Monday, July 24

Austin Pink: UCLA needs more STEM-related minors to prepare students for workforce

Last month, as UCLA graduates bid their farewells, the administration was already looking ahead, making frantic preparations for the incoming class of more than 6,000 freshmen. Per tradition, several hundred of these fresh-faced students will arrive without any intended course of study – the dreaded “undeclared.”

Luckily, with the creation of three new minors in the past year, these students will be able to choose from more than 215 major and minor programs from one of the most comprehensive academic curriculums in the country – at least, that’s how the sales pitch usually goes. The truth, however, is this alleged diversity of curricula may just be an illusion.

UCLA’s minors are a collection of redundant programs. For example, there are minors such as Russian language and Russian literature, which have students take many of the same classes and are effectively mild derivatives of each other. Meanwhile, the entire engineering department only offers one minor program: environmental engineering.

Clearly, there are vacancies in the academic curricula.

UCLA severely lacks minors in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. To ensure academic diversity and career preparation for its students, the university should introduce more career-oriented math and engineering minors, such as a computer science and data science minor, to enrich students’ learning experiences and improve their job prospects.

UCLA currently offers no minor program that allows undergraduates to learn extensively about computer programming. Yet, regardless of a student’s field, coding is one of the most essential skills in the modern economy. Academics and professionals in social sciences and humanities – even the arts – are increasingly integrating computer science principles into their work.

According to Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, 70 percent of jobs now require medium to high levels of computational knowledge, while 62 percent require computer skills. Similarly, studies done by and Fortune Magazine highlight more than 600,000 open jobs in computing. Yet less than 43,000 computer science students in the U.S. graduated in 2016.

UCLA’s lack of a computer science minor is a grave oversight. Certainly, such a minor wouldn’t grant qualification to become a software engineer, but technical literacy is still clearly relevant to several professions. A computer science minor would provide non-computer science students an opportunity to take programming classes in a structured environment and could greatly improve career prospects for many students.

Another potential option for a new STEM minor is data science. A study by IBM predicted that demand for data scientists will increase 15 percent by 2020. A data science minor would also be a valuable complement to any major, as many fields are increasingly reliant on the analysis of large sums of data. Though data science skills are taught through majors such as statistics and economics, a minor program would give an opportunity to interested parties from all departments – one of the points of a minor program, after all.

And UCLA would be in good company if it introduced these STEM-related minors. UC Berkeley offers 10 minors through its engineering department. These include electrical engineering and computer sciences, energy engineering and industrial operations, to name a few. UC San Diego offers a similarly wide variety of STEM minors, such as computer science, computer engineering and engineering mechanics. There’s no reason UCLA shouldn’t offer these programs as well if it wants to stay competitive in the academic community.

Of course, it’s easy to question the practicality of adding these new programs considering the complicated bureaucracy of public education. However, UCLA Extension provides a unique resource to help facilitate these changes. UCLA Extension offers certificates in specialized STEM areas for people already in the workforce. Among its programs are web development, UX design and data science. These courses are meant to directly increase the qualifications and competitiveness of current workers, as the certificates offered are intensive and highly organized, and complement someone’s existing education and experience.

UCLA could use these certificate programs as outlines for implementing undergraduate minors in similar subject areas.

And sure, UCLA is not a trade school, and minor programs in particular technical skills might seem to resemble guild-like training. But math and computer science skills are becoming essential in today’s job market. Rather than rely on self-study, students arriving at UCLA should be able to get marketable training in these relevant fields – training that is essential to many fields, not just select careers.

Otherwise, UCLA’s curriculum will be in danger of losing its direction and falling behind, and UCLA’s incoming students may quickly follow suit.

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