Straits of Mackinac

Education for the 21st Century

An Agile Education

Transformative Learning = Experience + Agility

The workplace of the 21st century is changing dramatically. The average tenure of an employee at their current job is 4.6 years, and for workers between the ages of 25 and 34, it’s 2.8 years (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Current estimates show that the average American will change jobs 10 to 15 times in their lifetime, and roughly 40 to 50 percent of the American population is expected to work as independent contractors or freelancers by 2020. Gone are the days of attending college to secure a job in a career that will last a lifetime, solely due to deep expertise.

It’s an exciting and daunting time. As faculty, staff, and administrators consider how best to prepare students for the world, they must constantly be aware of new technologies, AI, and automation that will be the drivers of the new economy. All of this must happen in tandem with the knowledge that new tech eliminates the jobs of old tech while simultaneously creating new opportunities few people are trained for.

"To the degree that we can encourage our students to develop higher levels of self-authorship while in college, we can produce graduates who are better equipped to manage the unique challenges of continuous and potentially disruptive change, and to shape the future rather than simply experience it.”

The face of higher education is changing dramatically as well. Today, people engage and reengage in education over their lifetimes. They redesign their future and use higher order skills to stay relevant as change occurs. As digital natives, today’s students know that to keep up with change, they must always be learning—and that learning happens anywhere, not just in a classroom. They look for good value, flexibility, and ways to integrate their interests with their careers. Employers likewise look for people willing to adapt quickly in a shifting market.

Agility, on the part of both students and educators, is the defining characteristic of a 21st century education.

Students working on a nanosatellite.
A key component of the Pavlis Honors College curriculum is the Immersion Experience. Students take a deep dive into their field of interest through a research internship, summer position with a startup, co-op in industry, community engagement, or an international experience. The choice is theirs.

Tomorrow Needs Self-Authoring Minds

Twenty-first century careers need intention, reflection, and skills learned outside the classroom. To prepare the student of today to address the needs of society at a level that machines cannot, Lorelle Meadows, dean of Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College, says it’s imperative to consider the whole student—not only their development as highly skillful and knowledgeable participants in their chosen fields, but also their growth as individuals with the competencies to manage uncertainty and change.

Meadows and her colleagues at Pavlis aim to help students develop what’s known as a self-authoring mind. A concept with roots in adult development theory, a self-authoring mind forms as people encounter disorienting dilemmas that challenge their world views.

With sufficient support, Meadows says, “we develop our own sense of self rather than depending on external authorities to define who we are. We begin to shift our perspective from simply reacting to the world around us, to examining ourselves as objects operating within the world with autonomy. It is exactly this internal definition that provides individuals with the capacity to manage complexity, uncertainty, and change—the world our students are entering.”

Students working in the maker space.
The University Innovation (UI) Fellows—a global program that empowers students to become change agents at their schools—wanted to create a campus makerspace to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. Today, The Alley provides space and equipment for Michigan Tech students, faculty, and staff with an interest in making, creating, designing, inventing, tinkering, and prototyping.

At its most basic level, Meadows says, development of self-authorship relies on exposure to an environment that balances challenge with support. As students are challenged, they require a system of support that assists them to confront the challenge, reflect on the experience, and identify the learning that has occurred. Learning is then put into action. This process requires the development of the student’s capacity for critical reflection—to examine themselves and their experiences from an external perspective.

As students build this capacity, they’re better able to see themselves as objects in control of their environment—an important shift toward developing a self-authoring mind. Providing students with a platform in which critical reflection can occur instills a habit of thought that drives adult development.

With this in mind, the Pavlis Honors College has identified nine key abilities that every student in the College is encouraged to cultivate through critical reflection, design thinking, and interdisciplinary collaboration:

  • Know yourself
  • Balance confidence and humility
  • Act with purpose
  • Communicate empathetically
  • Engage in mentorship
  • Value diverse perspectives
  • Learn deeply
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Welcome challenge

The nine abilities complement a STEM-focused education, providing a foundation for students to lead themselves and others through the challenges they will encounter in a rapidly changing world. Pavlis students intertwine their major with a series of experiences they design themselves and that build on their skills, interests, and values. Honors College staff leverage Michigan Tech’s great network of faculty, staff, and alumni to build partnerships and create opportunities for students.

"The Pavlis Honors College is helping me to achieve self-authorship by providing a community and situation in which I am fully free to express my ideas and learn from those around me. The discussions are thought provoking, with no simple solutions, if solutions at all. In this, I am fully engaged by sharing my life experiences and drawing further conclusions."Pavlis Honors College Student

“Every student should be required to expand their education beyond the classroom, to transfer their knowledge between domains, and to work in multidisciplinary teams,” Meadows says. “They should be reflecting on their experiences holistically and using this time to build a deep understanding of themselves, to foster meaningful relationships with peers and mentors, and to develop a vision for their future that is based in their values and beliefs.”

Pavlis is leading a working group to implement the self-authorship approach across the Michigan Tech campus and curricula. The goal: Make sure every Michigan Tech graduate is agile—self-aware, resilient, and confident. A global citizen. A lifelong learner.

Where STEM Means Business

In the 21st century, goods and services are deeply intertwined with new technologies. And while each iteration of technology-infused goods and services might be provocative or fascinating on the surface, the successful business leader of tomorrow looks past a new technology’s hype to ask, “What’s behind this and how can I leverage it to solve a business or social challenge?”

Consider Uber, Google Maps, and intelligent highways, says Dean Johnson, dean of Michigan Tech’s School of Business and Economics (SBE). “These GPS-derived innovations offer rich and lasting human and economic implications. Even in traditional manufacturing environments, sensor technology can be used to track and improve quality, reducing waste and revolutionizing the auditing process.”

In the future, Johnson says, our intensive effort to unearth new discoveries must be matched by an exhaustive sprint toward economic applications benefitting society.

Students listening to someone talk.
Four days, 12 visits, 28 hours of company tours. Michigan Tech’s Silicon Valley Experience—a trip offered every year during Spring Break—puts 16 students smack-dab in the middle of high-tech.

Whether through entrepreneurial startups or innovation centers embedded in mature firms, the rapid conversion of technology is key for the delivery of goods and services in the 21st century. Transferable skills, such as leadership, problem-solving, and communication, will remain critical, but the nimble entrepreneur who combines these skills with a relentless focus on transforming technology into scalable commerce will be in the greatest demand.

There are multiple routes to becoming an adept entrepreneur, Johnson says, but two of the most reliable pathways are to be a business student with a deep appreciation of technology, or an engineer with a business underpinning of marketing research, financing, and business-plan development.

Students on either path have a home at SBE. The MTEC (Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation) SmartZone business accelerator, our partner and neighbor, provides space, mentoring, and resources to help turn student ideas into startups. The University’s Office of Innovation and Industry Engagement ensures healthy funding for technology commercialization and business development. Husky Innovate, a collaboration between Pavlis Honors College, SBE, and the Office of Innovation, reimagined campus pitch competitions to become a series of workshops and events, to better guide and support students through key phases of innovation and business development.

 "In this competitive landscape, the window of time to move through R&D to analyzing for commercial potential—and from concept to product—must shrink. And whoever moves fastest will win."

At Michigan Tech’s SBE, combining business with science, technology, engineering, and math is critical to giving future business professionals, innovators, and entrepreneurs of all disciplines the edge required to move forward. Because tomorrow needs business-savvy engineers and tech-savvy business leaders.