Power to the (Young) People:

Technology gives students the power to communicate, learn and earn big.

By Alex Clover, Moira Koch, Sarah Heenan and Leila Zwelling

Mark Miller had an epiphany. The summer after his second year in college he was working security at the Mars/M&M factory in Hackettstown, New Jersey. As he watched the millionth M&M roll off the production line that day, he glanced over at his supervisor, who appeared half the age of most workers at the plant. He wondered, "We all know how to make candy, but why is one guy busting his peanuts on the factory floor while the other is sitting back supervising?"

He found out why: the shift manager at Mars/M&M graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in engineering.

The next day Miller called his university's engineering department for an application. Soon to graduate from the University of Virginia with an undergraduate degree in biology, he is already working towards a Masters degree in computer science (CS) engineering. "I just think there is so much more opportunity in computer science than in other disciplines," he said.

Miller is part of a growing trend of students who are using the tools of technology to leap forward by decades, reaching degrees of influence, stability, and power that rival their parents'. Baby boomers didn't grow up with computers--their children did. The computer industry is young; unlike traditional professions, computer programmers, software designers, and World Wide Web masters are often in their early twenties. Some graduates are starting at relative salary levels it took their parents twenty years or more to attain. Many middle-class Americans envy this. "Kids today have so much power," says Mac Woodward, a self-employed patent consultant in Charlottesville, Virginia.

And that's what technology is giving the coming generation: power. Power through both money and knowledge. For example, the Web provides an easy way for students to access and distribute information on their own, and it is changing the way they learn, earn, and communicate.

In the corporate world, the power translates into money. Graduating computer science students can expect a high salary right out of school. Matthew Hepler, a graduate research assistant at the University of Virginia, explains the job trend: "The demand for computer science grads is outpacing the supply...CS graduate degree salaries are close to MBAs, which wasn't always the case." Specifically, how much money are we talking? According to Dr. Jane Prey, CS professor at U.Va., the average last year was $43,000 with a $2,000-3,000 signing bonus.

Computers aren't just giving students jobs, they're giving them voices. For example, the music industry, a traditionally young, hip business, is becoming even younger and hipper. Brad MacGowan, a fourth-year astro-physics major at U.Va., has been the producer for his younger brother's band for three years. Ruby Hsiu (pronounced Ruby Shoe) is a Connecticut-based band of four high school seniors. It has mailing lists, promotion, a fan club, and bookings--all on the Web.

"People don't know how old they are over the Web," Brad explains. "It's easier to make connections and get their music exposed, or they can put their songs on the Web and everyone all over the world can hear them. It's easier for a random record label to pick them up."

And, while Ruby Hsiu hasn't gotten a contract yet, the band has become part of the "Indie Ring," a collection of indie (independent label) bands that are linked together over the Web. The members have even submitted a song to a Web hit list, where Web surfers can place their vote for the best indie song. Ruby Hsiu was number one for a week.

What does this mean for young bands? Basically, any 15-year old with a computer can audition over the Web by contacting his favorite label and sending in music over email. Now younger musicians can show their wares with a minimum amount of money and equipment, and, more important, without giving a cut to managers or promoters.

Similarly, the publishing industry is seeing new magazines begin online. Student publishers don't have to wait for funds from college administration or outside publishers in order to have their voices heard. Last year at U.Va., students created Critical Mass, a liberal, online magazine, without any funding. These Internet magazines can reach thousands of people, both inside and outside university communities. Critical Mass editor Mingming Wu speaks of creating a "virtual community" on the Web, where students can write to and for electronic journals, spreading their ideas and opinions worldwide.

Technology also changes the face of education as we know it: students today depend less and less on the traditional classroom as an essential learning tool. Take, for example, fourth-year chemical engineering student Brian Kaye. He seems to be like any other student working on an experiment as he chooses the equipment and the chemicals, observes the reaction, and graphs the results. But his entire experiment has taken place on a computer screen. "Essentially you can get active results and never have to go into a lab," says Kaye.

With the introduction of the Internet, most college students, whether interested in aardvarks in Tanzania or quaarks in Tennessee, are no longer constrained by location.

"Students have the ability to access mountains of material that weren't previously available," says Jeffrey Hadden, a U.Va. sociology professor who has students add their work to his Web page. "With a few clicks of a mouse, you can now accomplish in minutes what used to take hours."

To research teen pregnancy and statistics, fourth-year U.Va. nursing student Julie Eickhoff searched the Internet. "It opens you up to all kinds of information that you couldn't necessarily find at the local library--or any library for that matter," Eickhoff said. "You don't have to depend on other people's schedules. All the information you need is right there twenty-four hours a day."

The Internet gives computer science student Matt Chiste the freedom to research from his bedroom. "I don't think I've been in a library since I've been in college--I search the Web instead."

And using the Web gives him an edge: "Students with good computer search skills have a decided advantage over other students," explains Bryan Pfaffenberger, an Engineering School professor. "There will be an increasing trend there, as people who have the ability to exploit this knowledge will have an advantage over their competitors."

Increasingly, computer knowledge will separate those who succeed from those who fail. "It's a whole new ball game. If you don't learn now, you're out," Pfaffenberger said. "The more you grasp how technology works, the more advantage you have in the long run."

At some universities, like Wake Forest in North Carolina, students are handed their own laptop computer upon tuition payment. When Hadden visited a Wake Forest classroom last month, all students had their computers in class, presumably for notetaking. "I looked in from the back of the classroom and some students were sending email, some were surfing the Internet," Hadden said. "It gives them an amazing amount of freedom." Even if it's not the kind of freedom their professors prefer.

As technology gives freedom to today's college students, it is also brings up questions about the role of a traditional university. "Technology definitely encourages self-education," says Chiste, who started a software company based on a programming language he taught himself. "There's so much you can learn from technology today. You can get software to teach yourself anything."

And you can teach yourself to create software. Fourth-year student Luke Melia also started his own software company during his sophomore year of college. He taught himself how to run a business, and is now nearing his goal of making $1 million. "No university program in the world could have taught me that," Melia says. Managing the company caused Melia to drop down to part-time student status. "School was interesting, but it came second."

With all the benefits technology brings students, where does this leave professors? Already, some universities teach classes via satellite. Smaller state universities, especially those with vocational education programs, will increasingly use this "distance education" to save money by not paying salaries for additional faculty members. "Someday there will be nationally ranked universities, like Harvard and U.Va., but they won't have any buildings," says Chiste.

With a world of information available with a few strokes on a keyboard, today's generation no longer need to rely on the traditional power structures to succeed. Whether it's managing a candy factory, promoting a band, or completing a chemistry experiment, the power's at their fingertips.

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