Focus on Research Must Be Backed With Information Tech Training

It wouldn’t be a normal day at UCSD if there wasn’t at least one student complaining about general education requirements. Be it an Eleanor Roosevelt College student absorbing the history of yams in Making of Modern World, a John Muir College freshman adrift in the doldrums of Muir 40 or a disgruntled literature major scribbling away on a physics exam in a room full of engineers, the mantra seems to be the same:

“”When am I ever going to use this shit?””

Well, sooner than you might think. The 2007 version of the annual Job Outlook Survey, published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, lists a number of qualities that a consensus of employers look for in recent college graduates. The number-one item: communication skills, which scored a 4.7 on a 5-point scale of importance.

In the survey, employers reported that recent graduates are often unable to write clearly, lack presentation skills and have only a sketchy grasp of English grammar and spelling. That writing analysis class might not be so useless after all.

Surprisingly, computer skills scored a 4.4 out of 5, ahead of traits such as leadership, organization, self-confidence – and nearly a full point higher than seeming heavyweights like creativity and GPA.

We’ve already got a writing requirement, so the question is: What are we doing to ensure graduates are technically fluent?

While UCSD has a number of applied technology courses for students whose concentrations are in engineering and computer science (as well as a variety of classes on programming, Web site development and database administration at UCSD Extension), the resources are few and far between for the typical user of computers. A computer scientist must know how to program and manage a database, sure, but everyone else needs to know how to use that database effectively. And that is where the educational support at UCSD is weak.

Regardless of their field, students should be able to take advantage of the mind-boggling array of information available to them at a UC campus. All students should understand how to set up a proxy server through which they can access UCSD’s resources from off campus.

All students should be familiar with the vast collective resources of the University of California library system, through which registered students can request books and journals from any campus in the system. The university subscribes to an impressive variety of periodicals and scientific databases – you just need to know about them, and where to find them.

Other utilities at the library are amazingly powerful and virtually unknown. A dare to chemistry majors: Download and log into SciFinder Scholar – and try not to use it for every lab report.

Unfortunately, the resource information sessions put on by the library are often woefully underattended, despite valiant attempts at bribery with library-approved, spill-proof coffee mugs. As a consequence, the tremendous resources at our disposal too often go unused (or even unrecognized).

So what are we doing to ensure graduating students are technologically fluent? Where’s the information technology graduation requirement? Though nearly every academic department requires some form of research project, in no department are students explicitly taught how to hunt down and compile relevant information.

Applied courses could be tailored to the needs of different departments: a biology course, for instance, might introduce students to popular journal databases such as PubMed and Beilstein sites, while a public policy course might point out UCSD’s topic-specific resources like

Any such course should teach techniques for effectively using search engines like Google and Yahoo. Even simple things, like using quotation marks to find specific entries or using Boolean operators to narrow searches, are important skills to learn. All students should be familiar with metasearch engines (which scan several indexes simultaneously), powerful timesaving tools that are certainly underused. And certainly, students should learn how to evaluate the quality and relevance of the information they find.

And further, a seminar covering media law wouldn’t hurt anyone either. Being able to locate material that has already been put out there is one thing, but digging up new information is entirely another. Student researchers need to know about their rights (and the limitation of their rights) under federal laws like the Freedom of Information Act as well as California regulations like the Public Records Act and the Brown Act.

Ensuring that UCSD students are aware of the information that is available to them (a privilege that legislators and California taxpayers have given us) – is one of the best ways for our school to become the first-class research university it is intended to be.

If ever there was a general education requirement that truly is needed by everyone, effective use of information is one.