LAWRENCE E. WHITMAN, Ph.D., P.E.
Dean of Donaghey College of Engineering
and Information Technology
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
DR. LAWRENCE WHITMAN is an industrial engineer who worked for many years in the defense industry before entering academia. Now in his fifth year as dean of EIT at UA Little Rock, Whitman is a big believer in the power of real life situations and problems to spark interest and creativity in his tech students. We sat down with him to talk about the all-important work of preparing the next generation of Arkansas tech talent—starting with his concern that we aren’t introducing students to the myriad possibilities of a technology career early enough.
You say that for data sciences, the period between graduating from high school and finding a career path is a crucial time in a young person’s life. Why is this moment so pivotal?
There are several crucial periods—the transition from elementary school to middle school, the adjustment from middle school to high school, the move from high school to college, and of course leaving college for the working world.
Those are the big early transitions in a person’s life, and each one prepares us for the next stage. My concern, as a dean of Engineering and IT, is how we’re preparing—or not preparing—students to be primed for technology careers.
I think our governor has done a very good job of instituting coding in kindergarten through high school—much of what is called “computer science” is actually coding. Don’t get me wrong, we need to continue to promote coding. It’s a very good thing and it’s increasing the tech pipeline from high school into college. I’m very grateful that there are a lot of kids who want to do coding for a living.
But when these kids finish high school, they’re not really aware of all the career possibilities available to them. Basically what they know is, I really like computers, I like this stuff. But if they don’t want to be a coder, what do they do? Which way do they turn? This is the crucial moment when we could lose them if they think the only possibility in this pathway is to become a “coder.”
My point is just that coding is only one of the many aspects available in computer or data science, and I’d like to see us introduce a wider array of possibilities—algorithmic thinking, programming thinking, and so on—earlier in their school years, so that when they get out of high school they’ll be aware of the multitude of career opportunities for people with a high school background in computer science. I think we could be “priming the pump” a little better.
I agree about all these crucial junctures in a young person’s life, but there’s a lot going on at that age besides career concerns. As a former clueless kid myself, I can remember many of the things that might be vying for their attention.
Yeah, I was a clueless kid, too. I went to community college, not having a clue what I wanted to do after high school. A community college is a great place for many out of high school, then and now. Back then, I had no direction—and I think there’s direction we can provide.
Okay, what qualities do you think a young person needs to possess in order to make good career choices?
So, you know, when I was in school, there was the fear that robots and automation were going to wipe out all the jobs. I don’t know if you’ve read the press lately, but even today there’s that same fear. You might say that “Somebody’s got to program the robots,” but there are a lot of science fiction movies about robots programming robots—so that’s not out of the question.
I think artificial intelligence and deep learning are having a major impact, so my thought about the key skill that everyone needs—not just kids, but you, me, all of us—is the ability to learn. There’s a quote by a guy named Arie de Geus, who was the head of Shell Oil Company’s Strategic Planning Group and is a public speaker. He said the only sustainable competitive advantage is to learn faster than your competition.
I think that’s really the ticket for all of us, the only way we ensure that our job is not automated. We’ve got to figure out how to learn faster than not only other people, but also than the other things that are being developed. A lot of that has to do with learning how to be creative.
AI engines are getting to the point where they can learn many things faster than humans, but I haven’t really seen creativity as a part of that learning. Google, you know, is wonderful when you know what you’re looking for. When you’re not sure what you’re looking for, it’s not as great. Of course, AI will improve our Google searches as well.
My point is that there are tools to help you do things, but those tools have certain rules. As we learn those rules, we learn how to figure out what we really want to do and what direction we want to go to learn the material we need.
You know, there’s “push learning,” where I tell you something because I think you should know it. And then there’s learning because you think you need to know it. Some people call that “demand-based learning.” Our brain grasps a lot more when we think we have a need to know, rather than when someone’s telling us what we need to know.
My son is in college here, studying web design. Sometimes he’s taught something in class but there’s one aspect he doesn’t think he’s completely grasped, so frequently he’ll search out a YouTube video to help him learn it. And that is exactly what we need—people like that.
So how do you teach people to be creative in learning?
Well, I’ll tell you what your ACDS Chairman, Charles Morgan, told me, because I think he’s dead on. He said we need to be training people to think in a programming manner, to think logically. He’s not concerned that we teach them specific coding language. It’s more important, he said, for them to think in that logical way. Then when it comes time for them to go to work, they can sit down in front of a system and be able to learn the specific tools they need to know.
And I think that’s really what people should learn—especially high schoolers and college kids. They need to develop the willingness to learn and the ability to learn new things and adapt. That’s really what’s going to keep us ahead of the machines.
So your goal is to get students to start thinking this way earlier. Who can help—teachers? High school career counselors?
Teaching is a very hard job at all levels, and counseling is just as hard in that you’re expected to know how to tell someone to be a police officer, a fireman, an engineer, a computer scientist, and so on. How do you know? In my time teaching at the university level, I’ve encountered numerous students, including myself, who had someone tell them in their high school career, “You’re not cut out to be an engineer or computer scientist. You should consider this option.”
A lot of people have been told they’re not cut out for the career that they’re doing now, and I buy the argument that sometimes that makes people try harder to prove the naysayers wrong.
The problem is, I know the success stories but I don’t know the stories of the ones who were told that and didn’t continue. And I think part of it is that studies show that if you take a kid who’s not doing well in math and science and then continue to teach him or her the way they’ve always been taught, they’re not going to do well in math and science.
