Technologies that once seemed stunningly new are now getting their own degree programs at universities, showing how truly mainstream they’ve become. If you want to specialize in virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), for example, there’s a major for that. And if you want to learn “ethical hacking,” you can get a degree in cybersecurity management.
Meanwhile, some universities offer tech-oriented degrees in departments you wouldn’t expect, such as the philosophy department. Here’s our take on four cool, tech-oriented college degrees:
A Real Degree in Immersive Reality
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are becoming a key part of industries such as retail and entertainment, and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD; in Savannah, Georgia) now has a bachelor's of fine arts in immersive reality to prepare students for these technologies. The major includes courses in AR and VR.
SCAD has a building, known as the Shed, to help students test concepts and learn AR/VR principles. Courses include “Immersive Revolution: Augmented to Virtual Reality” and “Virtual Reality for Motion Media.”
“Almost every industry is being affected by AR and VR like design and marketing communications,” said Max Almy, dean of the School of Digital Media at SCAD. “There are so many ways. It’s almost endless.”
Almy launched the bachelor’s of fine arts program at SCAD in fall 2018. Virtual interactivity and programming, particularly gaming, are key parts of the program; students are trained in using the game development tools Unity and Unreal.
As part of the immersive reality program, students build theme park experiences, musical films in VR, and 10-week projects with companies such as L’Oréal. In addition, some students take on cinematic projects with Industrial Light & Magic. Other people from the immersive reality program have gone on to the medical field and “VR for good,” Almy said.
Other educational institutions such as Drexel University in Philadelphia also offer programs in immersive reality. Drexel’s program includes courses in AR, VR, 3-D modeling, and CGI texturing and lighting.
At the University of Kentucky, students can get a master’s degree in digital mapping (also called “New Maps Plus”). The University of Kentucky launched an online digital mapping degree in fall 2015 to provide training to students in geographical systems.
The course teaches free and open source graphical informational systems. There are a lot of standards to learn as geospatial technologies become more sophisticated, according to Matthew Wilson, director of the graduate program and associate professor of geography at the University of Kentucky.
“People who work in government or private industry often have the need for processing and analyzing geospatial data,” Wilson said, referring to people who operate in a military or intelligence capacity. “Increasingly… geographers are called on to provide a sophisticated analysis of datasets.”
The digital mapping classes include lessons in photogrammetry, which involves obtaining information about physical objects through photographic images and electromagnetic radiant imagery patterns.
Digital mapping technology helps students prepare for future jobs in the planning departments of government agencies, communications agencies and geopolitical strategy firms; designing censuses is a good example of a project. Students at the University of Kentucky have moved on to work in the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
“The world runs on geographic knowledge,” Wilson said. People use photogrammetry to build parks, roads and bike networks.
One student, Maria Horn, who earned her master’s of science in digital mapping from the University of Kentucky, received a North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) Student Dynamic Map Competition honor recently in Tacoma, Washington. NACIS promotes innovation in interactive cartography.
Horn said she enjoys the ability to work with the interaction of colors, pop-ups and bars “to manipulate data and make it come to life.” She found the digital mapping program helpful for people who have no GIS or coding experience and need the flexibility to attend school while keeping a full-time job.
“Mapping for me is not only the representation of data,” Horn said. “It is an art both entwined to make a product with good and credible data and, a beautiful and meaningful illustration.”
Meanwhile, the Spatial Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California offers a similar master’s degree in geographic information systems and technology. It provides courses in web and mobile GIS applications, spatial analysis, and cartography.
Cybersecurity and Ethical Hacking
With data breaches a continuing threat to organizations, universities are devoting full degree programs to cybersecurity. And at Purdue University Global, the online division started in 2018 by the Indiana-based university, the cybersecurity management degree includes courses in ethical hacking, which involves hacking into a system so that you can patch vulnerabilities before real hacking occurs.
Also known as “white hats,” ethical hackers are driven to break into companies’ networks to find gaps and then plug holes. With Purdue Global's master’s of science in cybersecurity management, students learn about cybersecurity strategy and policy, and take additional classes in ethical hacking.
