Grad programs emphasize career preparation
"We work to keep the curriculum current and provide students with great internship and job opportunities." – Dr Santosh Venkatraman, Tennessee State
"Information technology used to be a field that focused on technology. Today the focus is on information." – Dr Teresa Dahlberg, STARS Alliance
By Sonya Stinson
A program that brings together undergraduate and graduate students in computing disciplines to work on community service projects has had remarkable success in getting underrepresented students to pursue advanced degrees in IT.
The Students and Technology in Academia, Research and Service (STARS) Alliance (www.starsalliance.org) is a consortium of thirty-one colleges and universities focused on increasing the participation of women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities in computing disciplines. Through the STARS Leadership Corps, a cross-curricular service learning program, grad students, undergrads, faculty members and business professionals work together on outreach projects targeting students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
"The undergrads get to know the grad students and learn more about what doing research is like," says Dr Teresa Dahlberg, director and principal investigator of the STARS Alliance, which is based at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Being exposed to diverse role models makes the undergraduate more likely to continue to grad school."
Enrollment increases at participating schools
In fact, the PhD-granting institutions that participated in each of the first three years of the leadership corps increased enrollment in their computing graduate programs by 32 percent, Dahlberg reports.
"During that same time period, the Taulbee Survey, the national survey that keeps track of computing enrollments in PhD-granting institutions, showed that the national increase was only 2 percent," Dahlberg notes.
Analytic skills are needed in IT
"Information technology used to be a field that focused on technology. Today the focus is on information," Dahlberg says. "It's not just corporate tech support and programmers, but people with analytic skills using information to improve the bottom line, regardless of the business sector." And an advanced degree, most experts agree, is an important credential for today's analysis-based IT jobs.
"It's long been understood that diversity of thought comes from people who are not just demographically diverse; the personalities are diverse as well."
The students in the graduate IT programs featured here provide nine impressive snapshots of that diversity.
Deana Brown: PhD in HCC at Georgia Tech
Deana Brown is a PhD student in the college of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA). She's studying human-centered computing; she conducts research that applies concepts like human-computer interaction (HCI) and social computing to the design of technologies for underserved groups in the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and the African diaspora.
"My current research investigates the challenge of communication among Caribbean family members when parents migrate away from the region. My goal is to help connect migrant parents, their children and their children's caregivers. If we can help migrants continue their parental roles even when they must work abroad, it may help mitigate some of the negative effects of parental migration," Brown explains. Brown grew up in Jamaica.
This fall, Brown will start her third year in the program. She earned her 2007 bachelors in mathematics, CS and Spanish from Lawrence University (Appleton, WI), and her 2009 MS in information technology, with a major in human-computer interaction, from the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). As an undergrad, she studied in Granada, Spain, and she did her masters thesis research at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Brown has particularly enjoyed her work in human-computer interaction. "It really brings together things I love," she says, "designing technologies and meeting human needs. I eventually got into HCI for development, which made me see how I could apply my background in technology to issues like poor health and minimal access to information that are faced by marginalized groups. I saw those issues first hand growing up in Jamaica."
Brown says it's sometimes a challenge to manage her time in a way that strikes a good balance between her academic and personal lives.
"As a graduate student you have to tackle a lot: classes, research, a teaching assistantship and other obligations like helping with conferences," she notes. "I also travel quite a bit to academic conferences and workshops, or to do field work for my research.
"It's all exciting, but you have to find an appropriate balance early on," she cautions. "Otherwise work tends to eat into your personal time, which is important to have."
Rakhila Ibildayeva: MS in software engineering at Carnegie Mellon
When Rakhila "Eila" Ibildayeva graduated in 2009 with a BSCS from Suleyman Demirel University in Almata, Kazakhstan, "the situation with employment was a little bit unstable, especially for a fresh graduate," she says. So she applied for a scholarship from her government to pursue graduate studies in the United States.
Today Ibildayeva is working on an MS in software engineering at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus at Moffett Field (Mountain View, CA). She expects to graduate in August 2012.
