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Students reflect on individually designed majors

Interested in interdisciplinary approaches to solving contemporary world problems? Love approaching a complex issue from various angles all at once? Not sure whether you’re a “fuzzie” or a “techie?”

Then, while most Stanford seniors look to graduation next month with a major you’ve heard of before, you may find yourself among a smaller group of students who design their own majors.

(JIN ZHU/Staff Photographer)

Kaitlin Halady ’11 is pursuing a major in energy and environmental design in engineering, a course of study that incorporates classes from a variety of disciplines, among them product design, civil and environmental engineering, earth systems and art.

Halady, who lauded the individually designed major (IDM) program as “a really unique option that a lot of people don’t know about,” is interested in developing sustainable “life cycle products” with “cradle-to-cradle” environmental viability.

“My goal would probably be to work for some sort of design company or company that works with life cycle products,” said Halady. This is an aspiration she felt would be best realized by the IDM program, in which she does “not to have to conform to one department.”

Like Halady, Liliana Chan ’11 is interested in energy, but in a slightly different way. Chan has crafted her own major in economics and energy engineering.

“I wanted to bring an economic policy perspective along with the technical side of engineering,” said Chan, who takes courses primarily in the civil and environmental engineering (CEE) and economics departments.

With an interest in both economics and engineering, Chan seized the opportunity to “bring the two together” rather than “doing just one” concentration.

“In the beginning, I took a lot more econ classes,” Chan said. “But I found I really wanted a deeper understanding of the technology side as well.”

With what she described as “a strong interest in the environment,” Chan is writing an honors thesis on the carbon footprint of people’s dietary habits through the Goldman Interschool Honors Program in Environmental Science, Technology and Policy.

Erica Neville ’12, who hopes to major in International Animation, described her prospective IDM as “a blend between animation and Japanese language and culture.”

Neville, who has taken courses in subjects as diverse as art history, computer science, film and media studies and English as part of her IDM, augments her Stanford coursework with online classes at San Francisco’s Academy of Art, which she said helps her “build a 2-D and 3-D animation skill set.”

“It is also my personal goal to try and bring in more animation and illustration courses to Stanford,” added Neville, who enthusiastically welcomes “the possibility of being able to unite both animation and Japanese.”

With an interest in food economy, policy and biology, Julia Feinberg ’11 is majoring in food security — a major that blends economics, earth systems, history, anthropology, sociology, international relations, political science, public policy and biology. Feinberg hopes to use this hodgepodge of knowledge to address issues of malnutrition and food inequity.

“I don’t like studying anything in a vacuum,” Feinberg said. Though her core focus is in economics, she also extolled the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to global problems.

“All these things are so interconnected — I have to know at least a little about every subject,” said Feinberg, who also remarked that she “didn’t want just an economic or a geological perspective” on issues of food security.

“I’d love to work for the State Department, or I’d love to do international policy,” said Feinberg. “But I don’t know yet.”

Which is why she tackles any problem from multiple perspectives, working consistently with Debra Satz, an adviser from Stanford’s Program in Ethics and Society.

Popular among upperclassmen, the IDM idea continues to attract incoming and current freshmen as well. Stephanie Liou ’13 is considering an IDM in health promotion, which she says “would basically involve scientific grounding via bio core, plus some psych, communications, behavioral biology, sociology and anthropology.”

According to the University Registrar, Stanford administrators see value in a multidisciplinary undergraduate program “for students who want to pursue an area of scholarly inquiry outside of established departments or programs at the University,” according to the office’s website.

The School of Engineering offers its own version of interdisciplinary study, Individually Designed Majors in Engineering (IDMENs), which aims to “provide students with an understanding of engineering principles and the analytical and problem solving, design, and communication skills necessary to be successful in the field.”

Electrical engineering professor and Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs Brad Osgood said Stanford’s IDMEN program was, to his knowledge, unique.

“Not many other schools have this option,” Osgood said. Despite what he termed “a pretty high bar to get one of these things approved,” and the low number of engineering students who end up choosing the IDMEN program (usually between three and five), Osgood called it “a great option” for those looking for flexibility.

He did, however, offer a word of caution to students interested in an IDMEN — you’ll be largely on your own.

“If you choose an IDM, you’re a cohort of one,” said Osgood, who added that many students who initially think an IDM is right for them end up choosing a standard major instead.

Among Stanford’s most unique offerings, the IDM/IDMEN graduates around 15 students per year.