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Teaching tech: A savior amid recession?

Frank Brogan, chancellor of Florida's public universities, likes to describe the state's economy as a three-legged stool standing on the strength of tourism, agriculture and population growth.

But growth is no longer sturdy enough to bear the weight of the state's expectations.

That's why Brogan and other education and business leaders say it's critical to develop knowledge-based industries with promising futures – digital media, health care, biotech and alternative energy, among them.

And the key to getting that done: boosting higher education, a tough challenge with the state mired in a recession that has forced millions in budget cuts at the state's colleges and universities.

For inspiration, Brogan points to North Carolina's renowned research triangle. Half a century ago, in the face of declining tobacco and textile industries, North Carolina invested in its universities in hopes of transforming its economy. The schools in the triangle focused on research, eventually turning the region into a flourishing magnet for hi-tech businesses, in part because of the educated workforce they produced.

Florida could take a similar approach, Brogan says. While the recession poses challenges, he says, it also provides a sense of urgency that could propel a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape Florida's economy."

The work has already begun. Here's where things are headed.

The state's colleges and universities, often among the largest employers in their areas, by themselves spur billions in economic activity statewide through construction and research leading to patents.

In the future, business and education leaders see promise in universities forming alliances with established firms to create new jobs and make discoveries in medicine and other fields.

Orlando's budding "medical city" is often cited these days as an example of how a university can help spur economic growth.

With the University of Central Florida's new medical school as its centerpiece, the medical city — on about 600 acres east of Orlando International Airport — has attracted the renowned Burnham Institute for Medical Research, a Veterans Administration hospital, a Nemours children's hospital and an arm of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. All told, the medical school and surrounding city are expected to have an economic impact of $7.6 billion over the next decade and create 30,000 local jobs, according to a recent report.

While UCF went big with the medical city, its offerings also extend to dozens of small businesses and high-tech startups through its business incubation program. The school provides working space and advice to a variety of promising fledgling businesses, more than 100 of which have moved on and are standing on their own.

UCF also is positioning itself to ride the wave of interest in rapidly growing industries such as digital media, optics and lasers and computer science.

Last year, the university renamed its Expo Centre across the street from Amway Arena in downtown Orlando the Center for Emerging Media, positioning it to become a hub for media research and industry.

The university defines emerging media as film production, animation, music and other art created with the aid of cutting-edge technology.

Besides the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a graduate video-gaming program, the center is home to Vicon Entertainment's House of Moves, one of the largest commercial motion-capture studios on the East Coast. In filmmaking, motion-capture refers to recording the movements of actors using delicate sensors and then using the data to produce realistic digitally animated characters. House of Moves has worked on big Hollywood productions such as "Titanic" and "Spiderman: The Movie."

House of Moves, along with Studio 500, a soundstage for commercial and student use, have earned the university $120,000 over the past year, university officials said.

The buzzword ringing from Tallahassee to Miami is coordination.

While the state's colleges and universities do a good job of adapting to local and regional needs, business and education leaders say, there has been no statewide policy to move Florida forward in a critical area: increasing the number of bachelor's degrees awarded, specifically in majors such as education, nursing and engineering that are projected to be in high demand through the next decade.

At an unprecedented gathering in South Florida in November, members of the university Board of Governors and the state Board of Education, which oversees the state colleges as well as Pre-K-12 education, agreed to look for ways to better align their academic offerings to help more students prepare for college and earn bachelor's degrees.

Business leaders say it's important to cultivate a locally-grown, highly educated workforce to attract knowledge-based businesses to Florida, including big manufacturers who need workers with technical skills in lasers and other emerging technology. States and regions without a trained and ready workforce stand to lose the competition for new businesses – and risk having existing businesses move in search of the labor they want -- to other states or foreign countries such as India and China that put a premium on higher education, business leaders say.

Driving home the point at the South Florida gathering were members of the influential Council of 100, a non-partisan, nonprofit group of business leaders who promote economic growth. According to a recent paper issued by the council, the state will need an additional 4.5 million people with bachelor's degrees to reach the education level of the 10 most productive states 20 years from now. At current rates, the state will fall short by 1.3 million.

To help the universities pay for expanding and improving academic programs, the council was among the early supporters of legislation that allows the 11 state universities to raise tuition by as much as 15 percent a year until tuition reaches the national average. The council had issued a report in 2004 calling for annual tuition hikes of 13.9 percent for five years, but lawmakers until recently held to annual increases in the 5 percent to 7 percent range.

Since the state universities are at or nearing capacity, and building new ones is prohibitively costly, it's not likely that they alone will be able to meet the anticipated demand for highly educated workers, university officials have said.

Florida's state/community colleges provide some relief, but they face their own space and money problems.

Recently passed state law allows the 28 current and former two-year schools in the Florida College System – formerly the Florida Community College System – to offer four-year degree programs in areas facing the greatest future shortages such as nursing and education. Half are opting to do so.

But still unclear is how big a dent the state colleges can make in the short term. Last year, the 11 state universities graduated more than 51,000 students with bachelor's degrees, while state colleges graduated about 1,000.

As the university and college systems figure out how to collaborate better, officials will be looking to improve graduation rates, avoid duplicative programs and preserve the state program that makes it easier for students to start at a state/community college and transfer to a state university.

While Florida can learn from North Carolina's triumphant triangle, it took more than two decades for the region to gain international notice.

Brogan acknowledges that the triangle is perhaps not a perfect model to emulate. But producing more highly educated workers and promoting university research will not only increase economic opportunities, but lead to treatment of diseases and improve Floridians' quality of life, things that should be "priorities at the end of the day."

Luis Zaragoza can be reached at or 407-420-5718.

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