Aug. 1, 2018

Can a university lead a digital revolution? Educating a workforce in a hyper-connected world

With the onset of the Internet of Things, intelligent systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning, UCalgary faculty focus on preparing students to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace.

When Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, it was the first smartphone to combine the communications features of a mobile phone, the hard drive and storage capacity of an mp3 player, access to the Internet and an easy-to-use touchscreen interface. One of its advertising slogans was, "This is only the beginning." These words proved prophetic.

In the short time since then, each new iteration of smartphones (from any brand) has featured more computing power, more storage, more capabilities, and faster network access. The rate of smartphone adoption is growing steadily worldwide. Households are cutting their landlines as fast as they're cutting their cable TV subscriptions. The telephone is quickly becoming an anachronism, held up to giggling, incredulous children to show them how primitive the world was when their parents were young. ("Imagine, kids! It was wired to the WALL!")

After computers, smartphones were the second type of common devices to connect to the Internet. (One could argue that smartphones are nothing but handheld computers with telephonic capability, but that's a matter of perspective.) Now, with the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT), the world is climbing a third wave of connectivity, as more and more everyday devices are Internet-capable. Fridges, televisions, security cameras, thermostats, baby monitors, video game systems – all online, all connected and controlled by smart home assistants, voice-activated devices that can do everything from fast-forward a song to shop for groceries to dim the lights.

And that's just for consumers. There's also the Industrial Internet of Things, where manufacturing and distribution systems are all online, along with their administrative systems. Together, these systems collect and analyze data to automate and optimize industrial processes and help organizations make decisions.

"Technology is changing the world at an unprecedented rate," says Dr. Bill Rosehart, PhD, dean of UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. "We've already seen the mass adoption of mobile computing devices, with computational strength we never would have imagined a few years ago. Add to that the Internet of Things, along with intelligent systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analysis, and I would say every sector of our society is in a technological revolution right now."

As every sector of society becomes more technologically advanced, it adds to its own (and the world's) body of knowledge, both in terms of discoveries in its field and the data that goes along with it.

"The rate at which knowledge is growing is phenomenal," says Rosehart. "The doubling of knowledge used to be measured in decades, if not centuries. It's now measured in years. Soon it'll be fractions of years."

When technology and knowledge are advancing so quickly, how can a university stay at the forefront of the disciplines it teaches and make sure students are prepared for the world as it will be, not as it is?

Part of ensuring students are prepared to enter the workforce in a time of such widespread change and uncertainty is to recognize where the career opportunities of the future lie, and what the necessary skills will be to seize them.

“As we look to what the career opportunities of tomorrow will be," says Dr. Lesley Rigg, PhD, dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Science, "we're focused not only on providing students with the foundational base knowledge they need, but also on providing them with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, analytic capabilities – and curiosity and imagination – which have all been identified as critical ‘survival skills’ in the workplace of the future."

Privacy and security in a connected world

The rapidly increasing digitization of the world comes with uncertainty, but also with opportunity. As nascent sectors come into their own, graduates who are adaptable and think entrepreneurially are well-positioned to lead the way. 

"Privacy and security are two of the biggest challenges of the digital world," says Dr. Rei Safavi-Naini, PhD, a professor in UCalgary's Department of Computer Science. As everything we do moves online, from shopping to searching for information to ordering a pizza to booking a flight, so too do all the traces of everything we do – whether we know it or not. The privacy implications are clear. "Everything you do leaves a footprint that someone can put together into a picture of you and use for profit," says Safavi-Naini. "And you don't even know this information exists."

In addition to the information that's collected about us that we don't know about, our obsession with data means that sensors are now built into virtually everything around us. "We like to measure things," says Safavi-Naini, who is also the AITF Chair in Information Security and the director of the Institute for Privacy, Security and Information Assurance. "So everything becomes sensorized. Not just our devices, but our bodies. Fitness devices, trackers, bikes, clothes. All this data gets sent to the cloud. It's unnerving how much information we send to the cloud. If you think of it as a person, they have a perfect picture of everything going on inside your home."

