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Updated: May 30, 2012 8:06AM



Three Chicago-area science and technology whizzes are busy learning their trades in fast-growing careers. Their work ranges from designing a comedian’s interactive stage set to mapping a health plan for trees to figuring out why the universe is rapidly expanding.

Their ease at winning projects, internships and jobs reflects little-known growth industries and a new education reality: Young people’s choices of study, training and financial aid are playing a big role in whether they fill menial low-paying jobs or tech-focused, higher-skilled work.

Devin Wambolt, a 24-year-old senior at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy in the Loop, has won attention on YouTube for his projection mapping visuals created with camera, projector and 3D software to create illusions that interact with a person’s movements. He stacked up moving boxes, covered them with paper and connected a projector to an Xbox 360 Kinect to create a system where a student can use his or her hand to “project” light onto the boxes, trigger footprints to appear where he has walked or otherwise augment reality.

“I’ve been playing with illusions and light and using fluid dynamics, physics and simulations — they all apply,” said Wambolt, who will graduate on June 2 with an associate’s degree in applied sciences. Everyone in the academy’s 230-member graduating class receives the associate’s degree, but each holds one of four specialties: Recording arts, film and broadcast, visual effects and animation, and game design and interactive media.

Wambolt is now working on an interactive program at iNG restaurant, 945 W. Fulton Market, and is creating a set design for Hot Mix Five DJ Producer Mickey Oliver, a Chicago native who created and stars in “Intensi-T,” a theatrically staged dance show and a TV variety show.

“My goal is to keep working on new and exciting projects. There are so many opportunities, I’d like to weigh my options,” Wambolt said. Before starting Tribeca Academy, Wambolt earned certificates in web design, graphic design and 3D animation from Boston University and worked at an audio-visual company installing home theaters, stadium jumbotrons and high-tech lecture-hall systems at Harvard University, Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tribeca Academy has seen its student body grow sixfold— to a projected 650 starting in the 2012-2013 school year — from its first graduating class of 102 three years ago. The 2011 graduating class had a 77 percent placement rate in paid jobs that reflected students’ interests. The jobs range from TV production to videogame design, to writing for film festival blogs and creating 3D and video event coverage. Full-time salaries range from $35,000 to $65,000 yearly. Tribeca’s tuition totals $50,000 for the full two years, and the academy offers financial aid to those eligible.

“We are seeing an explosion in WebTV and Google TV channels looking for 24/7 content,” said Jill Geimer, senior vice president of career services at the academy. “We’ve also had students work for the casting director on ‘The Voice’ (hit singing competition series on NBC-TV). Good production assistants in Los Angeles earn an average of $1,100 a week.”

Other growth careers are developing apps for mobile gaming, creating animated commercials for ad agencies and working on live concerts and theater productions for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE) union at major venues such as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Margaret Yagen, a 22-year-old senior at Elmhurst College, is collecting and mapping data on trees, street lights, water-main breaks and other public works details as an intern at the west suburban village of Westchester — a job called geospatial technology that is used in farming, urban planning, military operations, utility infrastructure routing and developing apps for Facebook, online retailers and others leveraging smartphones and electronic devices embedded with location technology.

“With the information we create, we can figure out the types of trees the village has, how frequently they’ve been maintained and the order in which they need attention, and create a plan on how to go about it,” Yagen said.

Yagen will obtain a bachelor’s in Applied Geospatial Technologies with a minor in human geography when she graduates on May 26. Her field includes jobs in remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS).

The number of such jobs nationwide is projected to skyrocket by 42 percent, to 850,000, by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Most of the entry-level positions start at $45,000 and can exceed $50,000 yearly.

R.B. “Rich” Schultz, coordinator of the GIS certification program at Elmhurst College, said the college cannot supply enough students to meet the yearly demands for 50 to 60 geospatial technologies internships. Elmhurst last year became the first liberal arts college to offer a bachelor’s of science degree in Applied Geospatial Technologies. Elmhurst College’s tuition totals $125,800 for students who live on campus and who receive no financial aid throughout the four-year degree period.

Joe Bernstein, a 36-year-old postdoctoral researcher at Argonne National Laboratory’s Leadership Computing Facility, credits his first physics studies at the College of DuPage with leading him to a future bounded only by his imagination.

“I’ve been telling students for years that if you are mathematically inclined, physics is the jack of all trades in terms of a quantitative education, and it’s a real sleeper career area,” said Bernstein, a Phi Theta Kappa Society member who earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctorate after he finished his associate’s degree at DuPage. “Physicists solve problems by coupling mathematical formulas with an understanding of the concepts underlying the problem at hand.”

Bernstein started his education at a community college because he had been home-schooled and felt more comfortable using it as a bridge to traditional education.

“Community colleges are the best ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of cost, and a good fraction of the DuPage faculty had PhD’s,” he said.

Students with four-year undergraduate degrees in physics can expect to earn a starting salary of $33,900, on average.

Now, Bernstein is doing research to understand the mystery of dark energy and why the universe’s expansion is accelerating.

“The skills I use are in great demand, whether a student wants to be a professor or a Wall Street analyst at D.E. Shaw,” he said.

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