As the world refocuses on breakthroughs on global issues such as technology and environmental challenges, universities are also transforming their studies to serve students’ changing interests.
Studies in artificial intelligence, climate change and entrepreneurship may seem like they don’t have a whole lot in common, but there is one underlying element to the way they are now taught: integration.
These are no longer stand-alone subjects at university. The impact they have on everyday life makes them relevant to a myriad of subjects, and they’re now integrated into everything from visual arts to engineering.
Just a few years ago, entrepreneurship was only found in the syllabus of a business course. But taking an idea and developing it into a commercialized product or business is not limited to those with a business background, so why should the lessons of entrepreneurship be only for those students in that area of study?
“Students want to learn more about entrepreneurship in the classroom from across the board, in sciences, social sciences, clean technology, the arts, all of it,” says Derek Newton, assistant vice-president of innovation, partnerships and entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto. “We now have more than 100 courses in entrepreneurship that our students can take across multiple disciplines.”
More universities are also looking at how cross-pollination of disciplines and departments can spark unique business ideas and are even developing bricks-and-mortar spaces to foster this multidisciplinary creativity. For instance, ONRamp is a 15,000 square foot collaboration, incubation and co-working space developed specifically for U of T’s entrepreneurship community.
Its partners include University of Western Ontario, University of Waterloo, Queen’s University and McMaster University. Plans are also underway for a 750,000 square foot innovation complex to be built on the campus, which, when completed, is expected to house the largest concentration of student- and faculty-led startups in Canada.
Then there’s climate change, a field that experts say presents the biggest challenges our world has ever faced from a social, political and economic standpoint.
Because it affects our daily lives, climate change should be integrated into almost every area of student learning, according to Seth Wynes, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Wynes’s research looks at how governments and education institutions deliver information to the public about climate change and he’s found there is definite room for improvement.
But he is seeing more integration of climate change in a variety of postsecondary departments, which he says is a good start.
“When you’re looking at universities, climate change can be talked about in a variety of areas,” Mr. Wynes says. “In business, we can talk about stranded assets and the effects that decarbonization will have on the economy, in psychology departments we can talk about the cognitive processes that hamper people adopting strong actions on climate change.
"And something I hear about more lately is incorporating more narratives about climate change into literature.”
Like entrepreneurship and climate change, AI has made its way into a large number of industries in the past few years. Indeed, more employers from various fields are looking for graduates that have some interaction with AI while at school.
“All fields are doing AI now … because it’s a technique that’s now used in many [industrial] and research areas. And students are keenly aware of this,” says Peter van Beek, co-director of the AI Institute at Waterloo University.
AI and, in particular machine learning, are traditionally associated with computer science, engineering and manufacturing. But as the technology has grown so has its reach, Dr. van Beek says.
These areas are now much more commonplace in financial institutions and insurance firms that use predictive algorithms and massive amounts of data to assess areas such as risk.
“There’s a lot of student interest in the courses that are offered from all areas and we have a very large co-op program in our undergraduate years,” adds Dr. van Beek. “What I’m seeing in résumés from students these days is that a lot of what they are doing, in a wide variety of fields, is AI related.”