We tend to think of "the cloud" as an anonymous, formless concept, but behind all the networks and servers and data storage centres that make the cloud possible, there are real, live people who have access to these oceans of information.

And that's assuming this data is all collected and stored securely and aboveboard. But what if it isn't? As more appliances, devices and gadgets come online, more of them are exposed to the potential for security breaches. Every connection point is a potential open door for hackers, criminals and other bad actors not only to steal personal data, but to exploit connected devices for their own ends.

In 2016, a cyber-attack brought down a significant portion of the United States' Internet. The attack was caused by the Mirai botnet, a network of millions of IoT devices such as digital cameras and DVR players that were infected by the Mirai malware to attack one of the key servers of the Internet and cause the server to crash.  Other high-profile attacks included hijacking a network of connected vending machines at a university.

This is where data security comes in. What good is a world or even a home environment of connected devices if they can be turned against us? "Security is more than a password," says Safavi-Naini. "Security is about creating an online environment we live and work in that is under our control. Where we control our own resources and they do what we want them to do." 

Training students for an exploding sector

While a more connected world creates more opportunities for security breaches, it also creates more opportunities for countermeasures and safeguarding against criminals and hackers. In order to address the need for skilled workers in a growing information security sector, UCalgary's Faculty of Science created graduate-level information security certificate programs.

"Information security is one of the most in-demand roles around the world," says Safavi-Naini. "There are the techniques, such as cryptography and data analysis. But there's also designing secure systems, implementing them and monitoring them. Risk analysis, writing code that can't be hacked, that's all part of security. Then you have administration. And now organizations also have security officers, compliance officers and privacy officers."

In addition to training for these types of jobs with traditional IT organizations and departments, Safavi-Naini says it's also important to expose students to the idea that they can create their own opportunities. "This way of thinking that once you graduate, you have to join a company – that's not the only way," she says. "In the digital economy, the sharing economy, there are so many security implications. You can develop applications that add security and privacy to people's everyday interactions with the online world. Identity management. Consultancy. These are all opportunities for startups."

In order to identify and take advantage of such opportunities, especially in a marketplace that's evolving so quickly, Safavi-Naini says it's crucial for students to have the skills to be able to keep up. That's not an approach that's always been taught in the computer science field, where traditionally much of the focus has been on technical skills. "Just teaching the latest programming language doesn't do the job," she says. "Tomorrow, the language will change. So we teach them the abstract foundations of computer science. How to think, how to design, how to evaluate statistics. How to educate themselves."

Other, so-called soft skills are important in today's marketplace, too. "Computer science has been centred around problem-solving and thinking for a long time," says Safavi-Naini. "But now students need to be able to communicate what they're working on. To explain why what they're doing is important, in high-level language that you or I can understand."

The ability for students to educate themselves and to stay relevant long after graduation isn't just a nice-to-have anymore. It's crucial considering the way the world is headed. "This isn't just a bubble, the hype of today," says Safavi-Naini. "The more things go digital, the more financial incentive there is for people to break into systems, the more need there will be for more complex protection."

Finding the story in data

If keeping data secure and private in an ever-more-connected world is a huge challenge, so is figuring out how to actually make sense of all that data. "We live in a data-driven society," says Jim Stallard, a teaching professor and associate head of UCalgary's Department of Mathematics and Statistics. "Everywhere you look, data is produced. We each have this very powerful computer in our pockets. Many of the apps on our respective devices are collecting and transmitting data, whether or not we like it or know it."

So far, most of the applications for this data seem to be commercial. "Many companies are using data to get us to buy more stuff," says Stallard. "To change our social or financial behaviours, or maybe to change human behaviours in such a way that somebody makes more profit."

