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How does an institution like the University of Delaware build on a 275-year history to continue being relevant in an unpredictable future? By remaining true to its mission and purpose.
How does an institution like the University of Delaware build on a 275-year history to continue being relevant in an unpredictable future? By remaining true to its mission and purpose.

Intellectual Intersection

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

How UD builds on a 275-year legacy to create the knowledge economy of today and tomorrow

Once upon a time, the best way to learn about organic chemistry or Renaissance art or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was to sit in a college classroom and let a professor explain it to you. And employers hired you because you knew useful stuff.

That was B.I. — Before the Internet — before virtually every bit of human knowledge was freely available to everyone everywhere all the time, accessible from the always-connected, constantly updated little computers we carry in our pockets.

So what’s the point of college now? How do you prepare for a career in tomorrow’s world, where four out of five jobs haven’t even been invented yet? And how does an institution like the University of Delaware build on a 275-year history to continue being relevant in an unpredictable future?

“UD has always been an excellent place to teach students how to learn and grow as human beings,” says President Dennis Assanis. “The real essence of a UD education — the critical thinking, the communication skills, the teamwork — that won’t ever change. In fact, it’s going to be even more critical in the future.”

That’s because we live in a world of abundant information — an overwhelming amount of it, in fact, and it’s growing exponentially every second. Just a few years ago, global Internet traffic hit 1 zettabyte a year — that’s a trillion gigabytes of data zooming around the world’s networks. By next year, we’ll double that amount. And a few years later, we’ll double it again.

“So the question is, ‘How do we as a university add value to that information?’ ” asks Charlie Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation. “We have to teach students how to navigate and succeed in an information-rich world.”

A doctoral chemist by education, Riordan says a liberal arts education has long been — and will continue to be — an excellent financial investment and one of the best ways to ensure a stable career.

“Education is the best antidote to unemployment,” Riordan explains, as those with bachelor’s or advanced degrees always have lower unemployment rates than those with a high school education. “Yes, choosing a major in college is important, but any discipline can provide a very fertile framework for acquiring a lifetime of skills, like how to do research and work with people with different backgrounds and perspectives.”

Experts say today’s students will change jobs eight to 10 times by age 38, with even more changes as people live longer and extend their working lives. “That means it’s going to be hard to maintain a career, and you’ll have to work at acquiring new skills,” says Ed Ratledge, director of UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research.

Workers will need more “in the moment” education — think YouTube videos to learn computer coding or smartphone apps to pick up a new language for an overseas opportunity — and technology will continue to make education more accessible and interactive. Forget the old “sage on a stage” lecture and imagine collaborating online with other students around the world. That means lifelong-learning skills will be just as valuable as subject-matter expertise.

That’s not to discount deep knowledge in a particular domain. Experts say workers will still need experience and fluency in their specialty, but they also have to know how to put that knowledge into a broader context and use it to get things done. What’s more, every worker can benefit from developing an entrepreneurial mindset — one that incorporates vision, perseverance, creative problem-solving and the ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.

“Entrepreneurship is about far more than just starting a business,” says Dan Freeman, director of UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship program. “It’s about recognizing the problems and limitless opportunities that are all around us, including those being created by rapid change. It’s about developing and using an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset to create, deliver and capture value from new ideas. It’s about the innovation imperative that all organizations face. And it’s about being proactive by making the future instead of simply trying to cope with it.”

Students need these flexible, adaptive skills because they’ll face some big challenges ahead. “As a society, we only have the really hard problems left to solve,” Riordan says. “Those solutions will require collaborative, interdisciplinary teams.”

For example, futurists say technological advances will spur more human-machine partnerships in every aspect of life. Artificial intelligence will help improve our health care and secure cyberspace; drones will deliver food and medicine in hard-to-reach communities; augmented- and virtual-reality tools will help us manage dangerous environments. Yet, how do we make sure those advances benefit society as a whole? Who will be legally or morally responsible for the decisions that machines make? How should we redesign streets and sidewalks to make them more attractive to people, rather than just accommodate new autonomous vehicles? What public policies will make “smart cities” not just more connected but also more resilient and more livable? Those questions — and countless others — will require the insights of philosophers, educators, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and more.

Universities are uniquely suited to answer these types of questions, Assanis says.

“One of the primary missions of a major research university like UD is to be an intellectual intersection — a hub of discovery that combines and amplifies the work of multiple disciplines,” Assanis says. “The big challenges are incredibly complex, so they have to be addressed from many different angles.”

UD’s biggest initiatives embrace this holistic approach. The new Data Science Institute, launched in September 2018, will harness vast amounts of information in medicine, consumer industries, politics, education and other areas to understand and predict what’s happening around us. More than 120 faculty members already use big-data tools for environmental monitoring, financial-services analysis, transportation research and more, and UD is hiring more faculty to work in this arena. Another example is UD’s Biden Institute, which draws on the experience of former Vice President Joe Biden and experts throughout the university to address a host of domestic policy issues. Also, UD’s biopharmaceutical initiative brings together the work of faculty in engineering, chemistry, materials sciences, health care and life sciences to develop potential treatments and cures for devastating diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. That effort also involves the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), a UD-based partnership of 150 universities, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies.

“Partnerships like NIIMBL will be key to innovation in the future,” says Kelvin Lee, Gore Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of NIIMBL. “No one can address society’s grand challenges alone.”

Collaboration, communication, creativity — these are the essential skills for the knowledge economy of today and tomorrow. Every day, machines are getting faster and more accurate, and artificial intelligence and robotics are taking over human tasks at an ever increasing pace. So universities have to focus on developing the uniquely human traits of future generations of students and pushing the boundaries of knowledge, says Assanis.

“True education is the thread that has run through UD’s entire history,” he adds, “and it’s going to continue to carry us far into the future, whatever that might hold.”

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the University of Delaware Magazine, which also features a variety of UD experts predicting how the world may change in the years, decades and centuries to come: https://www.udel.edu/home/envisioning-future/.  

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