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UW-Eau Claire's IS program helps fill industry need

December 20, 2012
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Project-based courses using community partners as clients are an integral part of UW-Eau Claire's information systems curriculum. Above, UW-Eau Claire junior information systems major Shane Meunier, junior accounting major Kristine Berger and December actuarial science graduate Tzyy Ren Wong worked on an information systems class project during the fall semester developing a scheduling system for the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. The student seated is Nicole Lindberg, a senior management major who works at the museum.

EAU CLAIRE — Since the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's information systems department revamped its academic programs in 2006, it has become a leader in the Upper Midwest in supplying IS graduates to companies in the region and beyond.

The demand for qualified candidates in the information systems field is growing at a rapid pace, and businesses and organizations in Wisconsin and around the country are looking to colleges to provide them with well-trained and well-rounded IS graduates, said Dr. Thomas Hilton, chair of UW-Eau Claire's information systems department.

"IS-related jobs are, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, among the most in-demand in the U.S. economy," Hilton said. "Companies are so desperate for talent that they've begun to ship IS jobs overseas and import international information workers."

Information systems is defined as the study of how technology can be used to solve business problems and create new business opportunities. It is essentially a management discipline, Hilton said.

"It's about people first, technology second," he said. "This is primarily what distinguishes it from computer science. It's about helping people get their work done with the help of computers."

The biggest change to UW-Eau Claire's IS program six years ago was the introduction of two emphases within the major: business analysis and systems development.

"This has made entry into the IS field available to students whose aptitudes or interests lie along less technical lines," Hilton said. "As a result, many students who would not have chosen an IS major have been able to start fulfilling careers that are economically and socially significant."

Hilton said the number of IS majors at UW-Eau Claire has grown by about 65 percent since the two emphases were introduced, resulting in 212 current majors. Minors have grown by more than 500 percent (up to 68 minors).

Dr. Jean Pratt, associate professor of information systems, said the development of the two emphases is among the main factors that position UW-Eau Claire's students as leading recruits for information systems internships and employment.

"While other programs focus on either the management and design of information systems or the technical development of information systems — to the detriment of the other — UW-Eau Claire's program recognizes and addresses the importance of both," Pratt said. "It is a given that all of our students graduate with a strong repertoire of design and technical skills; they obtain requisite knowledge and skills through a core set of classes. The two emphases, which build on the information systems core, enable students to specialize their educational preparation by taking more advanced design and management courses or advanced programming courses."

Mark Hosmann, a 1996 UW-Eau Claire graduate in management information systems (the IS program's name prior to 2006), said the program changes were significant in terms of addressing needs identified by both UW-Eau Claire and business.

"By offering both technical and business analyst tracks, students are able to focus their efforts but still gain the necessary breadth and depth of IS through the program's core," Hosmann said.

Hosmann, human resources manager for global strategic initiatives at Cargill Inc., is a member of the UW-Eau Claire College of Business IS Industry Advisory Committee.

"Committee members from industry report on the trends they see in the business world, and faculty committee members discuss possible changes to the curriculum to adapt to ongoing trends," Pratt said. "The recent SAP initiative in the College of Business is one example."

Earlier this year, UW-Eau Claire joined the few universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota that offer students hands-on experience with software and resources from SAP, the world market leader in enterprise application software.

"Committee members indicated a need for SAP skills in our information systems graduates, but the College of Business lacked the funding to integrate this content into the curriculum," Pratt said.

Dr. Diane Hoadley, dean of the College of Business, worked closely with SAP, 3M, Cargill and each of the college's departments to determine a way to integrate SAP into the existing curriculum, Pratt said.

"3M and Cargill provided funding to send faculty to SAP training and support the associated technology costs," Pratt said. "SAP content was launched in five College of Business classes in fall 2012."

UW-Eau Claire IS and MIS majors have always had a leg up on other schools due to their being more well-rounded in their skill sets than IS students from other state schools, said Thomas Winter, a 1987 MIS graduate and chair of UW-Eau Claire's IS Industry Advisory Committee.

"Students have always been well-prepared coming out of the program," said Winter, director of infrastructure and applications for Joy Global Inc. "The restructuring was needed to attract more students and assist in recruiting women and a broader range of students."

Another strength of UW-Eau Claire's IS program is its focus on project-based courses, with many of the projects using community partners as clients, Pratt said.

"Students report on their ability to transfer their learning from the course-based projects to the projects they complete as part of an internship or employment," she said. "Through their project-based courses, our students learn about themselves, about others and about the different information and business challenges organizations face."

Senior IS major Jakob Broesch said applying what he learned in the classroom to projects he participated in at Eau Claire's Family Resource Center and State Theatre is what helped him develop the skills that are in such demand by industry.

"My IS classes are all deeply ingrained in my brain because of the deeper learning that occurs in such a dynamic environment," Broesch said.

Senior Michael Weiss and two other students spent a semester working in Osseo on an IS project at Continental Products, which produces the Rollo-Mixer, a device that provides uniform mixing, blending and coating capabilities.

"The main objective of our project was to develop a new system for Continental Products that would automate the scheduling for their manufacturing process as well as their vendor purchases," Weiss said. "Being able to apply what we have learned in the classroom in a real-world situation has been very beneficial and has reinforced the effectiveness of the IS curriculum at UW-Eau Claire."

UW-Eau Claire's Career Services office reports a placement rate of 94.4 percent for the university's IS graduates.

"Recruiters tell us we're their No. 1 source of top-quality graduates in the region," Pratt said. "In addition to possessing strong technical skills, our students have excellent communication skills as a result of the writing and presentation courses required of all College of Business students."

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