IT School to Watch: Indiana University

Specialized degrees showcase an interdisciplinary plan.

It's difficult to imagine any industry these days where IT doesn't play some kind of role as a business enabler. And while many graduate IT programs provide students with real-world IT experiences either through case-study assignments, capstone projects or internships, few if any schools can tout the kind of interdisciplinary approach that Indiana University's School of Informatics has taken.

The school's master's program, launched in 2001, offers students specialized degrees in disciplines ranging from chemical informatics to bioinformatics and even music informatics. "One of the things we did in the creation of the school was to come at it from an interdisciplinary approach," says Marty Siegel, a professor in the school's Department of Informatics, which claims to have launched the nation's first doctoral program in informatics in 2005.

IU's roots in informatics extend back a few decades. In the late 1980s, while he was attending the University of Virginia as an undergraduate philosophy major, Gary McGraw attended a lecture given by professor Douglas Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, researcher and scholar in artificial intelligence and cognitive science from IU.

McGraw, who's now chief technology officer at Cigital Inc., a security software provider in Dulles, Va., was captivated by Hofstadter's remarks, and he decided to enroll in IU so he could study under Hofstadter. McGraw later obtained his Ph.D. in computer science and cognitive science in 1995 in a program that was the precursor to the School of Informatics.

IU "doesn't just pay lip service to interdisciplinary education -- they live it, they do it," says McGraw, who has served on the dean's advisory council to the school for the past four years.

"As the CTO of a high-tech company who has to hire people out of these programs, I can tell you that if you get taught to think and analyze and understand the humanity behind the technology, you're going to be better suited to work in the real world," says McGraw, who joined Cigital in 1995.

Josh Evnin agrees with McGraw. Evnin, an interaction designer/consultant at ThoughWorks Inc., an IT consulting firm in Chicago, says he ultimately selected IU's master's program in human-computer interaction (HCI) over those of other schools because of the responsiveness of its faculty and the students.

"They didn't just e-mail me back with yes or no responses to my questions," says Evnin, who graduated in 2006. "They really seemed to open up with genuine answers."

There were other differences, too.

"I felt we were practically applying our thoughts and research to difficult problems. It was the creative aspect that stood out for me," says Evnin, who received a full scholarship to pursue a master's degree at IU.

Prior to studying at IU, Evnin received a bachelor's degree in cognitive science with a specialization in HCI from the University of California, San Diego, in 2004. "As an undergraduate, I looked into jobs at places like Yahoo, and I don't think I qualified for those sorts of roles," he says. "Now, when I send résumés to places like that, I'm taken fairly seriously."

The financial returns of attending the program have been "incalculable" for McGraw, who, like Evnin, received a full scholarship to attend IU.

"It's hard to put a price tag on a solid educational background," says McGraw. "The informatics program sets people up for success. We're trying to create these next-generation technologists, and there's just unbelievable demand for that now."

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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Next: Northeastern University: One IT program encompasses law, computer science, security and business.

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