By Frank DeSanto
Sep 03, 2008
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—University of Michigan undergraduates have a new major on their list of choices, one highly relevant in this age: Informatics.
Informatics is the study of information and the ways people and social systems use it. Experts in this field design information technology tools for scientific, business, and cultural needs, and study how such tools are used. Informatics specialists, for example, might help develop the systems that let doctors quickly share medical records with a specialist while still ensuring patient privacy.
Approved this past spring, informatics is a joint program of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; the College of Engineering; and the School of Information. The three U-M schools spent nearly two years collaborating on its development.
"Our students will be leaders in an information-centric world," said professor Martha Pollack, dean of the School of Information. "Whereas biology majors are experts in living organisms, informatics majors will be experts in information in all its forms."
"Tremendous progress in computer science and communications is radically changing the way we do medical science, share and retrieve information, access services, and form communities," said professor Farnam Jahanian, chair of Computer Science and Engineering. "Informatics students will apply principles from computer science, statistics, and user-centered design to provide the expertise needed to shape these changes."
Key to the new concentration is its bringing together of both technological and social perspectives to study information. U-M's cross-disciplinary approach gives students a solid grounding in computer science, mathematics, and statistics, combined with study of the ethical and social science dimensions of complex information systems.
"To understand how information technology interacts with social systems, you need to know something about both," said associate professor of information Paul Conway, chair of the new program's steering committee. "Our students explore the ways information and information technology are embedded in society, influencing our economic, political, and cultural systems."
After completing a common set of core courses, informatics students choose one of four concentration tracks:
- Computational informatics, in which they design and evaluate usable computing solutions;
- Information analysis, in which they analyze and visualize massive datasets;
- Life science informatics, in which they apply computation and statistics to problems in life science and biomedical research; or
- Social computing, in which they build and evaluate social software applications and study the influences of these systems on society.
"I saw it as an exciting opportunity to learn about issues that affect contemporary society," said junior Lisa Ferro, the first U-M student to declare the new informatics concentration. "I believe that studying the relationship between information and individuals will lead to ways that we can improve that interaction in the future."
Informatics graduates will be positioned to meet the rapidly growing need for professionals who have not only first-class technology skills but also the larger, humanistic view that will help them develop and deploy that technology to serve human needs. They will also be strong candidates for graduate programs across a range of fields.
Support for the development and launch of the informatics major was provided by grants from President Mary Sue Coleman's Multidisciplinary Learning and Team Teaching and Ethics in Public Life initiatives.