May 16 2019

What Does It Take to Prepare Graduates for a New World of Work?

New programs in robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence prove popular with students seeking future-facing careers.

As technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics take on bigger roles in daily life, job opportunities for people who make it all work — and who will push those technologies forward — are expanding.

That means academic institutions are developing new degrees to train that future workforce. 

Many emerging programs are at prestigious universities with storied technology programs, such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says Dylan Hendricks. He co-directs the Future 50 partnership at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit that helps organizations plan for the future.

But forward-looking degrees also are part of curricula at technical colleges, art and design colleges, and community colleges, which tend to be “more pragmatically forward thinking” than liberal arts colleges, Hendricks says. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities are preparing liberal arts students for a tech-enabled world.

Evolving Technologies Challenge Colleges to Keep Pace

Such is the case at the Ringling College of Art and Design, which began offering a bachelor’s degree in VR this year. 

The goal of the program isn’t simply to prepare students for jobs that will be on the market two years from now but to give them a foundation for lifelong careers, says Morgan Woolverton, interim department head for game art and VR development.

That long-range view is important, he says, because VR is still so new. 


The number of students enrolled in the Ringling College of Art and Design VR degree program

Source: Ringling College of Art and Design

Woolverton likens the current state of AI to the golden age of Hollywood. Although movies made during that time have become classics, he says, they appear dated because “the edits were fast, and technologies were not quite worked out.” In the years since, of course, moviemaking technology has advanced to the point that the second-highest-grossing movie of all time centers on bringing down a big, purple, computer-generated bad guy

It’s reasonable to expect that VR will undergo a similarly dramatic evolution.

So far, though, few specialists are immersed in the field. Woolverton says he hopes that by training students in a dedicated program, they “will be taking the mantle, going forward into the world and creating opportunities.” 

Robotics Is a Popular Draw for the Next Generation of Engineers

Worcester Polytechnic Institute created its robotics undergraduate major more than a decade ago for the same reason Ringling is moving forward in VR: It saw a need. 

Computer science faculty, along with colleagues in mechanical and electrical engineering, recognized that robotics was poised for growth, says Craig Wills, who heads the computer science department. 

The institute’s leaders also drew on their involvement with the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students, which showed that plenty of young people were interested in studying the technology in college. 

So far, the program has been a success: Last year, 79 students graduated from WPI with a bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering

At graduation, more than 95 percent of those students were employed, in graduate school or serving in the military. Those with jobs — with companies such as Amazon Robotics, Boeing and Tesla — were earning an average of $78,371 per year, according to WPI’s “Post-Graduation Report: Class of 2018.” 

The field of robotics is still fluid, says Wills, and institutions will likely evolve their programs accordingly. 

“Whether they should have the degree in robotics, or a related degree with computer science or mechanical engineering or electrical engineering” isn’t quite clear, he says. But in any case, “I think it’s very nice that we have that obvious draw with the degree. It’s a good place to get students in the door and let them find themselves.” 

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how colleges are revamping their online education programs.

Carnegie Mellon Builds AI Degree from Existing Academic Foundation

Carnegie Mellon University began offering an undergraduate degree in AI, the first of its kind in the United States, in 2018. 

“Sixty-plus years after the field was started, we had reached a level of maturity in terms of technology and understanding of the underlying technologies that it could support a standalone undergraduate major,” says Reid Simmons, director of CMU’s undergraduate AI degree program.

“We also felt the time was right in terms of industry, government and public interest in intelligence that it made sense to educate the next generation of technologists who are going to advance this very important field,” he says. 

Creating the curriculum was fairly smooth, he says, because CMU already taught AI in other programs. The challenge was more a matter of “trying to fit a very large amount of material into a package that would be considered an undergraduate major,” he says. 


The number of students graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s robotics engineering program in 2018

Source: WPI, “Post-Graduation Report: Class of 2018”

The university leaders who developed the curricula also made sure to include the social-responsibility and ethical aspects of AI, including privacy, fairness, bias and equality. 

“It all comes into play when you’re dealing with a technology that is going to be as powerful and pervasive as AI is expected to be,” says Simmons.

Whether or not institutions can provide job-specific training in emerging fields remains to be seen, Hendricks says, because in many cases, industry is moving faster than academics

In addition, with tech companies such as Google, Apple and IBM eliminating college degree requirements for candidates, colleges may be forced to rethink how they demonstrate graduates’ career readiness. Higher education, of course, continues to evolve right alongside emerging technologies.

“It’s an open question of whether or not the established universities will be able to gatekeep those kinds of degrees in the same way that they have been traditionally be able to do,” says Hendricks.


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