October 20, 2005

Info Science Blends Design, Technology

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From cell phones to PDAs, wireless Internet to iPods, technology has changed the way humans communicate, play and understand their world. For students looking to understand technology’s broader social implications, Cornell now has a new undergraduate major and Ph.D. program in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences: Information Science (I.S.).

I.S. looks at the uses of computing and the way information systems affect society’s culture, economy, law, government and research. The major focuses on how people interact with information systems, how these systems are designed and the effects of these systems on the world.

Prof. David Shymos, co-director of the Information Science, Systems and Technology (ISST) undergraduate major in the College of Engineering, said that compared to computer science, information science focuses “less on ‘what’s under the hood’ and [more] on the aspects of the material that puts things in the context of how these tools are applied.”

While a minor in I.S. has been available in all seven colleges since 2002, the first five students graduated with the new major just last spring. This year, there are 50 undergraduate information science majors and 69 minors.

To understand the different aspects of the I.S. major it is helpful to look at the search engine Google, said Prof. David Williamson, operations research and industrial engineering and the director of undergraduate studies for the I.S. major in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

I.S. would first examine how Google’s user interface is designed and what makes it easy to use. It would also study the types of technology required to make Google easily find the information the user is searching for. Finally, I.S. would evaluate the social and political effects of Google, as well as its interaction with copyright law.

While there are overlaps between the computer science and I.S., the two majors differ with regard to their purpose. The computer science major focuses on the technology and theory required to build computer systems, while information science emphasizes the use and social implications of these systems.

“It’s a bit like the difference between learning how to build a space shuttle and learning how to fly one,” Williamson said.

I.S. majors in Arts and CALS must take 11 core courses in computer science, programming, math and statistics. They must then complete courses in at least two of three tracks: human-centered systems, information systems or social systems. In Engineering, students major in ISST and then concentrate in either the management science or information science options. In addition to the subject areas required for the majors in Arts and CALS, students are required to take courses in operations research.

Many students majoring in I.S. were former computer science majors.

Former prospective computer science major Ross Housewright ’05 was one of the first students at Cornell to sign up for the new I.S. major. Although he had taken many computer science classes during his first two years at Cornell, he “never really felt at home.”

“I’m very interested in computers but came to realize that I was more interested in how computers worked with people and society than just in how computers worked on their own,” he said. He switched to I.S. and took socially-oriented classes in internet policy and law, communication and economics.

Housewright is now in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley to obtain his Masters in information management and systems. He hopes to work on information policy to protect consumer interests.

“My background at Cornell has, I think, prepared me for this very well. The classes I have taken and the research I have participated in, the connections I have made through Cornell IS will, I am sure, help me with these plans,” he said.

Kaitlin Gee ’08 also came to Cornell as a computer science major, but became frustrated with writing code.

“I have [no need] to write a compiler, I just want to use one that works,” she said.

She switched to I.S. because she wanted “[a major] that would apply technology rather than create it.”

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer