UB to Offer Bachelor's Degree in Informatics

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: January 20, 2006 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Computers and the Internet now permeate every aspect of the business world, and today's workplaces need tech-savvy communicators who can bridge the gap between people and technology.

In response to industry demand, the University at Buffalo School of Informatics will offer a bachelor's degree in informatics, beginning in fall 2006, to provide undergraduates with training in both information technology and interpersonal skills.

The school already offers a master's degree in informatics.

"Informatics is the intersection of people, information and technologies," says David Penniman, dean of the School of Informatics. Formerly the School of Information Sciences, which was founded in 1999 with the merger of the School of Information and Library Studies and the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, the unit changed its name to the School of Informatics in 2001 to reflect its developing focus on combining information technology with communication.

"The logical prequel to the master's program was an undergraduate one," Penniman says. The 127-credit undergraduate degree will combines IT classes with those focusing on communication and social sciences to prepare students for careers that work with technology in the real world.

Logan Scott, director of the undergraduate informatics program, developed the program content and course curriculum working closely with Neil Yerkey, director of the overall informatics program, and Barbara Mulvenna, associate director of external relations in the School of Informatics. Penniman says the program architects studied such institutions as the University of California-Irvine and the University of Washington in developing the UB curriculum.

The School of Informatics received a $200,000 grant from AT&T in 2001 to develop the 36-credit master's-degree program. As part of the project, researchers surveyed 300 companies dealing in information technology, manufacturing, health care and service industries to learn what qualities were most sought in graduates entering these fields. A number of the same industries were revisited in developing the undergraduate program, Penniman explains, and additional financial assistance was supplied by AT&T.

In both cases, businesses rated oral and written communication skills at the top of the list, he says. IT skills were important, of course, but still rated below critical thinking, sound decision making, the ability to plan and establish goals, and teamwork, respectively, he says.

Despite the name, Penniman notes such "soft skills" are actually the hardest to teach. The 15 core courses for the bachelor's degree include computer science, statistics and research methods, but also such interpersonal-focused classes as introductions to sociology and psychology, written communication and organizational psychology.

"Informatics courses have to combine concepts relating to technology, information and people," says Scott. "Our interest in technology is always within a human, organizational or individual context."

The final component to the undergraduate degree is a two-semester research or "capstone" course designed to place students within the community to provide well-researched informatics solutions to Buffalo-area businesses.

"The capstone course gives a good edge going into a specific industry," Penniman says, adding that one graduate student earned a job at a wine-industry consultant following a capstone course in which he designed a project enabling winemakers to run their businesses more efficiently using information technology.

Penniman points out there are numerous advantages that come with offering an undergraduate degree. College recruiters now can reach out to students in high school about informatics, he says, especially those who have an interest in information technology, but do not want to major in computer science.

Computer science classes have a very high dropout rate, Penniman explains. Nationally, the dropout rate can reach as high as 50 percent in the freshman year, and UB is no different, he says. There are many reasons for this, he says, including the fact that some students are more interested in application of the tools than in tool development. In addition, computer science has not yet attracted many women to the field. Penniman says studies show that women often prefer applications that solve social problems, as opposed to working with purely conceptual problems. "We think that a degree in informatics will be more appealing to them," he says.

There are many careers open to students with an undergraduate degree in informatics, Penniman notes. They often take jobs as marketing or sales representatives for IT companies, connecting customers and technology. "Informatics people serve as bridges," he says. Other fields include electronic communication, database design and data mining.