A class she took in her first semester of grad school surprised her. "I didn't know from my undergraduate studies that a lot of software projects fail," she says.
According to the case studies she and her classmates examined, the most common reason for failure is "a combination of the size and novelty of the project. It's also about how good or bad your risk management leaders are," she notes.
Ibildayeva has given a lot of thought to the post-graduate career that will best suit her personality.
"I'm not a typical software developer because I'm a real extrovert," she says. "Sitting in front of a computer all the time is not something I could pursue. So I'm looking for a job that would include working with people, maybe as a project manager."
Carnegie Mellon offers project-based curriculum
Todd Sedano, director of the department of software engineering at the Silicon Valley campus, says the program takes a completely project-based approach to its curriculum.
"Instead of the traditional university situation, where students do homework sets and attend lectures, faculty members play roles in a fictional engineering company where they work with students to create deliverables, just as they would in industry," Sedano explains. "We find that this educational approach is really effective, and when we survey our alumni they routinely tell us that they are being promoted faster than their peers."
Daisy Gallegos: MS in IT at NJIT
Despite earning her 2011 BS in information technology at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ), Daisy Gallegos had to brace herself for the rigors of a course in electrical and computer engineering required for the IT masters program there.
"I wasn't sure if I was prepared for the work," she admits.
While many of the topics for the class were familiar, she explains, this time there was much more in-depth coverage of the technical aspects. "I had to really understand the things that went on behind the scenes in terms of the technology," Gallegos says.
"As an IT major, I only had a broad understanding."
Gallegos took advantage of the BS/MS option at NJIT. She's majoring in IT administration and security. Casey Hennessey, MS academic advisor and coordinator of outreach in the college of computer sciences, notes that the program allows qualified undergrads to earn six graduate-level credits as seniors.
The school offers a number of notable support programs and organizations targeting underrepresented students in graduate studies, including the Murray Center for Women and Technology, the Office of International Students, the Office of Graduate Studies, the Hispanic Organization of Students in Technology and the National Society of Black Engineers.
While Gallegos decided to go directly to grad school, she has benefited from her association with fellow students who have industry experience.
"They can see how the technology in our classes is applied in industry," she says. "I've had internships, so I can relate to certain aspects, but they are able to contribute a lot more. It's not just learning from what the professor says, or what it says in the book. It's learning from your peers."
After graduating in May 2012, Gallegos hopes to get a job in IT security. "I'll probably work as a consultant," she says. "As a consultant you're exposed to a lot of different fields within IT, so you learn much more for the first couple of years."
Kofi Whitney: PhD in HCI at Iowa State
As part of his doctoral research at Iowa State University (Ames, IA), Kofi Whitney helped create a 3D replication of a local neighborhood in the university's virtual reality lab. The work is part of a study to help U.S. Census takers get more accurate data and be more efficient.
"We're trying to look at whether or not we can test for the same things in virtual reality that we can in the real world," explains Whitney. "In the future, it could be a way to train census takers.
"Two thousand nine was the first time the Census Bureau used handheld computers to collect information on residents," Whitney notes. "It's been paper and pencil ever since they started. We're helping them integrate even more technology into the process."
Whitney expects to graduate in the summer of 2012 with a PhD in human-computer interaction (HCI). He earned his 2004 BS in computer science from Benedict College in Columbia, SC.
After graduation he worked at various posts, including an internship at Intel (Santa Clara, CA) where he did software testing for an insurance company in Chandler, AZ. The internship was part of a fellowship from GEM, the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (www.gemfellowship.org).
"HCI is not just about the computer technology itself but also about how people interface with computers," he says. "You could have a computer with the latest technology, but if you can't figure out how it works, it's a problem. The HCI program is about making computers intuitive, allowing the user to interact easily with the computer."
Genevieve Patterson: PhD in computer science at Brown University
Genevieve Patterson recently launched a research project in computer vision that involves a huge group of Flickr images collected by her advisor at Brown University (Providence, RI).
