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Student working in the creative computing lab

New Horizons

Ross Dowd ’94 introduces humanities students to data and technology

Ross Dowd ’94 earned two undergraduate degrees from UC Santa Barbara — in political science and in English — but he’s found professional success elsewhere: finance. Working in an industry that leans heavily on data, Ross said he credits his humanities-built critical thinking skills for his ability to translate data and “make sense of it in a creative way.”

Ross’s background in the humanities and the springboard to a fruitful career that it afforded him are at the heart of his generous gift to establish a new program within the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts. This program provides formal courses and hands-on experience in programming and other technical skills to undergraduate students. The Dowd Creative Computing Initiative will train humanities majors how to use technology to interpret and represent information and to create content, from art to music to film.

Most importantly, according to Ross, participating students will glean crucial, foundational knowledge that will be a huge boon to their future career prospects in a job market where technological proficiency is increasingly must-have.

“In the liberal arts, you can make the argument that the creative aspects are more heavily weighted,” said Ross, cochief executive officer of Acadian Asset Management. “But the ability to use data and technology to inform decisions, or to be able to use data as a form of communication and to articulate your positions, is an important and valuable skill. And it’s going to become more prevalent moving forward.”

That’s where the Dowd Initiative comes in.

Seeking to imbue humanities majors with those same skills — and to give them some practical know-how for an increasingly tech-dependent “real world” — the effort will provide a series of connected courses focused on digital technology that will culminate in a certificate.

“Ross’s gift allows UC Santa Barbara to provide an exciting interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates computer programming and digital art, within a humanities framework, that stresses research methods, communication skills, intellectual empathy, mental flexibility and systems thinking,” said John Majewski, Michael Douglas Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts.

The program will engage multiple faculty members from various disciplines, as well as graduate students, to teach courses in everything from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to digital media and gaming.

Dowd Initiative students will be exposed to a broad range of ideas and techniques, though not with the intent of mastering particular programming languages. The hope is that students learn enough programming to capably make the computer an instrument of creativity and understanding. Ideally, students will walk away with both the confidence and knowledge to pursue more advanced skills, and the ability to communicate effectively with programmers and other specialists.

“Students in film and media, art, English, music, media arts and technology and so forth are not interlopers in the world of digital tools and practices — they’re critical stakeholders,” said Alenda Chang, an associate professor of film and media studies who is central to the effort. “We need them to understand, question and shape the many forms that computation now takes, and hold them all to a humane standard.”

And that’s the ticket, said Ross.

“On my own career path, I was always thinking about filling up the tool box,” he recalled. “It was, ‘What skills do I still need to go into the workforce and create a living for myself and my family? How can I incorporate that into the learning process so when I go into the workforce it’s not foreign to me, so I understand enough to be part of the conversation?’ That, to me, is what’s so great about this initiative — it’s opening up horizons for students to think differently.

Ross continued: “Given how much UC Santa Barbara gave to me — it was a launching pad in terms of how I think about the world and how I evaluate things, my decision-making — I wanted to offer that same opportunity to other kids who perhaps don’t have the wherewithal to make it happen.”