- UMass Amherst professor Glen Caffery.
In the class “Computing: Foundations and Frontiers,” a computer terminal faces each of 36 seats at long tables fanning out from the lectern. The demand for Glenn Caffery’s foundational course for the information technology (IT) minor is so high that he packs the class beyond official capacity by letting students enroll who are willing to bring their own laptops.
The IT minor was born at UMass Amherst five years ago precisely because there is nothing minor about the role of technology in today’s world. A group of professors spanning academic disciplines created a way for students to add a component to their degrees that makes them better prepared for the job market—and for life in the 21st century.
Communications major Michael Frank ’02 was one of the first to graduate with the minor. He landed in New York City selling advertising airtime for a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications. He creates visual sales and marketing pitches for clients such as General Mills, Kraft Foods, and several major automobile manufacturers. Frank says that, thanks to the courses, “I have a greater sense of confidence. Anyone can open up a PowerPoint program and fiddle with it,” but his breadth of knowledge allows him to choose from an array of software to hone his presentations. Like others in the minor, Frank says he didn’t want a degree in computer science but sought exposure to the technical aspects of computing. “In what job today are you not using computers?” he asks rhetorically.
The average college student is already fairly technology-savvy. Many are facile users of gadgets that can confound members of Caffery’s generation (he readily admits to his class a deficit in instant-messaging abilities). Still, fundamental principles behind databases, multimedia tools, and basic Web design are unexplored territory for most teens and 20-somethings. And with so many applications on the market, quality is highly variable. “Most of you are quite experienced at using flawed software,” Caffery tells his class, emphasizing that basic logic often gets lost in the design process. To illustrate this point, Caffery launches an analysis of Microsoft Word, exposing surprising and little-known design concepts, in effect pulling back the skin on the word-processing program to reveal its skeletal structure. “When you understand objects and properties, and concepts such as styles, layers, and templates, you will have more command of Word,” says Caffery. “You will also have a foundation that will help you in other computing areas, such as Web site or database development, or even programming.”
What students end up doing with their IT knowledge and skills varies widely. That’s why course requirements extend to history, ethics, politics, and even aesthetics. Professors want students to understand how the computer and its progeny transform social and technical environments; they ask them to think about how the digitalization of information affects all aspects of human endeavor, from selling advertising to cancer research.
Stephanie Rouillard ’03, a communications major, went to work as a data associate at the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and quickly worked her way up to “information design specialist.” Dedicated to synthesizing data from a wide range of clinical trials, the nonprofit group currently tracks more than 25,000 cancer patients in more than 90 studies, trying to identify patterns. Rouillard said the affinity for technology she got from the IT minor made her more useful within the organization, allowing her to help plan improvements to its public Web site to allow patients to submit data over secure Internet connections.
Caffery takes pride in the program’s track record of attracting a diverse group of students with a disproportionately high number of women and minorities, attributing that to “our message of multiple entry points, multiple opportunities.” The mix also includes more humanities and social science majors than is typical for such programs.
Mark Hanny ’78, a vice president at IBM, has watched the IT minor develop. “Students are clamoring to learn about more uses of technology in their various majors. There is a real thirst for it.” Hanny says things have come a long way since a small cadre of geeks hovered over the water-cooled mainframe when he first started at IBM. “These days everybody entering a wide range of industries must have an appreciation for technology to stay relevant,” says Hanny. He cites Department of Labor statistics that count 1.5 million IT jobs as currently unfilled and that predict one in four new jobs will have an IT component.
Finance major Suzanne Mallett ’03 is steeped in IT in her job in the Information Systems Group at Liberty Mutual. There she oversees the creation of computer systems that support sales, billing, and claims operations. On a personal level, the minor helped shape the direction of her life. “Simply put, the classes I took for the IT minor were always my favorite classes,” she says. “They made me realize I wanted to work in this field.”
“Just about every student in every discipline uses computers in some way, but many of them—especially those who are less technically inclined—don’t know the fundamental principles behind how they work,” says journalism professor Bill Israel, a founder of the IT minor. “And many of those who have a technical understanding of computers don’t fully understand the social, historical, and other contexts in which new technologies need to be considered. We find that the geeks, and many others, lack a grasp of that knowledge, too.”
Keith Parent is always on the lookout for new employees who combine field-specific knowledge with IT skills; he is CEO of Springfield-based Court Square Data Group, which manages technical infrastructures for clients all over the Northeast. He likes the way the IT minor integrates diverse disciplines. “A lot of times the best students aren’t IT majors, but they like computers and pick it up,” said Parent. “Now they come to us with some formal training.”
Minor candidates must take at least one foundations course, two technical courses, and one “broadened inquiry” course that might look at the historical, ethical, or economic impacts of computing. The remainder of credits can be earned from a smorgasbord of electives across 70 departments.
Craig Nicolson, professor of Natural Resources Conservation and the current chair of the IT minor, says, “We are not teaching just technical skills, we’re trying to teach students how to think about and understand ways of using technology in society.”