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Take a quick glance around Van Pelt Library, and chances are that about half the students you see will be checking Facebook instead of studying. But for the 10 or so freshmen in the Engineering School’s new Market and Social Systems Engineering (MKSE) major, Facebook is actually on the syllabus.
The program, which launched this fall, is dedicated to the study of networked systems, including social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The curriculum is a blend of mathematics, economics, and computer science.
“The idea is to basically give a very, very rigorous undergraduate education in topics like social networks, social-network modeling, technology adaption, Internet economics, [and] online advertising,” says founding faculty director Michael Kearns, a professor of computer science with secondary appointments in statistics and operations and information management at Wharton.
Among other things, students who complete the major will be able to understand how Facebook determines whom to recommend as “friends,” how Google makes money by selling search terms, and how the Internet itself manages to stay so reliable and robust.
“In all computer-science departments, you have students who are very interested in these topics, and it’s why they’re studying computer science. But we’re so busy teaching them the fundamentals of computer science, that we’re not talking about something like Google’s business model,” Kearns says.
He adds that the MKSE major at Penn is the first academic program of its kind anywhere. (The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, a dual degree track combining Wharton and Engineering, is similar but less quantitative in nature, Kearns says.) At the core of MKSE are “five or six courses that are entirely new that we’re designing from scratch,” Kearns explains. “Similar courses are not being taught at the undergraduate level anywhere in the world.”
One example is Algorithmic Game Theory and Economics, which applies a game-theory framework to sponsored search auctions—which is how companies like Google and Yahoo make money. It’s a challenging course for many reasons, not the least of which is that students must possess preliminary knowledge of both algorithms and game theory in order to understand the course material.
“There’s no book on such a course yet,” Kearns says. “Especially for undergraduates.”
Freshman Abishek Gadiraju chose the program precisely for its cutting-edge relevancy. “If I wanted do mechanical engineering, I could have that anywhere else,” Gadijaru says. “Probably what you’re taught is the same at every university; you learn the same things, just with different people and different resources. But here it’s a completely new topic. You’re kind of learning from the people who write the textbooks.”
Gadiraju, like all MKSE majors, had to apply to the program when he applied to Penn. Although the program does accept transfer applicants, Kearns says that due to the number of pre-requisites in the curriculum it’s not easy to transfer into the program any later than sophomore year.
In addition to high test scores and GPAs, Kearns says that successful applicants show “signs of curiosity” about all aspects of technology. An ideal applicant “has shown an entrepreneurial flair even as a high school student.”
Gadijaru created an iPhone app when he was in high school called J-Box, a tool that helps women keep track of their jewelry by means of a photo inventory of their collection. Women can also enter how much each piece cost and where they last put it. It was inspired by his mother: “She just has a lot of it, so she doesn’t always remember where it is,” he explains.
The goal of the MKSE program, says Kearns, “is to give these people the scientific and technical skills to be entrepreneurs themselves.”
“I think the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters of the world … will find our graduates extremely appealing,” he adds.
—Maanvi Singh C’13
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 10/28/11