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Preparing to do HCI (#1052)

Topics/tags: For prospective students

The other day, a prospective student emailed me to ask what one should do at Grinnell if they wanted to consider a career in HCI, Design, or VR. In their message, they asked about independent majors and our 3-2 program. With that student’s permission, I am passing along a slightly modified version of my response.

Admissions sent along your question about Human-Computer Interaction. As a faculty member in Computer Science and Technology Studies [1], as well as one who has had a variety of students participate in the 3-2 Program (most frequently with Columbia or Washington University), I might be able to provide some commentary.

Most importantly, your undergraduate major does not have to precisely match your career, or even come close. We have CS who are now helicopter pilots, professional comedians, fundraisers, medical personnel, and more. (We also have a lot of non-CS majors who do CS professions.) The graduates I know who do HCI most frequently had either CS or Psychology undergraduate majors, but I also know an Econ graduate who runs a successful design thinking consultancy. On a different note, my middle son, who is graduating this year with a degree in Music and Chemistry, helped design and construct the College’s Maker Space.

A 3-2 program is probably not the way to go. 3-2 programs are generally geared towards people who are going to do more traditional engineering disciplines, like EECE or Mechanical Engineering. Most programs expect you to do a lot of science (particularly Physics and Math, but also Chemistry) during the three years at your liberal arts college, which doesn’t give you the freedom to take the courses that would probably better prepare you for the breadth of thought you want in design and HCI.

An independent major is something to consider. If you were planning an HCI independent major, I’d want to see a combination of CS, Art, Theatre, and Psychology, among other things. The Physics department’s Electronics class would also be another good thing. But part of the idea of an independent major at Grinnell is that it’s the student’s job to put together an appropriate major, working in conjunction with his/her/zir/their advisors.

You could also consider a double major. Those are fairly common. We tend to graduate about two or three CS/Studio Art majors each year, one or two CS/Theatre majors, and maybe one Psych/CS major each year. We also graduate CS/Econ, CS/Math, CS/Chinese, CS/Philosophy, and a bunch more. I just listed the ones most relevant to what you are thinking.

And, of course, a single major in a related (or unrelated) field can also suffice. As I said at the beginning, your major is not your career. I’d think more about the other issues at play: How courses help you understand the other (since you should be designing for people who don’t think like you), how they prepare you to communicate in written, spoken, and visual forms, how they challenge you to think outside the box, things like that. And I’d think beyond courses: What kinds of people will you spend your four years with (fellow students, faculty, staff, etc.)? What co-curricular and extra-curricular activities are available?

As I read your message again, I realize that you said HCI/Virtual Reality. I think of those as different areas, which returns me to the idea that your major need not be tied directly to your career. Two alums who have been particularly successful in VR (or maybe AR) are Robert Gehorsam ’76 and Rachel (Heck) Rose ’01. Robert graduated with an English major and is an advisor to early stage companies in digital media, ed-tech, games, Internet of Things and related fields. I think he led Sony Online Entertainment for a bit. Rachel came to Grinnell planning to be a lawyer, graduated with a CS degree (although I would have sworn she did both CS and English), and is now at ILM and has won a technical Oscar for her behind-the-scenes work on various Star Wars things. I think she currently serves as one of the leads on the not-green-screen technology ILM currently uses (which I think of as VR-ish).

In any case, I hope that this message helped you think about some of the issues at play.

Good luck on your college choice. I know it’s always a challenge, and it’s even more so this year.

In our follow-up conversation, I suggested that they also consider Sociology, so that they can understand the other through multiple lenses. One of the most important issues in interface design is that too many technologists design interfaces based on what they like, rather than what they understand about others. I reminded them that a lot of interface design is about storytelling, which is why I suggested theatre [6]. And we talked about the importance of communicating clearly, which suggests to me that they consider at least a literary analysis course and one of the craft-of-x classes. And I was happy to hear that they were already studying a second language and were willing to continue to do so. Understanding a different culture is important for all students, but particularly for UI designers [7]. I forgot to mention the value of i18n [8], but perhaps it’s implicit.

We also talked about the various VR activities on campus, including GCIEL and the student VR club [9].

Postscript: Some time in the near future, I will likely write a very different musing with the same title. Why? Because I have to prepare to teach our HCI course in the spring. I hope that Janet will be able to share some of her old materials!

[1] I did not mention that the Technology Studies concentration has been replaced by a concentration Science, Medicine, and Society [2] and another one entitled Digital Studies that, from my perspective, looks a lot like an expanded digital humanities program [5].

[2] That name feels so short. I also worry about the SMS acronym, since SMS already has a meaning. And I’m sad that Technology is no longer explicitly part of the concentration. Of course, the issues that created the technology studies concentration may no longer be at play [3].

[3] If I recall correctly, the goal was to get humanities folks to spend more time thinking about science. These days, our goal should be to get more science folks studying the humanities and social studies [4].

[4] Actually, most Grinnell science students are pretty good at exploring areas outside of the sciences. But it never hurts to further expand their worldviews.

[5] At least that’s what I remember.

[6] I also mentioned Brenda Laurel’s famous text.

[7] Yay internationalization!

[8] i18n is the shorthand way to write internationalization, at least in some of the computing circles I inhabit. Why? Because there are eighteen letters between the i and the n.

[9] Does it have a name?

Version 1.0 of 2020-04-18.