published Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Tech minds starting new, diploma-granting school in Chattanooga

Center Centre Co-founders, Jared M. Spool and Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman
Center Centre Co-founders, Jared M. Spool and Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Unicorn Institute is coming to Chattanooga.

That's the recently-revealed code name of a new school whose curriculum is designed to train the best user experience professionals in the world.

Leslie Jensen-Inman, a designer and former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor, teamed up a few years ago with renowned Internet usabilty guru Jared Spool to start the school, now officially dubbed the Center Centre.

Spool and Jensen-Inman believe traditional education isn't preparing technology and design students to be the employees that companies need. The new school is designed solely to prepare students to become the best and brightest user experience professionals.

User experience is just the Internet world's way of saying how easy/fun/quick a website, electronic device or web application is to use. It's literally how human beings experience and interact with technology and the web.

Think Apple, which has revolutionized the tech world and made a ton of money by making its products fun and simple to use. And really good looking, to boot.

The more fun, simple and beautiful a website or product, the more use it gets. That's what Spool has found in his years of tech and web research.

But surprisingly, many American students still aren't trained to do user experience work. Spool and Jensen-Inman say there are currently more than 150,000 jobs in the field right now, in the U.S. alone.

And not one school set up to train students to fill those jobs.

But that's about to change. Center Centre received authorization from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission last week to open and operate in Chattanooga.

For years, computer and Internet technology students have gone through courses in web design, or coding, or web management, or social media or any myriad of courses at traditional colleges and universities which aim to prepare students for computer science careers.

But user experience needs fall somewhere right in the middle of all those skills. It's a little tech and a little art. A little conceptual and a little practical. Big picture and little picture.

Companies need people to come up with web usability and design ideas, and then do the leg work to make them happen.

The school started by Spool and Jensen-Inman is a post-secondary institution, so a high school diploma or GED is required for admission. Right now, the school's single diploma offering in user experience design and technology will require two years of study.

Center Centre will feel like a business, and its daily schedule will be more like a professional work day, morning to evening, Monday through Friday. Jensen-Inman said that will prepare students for a professional environment better than spitting them out of the typical college schedule, which can vary day-to-day.

"In a traditional academic environment, your days are so weird," she said.

Student costs haven't yet been decided. In fact, Center Centre's campaign to raise $112,000 -- which would allow them to start courses this fall -- hasn't been met yet.

The $112,000 mark is their stretch goal on KickStarter.com, a popular crowd-sourcing website where individuals and companies ask patrons to fund projects. So far, Center Centre's campaign had collected nearly $77,500 from 776 backers. The campaign ends on Feb. 22.

Spool and Jensen-Inman want the donation board to light up with Chattanooga residents before then.

"Some people think we're crazy for choosing Chattanooga," Jensen-Inman said.

She wants the city to silence those doubters by giving anything, even $1, to show the support she has already felt, seen and heard.

"We really believe in this city," she said. "These people get it here. And they want it."

J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the school should be a draw for the community.

"Having an educational organization of this kind, a world-class, cutting-edge design school, helps us in terms of realizing that vision of Chattanooga as the kind of place that creates tech-oriented jobs," Marston said.'

The Chamber is going to lease out space at its building to house Center Centre, at least for a while. Marston said the deal currently includes a "relatively lengthy lease."

He thinks Center Centre basing itself in Chattanooga will lead some companies to open an office in the city, and also provide local students the chance to be the best-trained user experience professionals in the country, maybe the world.

"That's not to say our other institutions aren't extremely important," he said. "But this is a different kind of asset. I think Center Centre does round out our educational offerings."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

about Alex Green...

Alex joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 as a region business reporter. He is a native of Dayton, Tenn., located 35 miles north of Chattanooga, and he is a fifth-generation Dayton native. Alex came to the Times Free Press as an editorial intern in July 2013. He was previously a correspondent at The Herald-News, located in Dayton, through college and editor-in-chief of the Triangle, Bryan College's student-led media group. Alex was ...

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