Op-Ed

Students must master engineering and empathy to create our future

Herald-Leader

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes that today’s college graduates must do much more than compete for a job.

Graduates today, he writes, “will have to ‘invent’ a job … and, given the pace of change today, even reinvent, re-engineer and reimagine that job much more often than their parents if they want to advance in it.”

That’s just what Kentucky students are doing.

At the end of April, the University of Kentucky hosted the state finals of the Lieutenant Governor’s Entrepreneurship Challenge.

The competition was open to Kentucky high school students and challenged them to think critically and creatively to pioneer a business idea in a competitive entrepreneurial environment.

Originally registering 250 teams and 700 Kentucky students, the finals narrowed the pool to 150-180 students, in both commercial and social entrepreneurship.

The finalists offered a telling look at creative minds focused on practical and inspiring solutions to common community concerns and challenges. I was privileged to watch just some of those students — the next generation of leaders — use their time and talents to address the questions that matter most to people.

For one project, four young women from Hazard proposed a new way to meet the challenges of chaperoning P-12 students on field trips. It was a real-world question relevant to their current circumstance: how do you ensure the safety of students on an overnight high school field trip?

They responded with a creative mobile app and device for monitoring whether a hotel door is closed or ajar. Their solution would make it easier for chaperones of large groups to monitor the behavior of their students, ensuring safety for all participants.

A four-person team from Daviess County wanted to improve the efficiency and effectiveness, and ridership, of the school district’s bus system. Their program, “Dolphin Logger,” alerts students to their bus number, delays, arrival and departure times.

These are only two examples of our students conceiving clever ideas to solve everyday problems.

Some could generate new jobs and a profit. But all are driven by a philosophy to make people safer.

In doing so, they master new technology that will drive future industries by creating code, developing apps, and building platforms that matter to people.

We know that inevitable disruptions caused by technological advance don’t always go smoothly or occur without costs.

The automated printing press put bookmakers out of business, but mass production brought knowledge and culture to millions. The Industrial Revolution pushed agrarian workers from the fields to the factories.

Manufacturing, journalism, education, legal practice, food services, and other industries constantly evolve — often for the better, but also often with real, tangible human costs and economic dislocations.

The liberal arts, as part of a well-rounded education, reminds our students to acknowledge the human effect of these disruptions, act with compassion to account for those affected by technological advance, and find ways for them to benefit.

These distinct, but linked purposes underscore why a college education is more important today than ever before. It provides the skills and intellect to compete, along with the heart and compassion to contribute to stronger, healthier communities.

Governor Matt Bevin, who spent hours on a weekend day, and Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton, whose leadership made this program possible, understand that building our economic future starts with building our children.

That means strengthening our P-12 educational system and challenging higher education institutions to partner and collaborate.

How we teach — and how students learn — must continually evolve to match the needs of our global economy while strengthening and building new job opportunities in the communities we are called to serve.

Education also must have the capacity to ensure these young minds are challenged — both intellectually and ethically.

Those jobs of the future will require a mastery of engineering, math and science, to be sure. But that process must also be guided and inspired by the challenges facing our common humanity.

Watching these young students recently grapple with both the practical and the possible left me with no doubt that they can meet that profound challenge.

Eli Capilouto is the 12th president of the University of Kentucky.

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