"Previously, computer vision research relied on a few example images to deduce how people see things. It turns out that's not very successful," explains Patterson. "So what I'm trying to do is take a very large number of images and have them labeled by Mechanical Turk, a crowd-sourcing marketplace on the Web."
The goal of the study is to find out how people interact with the places depicted in the images. The results can be used to enhance Internet image searches, or applied in the field of image robotics, Patterson says.
Studying under a fellowship from the National Defense Science and Engineering graduate program of the Department of Defense, Patterson hopes to complete her doctorate in computer science by 2015.
In 2007, after she got a double bachelors in mathematics and EE from the University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ), Patterson applied for and won a Japanese government scholarship for foreign students. She was the only U.S. recipient that year. She studied magnetic levitation systems and earned her MSEE at the University of Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan) in 2009.
Once she finishes studying computer vision, Patterson has an entrepreneurial vision for her career: "My biggest goal is to discover a novel, marketable technology and start a consultancy," she says. "It would also be exciting to work in a place like Microsoft research or Toyota research. A lot of industrial research labs are integrating robotics and computer vision applications into our daily lives."
Brown offers a nurturing environment
Dr James Hays, computer science professor and Patterson's research advisor, claims that one of the best assets of Brown's computer science program is the nurturing atmosphere of the relatively small program.
"It's a different environment, which I think is better for students," explains Hays. "Students get more contact with the faculty, classes are likely to be small, and you'll probably know everybody in your program."
Adrienne Hairston: MBA at Tennessee State
A course in business information systems was one of the core requirements for Adrienne Hairston's masters at Tennessee State University (Nashville, TN). She received her MBA with a concentration in supply chain management in December 2011.
"Supply chain and IT meshed well because we need IT to help our jobs flow through quickly," explains Hairston. "I noticed that people who weren't familiar with IT principles often struggled."
Hairston worked full time at the Nashville, TN headquarters of Bridgestone Americas Holding while studying part time for her MBA. Now she's a member of the Bridgestone logistics and supply chain management division, working specifically with car manufacturers that supply Bridgestone tires as original equipment on their vehicles. Right now she's helping the company convert its computer system to SAP, a German-made business management software solution.
Hairston received her bachelors in industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech in 2004. Since resuming her schooling, she's been encouraging co-workers to go after grad degrees as well.
"When you're working at a company, you get a kind of tunnel vision," she observes. "You only keep up to date with what the company is doing. But once you start taking classes and interacting with people in different fields, it makes you more aware of your surroundings. I keep telling people that it's so relevant to know what's going on and where we're headed."
Tennessee State focuses on career prep
Dr Santosh Venkatraman, professor of business information systems (BIS), says Tennessee State places a strong emphasis on career preparation.
"The business information systems department has a technology advisory council of absolutely fantastic people from various businesses and organizations: Dell, Deloitte, Level3, Emma, Microsoft and more," Venkatraman says. "The BIS department works closely with this council to keep the curriculum current and help our students find great internship and job opportunities."
Edward Dillon: PhD in computer science at the University of Alabama
Edward Dillon is immersed in his dissertation research at the University of Alabama, (Tuscaloosa, AL). He's looking for better ways to teach novices how to do computer programming.
"I'm comparing visual programming environments to command-line programming environments to see which is more appropriate for teaching novices," says Dillon.
He notes that command-line programming has a higher learning curve. But that may not necessarily be a drawback.
"What I'm finding is that command-line programming may be more helpful in the end," he says. "It may take longer to learn, but novices seem to come away with a better understanding of the process."
Dillon is a Southern Regional Education Board scholar, and a past Fellow in the Bridge to the Doctorate program, part of the National Science Foundation's Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation. He hopes to finish his PhD in computer science in the summer of 2012. He earned his 2007 BA in computer information science at the University of Mississippi (Oxford, MS) and his 2009 MSCS at the University of Alabama.