But these practices are also changing the way in which data itself is generated. In the past, most data came from experimental design, for example, trying to determine whether drug A was better than drug B. Such experiments usually result in limited amounts of data, which are easier to work with.

"The way data is collected now, it's more observed rather than generated through a well-structured experimental design," says Stallard. In other words, when everything we use is collecting data about our behaviour, rather than setting up an experiment and recruiting participants and recording results, statisticians can simply watch what we do in our day-to-day lives.

While this means there's far more data available, and it's more accessible, it requires new statistical techniques for interpretation and analysis. "Some of the traditional methods don't apply when you're dealing with thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of data pieces," says Stallard. "So how do we transform the science to make sense of data when the data files are a couple of gigabytes in size instead of a couple of kilobytes?"

Enter the emerging discipline of data science, which Stallard describes as a hybrid between computer science and statistics. "'Data science' is a term that's been used by computer scientists and statisticians for the past 10 years or so," says Stallard. "But it's an emerging field in the sense that the term is subjective. What is data science? Computer scientists have a view on what it is, statisticians have a view, economists likely have a different view. These have likely been disjointed views, with few commonalities until now, but I see them merging into data science in the next five or ten years, at least in the applied aspects."

Creating credentials for an emerging discipline

Stallard is part of a cross-disciplinary group working to develop data science programs at UCalgary, for all academic levels. First, a post-graduate certificate and diploma program in data science and analytics is launching this fall, with specializations in the diploma program for business analytics, data science and health analytics. These new graduate-level programs are being offered alongside an undergraduate minor in data science. Stallard says the plan is to eventually offer a master's program and an undergraduate degree in data science.

According to Stallard, the first step in developing the program was to agree on what a data scientist actually does ("we got into some pretty heated debates," he says) and develop a set of skills and competencies based on that profile.

"It's the job of a data scientist to decipher the hidden story in data," says Stallard. "First, you need to be able to formulate a problem. What are you investigating? Where are the connections? Then you need to be able to organize data in a way that makes it easier to work with and to understand. Oftentimes you have to clean up the data. Then how do you best visualize the data so you can make sense of it? Lastly, you need to be able to communicate the results in a way so the person on the street can understand it."

Putting data science to work

The everyday applications of data science may not be obvious to the person on the street, but if you've browsed an online store or a read a news story or a listened to a music subscription service, you'll be familiar with at least one of its uses: recommendations tailored to your activities and habits. When you buy something on Amazon, for example, and it tells you what others who bought the same item have bought or looked at or listened to, that's data science in action.

"There are relationships inherent in those transactions," says Stallard. "You have preferences related to certain aspects of something, and other people have different preferences related to different aspects of the same thing. The trick is to sort it out and predict what you might be more likely to buy." After all, such a predictive function wouldn't be much good if it offered you things you don't actually care about.

Other familiar applications of data science include ancestry websites, where you send DNA samples and they trace your ancestry; or clothing subscription services, where you pay a monthly fee and they send you different outfits based on your previous purchases and the tastes of others who bought similar items.

In the future, Stallard envisions tremendous growth opportunities for data science in health care. "There's widespread digitization of medical records happening," he says. "Now imagine you have symptoms X, Y, and Z. You enter these in a Web interface, along with other data like age, sex, lifestyle habits, smoking history, and so on. It not only gives you a list of conditions you may have, but also tells you what treatments were effective for other people with the same conditions and with similar characteristics to yours. Imagine the implications for something like cancer."

And that's just one example. "Every industry, whether it's private industry, or government services, or health care, generates and receives tons of data every day," says Stallard. "They use this data to set up processes, to improve processes, but the potential is so much greater."

Closing the gender gap

It's no secret there's considerable gender disparity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math and computer science) fields. According to Statistics Canada, women represent 66 per cent of young university graduates in non-STEM disciplines, but account for only 39 per cent of STEM graduates. And according to a list of statistics compiled in Observer, women hold only 25 per cent of computing jobs, however, 74 per cent of girls express interest in STEM careers. This would seem to indicate there are significant barriers to actually entering those fields.

graph gender gap

Statistics show fewer females graduate from STEM programs.

