The (Big) Idea: Integrate Education and Research with Innovation and Community

This week, Dr. Suvojit Ghosh joins me in writing this post.

All of us have experienced disruption due to rapid innovation. Think here of recent discussions, successes and failures around artificial intelligence, fintech, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrencies and even reusable satellite launch platforms.

Often, for a company, the difference between commercial success and failure is due not to a lack of foresight about technological disruption but rather because of poor customer discovery and implementation, and of course price and market demand.

While we now recognize the iPhone as a seminal disruptive device, its initial sales were weak just after Steve Jobs announced its debut in January 2007. The first $600 iPhone could only send text messages, and was incapable of video recording, custom ringtones, high storage, Bluetooth with stereo audio streaming and voice dialling, which were then common functions for inexpensive $50 mobile handsets.

The iPhone was more than a phone, it was a handheld computer. This was not immediately recognized by the makers of popular handset models, or even smartphone makers. The Ericsson GS88 and Nokia Communicator were modestly successful smartphones that were released a decade before the iPhone.

With disruption comes volatility and risk, and therefore uncertainty.

Eleven months after Jobs’ announcement of the iPhone, Google announced its own smartphone platform, Android, with the intention of bringing ubiquitous internet access and search. Although the Symbion OS, Palm OS, BlackBerry OS and Windows CE smartphone preceded the iPhone iOS and Android, soon after Nokia, Motorola, Sony-Ericsson and BlackBerry that used these operating systems became troubled brands.

How can we better prepare university graduates for the complexity surrounding disruption?

Disciplinary expertise is as important as it was in the past. A discipline-based education imparts skills that are relatively deep and narrow but necessary for their careers. By nature these skills are perishable. Typically, if graduates do not use these skills they lose them. Even having taken a trigonometry course or a history course in university, how many graduates truly remember those details?

For today’s graduates, a broader awareness of evolving technologies, potential disruptions and the ability to actively engage with innovators is equally important for career success.

Hence, educational programs have increased their emphasis on learning outcomes that facilitate more durable skills, ones that enhance lifelong learning, interdisciplinary collaboration, multicultural understanding and creativity. These are also the skills that employers demand. Entry level hires are now assessed based on their capacity for teamwork, communication, functional knowledge and problem-solving.

University education therefore increasingly integrates traditional pedagogy with inquiry and experiential, problem-based and project-based learning. This typically involves learning by doing, a method through which students are taught to learn independently and also how to work effectively in teams on real world solutions.

This form of learning can be facilitated through immersion in an innovation classroom,. where students have steady access to carefully curated short “gigs”, which are purposefully designed immersive sprints to facilitate experiential learning.

The students in such a hybrid classroom-laboratory learn to innovate, pivot and provide solutions for companies at various stages of development, from startup to listing on a stock exchange. In all cases, company growth is linked inextricably to innovation, and entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship.

During two to four-week sprints such a laboratory, students learn about emerging technologies and market trends. They use design thinking to develop solutions in a real-world environment that provide value for a real-world client who has a real-world problem.  Once their learning is successfully assessed, students receive badges and micro-credentials.

Think of this as the equivalent of a teaching hospital, since the laboratory requires students to cooperate with persons from many different backgrounds and disciplines.

Such a teaching laboratory also leads to topical research since it is also a resource centre. The inclusion of researchers is critical for the success of the resource centre since many short gigs have the potential to develop into longer term partnerships, enhancing research opportunities. Besides, the researchers can also participate as innovation instructors.

Thus, the classroom is a laboratory that is a resource centre as well. Due to the unique model of learning and authentic value for clients, the resource centre also attracts innovation-driven companies to the university, enhancing its economic impact and community engagement.

This year marks the diamond jubilee of McMaster Engineering, which started with a Big Idea: Broaden McMaster University’s research-intensive mandate to create a full-fledged Faculty of Engineering. What followed were years of big aspirations to foster a dynamic community, research environment, innovative spirit and premier education.

Those aspirations continue. This is another (Big) Idea that improves the competencies of graduates and enhances the relevance and intensity of research.

My collaborator on this post, Dr. Suvojit Ghosh, is co-founder and managing director of the Computing Infrastructure Research Centre (CIRC) at McMaster University, where he was awarded the President’s Awards for Outstanding Service in 2016. CIRC is Canada’s first and only centre established to develop new technologies for the $100B+ data centre industry in partnership with academics and companies. Dr. Ghosh has a doctoral degree from Virginia Tech. There, he was a winner of the $100,000 VT KnowledgeWorks Tech Transfer Challenge in 2013 to commercialize a computer chip cooling technology using a magnetic fluid,, and was also awarded the Liviu Librescu Memorial Scholarship and the Manuel Stein Scholarship for his academic excellence.

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