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Discover 9 Hot College Majors

Colleges are adding degrees in growth fields, such as homeland security and public health.



By Christopher J. Gearon
Posted 2012

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Want to major in a field of the future? Colleges have been responding to developments in technology and business by creating majors that hardly existed five or 10 years ago. Other more established fields are suddenly hot at the undergraduate level as demand for workers spikes. Consider several emerging options:

1. Biomedical engineering: The body’s systems are prone to wear and tear, and biomedical engineers apply engineering science and technology to come up with fixes: They look for chemical signals in the body that warn of cancer, invent and improve medical devices and prosthetics, engineer new drugs and vaccines, and design robots to assist in surgery. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics names biomedical engineering the fastest-growing occupation between 2008 and 2018, with a 72% rate of job growth.

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Undergraduate programs number about 70 now, according to the biomedical engineering accreditation body. The University of Washington and Ohio State University have rolled out programs, while schools with established majors include Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California—San Diego.

2. Computer game design: Today’s game design students will join an industry expected to reach $82.4 billion globally by 2015, compared to $55.5 billion in 2010. Becker College, along with neighbor Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is a popular destination for prospective game designers. Others include DePaul University, Michigan State University and Rochester Institute of Technology.

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“This is affecting the way we train people—think firefighters, military, but also corporate—the way we shop ... and the way products are pitched to us,” says Lucia Dettori, associate dean of Depaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. Graduates work in game production, development, design, art, programming, computer graphics, and human computer interaction.

They are also software engineers at gaming studios and in architecture, medicine, law, and other industries using interactive simulation.

3. Environmental studies/sustainability: Programs in environmental studies are spreading as energy, water, food, and climate promise to be defining issues of the century. Starting this fall, students at the University of Wisconsin—Madison can major in either environmental studies or environmental sciences, for example. Environmental studies is an interdisciplinary degree, requiring students to select among courses in food and agriculture, health, energy, biodiversity, climate, history and culture, land use and policy.

In the related field of sustainability, which concentrates on keeping biological systems diverse and productive, some 35 U.S. colleges (including Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Oklahoma) offer a bachelor’s degree, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Several others offer more specialized degrees; Unity College, for example, offers degrees in sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy.

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4. Health informatics/information management: The need is huge for professionals who can help acquire, manage, and use information to improve health and manage payments. The profession is kind of a bridge between clinicians and IT geeks, notes Claire Dixon-Lee, executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education, which says 54 baccalaureate programs are currently accredited, including those at the University of Washington, Temple University, the University of Illinois—Chicago, Loma Linda University and Weber State University. The American Medical Informatics Association projects a need for more than 50,000 workers in the next five to seven years.

This is a good path for someone who isn’t “all about direct patient contact,” says Heather Hodgson, who recently earned a BS in health information management from the College of St. Scholastica, home of one of the nation’s oldest programs. Two years into a nursing degree, Hodgson changed majors, taking biomedical core courses—anatomy, physiology, medical terminology—along with basic computer courses, management information systems, and systems analysis and design. Specialized courses rounded out the program.

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5. Homeland security: This has to be among the fastest-growing educational disciplines in recent memory, says Stanley Supinski, director of partnership programs for the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Of the more than 300 programs that have sprouted since 9/11, about 75 lead to undergraduate degrees.

The center, created in 2002 to be the nation’s lead homeland security educator, develops and shares curricula with interested universities. Courses offered by many schools include critical infrastructure, criminal justice, emergency and disaster planning, weapons of mass destruction, and constitutional issues in homeland security. Schools partnering with the center include Arizona State, Eastern Kentucky University, Drexel University, Duke, Georgetown University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Meanwhile, Marian University offers its own BS in homeland security, Virginia Commonwealth University has created a BA in homeland security and emergency preparedness, and Tulane University offers a BA in homeland security studies.

6. Information assurance/cyber security: Job demand has grown “tenfold over the last 10 years” for cyber security or information assurance, says Dickie George, information assurance technical director for the U.S. National Security Agency. The NSA, with the Department of Homeland Security, sponsors the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance, which designates schools that meet established standards in teaching students to spot and fix vulnerabilities in the nation’s information infrastructure. Mississippi State University, the University of Tulsa, Dartmouth College and Carnegie Mellon University are among the 145 institutions with undergrad programs designated centers of excellence.

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Information assurance students learn about the technical aspects of protecting computer systems, networks, and individual computers from viruses, worms, hackers, terrorist threats, and corporate espionage. Students may also take computer crime and forensics classes, as well as E-commerce courses to learn about different business models and privacy and security protocols. They also study how to plan, analyze, design and implement modern information systems.

7. Nanotechnology: In this young science, unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties show up when materials are in the microscopic realm that starts at one billionth of a meter. Nanomaterials already help make golf clubs, skis, car parts, and dental implants stronger, and are expected to make tomorrow’s buildings and bridges lighter and more durable. Nanotechnology-based medicines promise to send toxic drugs straight to tumors, and the technology could be the key to more energy-efficient fuel cells, solar panels and batteries, and to environmental cleanup.

The industry is poised to grow to $2.4 trillion worldwide by 2015 and employ 2 million people in the country by 2020. The University at Albany—SUNY started the nation’s first nanotechnology graduate program in 2004, and in the last year has rolled out two undergraduate degrees. The degrees prep students for grad school, for careers in nano-related industries or basic research, or for jobs in the physical sciences, materials science, physics, biophysics, chemistry, or biochemistry. Other schools that have introduced similar majors include Drexel, Louisiana Tech University, UC-San Diego and University of Central Florida.

8. New media: Colleges are offering a slew of variations under the new media umbrella, combining traditional journalism or communications studies with offerings in digital media and design. A sample: the new media studies major at Alma College, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, and the University of Southern California’s BA in interactive entertainment. Students at USC combine a liberal arts background with a specialization in cinematic arts such as filmmaking, writing and directing.

Other schools offering new media majors include Wellesley College, Pomona College, the University of Minnesota, Bowling Green State University, and Syracuse University. New media degrees can lead to jobs in filmmaking, television, game design, animation and programming, graphic design, audio and visual arts, social media, E-text and Web publication, advertising, journalism and media research.

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9. Public health: Whether because of earthquakes, the spread of antibiotic resistance, or healthcare reform, the call for public health experts is great. As of 2009, some 140 institutions offered an undergraduate major, minor or concentration. A sampling: the University of Washington, East Tennessee State University, Tulane, San Diego State University, UC-Berkeley, the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins.

The major prepares students for entry-level jobs in government agencies, health corporations, community nonprofit organizations, and healthcare facilities. And if the coursework inspires a desire to move into the personal health realm, the degree appeals to the admissions folks at medical schools, too.

Originally posted on USNews.com on September 19, 2011

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