Digital Narrative and Interactive Design major combines interests in programming, storytelling


Image courtesy of Heather Dillman

Heather Dillman, senior information science and digital narrative & interactive design major, poses for a picture on Andy Warhol Bridge in Downtown on Sept. 5.

By Grace Hemcher, Staff Writer

Computer science and English can be found at most universities, but Pitt has created a special major that combines both for students looking to create immersive media experiences in a wide variety of fields.

Students interested in computer programming, while sharing a passion for writing composition and narrative, now have the option to pursue both, with Pitt’s Digital Narrative and Interactive Design major. Students could officially start declaring this major last year after a few prerequisite courses.

The 40-credit DNID major is one of four majors jointly offered between the School of Computing and Information and the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Introductory courses in computer science offer students foundational skills in coding and software development, while incorporating narrative work and media studies from the English department.

Adam Lee, a computer science professor, emphasized the importance of communication between his department and the English department in the early stages of developing the DNID major. He said collaboration was crucial in creating a joint academic program that mutually benefited from the expertise of both departments. 

“By bringing these [departments] together, we could look at preparing students to understand that intersection of narrative and technology,” Lee said. “And so that might be building technology and engaging media, or it might be providing stories that are the foreground and make sense of the technology we’re developing.” 

The major has three different tracks. The Online Media track is for students interested in developing digital content and online media. The Game Design track deals specifically with game production, advertising and the narrative experience of gameplay. The Critical Making track focuses on coding as it relates to social contexts and relationships.

Alexander Grattan, a senior DNID major, was drawn to Pitt specifically for the DNID major and is now taking courses on the Critical Making track. 

“I was interested in transferring and I saw it appear while I was doing my research into the school, and to me, it was like the clouds parted,” Grattan said. “I already had the idea of transferring to Pitt and that confirmed it for me as far as the major.” 

Grattan is the public relations manager for the Computer Science Club, and regularly designs social media posts and websites. He said Pitt’s course in narrative technology helped him to develop skills he now utilizes in his work outside of class. 

“We just learned so many different things as far as technology and the ways you can manipulate the medium of literature, and express word and text in various different ways,” Grattan said. “I learned a whole bunch in that class. It was super interesting and something that I try to explore with some of the work I do in web design.”

When she first discovered the major, senior information science and DNID major Heather Dillman was also a student in the narrative and technology class. As a former computer science major, Dillman felt that her interests weren’t entirely being met there and she needed to search for something else.

“I got through the first year and half of it at Pitt and I was thinking this is not exactly what I want to do,” Dillman said. “It was pretty analytical and competitive. It was more of a mainstream major and I felt like I needed something more tailored towards my personal interests like graphic design or web development, not as much the hard programming stuff.”

Lee said there is an abundance of credit and non-credit opportunities to help students get exposure and develop career placement skills. 

“We post regular job opportunities, connect people with research opportunities in the school and across campus. And work closely with the career center to host career fairs that are targeted at computational and data-oriented disciplines,” Lee said. “And we have a corporate engagement team that brings in corporate partners to have lunches with students and review resumes.”

Dillman regularly attended networking events through the school such as a hackathon, where she was able to connect with PNC Bank and later intern with them in Pittsburgh this past summer. She helped develop some of their apps and was since offered a full-time position in their technology development program. 

“One of the first ones I went to my sophomore year, PNC had a sponsor stand there which was the first time I learned more about them,” Dillman said. “I didn’t get into the sophomore summer internship program, but I applied the next year knowing that I had more tech experience under my belt, and that’s when they accepted me for the internship program my junior year.”

With a combination of courses in both English and computer science, Lee said the DNID major is quite different from the more traditional majors in the School of Computing and Information.

“It’s providing the same common computing background that you’ll need to do many things,” Lee said. “But then allowing the students to pick the computational expertise that they want to pursue, assuming a tight coupling with skills out of the English department.”

Lee said the major equips students with a different skill set in comparison to other majors in the school.

“I’d say these students are much more prepared on a communication, narrative and critical thinking background than your stereotypical computer science or information science student,” Lee said. “But the depth that you’re going to take in terms of technical course work is necessarily going to be different.” 

Dillman said the major’s classes resemble a seminar structure, leading to more in-depth conversations and an overall better understanding of the material. 

“We’ll have time to work on either paper or media components or look into the readings we’ve done for the week,” Dillman said. “It’s more interactive with your classmates in discussion and those kinds of classes really help to delve deeper into things.”

Grattan also agreed that with smaller class sizes, he feels more engaged with the material and with the work his classmates are doing.

“There are about twenty or so people, so I’d say it’s a comfortable size,” Grattan said. “But you still get various different perspectives from people and it’s nice in that sense where I’m able to see different projects people make and create.”

Collaboration between departments was essential to making the major a reality, according to Lee. He said seeing the partnership and projects created by students has been the best part of his experience in the DNID major. 

“It’s really neat to see the students and the types of projects they’re coming up with,” Lee said. “The collaborations that they’re making with students across the two schools is my favorite part of it.”