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Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Hays is First Student to Major in New Interdisciplinary Computing Program

Published on September 16th, 2011 by Michelle Ward

With a simple change of major form, Grant Hays became the first student to major in the new interdisciplinary computing program at the University of Kansas. But the decision to switch was not quite as easy as the paperwork.

The Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Computing (BSIC) degree combines computer science with one of five fields of study: astronomy, biology, chemistry, geography or physics. By gaining expertise in both areas, BSIC graduates caGrant Hays with School of Engineering Associate Dean Rob Sorem, EECS  Chair Glenn Prescott, and EECS Professor Arvin Agahn tailor tools and applications to meet the specific needs of researchers in that field.

In some ways, Hays feels like he is making up for lost time. He moved to Lawrence to play music after graduating from South High School in Salina in 2002. Lawrence offered the best live music scene in the state, and Hays wanted to be a part of it. But after spending nearly a decade singing in punk rock bands and working in restaurants, Hays wanted something more secure.

“I had been working behind grills and in warehouses, jobs I had no desire to do, just to get by. While I had always wanted to go to KU, I didn’t really have the drive to figure out how until I met my fiancée. When we started talking seriously about our future, we knew it was time for us both to get our degrees,” said Hays, an EECS junior.

Hays enjoyed math and problem solving, which led him to computer science, but he was not sure what he was going to do with his degree. He wanted to use his knowledge and skills in computer science to address real-world problems. Understanding how nature works fascinated Hays. He loved his physics courses but was not sure how he could blend physics and computer science. Then the BSIC program was announced, giving him the ability to develop data collection and analysis, simulations and other computational tools for complex problems in physics.

But he was worried he was trading a sure thing in computer science, which is projected to be among the fastest growing occupations in the next decade, for an unchartered career path.  Before making the switch, Hays had numerous conversations with EECS Professor and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies David Petr and School of Engineering Career Services Director Cathy Schwabauer about career opportunities. Dr. Petr assured him the heavy-dose of computer science courses would prepare him for any type of CS job. The multidisciplinary expertise will give Hays a valuable skill set that will be sought after by government agencies and research organizations.

“I spend most of my free time reading books by physicists, such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. I thought about minoring in physics but it would have been a lot to take on while majoring in computer science. When I read about the introduction of interdisciplinary computing, I was really excited. It was the perfect balance of computer science and physics. I gave it careful consideration and talked with Professors Petr, [Arvin] Agah and [Phillip] Barringer, Cathy and my fiancée. I finally decided I was going to go for it,” Hays said.

“We see a lot of people hiring computer scientists to write code for them to achieve what they want in their area, but then they have to teach them chemistry, physics or astronomy, whatever the specialized area is,” said Dr. Agah, who led the BSIC proposal effort. “Through this program, Grant will have the computing capabilities to build and run these models — and the physics background as well.”

KU is the first university in the Big 12, and one of just a handful in the nation, to offer a degree in interdisciplinary computing. Although students initially have options to pair with one of five fields of study, other programs can be added as more interdisciplinary partnerships are formed on campus.

Dr. Petr is the point of contact for students interested in detailed information about the BSIC degree program.