What does this mean for the future, if the world is becoming more technologically advanced and more digital? Will gender gaps widen, meaning fewer career opportunities for women?

Dr. Mea Wang, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, coordinates the science faculty's participation in Technovation, a worldwide organization that mentors and coaches girls and young women in solving "real-world problems through technology." The 12-week program culminates in the Technovation Challenge, where teams pitch apps they've developed to address challenges in their communities.

Now in its third year in Calgary, Wang says enrolment is steadily growing. For the 2018 edition, which wrapped in May, close to 100 students signed up. But, says Wang, finding female mentors for the technology portion of the program has been difficult. "I have no issue finding enough female mentors on the business side," she says. "But on the tech side, it's a challenge. So roughly a third of the mentors we ended up recruiting are men."

A shortage of female mentors is an issue because it also means a shortage of female role models for participants. Wang says inherent differences in dynamics and leadership styles can also make things tricky for teams mentored by men. "Participants seem to be more willing to let female mentors push them harder," says Wang. "They respond differently to male mentors, and that can sometimes lead to friction."

Empowering girls to change their world

In addition to inspiring them to enter career fields where they're underrepresented, Wang says an important aspect of Technovation is to empower girls and young women to provide solutions to the challenges they see in the world around them. "In this environment, they identify a lot of real problems," she says. "With technology, we enable them to address those problems, and empower them with the tools to help people and to have an impact."

Girls and young women also bring a much-needed change of perspective to STEM fields, says Rigg. “You need to have a diversity of people coming up with the next wave of technologies," she says. "Not only do you set up better problems and end up with better solutions from various perspectives, but also, your users are going to be diverse themselves. We're excited to be a part of Technovation because it showcases the power young women have to make a real difference in their communities — and the world — through technology, and how they can share their visions for change.”

For example, some of the apps that were developed in this year's Technovation Challenge included an app that connects teens to safe opportunities to volunteer in their communities, an app that connects food banks and donors so the food banks can get the items they actually need, and an app that helps kids learn how to manage their money. The regional grand prize winner was an app that allows young people who decide to experiment with cannabis to test their cognitive functions through gaming.

While the technological toolkit is an important part of empowerment, so is the focus on entrepreneurial thinking that students are exposed to through Technovation. By learning to identify problems and needs, provide solutions, work in teams and communicate their ideas, students gain skills that can help them navigate an uncertain future.

"When I received my training, it was more about learning a technique and applying it," says Wang. "But now, you need to be a better problem-solver. We have more tools than ever, so it's about how you use them. You need social and interpersonal and leadership skills, because the problems we're solving are for humans. It's not enough to just write fantastic code anymore."

With automation, artificial intelligence and computers taking over more and more task-based work, Wang says students have to learn to function at a higher level. "You need to be able to get more skills and more knowledge when you need it," she says. "Not necessarily more degrees, but to equip yourself to be competitive and stay in the game."

Taking mentoring into cyberspace

 Getting more girls interested in pursuing digital careers means going digital to reach them. The Schulich School of Engineering has been connecting girls in grades 6 to 12 with online female mentors in STEM careers since 2001. Sparked by UCalgary President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD, the Cybermentor program has matched more than 3,500 girls with female scientists, engineers, mathematicians and more. Girls who have gone through the program have grown up to become engineers and scientists, and returned to Cybermentor to help inspire the next generation.

Mentors were once young girls themselves. They share their experiences of growing up with a curiosity for science and math. They also act as a supportive friend and an inspiring role model, chatting weekly in a special password-protected cybermentor online communication system. Hands-on activities and in-class engineering design and coding workshops round out some of the experiences. 

