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How Temple, Drexel and Penn predict which technologies will pilot the future

A look at programs at three Philly universities that are preparing students for emerging tech careers in fields like robotics, industrial engineering and esports.

Pennovation Center Lab. (Photo by James Ewing)

This editorial article is a part of Technology of the Future Month of's editorial calendar. In Philly, this month’s theme is underwritten by Linode. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Linode before publication.

Higher education institutions must always be looking toward to future, while modernizing their practices to help students best prepare for their professional futures. That’s especially true for the region’s tech programs.

These train students who will fill some half a million new tech jobs that are projected to be created within the U.S. in the next decade, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Predicting what tech trends will yield industry growth, innovation and new jobs is one of John Swartley’s favorite parts about his job. He’s the associate vice provost for research and managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) and has been at the University of Pennsylvania for 14 years across tech and commercialization roles. His current job means he’s constantly thinking about what the next decade might bring.

Some of the novel projects out of the PCI include the emergence of the CAR-T field as a revolution in the field of medicine and immuno-oncology and the research that’s followed, Swartley told, as well as Penn’s GRASP Lab established through the Pennovation Center by the School of Engineering to support advancements in robotics. (GRASP stands for general robotics, automation, sensing and perception.) It’s lead to collaborations, corporate partnerships and the launch of multiple exciting startups, including Exyn Technologies and Ghost Robotics.

What exactly are Swartley and other Penn leaders looking out for?

“We’re keeping our eye out for where we think areas of opportunity will be, industry trends, or technologies that are likely to start shaping the future of consumer and patient demand,” he said — “which technology will change the way people conduct business. For me, it’s the futurist part of my role. I really embrace it and am inspired by it.”

Universities always want to be prepared when a shift occurs, Swartly said. A decade ago, PCI noticed an uptick in cell and gene therapy research, and when the boom began in the area, the team was ready.

“It was no accident,” he said. “We wanted to position Penn as a world epicenter.”

Outside of institutions directly tasked with fostering innovation, the classroom is often where new theories or technologies are actually taught to the next phase of the workforce.

The same goes for being prepared to work remotely. A few years ago, each staff member at PCI was outfitted with remote working equipment and the ability to unplug and plug into work from anywhere. It allowed for an easy transition at the beginning of the pandemic, Swartly said.

Outside of institutions directly tasked with fostering innovation, the classroom is often where new theories or technologies are actually taught to the next phase of the workforce.

At Temple University, David Brookstein, the senior associate dean in the College of Engineering, was instrumental in introducing the school’s new industrial and systems engineering program a few years ago. Industrial engineering was first used in factories and early computing, but is now integral in everything from the optimization of getting Amazon orders where they need to go, to the FastPass system at Disney World, and even to the recent distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. Philly didn’t have a program like this, and it pairs well with Fox School of Businesses’ supply chain programs, Brookstein said.

After noticing these trends, Brookstein went through the process of introducing the programing to boards of the engineering school and university, and eventually drew up a curriculum. The program’s first students will graduate with their degree in industrial and systems engineering in two years. He said he used design thinking, which Temple teaches to all of its engineering students, to create the program.

It starts with identifying a need, he said, then clarifying and formulating the problem while working on a solution. Accordingly, he saw the need for this program in the quickly growing industry, and solved the problem in the creation of the program. But just because Temple has this new program doesn’t mean the learning stops when students get their degrees, Brookstein said.

“I tell students on day one, it doesn’t matter where you go after here, but 50% of what we teach you now will be obsolete in a few years, and you’re going to have to learn how to learn,” he said.

Like many industries, tech changes constantly. Brookstein shared this statistic: Our knowledge of technology doubles every 12 hours. You can feel that change in the number of technology patents every year. In 2019, a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents, a 15% increase from the year before, were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In a real sense, we were responding to changes within not only the marketplace from a business standpoint, but also society standpoint.

And what does life look like inside the first semester of a brand-new tech program? Drexel University students are nearing the end of their first quarter in the newly formed esports business program, a degree within the LeBow College of Business that also requires game design and management classes within the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

Before the program was launched, students presented research on the logistics of launching collegiate esports team, and Drexel President John Fry later directed a task force to explore and conceptualize esports as a future program. The first students were able to enroll this fall.

Jeffrey Levine, an assistant clinical professor at LeBow, leads the program and told his interest in the industry predates his arrival at the college in 2018.

“This was unique endeavor. In a real sense, we were responding to changes within not only the marketplace from a business standpoint, but also society standpoint,” Levine said. “It’s important that the mission here for the college is to shape the future, we want to keep developing the curriculum to keep up with the trends and so that students are prepared for emerging areas of the industry.”

There’s no one person within the college whose job it is to notice trends and implement them into programs, Levine said, as most faculty do it naturally. The esports major isn’t entirely tech focused — it could lead to business, sales, development, legal or talent representation roles. The major’s meant to evolve and be customized to the students’ interests for the quickly growing industry, Levine said.

“Most people are current students who have a vested interest in this major,” he said. “They likely switched into it from another major, and they’re very knowledgeable, passionate, and they are very interested in getting their hands dirty.”

Companies: Exyn Technologies / Pennovation Center / Linode / Drexel University / Fox School of Business / GRASP Laboratory / Temple University / University of Pennsylvania
Series: Technology of the Future Month 2020
People: John Swartley / John Fry

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