But if you do something to ignite them, like give them some hands-on engineering and computer science activities, show them cyber security, show them how hacking works, show them how to protect from hacking, show them how you design something to solve a problem—you know, give them some real-life situation, like what caused a bridge failure. That can be the spark that changes a life and a career.
We just celebrated the anniversary of the moon shot, right? So expose students to some of the math involved in getting to the moon. That can be fascinating!
That kind of stuff can switch on a light in kids’ heads and make them see the application for math and science—and then they start getting math and science. I’ve met multiple kids in high schools who were C, D, F students who have gotten in a program—Project Lead the Way is what I’m familiar with—and then not only did they do well in those classes, but their math and science classes became A’s and B’s.
So to say to students, “You’re not cut out for this,” I think you’re not giving them a fair shake. You really should let people try different avenues to get them interested in these fields. It’s all about igniting interest. If math is “Johnny puts something in a locker and which locker could it be if there are 5,000 lockers,” that doesn’t excite me. But if you say this equation tells me how to send astronauts to the moon, it’s a whole different story.
What about the parents? What’s the parental role in getting these kids ready to find the right career path for themselves?
I think part of getting kids ready is encouragement—encouragement in the right way. You know, we always think of peer pressure as negative, but peer pressure can also be a positive thing. When there are hackathons, where groups of kids are trying to do something together, some parents are scared of the word hack. What is my kid doing?
I think parents need to take the time to know more about what’s involved in a hackathon. There are hackathons for good. ASMSA has hosted in our building an Apps for Good competition. Computer science can, and is, being used for the good of society.
How does a hackathon work?
It’s a group of people getting together to solve a problem in a condensed period of time. And there are different flavors of hackathons. Some of our students have gone to cyber security hackathons where the host school will set up a system to prevent hacking and then the other schools will come and their job is to try to hack into it.
That makes data science a competitive sport.
Well, the chair of information science just showed me today that there’s a point system, a league—the official student hackathon league. Students go to these different competitions on a college circuit and they achieve points. It’s kind of like a sports league. Our kids go to Alabama and Fayetteville to compete. We’ve hosted here a couple of times.
Competition really makes people excel, I think. So if you can make it a competition where it’s a team “sport” but the individual also gets recognition, that’s great.
So what about video games? Is gaming a pathway to get these kids interested in this kind of world?
That’s an excellent question and I don’t have a firmly considered opinion, because I really see both sides of that coin. There’s actually an e-sports league at many universities now—and we’ve considered it here—where people go around and compete at video games. And my understanding is that some of the better e-sports players make as much money as professional athletes. Some universities—we are currently not one—actually give varsity letters to people in e-sports.
We do have here, on Friday nights during the semester, a video game night where students come down to our computer lab at 6 PM, and they all join together and play their games.
But I kind of dodged your question a little bit. What I think is that gaming can get people interested, but that sometimes it makes them a little too confident when really they need to know more of the basics. How to play a video game and how to program a video game are two very different things.
I was a liberal arts major, and in liberal arts it seemed like college was a time when you were supposed to go off and wander in different directions and find yourself. Is that not the way it is in tech?
I think it can be. But being in administration, maybe I have a different viewpoint of that. Today, there seems to be pressure to get students through the system—you know, the state wants to see that there’s an investment in these kids to graduate in a timely manner. I think if you went and talked to the liberal arts people here, you’d find it’s the same. It’s just the times.
But this is one reason I think it would be ideal to help kids learn about their different career options when they’re in high school, so when they come here, they have a more direct path. They don’t lose time changing course.
And I think we are doing a lot of things in a lot of schools to promote that. But to say that we’re there is wrong. I’m actually of the belief that we’ll always be wrong in some ways. You know, there are some societies that want to give tests to high school sophomores or juniors—tests that say whether they’re going to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or tradesmen.
I don’t buy that for everybody. I understand the efficiency of it, but I also think that part of what’s made this country great is we allow people to be late bloomers. We allow people to change careers.
To be more efficient at what we’re doing is a good thing—as long as we allow points for people to jump out of that efficiency. Design itself is not a perfectly efficient process. The spark of imagination can be given by all kinds of things.
And, like you say, people find themselves. People find themselves in the technical professions all the time. You give a student a project as a freshman, you give him or her a project as a sophomore, a junior, a senior—that same kid will approach it differently as a senior than as a freshman.
And if they don’t, we’ve kind of failed in educating the student. They need to know different methods, too, but also the student has matured, right? What we want to do is mature them in such a way that we don’t teach the creativity out of them. We want to make them as creative as possible, to enhance their creativity, and to give them a structure to apply it. But not to make every kid the same.
Speaking of efficiency, do you ever talk up data science salaries as a pitch to students?
In fact, that’s my number one sales technique. I always tell kids, I spent 10 years as a practicing engineer in the defense industry before I became an academic. And I loved my job, and I was paid well.
So I tell them, There are jobs that you can enjoy that don’t pay well. There are jobs that pay well that you don’t enjoy. But there are also jobs that pay well that you enjoy.
I mean, you talk about video games—when I was an engineer, I was building parts of an aircraft on the computer, and that was as much fun as playing any video game at home. And I was getting paid to do it. It doesn’t get better than that. If we in higher education can assist students in realizing a career that is more than a job, that they can enjoy, we will have been successful. That’s the ticket to keeping jobs and graduates in our state.