at least partially through her intern experience that there likely will be jobs for engineers as a result of the island’s blossoming high-tech industry.

Fujimoto, a Kauai High School graduate from Lihu’e, is attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and interned this summer with the Office of Naval Research. The ONR, part of the U.S. Navy, will be a tenant in the under-construction, second phase of the Kauai Technology Center, at Waimea.

LeVaughn Riofta, of Hanama’ulu, is another Kauai High School graduate, now studying computer engineering at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He knows there will be high-tech jobs available on Kaua’i once he graduates.

He interned this summer with Trex Enterprises, doing hands-on, technical work involving workplace health and safety. He compiled information on training for worker safety, and that involved studying material safety data sheets for potentially hazardous materials.

Nicole Nishimura, a Kauai High School graduate from Lihu’e, worked with Fujimoto and Liane Fujii, also a Kauai High graduate, as part of a team writing computer programs in the java language.

That gave them experience in a different operating system, Fujii and Fujimoto agreed.

Nishimura and team worked in both the C and C++ languages, also, among other things writing programs to find maximum ranges of radar designed to track missiles.

Fujii sees her internship as a good way to get work experience in the high-tech industry, something that can’t really be accomplished in a college classroom. Further, the experience allows her to see how her computer science courses relate to potential work experiences after college.

She is studying civil engineering at the University of Washington at Seattle, and Nishimura, who spent part of last summer’s internship aboard a U.S. Navy ship in waters off Japan, is studying computer engineering at Portland State University.

The experience, which for 11 of the 26 interns included a trip to Washington, D.C., allowed Nishimura and others to become aware of other companies in the high-tech field, she said. The summer spent programming also allowed her to not forget what she learned in the classroom during the 2001-02 school year, she added.

Fujii, through her internship last summer, was introduced to liberty basic programming language, something that prepared her well for her freshman programming class, she said.

Bruce MacDonald, who did some research and found out only a small percentage of Kaua’i public high school graduates go on to college, surmised that part of the reason for that low percentage of Kaua’i students in higher education is a lack of career opportunities on the homefront.

Leslie Bailey, a mechanical engineer by trade and manager of a new high-tech facility of Solipsys under construction now in the C.S. Wo building at one entrance to Kukui Grove Center, was the techie in charge of the interns this summer.

She said each set of interns worked on different projects involving dual-use technologies, those being high-tech hardware and software that have both military and civilian applications.

The interns brought to the program a community’s trust, and a young person’s perspective, she said.

Solipsys was able to identify potential future workers, and mentor them, as many of the interns have parents who work in fields other than high-tech, so need mentors, adults in the business they can talk to and learn from, she said.

It’s important to keep the sciences students in the degree fields they initially entered, she said. During the summer, she heard that many of the youngsters were afraid there wouldn’t be jobs in their fields on Kaua’i when they graduate, and were considering changing majors.

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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