Oct. 11, 2018

Can a university lead a digital revolution? Educating a workforce in a hyper-connected world

When Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, it was the first smartphone to combine the communications features of a mobile phone, the hard drive and storage capacity of an mp3 player, access to the Internet and an easy-to-use touchscreen interface. One of its advertising slogans was, "This is only the beginning." These words proved prophetic.
Tech Talent

In the short time since then, each new iteration of smartphones (from any brand) has featured more computing power, more storage, more capabilities, and faster network access. The rate of smartphone adoption is growing steadily worldwide. Households are cutting their landlines as fast as they're cutting their cable TV subscriptions. The telephone is quickly becoming an anachronism, held up to giggling, incredulous children to show them how primitive the world was when their parents were young. ("Imagine, kids! It was wired to the WALL!")

After computers, smartphones were the second type of common devices to connect to the Internet. (One could argue that smartphones are nothing but handheld computers with telephonic capability, but that's a matter of perspective.) Now, with the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT), the world is climbing a third wave of connectivity, as more and more everyday devices are Internet-capable. Fridges, televisions, security cameras, thermostats, baby monitors, video game systems – all online, all connected and controlled by smart home assistants, voice-activated devices that can do everything from fast-forward a song to shop for groceries to dim the lights.

And that's just for consumers. There's also the Industrial Internet of Things, where manufacturing and distribution systems are all online, along with their administrative systems. Together, these systems collect and analyze data to automate and optimize industrial processes and help organizations make decisions.

"Technology is changing the world at an unprecedented rate," says Dr. Bill Rosehart, PhD, dean of UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. "We've already seen the mass adoption of mobile computing devices, with computational strength we never would have imagined a few years ago. Add to that the Internet of Things, along with intelligent systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analysis, and I would say every sector of our society is in a technological revolution right now."

As every sector of society becomes more technologically advanced, it adds to its own (and the world's) body of knowledge, both in terms of discoveries in its field and the data that goes along with it.

"The rate at which knowledge is growing is phenomenal," says Rosehart. "The doubling of knowledge used to be measured in decades, if not centuries. It's now measured in years. Soon it'll be fractions of years."

When technology and knowledge are advancing so quickly, how can a university stay at the forefront of the disciplines it teaches and make sure students are prepared for the world as it will be, not as it is?

Part of ensuring students are prepared to enter the workforce in a time of such widespread change and uncertainty is to recognize where the career opportunities of the future lie, and what the necessary skills will be to seize them.

Closing the gender gap

Getting more girls interested in pursuing digital careers means going digital to reach them. The Schulich School of Engineering has been connecting girls in grades 6 to 12 with online female mentors in STEM careers since 2001. Sparked by UCalgary President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD, the Cybermentor program has matched more than 3,500 girls with female scientists, engineers, mathematicians and more. Girls who have gone through the program have grown up to become engineers and scientists, and returned to Cybermentor to help inspire the next generation.

Mentors were once young girls themselves. They share their experiences of growing up with a curiosity for science and math. They also act as a supportive friend and an inspiring role model, chatting weekly in a special password-protected cybermentor online communication system. Hands-on activities and in-class engineering design and coding workshops round out some of the experiences. 

“Until I joined Cybermentor, I really hadn't thought much about a career in science,” says Ellery, a Grade 10 student who has been a Cybermentor participant for three years. “Now I know there are so many and diverse opportunities for me to consider. I think I'll one day work exploring space. Maybe I'll be an astronaut. Maybe I'll design space stations. Maybe I'll create a new air breathing system. The possibilities are endless.” 

Each year, more than 250 mentors work with students and offer feedback on homework, share interests and skills or talk about career opportunities. With this digital-first approach, girls in more than 80 communities across Alberta are getting tuned into a technological future where they can be leaders.

“Success in STEM fields is not a question of natural abilities," says Natalie Panek (BSc Eng ’07), who has been a mentor since 2008 and recently won the Schulich School of Engineering’s Diversity and Equity Alumni Award. "It is about young women perceiving these fields as normal and as career goals that are attainable by anyone.

“Women role models and mentors in science and engineering are fundamental to increasing the percentage of women in these fields. Cybermentor accomplishes just that. Cybermentor opens the minds of young women to so many possibilities in STEM.”

A different way of teaching

In engineering, Rosehart says the digital revolution means universities need to change the way they're preparing students to enter their careers. "'Here's a set of knowledge, go be an engineer for 30 years' – that doesn't work anymore," he says. "Now we're putting more emphasis on teaching them the technology of today, but also a way of thinking and being so they can constantly adapt that skillset as technology changes."

Rosehart points to the introductory computer programming course that all engineering students take. "It used to be very much an introduction to learning the syntax of a programming language," he says. "Now it's about using computers and algorithmic thinking to solve problems."

And as the world is becoming more connected and complex, so too are its problems. "Engineering used to be much more about solving a technical problem," says Rosehart. "Much more linear thinking. And when you look at the types of problems engineers need to solve now, they need to apply much more non-linear, circular types of thinking to be successful."

Students also need to learn to work in much more interdisciplinary environments, Rosehart says. "When you think about the really interesting things going on today, with intelligent systems, it's very rarely one person working by themselves in a corner," he says.

"You still need domain-specific expertise. When you're building a bridge, you still need someone who can sign off on that design. But you also need to know when to apply systems thinking, when to bring in a diverse team, who you need around the table when you're coming up with a solution. We're creating a campus culture where silos are broken down, because we know we're most successful when we bring together people from across all disciplines."

While it's easy to look back at other pivotal moments in human history and see how it affected society, Rosehart says we have the advantage of seeing it happen before our eyes. "Things are going to look very different very quickly," he says. "Change is coming, and we're embracing it. If you look back at other industrial revolutions, if you had the vision to plan for that and to create the knowledge and focus on adaptive learning, you could position your students for lifelong success. We're doing that."

For more stories about how the University of Calgary experts are exploring Living in a Digital World, please visit explore.ucalgary.ca