Informatics major on the rise


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Every major field, from art to economics and geography or linguistics, hinges on data. And one major brings it all together: informatics.

The University of Iowa started the program in 2007, and since then, it has seen enrollment increase.

Alberto Segre, the chairman of the computer-science department, said informatics is an emerging field for today's generation of college students — that whatever area someone is interested in can be applied to the field, he said.

"Let's take advantage of that data to make contributions to that domain," Segre said. "If you are a data-driven guy or gal, then that is what you want."

In 2007, 21 students were enrolled in the program; by this fall, that number more than quadrupled to 94.

Informatics students focus on learning programing and data-management skills through computer-science courses, while gaining a deep understanding of another specific area of study — such as biology or geography — in which they can apply their computing skills.

"I think what it really gives you, is it sets you apart," said Kyle Kew, a UI informatics graduate who is now working for a web-development company in Cedar Rapids named Informatics Inc. "I went through the interviewing process, and once you describe to them what informatics is, that it is tech-based, working with people and analyzing data, I think it is easy to separate yourself apart from a normal computer-science background."

And Kew's employers agree.

"Informatics provides a unique vantage point between programming, user interface designs, and usability," said John Osako, the vice president of development for Informatics Inc. "A traditional computer scientist, while very effective, tends to focus on core programming, where informatics seems to be a good mix for all the backgrounds."

The program is not unique to Iowa.

Indiana University was the first school in the nation to offer the degree 10 years ago, and its program has seen an increase in interest as well.

"[The program] has been growing, in fact exploding," said Filippo Menczer, an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University, noting its 20 percent growth of enrollment in the last year.

"Hopefully, the news is spreading that there is a real need for graduates with technical skills. There are so many applications."

When Gustavo Corona graduated from the UI with an informatics degree and a specialization in geography in the fall of 2009, he had trouble finding work.

Corona's search ended at Cerner, a Kansas City-based health information company, and he said his degree has helped.

"The informatics degree, it gives you a broad sense of what technology is out there," he said.

And while the major does require computing skills and technical know-how, Segre said that potential students should not shy away if they have had no prior computing classes.

"Freshmen today who come in, they have their iPhone and laptop, even though they may be scared of computers, they use them every day," he said. "They are already technically quite literate, so it is not like they are starting from zero."

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