A key part of the ethical hacking courses is hands-on lab training, noted Purdue University Global Professor Dr. Rhonda Chicone, who teaches IT and cybersecurity courses and creates the course lineup for the master’s degree in cybersecurity management. Although there is lab training, the actual course is online. A program consists of a one-hour lecture as well as discussion topics and written assignments.
“We want [students] to understand the motivation that the bad actor has, and we want them to be able to have those same skillsets,” Chicone said. “We have a web-based application, and then you do testing to look for injections and cross-scripting so you understand what a hacker would do. You find that weakness and exploit that weakness.”
The students in the cybersecurity management courses also work with Kali Linux, a Linux distribution for digital forensics and penetration testing, and Metasploit, a penetration testing framework, as well as other open-source tools. Purdue Global tries to keep the courses up-to-date and takes pride in the ability to change the classes when necessary, Chicone added: “If we see a class needs to change for whatever reason, we can jump in and get that done… The goal with that is to help students get a great job.”
Robert Jones is a program director for the Intelligence and Operations Support (IoS) division of ManTech, a company that provides IT solutions to U.S. defense, intelligence and federal civilian agencies. He’s also currently taking a master’s program in cybersecurity management at Purdue Global.
Jones said that, upon beginning the cybersecurity management program, he was immediately able to put his skills to work at his job. Although he has yet to take the ethical hacking course, he has found the program’s analytics classes useful. The first analytics course was general, but the second one involved identifying threats.
“When it comes to the internet and the Dark Web, you’re boiling off all unusable information to concentrate only on the information you’re looking for,” Jones said. “You can determine if your company or organization is being targeted.”
Another school that is strong in cybersecurity is Northeastern University in Boston. It offers bachelor’s, masters, and doctoral programs in cybersecurity, and the school includes training in ethical hacking (in fact, one course is titled “Cyberlaw, Privacy, Ethics and Digital Rights”).
Logic and Computation
Another fascinating major is Logic and Computation; Carnegie Mellon University offers the program as part of its Philosophy department (!). Logic skills translate into jobs in computer science, cognitive science, and business analysis.
“We’re not a typical philosophy department,” said Adam Bjorndahl, a CMU associate professor in philosophy who teaches course in logic and gaming decision theory. “CMU is an interdisciplinary university.”
The computation aspects of the program incorporate computer science, statistics, and mathematics. The Logic and Computation program is valuable to students as they build their tech careers because a lot of work in tech is around data models. “Logic and computation at CMU gives you the ability to understand the internal workings of those models for decision making inference, machine learning or natural language processing,” Bjorndahl said. “Rather than just using the models, you can actually question whether they’re the appropriate models.”
For example, the logic could be applied to figuring out the best decisions for autonomous vehicles in transit, Bjorndahl suggested. These decisions include when to slow down or speed up.
“It’s the mindset of looking at the foundations of different models,” Bjorndahl explained. “That opens up whole new worlds of development.”
Learning about the theory underlying the tools is valuable, according to Joel Smith, distinguished career teaching professor in the Philosophy department at CMU. “The tools are computer programming, statistical analysis and mathematical modeling — things that are valuable to tech companies.”
Sarah Duncan, a data engineer at The New York Times, completed the CMU program in May 2017. As a software engineer, Duncan found the philosophical aspects of the degree helpful.
“Working as a software engineer involves challenging assumptions and coming up with creative solutions,” Duncan said. “Approaching technology from a philosophical perspective teaches this through exposure to various schools of thought. By recognizing that the foundations of what we know are explained differently depending on who is asked, growing engineers learn to take a step back and acknowledge that there are numerous ways to solve the problem at hand.”
The problem-solving skills in the logic and computation classes proved valuable to Duncan’s current work at The Times.
“The tenacity and creativity in problem-solving that I learned from my classes is such a critical part of what I do now,” Duncan said. “I often describe working in data as very similar to the proofs I used to write in my logic classes. I'm given the start and end points and it’s my job to find a path in-between.”
You’ll also find a logic curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania. The “Logic, Information, and Computation” undergraduate degree prepares students for careers in areas such as computer security, networking, database technology and software engineering.