U of Alabama prepares grad students for careers
Dr Susan Vrbsky, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Alabama, notes that the school's graduate program prepares students for a wide range of careers.
"Our students are working at places like Amazon, Google and Oracle, but are also teaching at universities like Loyola University Chicago and Eastern Carolina University," Vrbsky says. "Our PhD program has been structured to encourage students to get involved in research as soon as possible. It's very flexible. Our MS program lets students participate in research projects or take a course-only option."
One of the department's recent additions is a laboratory devoted to cluster and cloud computing, a special interest of Vrbsky's.
"The students have built a local private cloud called Fluffy, and a cluster called Sage that has ten nodes," Vrbsky says. "Clouds typically consume a lot of power to operate, so the students in my research group are designing strategies for clouds and clusters that conserve power."
Jennifer Williams: PhD in CS and artificial intelligence at Washington State
Jennifer Williams is majoring in computer science with a specialty in artificial intelligence (AI) at Washington State University (Pullman, WA). Her doctoral research takes her into the laboratories of the school's "smart homes" development program.
She's focusing on making homes safer for the elderly and injured veterans. Officially called Smart Environment Support to Assist the Elderly and People with Disabilities, the program is funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
"I'm looking at the mental health as well as the physical health of the person," Williams notes. "I want to be able to tell if someone is having a PTSD episode, for example. Is there any way that I can detect it from their actions? And if I can detect it, how do I alert someone to help them out of the situation?"
Williams also works on creating safety devices like sensors that trigger a stove to turn off automatically when motion detectors indicate that no one has been in the kitchen for a predetermined period.
"We're trying to help the machine take a data set we input, and learn to make predictions of what will happen next," Williams explains. "For example, we want the machine to predict that when the door opens and someone enters the house or room, that person will likely turn on the light."
Williams got a BS in computational mathematics and CS at Washington State in 2011. She expects to finish her PhD there around 2016.
Her courses in machine learning are among her favorites so far. This branch of AI, she explains, involves using algorithms to design computer systems that can improve their own performance in response to new data.
Williams is looking forward to taking some psychology classes in her second semester. "That will be interesting because I haven't done those before," she says.
Suzanna Schmeelk: MS in technology management at Polytechnic University of NYU
Suzanna Schmeelk already has BSCS and MSCS degrees, and a doctorate in mathematics education. Now she's pursuing an MS in management of technology with a certificate in cybersecurity at Polytechnic University of New York University (NYU-Poly, Brooklyn, NY).
The program involves learning how to integrate a company's technology with its management processes to create and achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. "Technology management" is "the process of building new business technology systems," explains Schmeelk, "either to start your own company or fix up a current company."
Another aspect of the technology manager's job is to decide when and how security specialists enter into the process.
"Just within the last five years, companies are really starting to consider that," notes Schmeelk. She has been a cybersecurity consultant for hospitals, gaming companies and other clients. "For so many developers, security hasn't really been a focus."
Schmeelk teaches two online courses in mathematics at the University of Maryland-College Park. As a math teacher, she's found that emphasizing procedure at the expense of innovation in problem solving can hamper learning. She says that's also true in the realm of cybersecurity.
"I like out-of-the-box thinking," she says. "You always have to think about the new attack vectors, and how they're going to plan a system attack."
Schmeelk recently started a fulltime job at the Florham Park, NJ facility of LGS Innovations (Herndon, VA), the successor to Bell Labs. While she acknowledges that her work schedule might slow her studies a bit, she still hopes to get her diploma in 2012.
Her 2001 BSCS is from the University of Richmond (Richmond, VA) and her 2004 MSCS is from the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA). She got her EdD in mathematics education from Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) in 2010.
At NYU-Poly, a third of the students in the management of technology program are women. Even so, Schmeelk has sometimes been the only woman in her classes. "That can be a great thing, or it can be harsh, because you don't have the community to discuss issues," she says. "But you learn to develop your own community, find resources and make it work."
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