Rethinking Graduate STEM Education to Support Workforce Needs
Concurrent Session 2
Applied graduate STEM degrees are an opportunity, particularly for teaching-focused institutions, to support workforce needs for qualified STEM workers. Learn how our non-traditional applied Computer Science program addresses the demand for skilled IT workers through an innovative curriculum that capitalizes on the online model to prepare students for the workforce.
Applied master's-level graduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) degrees are an opportunity, particularly for teaching-focused institutions, to support workforce needs for qualified STEM workers. Traditional graduate STEM programs serve an important and essential role in advancing the science and the discipline through research and in preparing future researchers. Yet, rethinking traditional approaches to graduate STEM education with the primary aim of meeting workforce needs can lead to innovative and focused programs that offer opportunities for learners who are not interested in pursuing academic careers to seek new career paths, advance their careers, and also support economic growth and development.
This idea is what led us to develop a fully online Master of Science in Applied Computer Science at the University of West Georgia. Our institution’s mission includes a strong commitment to professional preparation and service to the region as an engine of economic growth. We engaged with and sought input from local businesses and economic development state entities in Georgia including our local Chamber of Commerce. This collaboration was supported by the Carroll Tomorrow Project and has resulted in a professional, career-focused graduate program that serves as one of the educational cornerstones for economic development in the west Georgia region. In developing the program, we also wanted to build on the strengths of our existing undergraduate program and the skillset of our faculty. Our undergraduate B.S. in Computer Science program, accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commision of ABET, already had a strong applied aspect with a focus on software development. Building on this foundation, we designed an applied graduate program to prepare college graduates to enter the workforce as software developers. The program is also designed as a professional terminal degree, rather than academic preparation leading to pursuit of a doctoral degree.
Several aspects of our program uniquely differentiate it from traditional programs. To support professional preparation and students seeking career change and/or advancement, the program admits students with an undergraduate degree from any discipline, rather than expecting students to have an undergraduate degree in computer science. The curriculum is applied and practically-focused in nature, and is designed to enable students to rapidly acquire basic foundational knowledge and skills in computer science during the first semester in the program. It includes four major knowledge areas that are covered in two-semester sequences: program construction, web technologies, software development, and database systems. Approaching the curriculum from this perspective provides a learning experience where students apply skills in these knowledge areas through practical and real-world assignments and projects, rather than focusing on theory and discrete artifacts. Where appropriate and needed, “just-in-time” coverage of theoretical concepts may be used to support and supplement applied knowledge and skills.
The curriculum also includes two project courses, which are used as milestones for students to demonstrate their ability to integrate individual knowledge areas they have learned with teamwork skills in the completion of group software projects. The first project course occurs at the end of the first year, and the second is completed in the student’s last semester and serves as the final “capstone” project. As milestones, the project courses also serve as direct assessments of students’ achievement of the program learning outcomes.
The program is structured around a cohort model so that students progress through the curriculum as a group, maintaining a sense of community and participating in group work as a member of a team. This team focus is integral to the curriculum and is especially important in preparing students for software development jobs that will require solid teamwork skills. Policy and prerequisites require students to follow a specific path through the curriculum and complete the program in a timely manner. This approach is meant to ensure students remain focused, do not fall behind, and ensure their educational experience is cohesive within the cohort and the entire program.
Lastly, the program is 100% online. However, for our program the online model is not only a delivery method, it is also integral to the curriculum, the student’s educational experience, and to achieving the goal of workforce preparation. The faculty provide a guided & highly structured learning experience (i.e., tutorials, activities, and evaluation) but in a way that emphasizes self-teaching; that is, students are encouraged to explore and apply acquired knowledge and skills, and expected to be proactive in engaging in the learning process to synthesize information from a variety of sources and in a variety of forms (e.g., prepared course material, Internet, books, etc.) both independently and with other members of their cohort where appropriate. We believe this approach of emphasizing continuous self-learning and exploration to be integral to students ability to succeed and adapt as software developers in a discipline and industry that is constantly changing.
Our goals for this presentation are to share our approach and experience in designing and delivering a non-traditional applied graduate STEM program to support workforce needs. We eagerly seek input, feedback, and suggestions from session participants on our ideas and practices and look forward to learning about related experiences in other disciplines.