Boise State University

Four ways Boise State is upending college education

A future in virtual reality, gaming

Boise State University students see a bright future fusing programming and storytelling into computer games.
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Boise State University students see a bright future fusing programming and storytelling into computer games.

Forget what you know about traditional college: two years of English, history, math and other general stuff, followed by two years in a major before you step into the real world and look for work.

Boise State is disrupting that model with its College of Innovation and Design, a school that just opened and has a different view of what a college education means.

No, you don’t get a degree in innovation and design — that would be too traditional. The college is about looking for multiple ways to prepare students for the workforce that would likely not be a part of the standard curriculum for English or engineer majors. In addition to the university’s general education requirements, the school offers a mix of majors, minors and certificates — seals of approval that you’ve got some expertise in a field that might not be your major, but is salable in the workplace.

It’s about breaking down the barriers between departments so future sociologists and scientists work on the same project, one that makes sense beyond a term paper and has real-world applications. Combine biology and art? Yep, says Gordon Jones, the dean: “If I do a biology project that also brings in art, that is probably the way I am going to develop some element of creativity or some adaptability. It creates real-world application opportunities.”

Here’s a sampling of four ways students can carve new areas of expertise.

1. Gaming, Interactive Media and Mobile

A four-year major that leads to a bachelor of science — and a Renaissance individual

What gamer would stay away from this major?

Dean Cohen sat at a computer with other students clicking his way through a computer program that will one day help him fuse art, design and technology. He’s optimistic about his future.

“The market for these jobs is huge,” said Cohen, 18, a Boise State University freshman. “Whether it be game design, web designer or a mobile app developer.”

Cohen has played computer games since he was in elementary school. But he’s always been a consumer. He wants to change that.

The class — and major — Cohen is following is about more than creating a technological world where the villain gets zapped with some dastardly weapon a player invents.

Under professor Anthony Ellertson, Cohen and 64 other students in the first year of the program will learn how to blend the art of storytelling with computer coding that is already guiding some students to develop virtual reality training for nurses on inserting catheters. Ideas in the future? Arming an iPad with sensors that will help disabled students find their desks in a classroom.

380 students are enrolled in the College of Innovation and Design

Boise State refers to the program as GIMM — Games, Interactive Media and Mobile. It is a cutting-edge program in which students can graduate in four years with a bachelor of science degree and line up for jobs at some of the most high-demand tech field jobs: web, gaming and app design, Ellertson said.

It will take a blend of both designer and computer geek to pull it off.

“I know a lot of industries where there have been designers and there have been programmers,” said Colby Morgan, a student mentor in the program. “There is kind of a new position emerging where it takes the expertise of the programmers but with the artistic of a designer.”

Blending those skills is a special task.

Boise State’s gaming major typifies the cross-discipline approach the college takes with instruction. It combines art, psychology and computers, Jones said.

“I don’t want someone who is just a programmer,” Ellertson said. “The idea behind GIMM is someone who would be a renaissance individual.”

The gaming program has to pull its own weight economically, and that’s not been a problem. The break-even point for the program this year was 35 students. The head count nearly doubled that.

You might wonder: This sounds like a way to major in having fun. Is it hard?

“Oh yeah,” said Cohen. “I’ve never done any type of coding before..”

2. Vertically Integrated Projects

Team up, help the world, earn college credit

The name might not be user-friendly, but the projects bring students and faculty from different disciplines to bear on a problem. Work can last as long as students are in college.

$400,000 is budgeted for College of Innovation start up costs this year

One example: Will Hughes, associate dean of the college and a professor in materials science, said one program involves several faculty working with students to develop modular shelters for use in impoverished countries. The project, funded with part of a $310,000 private grant, includes students at Purdue University, Georgia Tech University and other colleges.

Students from a variety of backgrounds — mechanical engineering, sociology and anthropology — are focused on engineering the shelters and making sure they fit within the cultural sensitivity of the area where they are to be used, Hughes said.

Another example: Jim Browning, an electrical engineering professor, is working with students across engineering and science disciplines to develop a way to deliver plasma, an ionized gas, to hard-to-heal wounds. The plasma spurs development of nitric oxide, which alerts the body to heal the wound. About 15 students are in his program.

The purpose of these classes is to focus students on real-world problems in a team atmosphere.

3. Leadership certificate

Five courses, worth 16 credits, that can show you’ve demonstrated leadership

You might want to be a teacher or a businessman. But you might want to show the world you’re also a student who would be a good leader, Jones said. This program would give you a certificate that says just that.

“I may know everything about teaching math to my seventh-graders ... but that isn’t going to guarantee I connect with each of these emerging minds,” Jones said.

I believe people are going to be looking for highly relevant education that can equip them to be employable.

Gordon Jones, College of Innovation and Design dean

Heidi Reeder, a professor in communication, is overseeing the classes taught this semester by adjunct professors

“It’s the human side of leadership, not spreadsheets,” said Reeder. “This is ... how you inspire people, identify your ethical framework and the way you want to be a credible person.”

Students in student government, athletics and older, returning student looking for a real-world education make up the bulk of the students this first semester. They are being taught by State Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and instructors from educational and athletic backgrounds.

The credential at the end of the class is expected to give students a boost when they go into the workforce. Not only will they know their major — education, theater arts or whatever — they’ll be better rounded having taken courses in human management.

“You are bringing much more to the table,” Reeder said.

4. Venture college

A place to sprout your ideas, with no credit, but just maybe an invention or a business

Boise State’s Venture College began two years ago as a place where students with a savvy business idea could get some help from mentors to develop a market for a product and maybe even start a business. It had a core of about 20 students.

Jones is expanding that role. “I argue any students with any idea can come in and take it as far as you can go,” Jones said.

This weekend, 62 Boise State students in 26 teams are competing in the Innovation Challenge for a share of $10,000 in prize money by presenting their problem-solving idea to judges, said Kevin Learned, Venture College director.

A couple of ideas in the offing: Creating an online market for used children clothing, and developing a way to compost waste such as meat.

Behind the Innovation Challenge, however, is serious learning: Students develop an idea, present it, and work in teams. “How do you convince a panel of judges you are on to something?” said Learned.

More about the College of Innovation and Design

Can anyone attend?

The gaming program is a major that last four years. Programs like the leadership classes and Venture College are open to studenta across the campus who may have other majors, but want to gain leadership skills or tryout new ideas. The Vertically Integrated Projects may require a short application.

How many faculty?

Eighteen. Many come from other areas in at Boise State, such as communication and materials science.

What can you tell me about the new dean of this college?

Gordon Jones, 46, came to Boise State from Harvard University. Beginning in 2011, he was first managing director of Harvard’s i-lab, a program that makes room for 3,800 students who come from other disciplines but are considering ways to sharpen their skills in entrepreneurial or other fields.

What prepared Jones for this work?

A variety of experiences. He was raised in a family where he was taught to ask questions. He has played ice hockey for a junior British Columbia team, graduated from Brown University and studied business at Stanford University. He has been a high school teacher in a remote section in Arizona and worked for both Gillette and Pepsico. Jones also launched three start-ups, two of them in the pest control industry.

Bill Roberts

Bill has covered higher education for nearly two decades and has focused on workforce development.

Jones on innovation

Gordon Jones, College of Innovation and Design dean, will address a Boise City Club lunch forum at 11:45 a.m. Nov. 12 at The Grove Hotel. To get information or to register, visit