“Until I joined Cybermentor, I really hadn't thought much about a career in science,” says Ellery, a Grade 10 student who has been a Cybermentor participant for three years. “Now I know there are so many and diverse opportunities for me to consider. I think I'll one day work exploring space. Maybe I'll be an astronaut. Maybe I'll design space stations. Maybe I'll create a new air breathing system. The possibilities are endless.” 

Each year, more than 250 mentors work with students and offer feedback on homework, share interests and skills or talk about career opportunities. With this digital-first approach, girls in more than 80 communities across Alberta are getting tuned into a technological future where they can be leaders.

“Success in STEM fields is not a question of natural abilities," says Natalie Panek (BSc Eng ’07), who has been a mentor since 2008 and recently won the Schulich School of Engineering’s Diversity and Equity Alumni Award. "It is about young women perceiving these fields as normal and as career goals that are attainable by anyone.

“Women role models and mentors in science and engineering are fundamental to increasing the percentage of women in these fields. Cybermentor accomplishes just that. Cybermentor opens the minds of young women to so many possibilities in STEM.”

A different way of teaching

In engineering, Rosehart says the digital revolution means universities need to change the way they're preparing students to enter their careers. "'Here's a set of knowledge, go be an engineer for 30 years' – that doesn't work anymore," he says. "Now we're putting more emphasis on teaching them the technology of today, but also a way of thinking and being so they can constantly adapt that skillset as technology changes."

Rosehart points to the introductory computer programming course that all engineering students take. "It used to be very much an introduction to learning the syntax of a programming language," he says. "Now it's about using computers and algorithmic thinking to solve problems."

And as the world is becoming more connected and complex, so too are its problems. "Engineering used to be much more about solving a technical problem," says Rosehart. "Much more linear thinking. And when you look at the types of problems engineers need to solve now, they need to apply much more non-linear, circular types of thinking to be successful."

Students also need to learn to work in much more interdisciplinary environments, Rosehart says. "When you think about the really interesting things going on today, with intelligent systems, it's very rarely one person working by themselves in a corner," he says.

"You still need domain-specific expertise. When you're building a bridge, you still need someone who can sign off on that design. But you also need to know when to apply systems thinking, when to bring in a diverse team, who you need around the table when you're coming up with a solution. We're creating a campus culture where silos are broken down, because we know we're most successful when we bring together people from across all disciplines."

While it's easy to look back at other pivotal moments in human history and see how it affected society, Rosehart says we have the advantage of seeing it happen before our eyes. "Things are going to look very different very quickly," he says. "Change is coming, and we're embracing it. If you look back at other industrial revolutions, if you had the vision to plan for that and to create the knowledge and focus on adaptive learning, you could position your students for lifelong success. We're doing that."

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Dr. Bill Rosehart, PhD, is the dean of UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. Bill was recently inducted as Fellow into the Canadian Academy of Engineering for his commitment to innovation in teaching and learning. Under Bill’s leadership, the school has launched new programs and opened the new Canadian Natural Resources Limited Engineering Complex. Bill’s strategic vision is to support student success, foster diversity in engineering and promote research that makes a difference. Read more about Bill

Dr. Lesley Rigg, PhD, is the dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Lesley is a forest ecologist. Her research interests include biogeography with an emphasis on forest ecosystems and vegetation dynamics. She has written and contributed to dozens of peer-reviewed journals, facilitated international workshops, and participated in a variety of funded research projects in North America and internationally. Read more about Lesley

Dr. Rei Safavi-Neini, PhD, is a professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Science, an NSERC/TELUS Industrial Research Chair, and an Alberta Innovates Strategic Research Chair. Her areas of research include cryptography, network security, privacy enhancing technologies and digital rights management. Read more about Rei

Jim Stallard is a teaching professor and co-director of the data science program in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Read more about Jim

Dr. Mea Wang, PhD, is an associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Her research focuses on the design and development of networking systems and algorithms, with special interests in multimedia networking, cloud computing, network coding, online social network, and software defined networking. Read more about Mea

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