STEM Spotlight: Technology With Human Sensibilities

Advice and news about careers, education, and business opportunities in science and technology

Gilbert is a professor in the division of human-centered computing at Clemson University.

How is this different from what other scientists and inventors do?
The idea behind the design of the voting machine is that we deal with people first. If you look at most disciplines they train in silos. They learn your discipline [only]. Computer science majors are taught how to build software and implement it, but computer science majors are not taught to design software that is more usable for people in a particular context. That is the big difference. We’ve seen, time and time again, where people build applications and software that is not very user-friendly or doesn’t satisfy a particular population. HCC is extremely interdisciplinary. You have to know people, technology, research, and experimentation. It integrates these things in a way that is unique. Typically you would need to hire three people to do what our graduates are being trained to do.

What types of careers are available for someone with an HCC degree?
You can be an academic or work in a research lab in the government or for a company. If you are a professor, you will teach a class, write grants, and do the same things that most professors do. But what is different from other professors is that your software and [inventions] will transfer into the real world. So you will have other obligations with respect to your inventions. You will probably meet with people from arts and science, philosophy, psychology, and engineering; so you are working with a broader scope of individuals on varied applied problems.

Are there jobs for HCC people in corporate America?
If you work in industry, then most likely, you are working on research and patents. HCC graduates can work anyplace that designs and builds things and wants to test them with people. There are implications for all kinds of industries–health, automotive, software, computer, internet, communications. You will either be the project lead and have a team that you are directing or you’ll be part of a team and receive the pieces of the puzzle. The one career that most people don’t think of is policy or  government. If you look at how technology impacts policy, you need competent people in the legislative process. Take for example the voting machine. Of course, there will be someone who designs it physically, someone to design the ergonomics of the machine, someone who designs the software and writes the code, but there needs to be a person [who knows the law]. They would say, according to our policy on voting, you have to have a ballot that looks this way and does this. HCC students are trained across all of those things so we get more bang for the buck. We can build graduates who are competent not only in the technology but also in the policy.

How would a college graduate know if this was an area they might like to pursue?
Our preliminary research has shown that women and minorities tend to work on applied or social disciplines. There are a large number of African Americans in education, for example, but not in science and STEM. Why is that? Minorities are often raised in an environment where we are told not to forget where we come from or who you are and to always help someone else. We tend to be attracted to social science careers because they are seen as helping professions. STEM professions are seen as disciplines used to work with phenomenon and artifacts. It is not seen as something that helps people. HCC unites the two. We are working on phenomenon and helping people.

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