IBM, Professors Team Up to Train ‘Smart’ Students for a Green Jobs Future

The World is Counting on These Future Engineers to Solve Climate Change

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While most green jobs training programs focus on skills like solar panel installation, weatherization of homes and wind turbine maintenance, a few studies have come out recently revealing a growing need for training in more highly skilled positions — everything from building engineers who understand energy efficiency to chemists who can help come up with new and more sustainable materials.

This morning, IBM and Columbia University announced a new initiative called Smarter Students for a Smarter Planet aimed at addressing that end of the green jobs market.

Granted, Columbia University graduates aren’t typically lacking in opportunities, but this is a green jobs story that’s focused less on providing people with new opportunities in a growing industry and more on finding and training the scientists and engineers who, theoretically, are going to wizard us out of this global warming mess.

Columbia has been partnering with IBM for some time now, and the school is one of the leading educational institutions in the country for those pursuing advanced studies related to environmental issues. It offers 23 degrees related to environmental studies, and its Earth Institute and Columbia Water Center are leading research centers in the areas of environmental behavior and economics, and water, respectively.

But while IBM has been hiring Columbia grads for years and interacting with the school’s researchers and faculty on a regular basis, what it’s attempting to do now goes farther. The company will be providing both software and courseware to undergraduate students and faculty, all built around its Smarter Planet initiatives.

“The IBM initiative will provide free access to a lot of software that relates to energy management, as well as courseware, cloud computing capabilities, smart systems, analytics, technology roadmaps and the like,” explains Jack McGourty, Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University.

“We’re going to take a lot of that curricula and those tools and start to embed them in our first-year design course, which is a core requirement that every engineering student needs to take.”

McGourty adds that this particular engineering course is already fairly well-known because it teaches what he calls “service” or “applied” learning. Columbia is the only engineering school to require such a class for graduation.

“Our mission as a school is to educate socially responsible engineers — that’s in our mission statement — and we decided a long time ago that, in order to do that, our students needed to be able to immediately employ their skills to the benefit of the community, to understand right off the bat the impact of their work.”

As part of the first phase of the IBM initiative, McGourty says the school will look at this course, which has been around for eight years, and start to build a “smarter city” context into it.

“It’s a big deal and very important to get students thinking about this stuff right away, but it’s also low-hanging fruit in terms of being something we can do right away,” McGourty says. He says the plan is to eventually integrate IBM’s knowledge and tools into other key courses, such as one focused on the electrical grid that will begin next year.
While undergraduate classes will be learning new tools and ways of thinking, graduate and post-doctoral students will be working with IBM researchers to share ideas about ways to make the world smarter.

“We call it ‘Smart X,’ because right now you’ve got the smart city stuff, but eventually we’ll have smart medical practices, smart law, and so on, and we need everyone working together on these challenges,” McGourty says.

Some researchers and analysts have voiced concern in the past over educational programs, particularly those aimed at addressing problems that affect the greater good, being funded by corporations that have an eventual and inevitable profit motive. But McGourty says that input from companies such as IBM only augments public funding and input, and that one of the best ways for his students to learn to apply their knowledge is to see how working engineers approach real-world problems.

“We’re talking about a critical need for certain skills,” he says. "Students being able to deal with open-ended problems is critical.

"When you work with companies like IBM — where their engineers and other employees are really experts at what they do — it becomes easier for students to learn how to approach real-world problems; I call them open-ended because there’s no clear ‘right’ answer.

“Young students are no good at this, they just never are because they don’t understand it. Mostly because all through high school all they’ve dealt with are close-ended problems with right and wrong answers. … Now, all of a sudden, when you start to work on the kinds of problems facing the world today, there’s a different skill set required. How do I deal with a challenge that has no right answer, but instead has a lot of answers, each of which comes with compromises and competing advantages and restraints?”

In addition to helping students learn how to approach open-ended problems, McGourty says the courseware and software the company is providing will help train his students in a host of other areas he sees as skills that are desperately needed in the race to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems: project management, systems integration, and the ability to analyze, visualize and then communicate data.

“One thing younger students really struggle with is understanding, when they’re designing a product or service, that there are multiple stakeholders,” McGourty explains.

“Even when you say who’s the customer? There are multiple levels to that, and you need to identify them, communicate with them, understand their perspective, and how they see the problem and the potential solutions. All of that needs to be worked out, and especially in a city environment, where you’ve got to communicate to building owners, government agencies, technology experts, banks, and so on.”

McGourty hopes the IBM partnership will also help his students learn about the benefits of collaboration.

“I taught essentially the same class to two classes last semester — one was an undergrad class and the other was a group of mid- to senior managers in an executive training course — and I gave them both the same task one week: I divided them into teams and asked them to make a wiki for their team and use it to collaborate with each other and with other teams. I gave them all the tools they’d need and sent them away with it because I wanted to see what they would do.

"I expected the younger students to be all over it, and the older class to be at a loss, but the following week, the younger group just had eight empty wiki pages and the older class had posted YouTube videos and links, they were talking to each other and actually using this collaborative space. And I realized, these people are used to doing this at work; the younger kids are used to Facebook and Twitter and all that, but they still need to learn how to use these tools for work.”

Industry analysts and pundits have been arguing for the past few years about whether the United States has a critical lack of engineers and scientists. While China and India seem to be graduating more and more students in these areas of study, the numbers in the United States have been dropping off.

Tech startup guru and Duke University executive in residence Vivek Wadhwa has argued that mislabeling of graduates on both sides explains a lot of the discrepancy between, for example, China’s 600,000 engineering graduates and the United States’ 70,000 engineering graduates. McGourty adds to that the fact that he believes engineering programs are providing fundamental problem-solving skills to people who often don’t go on to be technical engineers.

“In my experience, more and more people are finding that engineering is a great way to set yourself up to contribute to society,” he says. “You don’t have to be an engineer when you’re finished, but you have this great skill set at the end for solving problems.

"If we can work on our engineers to have all those advanced skills, whether they become an engineer or go into law, medicine, politics — I would love to see politicians have these skill sets — they are set up to benefit society.”

IBM’s program at Columbia is officially launching on Thursday, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The company plans to roll out similar partnerships at other educational institutions throughout the United States and elsewhere.

Big Blue’s solution to whatever engineering shortage there may be seems to be to take matters into its own hands and go into the schools to train the people it needs. Lucky for the rest of us, at the moment those needs happen to coincide with the greater good.


See also:

Green Power’s Challenge: Willing Workers, Few Training Programs

Lack of Trained Workforce Still an Obstacle to Smart Grid Success

Universities Start Tailoring Degrees to Green Jobs


(Photo: benmurray/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)