Over its first 10 years, Cuba’s Computer Sciences University has shown that research and production go hand in hand
AMAURY E. DEL VALLE
FOR many it was a dream come true when, more than 10 years ago, Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro first proposed a computer sciences university. Converting a giant former military base into a great university, where students would conduct research and production, seemed a lofty goal.
At the same time, along with the bricks and mortar, the Computer Sciences University, UCI, began to develop based on a new concept – that of a productive learning center which would simultaneously involve professors and students in learning and the creation of software.
The goal was to train creative students, who could learn and create at the same time; to create a university campus which could also function as a giant software factory.
Like all students who occasionally stumble, who do better in some subjects than others, who learn more from a poor grade, despite having always earned the highest, the UCI continues to forge ahead in uncharted territory for Cuban higher education, 10 years after its founding. The university serves as an example to others, while at the same time, recognizing that there is still much to learn.
NOT JUST NUMBERS
The UCI’s young deputy rector of production, Dr. Ailyn Febles Estrada, who oversees 312 projects, has learned quickly how to take advantage of every minute of the day to met her many obligations.
The work involves much more than numbers. Among the 300-plus software projects currently being carried out, 103 are for export, contracted with 70 clients abroad. This implies an important responsibility, and serves as a source of funding for higher education and the university itself.
The 99 national projects are significant, as well as the 31 digitalization projects within the center and the 79 which support other efforts with research and development of new technologies.
All of this is undertaken by the UCI’s 14 specialized centers and two general support departments, staffed by 5,000 students and some 1,008 professors, 579 with advanced degrees.
The UCI is involved in a great variety of efforts within many sectors: the management of Cuba’s electoral process, the automation of nickel production, the country’s identification system, medical imaging, joint projects with the Molecular Immunology Center, digitalization of banking, press and tourism web pages.
This is a unique creative environment in which students and professors from the school’s seven departments move seamlessly between work in medicine, the economy, internal security, industrial processes, graphic design, mapping and theoretical informatics, among the many other fields in which new technologies are being applied.
It is no accident that the university’s work has drawn attention and specific requests from various enterprises, institutions and even governments of other countries.
A VARIETY OF ROLES
First and second year UCI students are "testers" or "supporters", and not considered "professional" until their third year, when they take on the role of analyst, developer, designer or data administrator.
The assignment of these responsibilities is not an idiosyncrasy, but rather one of the secrets which has allowed the university to successfully integrate study and the production of software.
According to the curricular plan, in addition to coursework required for specific majors, students in their first two years work as testers of software produced by more advanced students. This opportunity both furthers the training of beginning students and familiarizes them with projects underway, allowing for participation in areas of interest.
Thus, by the time students reach their third year, they are fully integrated into a research or development project, having played a concrete role in the complex process of manipulating codes and bytes.
Not only do students both study and work. Their roles as students and producers are by definition linked, in the philosophy which has guided the UCI since its foundation.
"Our graduates in Information Technology Engineering must not only be prepared to function as researchers, as scientists. They must also be able to design, implement and direct a digitalization project, not only in situations where nothing along these lines has been done, but also where technology exists and is not being utilized to the fullest," explained Dr. Febles.
"Cuba presents such complex challenges and our graduates are going to dissimilar places. They must function as engineers, as information technicians, without giving up their role as scientists, as agents of change," she said.
MORE THAN A GRAIN OF SALT
Although the university has undergone changes, as the entire country has, both research and production remain fundamental objectives.
The application process has been reorganized and students are accepted based on entrance exams, without any other prerequisites, as is the case in related areas of study offered at other centers of higher education around the country.
Nevertheless, a reduction in the student population has meant that plans must be implemented optimally, to continue to assume and meet important challenges assigned to the UCI.
Perhaps its accomplishments are not yet highly visible in daily life, but the UCI is quietly adding much more than a grain of salt to the digitalization of Cuban society.
It is demonstrating that it can be a valuable national asset, not only by meeting its social objective of preparing highly trained professionals, but also by generating income to sustain itself, contributing to a change of mentality in higher education.