Unusual Classes: UMass Amherst Students Can Take an Alternative Spring Break, Wear a Computer, or Consider the Butterfly Ballot

Grass-Roots Community Development — This honors course, offered through Commonwealth College and the anthropology department, focuses on solutions to rural poverty and political disenfranchisement with an emphasis on the rural South. During Spring Break (March 17-25), the class will spend the week working in six different communities (five in Virginia, as well as the nearby city of Holyoke, Mass.), in partnership with a community service organization. "Students have the opportunity to blend theory and practice, taking the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom and putting it to work in the real world," says anthropology Professor Art Keene,who is teaching the course. Keene can be reached at 413/545-0214 or keene@anthro.umass.edu .

Wearable computers — "With computing devices becoming increasingly smaller, it may soon be possible for people to don a wearable computer as easily as one does a hat or coat," says computer scientist Andrew Fagg. "It’s clear that these technologies will ultimately enable us to bring desktop resources with us as we go about our everyday lives." In this graduate-level seminar, students will begin with commercially available wearable computers, and tailor those machines to their own needs, with an emphasis on creating systems that are interactive and proactive. "For instance, you could program a computer to monitor the stock market and send you information when the market changes sufficiently. You could also tap into weather and news sources." A key factor, according to Fagg, is teaching the computer when and how to interact with its user: "It shouldn’t interrupt me when I’m having a conversation with someone," said Fagg. Some real-world applications for wearable computers include monitoring a patient’s vital signs — and calling an ambulance if needed — and assisting patients who are suffering from memory loss. Fagg can be reached at 413/545-2993 or fagg@cs.umass.edu.

Butterfly ballots — The now-famous "butterfly ballot," which some say altered Florida’s election results, will be one point of discussion in an honors course in information design. The election brought public attention to information design, says Copper Giloth, associate professor of art and director of academic computing at UMass. Giloth heads up the team of instructors offering the course; MFA candidate Ana-Maria Campos leads the seminar. Giloth says that problems with the ballot stem from designers’ "lack of training" and failure to present information as clearly as possible.

Campos said, "Whether in print or on the Internet, the information environment is now a vital part of our society. As we decide how to present information in the most functional way possible, it’s important to consider the designs that have been used in the past — those that have been successful, and those that have not." Students in the class will create designs, and then test those designs to ensure that they are user-friendly in the modern world. "There are a lot of jobs for people who know how to make things work visually," Giloth said. Giloth can be reached at giloth@oit.umass.edu; Campos can be reached at amcampos@art.umass.edu.