New leader takes helm of popular Informatics program

When Scott Barker walks the UW campus, he’ll often hear students chatting, and it amazes him how often he hears one word in particular.

That buzzword: Informatics.

Barker, who has chaired the iSchool’s undergraduate program since 2007, recently stepped aside to allow another faculty member, Amy Ko, to take the reins. Under Barker’s watch, Informatics grew from humble beginnings to become one of the hottest majors on the University of Washington campus.

When the program started with 35 students in 2000, Barker said, “I had no expectation that we’d be where we are today. We were kind of like a little secret that a special few would get to know.”

The secret is out. Now the major, in which students explore the intersection of technology and human values, has become one of the most competitive at the UW. It has grown to admit 210 students each year, and it attracts hundreds more applicants.

“Now we look at the application numbers and the UW has an incoming class of 6,000 to 7,000 students, and we’re getting over 800 of them to apply to our major,” Barker pointed out. “It’s an astounding number.”

Students are attracted by the opportunity to learn about more than just code. Informatics draws upon fields such as computer science, information science, design, and ethics to produce well-rounded information and technology professionals. Students in the program tend to be problem-solvers looking to making a positive impact on their communities. Within three months after graduation, 95 percent of them have landed jobs such as user experience designer, software engineer, data scientist, and cybersecurity specialist.

“Anything people want to do today can be enhanced by knowledge of technology,” Barker said. “So whether they’re in our major and do that as their primary degree, or they do our minor and supplement their knowledge and skills with what they’re learning in their major, what we’re teaching in our courses is directly applicable to every single field.”

As program chair, Ko hopes to grow the program’s capacity to admit larger classes in the coming years and accommodate many of the well-qualified students it currently must turn down. She also aims to broaden the Informatics curriculum to cover the range of expertise amongst the rapidly growing iSchool faculty.

“We have a core curriculum that was exciting to students and sufficient for getting them exciting jobs,” said Ko, an associate professor at the school. “We have, in parallel, a larger faculty with a fascinating and deep expertise. We’re just starting to infuse the program with all those diverse perspectives.

“We’re going to see a full realization of all those ideas built into the classes. Not just in new classes, but in existing classes, too.”

A broader focus will be the next stage in the evolution of a program that has benefited over the years from a combination of vision, timing and some key faculty hires.

The program was introduced during Mike Eisenberg’s term as dean of the iSchool and got a boost from his determination to make sure it got noticed. He reached out to The Daily and other local media, and exposure from them helped attract a strong applicant pool for that first 35-person class. When Barker took over as chair, the program was still small but had survived a couple of lean years after the tech bubble of the early 2000s burst.

From there, the program has seen steady growth. Barker credits a couple of key additions to the faculty: Jacob Wobbrock, who made the school a strong player in the emerging field of human-computer interaction; and Dave Stearns, who frequently teaches the introductory INFO 200 course and brings an infectious passion for Informatics to the classroom.

“If we hadn’t found someone like Dave who has an equal amount of passion and can communicate what this major is all about, I’m not sure we would have been as successful as we have been,” Barker said.

Barker will have a chance to teach INFO 200 this fall. He remains as the school’s director of IT and a senior lecturer. Ko, the incoming program chair, credited Barker for handing off the leadership of a thriving program.

“Most of the things that make the Informatics program great are because Scott and the faculty created a community that students wanted to be part of,” she said. “To me, that’s the exciting thing – the understanding, the awareness, and the excitement among students about joining an inclusive, encouraging learning community.”