Harnessing brain power

College of Charleston computer science department Chairman Christopher Starr (center) works with Cassio Greco (left) and Pedro Sobrinho on a start-up program.

International students Cassio Greco and Pedro Sobrinho sit at their College of Charleston computers trying to develop software that would help speakers pronounce names correctly during commencement addresses and other functions.

"This way we think we can have a more reliable system for graduation name reading than we have today," said Christopher Starr, head of the school's computer science department. "As far as we know, no one else has developed this."

Currently, students' names, with pronunciations, are placed on index cards to be read during graduation ceremonies. The new software would allow names and pronunciations to pop up on a computer screen.

Once developed, the school could choose to sell the program or give it to other schools, Starr said. The college also would have to decide what to do about intellectual property rights.

The developers of the new software are from Brazil. They're studying computer science on scholarships.

"It's a great opportunity to come study and learn," Greco, a senior, said. "It's amazing here. I don't want to go back."

The computer science department also is where the college will start a new program in January to immerse students from three departments in a learning experience that could serve as a recruitment tool for top-notch students across the state and the nation, Starr said.

The program is called International Cross-Curricular Accelerator for Technology, or I-CAT. The state Commerce Department recently awarded the school $250,000 for innovation. The school must match the grant with money other than state funds. Federal grants or donations could be used.

The program will complement the computer science department's software innovations laboratory that was set up in 2009 by broadening its reach into the business and liberal arts departments, Starr said.

It will include eight teams of three students each from a different department. Business will provide an entrepreneur, computer science will offer technology and software, and liberal arts will supply creative input.

Students have to apply for the program, though the requirements have not been set yet.

"We want to make sure they have the energy and motivation for this type of experience," Starr said.

Classes will last six hours a week with teams meeting on their own time for collective development. Students also can develop a product with commercial applications, but Starr said that's not the goal.

"The primary purpose is to provide an experience," he said. "If a product comes out of it, fine, but that's not what the program is all about. We are not measuring our success on product commercialization."

It's about giving them the experience to develop something on their own, Starr said. "The state is making a significant investment in the college," he said. "The college is making a significant investment in the students. These students wind up as great employees."

Starr called the program "a fabulous recruitment tool."

He believes I-CAT will attract high-caliber students who eventually might work for Boeing or Benefitfocus or another company in South Carolina, helping to keep brain power in the Palmetto State.

When the new program starts, though, it won't be on the contiguous College of Charleston campus. The computer science department will move Friday to new quarters at Harbor Walk near the S.C. Aquarium off Concord Street. The move should be completed by June 9.

"It's 0.8 miles, a 20-minute walk, about five blocks" from the main campus, Starr said.

The current computer science space on the second and third floors of the J.C. Long Building will serve as temporary office, research and classroom space for the science department while the Hollings Science Center undergoes renovations over the next two years.

The computer science department has 347 students out of about 10,000 undergraduates at the school. Forty-nine recently graduated. About 75 to 125 new computer science majors will start in the fall.

Not all of those will finish with a computer science degree since some students change majors, Starr said.

Twenty-four percent of the department's students are female, while the number used to be close to zero, he added.

"That's amazing because we have seen quite a few days without women in computer science," he said.

One of those females is Noemie Barthelemy from France.

"I can apply the things I have learned on a concrete project," the 19-year-old said. "It's also helping with my English."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.