The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Informatics: applying a computational lens to other disciplines

Can you train health scientists, social scientists, and business professionals to look at their discipline through a computational lens? The College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) believes the answer is “Yes,” and that doing so can benefit other disciplines, as well as humanity at large. The goal of the Informatics program is to educate students to apply computing principles to other disciplines. A student graduating with an Informatics degree would have a foundation of training in the core aspects of computing, such as programming, math, social and human factors, privacy, etc. They would also have acquired expertise in another domain of interest, such as public health, life sciences, business, etc. (as well as the general education requirements of all undergrads).


Ramesh Sitaraman has been spearheading the Informatics effort since its inception seven years ago. Currently, Informatics is run within BDIC (Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration), the degree program that allows students to design their own individualized course of study. But on March 12 the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education voted unanimously to approve the BS Informatics major, making it the second undergraduate discipline offered by CICS (after the  BS/BA in computer science).


Why is it important to apply a computing lens to other disciplines? Sitaraman compares it to the ways that math formed an intellectual core for other disciplines, like physics and chemistry, in the 20th century. “In this century, computing can play a similar role where it contributes techniques and intellectual tools that can be applied elsewhere. In many cases the computational thinking is revolutionizing those other fields.”


CICS is also interested in broadening the pathway into computing. The Informatics program attracts students who don’t necessarily think they want to be computer scientists, but enter the program because they are interested in applying a different way of thinking to their domain of interest. The most recent cohort of Informatics students boasts 38% women and 24% under-represented minorities, significantly larger than traditional computer science programs.


Currently, the strongest spoke in the Informatics wheel is the data science concentration. Almost all disciplines involve collecting and analyzing large amounts of data, and the Informatics program with data science concentration is perfect for students with domain interests in fields like epidemiology, health sciences, social sciences, journalism, business analytics, and more.


One important element of the Informatics curricular philosophy is starting off with the “Why” before proceeding to the “How”. In traditional computer science, students first learn how to code, then learn why coding is useful. Students in the Informatics program often start with real-world problems in an application domain, and then learn the computing principles necessary to solve those problems.


The Informatics program has graduated only a small number of students so far, and 100% of them have gone on to jobs or graduate school. MassMutual, Arrowstreet Capital, and Liberty Mutual have all hired Informatics graduates. As of Spring 2019, the Informatics program has 135 students, with a growth target of 50 new students per year.