Future-proofing Squamish kids | Squamish Chief

Future-proofing Squamish kids

AI is changing how we live work and play, what do youth need to learn to thrive in the brave new world?

With automation and AI transforming everything from offices to cars and houses, how do we future-proof our Squamish kids for a future we can't yet predict?

That is a question parents and universities are grappling with across the country.

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A 2018 RBC research paper, Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption found that 50% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by automation in the next decade.

"Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate the new skills economy, resulting in roughly half a million 15 to 29-year-olds who are unemployed and another quarter of a million who are working part-time involuntarily," reads a press release about the study.

Post-secondary institutions are pivoting.

Susan McCahan, the vice-provost of academic programs at the University of Toronto, told The Canadian Press that so-called “future-proofing” is a complex process that involves more than just creating new degrees and programs.

It also involves rethinking existing curricula around future career trends, particularly in fields with major exposure to artificial intelligence, she said, offering the example of pharmacy.

“They are imagining that within a fairly short time frame here, the work that pharmacists do will be really vastly different … than what we experience right now,” McCahan said.

“How do you train pharmacists to do effective client care, and what does that mean in a world in which your prescriptions are delivered to your home and you don’t walk into the Shoppers Drug Mart to find the pharmacist? Or maybe there’s a vending machine where your prescription’s waiting for you.”

At the same time, McCahan said, not every program needs to have an AI component, and universities have to be careful not to jump on every fad.

While some traditional programs get an overhaul, a slew of new programs have also surfaced in recent years as institutions aim to address what they see as significant and emerging needs in society and the workforce.

Toronto’s York University, for example, recently unveiled a new disaster and emergency management program it says is the first of its kind in Canada, saying incidents like the 2016 wildfire evacuation in Alberta demonstrate a pressing demand for qualified experts in the field.

U of T, meanwhile, has begun offering what it calls the country’s first undergraduate engineering program in machine intelligence, specializing in the study, development and application of algorithms that help systems learn from data.

The University of New Brunswick opened a new cybersecurity institute in 2017 in hopes of establishing an educational hub for a pivotal issue of the digital age.

At the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, there has been a renewed interest in precision agriculture — the use of data to allocate resources more efficiently, among other things — as artificial intelligence has taken centre stage, said the college’s dean, Rene Van Acker.

The practice can also help reduce the impact of farming on the environment, combining two of the major trends in education and work, he said.

“The overapplication of fertilizer, for example, is a problem in watersheds,” Van Acker said. “Technology that could help us to refine our applications to make them more precise would then benefit the environment.”

Many schools say they focus on the underlying skills that will allow students to navigate technological changes in their fields — particularly teamwork, communication and project management, which they say are increasingly in demand with employers.

“That is what the university is uniquely situated to provide, because we don’t think about job training, we think about developing the skills and interests of people,” Alice Pitt, vice-provost academic at York University, said in a recent interview.

Developing those skills often means collaborating across fields, she said, pointing to a new pilot program run by faculty in the university’s dance department and engineering school that is “really oriented towards the future of work.”

The cross-campus program brings together fourth-year students in interdisciplinary groups to tackle problems pitched by various industry and non-profit groups, focusing on the skills and abilities needed to address those challenges, Pitt said.

Collaboration is also needed in coming up with new courses to prepare students for the issues they will face in the workplace, she said.

“The philosophy department is creating the ethics course that the business people and the engineering people who are doing AI will be exposed to, which is a much deeper, deeper way of thinking about it,” Pitt said.

In Squamish, Quest University's social sciences proffesor Doug Munroe says teaching legacy skills is not as important as teaching students how to learn.

"What we are trying to do is not teach a student or person a particular skill like — for my students — how do I use a software package to generate some numbers or make a nice graph. We are trying to encourage the development of metacognitive skills... to manipulate the way you learn and the way you think, consciously," he said. "I don't necessarily want my students, when they graduate from Quest, to be really good at the thing they learned when they were here, because 20 years from now, that might not be what they need in their lives. I want them to leave Quest being really good at learning new things."

Students of the future also need to be really good at understanding what they know and what they don't.

Eventually, you can automate everything, he said.

He wants his students to have humility — the ability to know and acknowledge what you don't know — and the confidence to figure it out.

"Know that you know how to learn it."

While not an expert in child development, Munroe, also a father of two, said for parents, encouraging curiosity in their children is key.

"Having an approach to life that says, 'I don't know what that is, but let's figure it out,'" he said, adding reinforcement that everyone can learn new things is important.

Grit and perseverance are necessary fundamentals, too, he said.

"You have to be willing to do stuff even when it is hard at first."

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