IT School to Watch: Carnegie Mellon University

Students are trained for roles in behavioral science.

When Sara Culberson arrived at Carnegie Mellon University straight off a red-eye flight from her California home in 2003, it was sight unseen. But she soon fell in love not just with the school but with the human-computer interaction program she had enrolled in. "It had such a good reputation, I didn't even need to see it," she says.

It's true that CMU is considered one of the top schools offering a master's program in human-computer interaction. Six of its faculty are members of the Association for Computing Machinery's CHI Academy. That's more CHI Academy members than any other organization has, according to Bonnie John, a professor and director of the master's in HCI program, which trains students for careers in user interface and usability engineering, systems development and interaction design.

CMU's School of Computer Science offers various "professional" master's degrees -- in entertainment technology, e-business technology, software engineering, software engineering management, IT with a specialization in very large information systems, robotics, IT service management, IT-embedded software engineering and an MBA track in technology leadership. All the programs are intended to lead to industry positions rather than to research or academic appointments, although CMU also offers several academic master's degrees.

That professional orientation meant a lot to Madhu Prabaker, who earned a master's in HCI and is now a usability analyst at Inc. "It teaches in a way that's actionable," he says. "I was able to just hit the ground running, even my first week in." Prabaker says he learned what it was like to operate in a real-world scenario, complete with time and resource constraints. A View to Other Disciplines

Both Prabaker and Culberson entered the program with undergraduate degrees in cognitive science. The stated goal of the master's in HCI is to take excellent students with depth in a discipline relevant to HCI and enable them to -- as John says -- "walk in the shoes" of the other disciplines applicable to HCI, which are behavioral science, design and technology. "Everyone must program all night to find that last bug, everyone runs tests with users who do things they never could have predicted, and everyone designs and is subjected to critiques by faculty and peers," John says.

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