Montana State University

New degree options helps spread computer science across MSU

September 30, 2008 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


Derek Hammons (left) and Rick Fox are the first students in the new interdisciplinary computer science option. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Computer science students Rick Fox and Derek Hammons are the first of a new hybrid species at Montana State University. And no, it's not part of some gene-splicing experiment. These two seniors are splicing curriculums.

Fox and Hammons are the first two computer science students to enroll in the department's new interdisciplinary major option. The new option gives students the chance to apply their computer educations to problems in other fields by combining computer science with their academic minors.

The new interdisciplinary option reflects the ways computers intersect with almost every other field, said department head John Paxton.

"Computing is now pervasive in society, yet our old degree option prepared students to work in the traditional computing industry," Paxton said. "This option gives students the ability to pursue something else they're interested in while getting their degrees in computer science."

The department has renamed its traditional major to the "professional" option. Students opting for that path take more technical courses, whereas students in the new option complete a minor in any field and then create a special interdisciplinary project during their senior years.

Fox and Hammons, who are both minoring in Japan Studies, said they were attracted to the new option because it afforded them the chance to pursue two of their interests at the same time.

"A lot of the draw is being able to take some classes that are not necessarily related to computer science and apply CS to them," said Fox, a 2004 Helena High School graduate.

For their senior project, the pair plan to create an interactive computer program to help beginners learn the Japanese alphabet and grammar. Fox admitted that, while the program might not turn out to be the most sophisticated, it may be useful to people in the real world, which is the point of the interdisciplinary option.

In addition to allowing students to pursue their outside interests from within computer science, the new option will also help students see another field's computing needs from the inside. And that experience, Paxton said, will make MSU's computer science graduates even more valuable and employable.

"We're taking advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of computer science," Paxton said. "We're recognizing that computing can be relevant and of value to any student, regardless of their outside interests."

After just a few weeks in the new option, Hammons, a native of Troy, Mont., predicted the number of students enrolled in the option will grow quite a bit in the next few years, considering the number of computer science students who he's heard talking about the new program.

"If you're looking for something that's a little bit different than your normal CS, then this is a good choice," Hammons said.

Contact: John Paxton at 406-994-4780 or paxton@cs.montana.edu.