Exploring the many angles of the future of work
Mariam Hasan used to have a troubled relationship with economics.
“I hated it,” said the Virginia Tech senior studying biomedical engineering. “If anyone even tried to talk economics with me, I would be like 'No, I cannot carry on this conversation.' ”
But a few months into the Honors College’s interdisciplinary exploration course, The Future of Work, Hasan has warmed up to the subject.
“Every single time we talk about economics, it’s like, 'Wow, this is really relevant,' ” she said. “And then I start researching stuff on my own, and I even considered if I should be taking more economics courses.”
Taught by Daniel Sui, Virginia Tech’s vice president for research and innovation, and Ralph Hall, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, the course takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the implications of advancing technology on life and work.
“Everybody needs to think about this issue,” said Sui. “It’s not just about their own career, it’s about humanity. It’s really trying to ask the most fundamental question: what does it mean to be a human in the age of smart machines?”
Each week, the course features a guest speaker from Virginia Tech’s wide breadth of experts who approach that question from their unique perspective. The class has also taken a field trip to hear directly from industry leaders connected to the university.
This framework has resulted in both students and faculty breaking through some of the traditional silos of higher education.
“This course was designed to allow students and faculty to explore the expertise that Virginia Tech can bring to the subject of work in the twenty-first century,” Hall said. “As the semester progressed, the extent and potential of this expertise started to become apparent. It’s energizing and exciting to see how faculty are spotting collaborative opportunities that transcend disciplines.”
The course was shaped out of conversations between Sui and Hall that began when Sui arrived at Virginia Tech from the University of Arkansas in fall 2020.
A professor of geography and an internationally renowned researcher in the area of GIS-based spatial analysis and modeling for urban, environmental, and public health applications, Sui said he has been interested in the future of work for about five years. He was previously involved with the National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier. He said this new course is a great example of the synergy that should exist between research and education within higher education.
“You’re exposing students to some of the most cutting-edge research, and by engaging researchers with those young minds, they get to pose and be posed with the type of questions that also enhance their research,” Sui said.
Hall, who has been working with future of work concepts for more than a decade, said the course is both unlocking the potential of students as well as the potential of the university as a whole.
“I think what surprised me the most is how much expertise we have on campus,” Hall said. “Each week, I’m continually learning from colleagues working in areas such as social computing, crowdsourcing, AI, wearable and passive computing, additive manufacturing, digital fabrication technologies, healthcare, economics, policy, history, race, ethics, technonationalism, digital nomads, etc. When you combine this expertise with Virginia Tech’s core values relating to diverse and inclusive communities, innovation, service, etc., our potential to help shape the future of work becomes evident.”
The forward-looking nature of topics discussed in the course is one major reason Keon Ansari decided to take it.
“Each guest speaker provided a unique perspective from their specific field, whether from an economical, medical, political, societal, or a public safety perspective, on how much technology can revolutionize the landscape of their respective field, and how labor may be repositioned or lost due to these advancements,” said Ansari, a junior studying finance and business information and technology. “The class really opened my eyes on how large of a role technology will continue to play across all facets of work and of life.”
The scope of guest speakers for the course came as a slight surprise to Alyssa Charlton, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering.
"I was pleasantly surprised by all of the different disciplines that were represented by inspiring professionals over the course of the semester." Charlton said. “I think that’s really been a way for me to broaden my horizons.”
Hasan said she appreciated being introduced to topics she had not had the opportunity to explore elsewhere.
“There are things that no one really tells you in other classes, like that we’re on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution,” said Hasan, who is considering a career in the medical field. “It’s been so interesting to get to think about how those types of things apply to my own field.”
Likewise, Ansair believes the course has helped him begin to think about how to address any problems that accompany future advancements.
“The future is a very scary and interesting subject to think about,” Ansair said. “Having conversations with professors and like-minded students has really allowed me to be somewhat prepared for what we as a world could potentially be moving towards.”
Sui said plans are being made to ensure the course becomes a regular offering of the Honors College.