Computational media’s tri-college curriculum

Computational media combines multiple disciplines. Fischer’s modeling project above is named “Buzz Goes to Class.” // Photo courtesy of Lauren Fischer

Often received with perplexed looks and blank stares, Computational Media (CM) is one of the smallest and unknown majors at Tech. With only 211 students total, CM makes up only a little over one percent of the entire undergraduate student body.

Despite the major’s small size, CM majors are enrolled under three colleges — College of Computing, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and the School of Music within the College of Design —making the major uniquely multifaceted yet hard to define.

“I think CM is one of the best kept secrets at Tech,” said Wes Kirkbride, Assistant Director of Academic Advising. “It’s a discipline that bridges the gap between computer science, liberal arts and, as of recently, music technology, which is pretty exciting.”

CM students pick two pathways of study, known as “threads”, one in CS and the other in either LMC or Music Technology, which allows students to take classes and learn skills that cater to their specific interest or desired career path.

DeLauryn Brown, fifth-year CM, is interested in pursuing UI/UX [User Interface/User Experience] design and taking classes through her People and Interaction Design threads has given her the opportunity to build a portfolio of projects and learn essential skills relative to the industry.

“My teacher for LMC 3710 Principles of Interaction Design was a PhD student who had done UX research at Google and other big tech companies, so our first project was based on what he had done in real life at Google,” Brown said. “He took first-hand knowledge from being in the industry and implemented it into class.”

This valuable experience of a real practical project has helped Brown learn how to discuss work in the CM field.

“Now I have a industry-relative project in my portfolio that I can talk about from start to finish, along with all of these different skills that I’ve learned because of that,” Brown said.

However, because of the major’s coursework being split between three colleges and few CM-specific courses available, an identity crisis has emerged among CM students about where they belong and what their degree means.

For instance, CM students are designated as part of Ivan Allen in DegreeWorks, but the College of Computing plays a large role in the CM Ambassadors organization, strengthening its support for CM students.

“There was a time when I would have definitely preferred to be under the College of Computing, just because of how big it is and the prestigious reputation behind it and how many resources there are, so I was a little let down,” Brown said.

Brown has had to consider this perception of both colleges and how it relates to being a CM major.

“I had to evaluate and after unpacking that a little I realized I was feeling that way simply because of internalized stigma against liberal arts. Now I’m past that and am proud to be part of the Ivan Allen College,” Brown said.

Clark Mahaffey, second-year CM, is used to being one of the only CM majors in his classes.

“CM is almost always the minority,” Mahaffey said. “There are times when you’re in a class with people, like it’s an LMC class that’s full of LMC and CM people, and you get to explore that creative side of your ‘personality’ or major or whatever, and then there are classes you take where there are CS and CM people, and you have to switch gears and think about just CS-related stuff. There aren’t many classes that give us a space to just be both.”

Lauren Fischer, third-year CM, agrees with both Mahaffey and Brown’s sense of being part of multiple colleges and lack of a strong academic community for CM students.

“Being a CM major is like being a little ghost running around on campus,” Fischer said. “We’re in so many of the same classes as the other majors, particularly CS, but there’s so few of us, so we’re still kind of under the radar.”

CM students have passions in both the liberal arts and STEM, with aspirations that crossover into both, so pursuing either CS or LMC alone while sacrificing the other is not enough.

Fischer first came to Tech as a CS major.

After coming across CM at FASET, she knew she had to make the switch.

“I’d really like to go into the animation industry, exactly where is still a question, but hopefully something to do with rigging or being a technical director, which is kind of a liaison between the artistic department and the people who are doing the programming side of things,” Fischer said.

Outside of animation, Fischer recognizes the importance of having both people skills.

“You not only get to code, but you also get the side of how to deal with people,” Fischer said. “…Even if you’re just staring at code all day or doing backend development, you’re still having to work with and understand people.”

Besides emphasizing communication, the CM program values thinking in the context of society.

“CM does a really good job of letting you have not only a more artistic side where you get to be creative making things like video games and animation, but you also learn about different cultural values and about people and society in general,” Fischer said. “It’s nice to not only know what you’re doing technically, but also know how to interact with people and communicate effectively to anyone.”