Informatics is a great major. I think it’s the best major at the University of Washington, and it’s not just because I’m the Dean of the Information School. Tech companies are clamoring for graduates who understand both data science and user experience, and can apply technology in an innovative way, and we’re producing entrepreneurial, socially conscious STEM graduates who are ready to make a positive impact on their companies and communities.
The unfortunate fact is that we turn away many well-qualified students who want to major in Informatics. If I could wave a magic wand and double the size of the program, we could easily fill it with outstanding students and still not meet the demand of prospective students or of employers. I would love for the program to grow quickly, but we are constrained in the near-term by space limitations, our number of faculty, and University limits on how fast a program can grow. None of these issues are insurmountable, but they will take time to overcome, and I am working every day with iSchool and University leadership to solve them.
Fortunately, growing the major is not the only way to increase access to our Informatics program. One of our great success stories of the 2017-18 academic year was the addition of an Informatics minor. The iSchool introduced the open minor last fall, and by spring quarter it had already become the most popular minor at the UW, with 349 students signed up. As declared minors, students gain greater access to our classes through priority registration.
In some cases, the minor offers a pathway for students who were unable to gain admission into the major. But more often, the Informatics minor offers a complementary set of courses for students who are pursuing their passions in the arts and humanities. Geography, economics, communications, sociology and psychology are some of the most common majors among students declaring the minor. These students take classes such as Databases & Data Modeling, Design Methods, and Information Ethics & Policy and acquire technical skills even if they don’t have a technical background. In many cases, it can improve their job prospects by giving them a STEM credential and the ability to offer something extra to an employer in their chosen field. We want the non-STEM majors to keep thriving, and the Informatics minor can support that success story.
That will only happen when we increase our capacity to serve students. I would like for the iSchool to eventually serve about 1,000 Informatics minors, ideally with a set of classes that is different from that of our majors and an experience that is tailored to their career aspirations. At present, we are working to give students a chance to take as many classes in our minor as possible, but our classes remain in very high demand, and we know that demand is outpacing supply. To keep our classes small and the quality of our students’ experience high, we will need to recruit more top-notch faculty and retain the amazing faculty we already have.
But faculty and students need space – space to work, space for labs, space to grab a cup of coffee and go over an assignment. How do we grow when we’re already bursting at the seams? There are three things we can do right now, as a community:
- Create and support plans for a new physical space for the school. The demand for our Informatics major and minor sends a clear signal that the Information School is a great investment for the University, for the state and for corporate partners. We are putting together a funding plan that will give us room to grow while remaining in a strategic location on campus.
- Fund endowed faculty fellowships. Endowed fellowships, such as our Beverly Cleary Professorship for Children and Youth Services, carry prestige that helps us attract and retain the next generation of talented faculty members. In addition, these fellowships provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in the faculty member’s research.
- Fund iSchool scholarships. Our programs benefit from diversity of all kinds, but the cost of education can create a high barrier for many students. Scholarships help reduce that barrier and maintain the strength of our cohorts, another powerful signal to the University and potential partners when we look to them for support.
There is so much demand for STEM graduates that Informatics, Computer Science, Human-Centered Design & Engineering and every other STEM major at the UW could double enrollment and there still wouldn’t be nearly enough skilled workers to feed the thriving technology sector in the Seattle area alone. It only makes sense that we grow our Informatics major and minor to fill those jobs with talent from the UW. We just have to figure out how to get there.
Our growing pains are signs of a thriving school, so while they are challenging, they are good problems to have. Fortunately, the iSchool community is full of problem-solvers! Email me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas; I’m always happy to hear them.
Dean and Professor