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Industry thinking for the curriculum

The University are hosting a series of Industry Masterclasses, inviting top speakers to share insights on how academics can collaborate with industry partners. The sessions are mostly relevant to research staff, but some interesting ideas relating to the curriculum have emerged. In this blog, I share thoughts from Lincoln Wallen, Chief Technical Officer at Improbable. His perspective draws on his career journey, starting out as an academic and then a trailblazing leader in the tech sector.

Phil Taylor, PVC Research & Enterprise, started the workshop with a conversation asking Lincoln to share his career highs and lows. It was interesting to see how significant Lincoln’s undergraduate degree experience was. Studying a joint degree in Maths & Physics, he explained that several units overlapped in their content, something that educators would assume to be bad programme-level learning design. However, for Lincoln the overlap allowed him to experience how the same topics could be understood from multiple perspectives. In retrospect, this was a foundational point that shaped the way he sees the world, that the same facts and issues can change profoundly depending on the conceptual frameworks applied. This helped him to prepare for the complexities faced while working in industry later to help him navigate multiple perspectives, languages, situations and decision making.

While studying for his PhD, Lincoln had the opportunity to work in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary contexts with industry. Here, he was exposed to the importance of the history of disciplines and taking learning from the past into modern situations. In the context of the tech world, this was framed around language and how concepts from centuries ago have turned into the frameworks for language today. This enforced his appreciation for the relevance of non-STEM subjects to technology industries.

At Texas A&M he worked with leading thinkers in physics and noted the importance of the clarity of messages. Here, he saw how complexity can be problematic and the goal of simplicity should be cherished. Again and again he referred back to this as a foundational position that feeds into how academia can value its ability to clarify and communicate well.

Later, he worked as an academic at Oxford, this time working within the complex college environment of that institution. He encountered lots of new perspectives and more opportunities for interdisciplinarity emerged. This was when he really started to take maths thinking out of academia and into applications in industry. From here, he shifted into working for industry fully.

One of the important topics discussed was around interdisciplinarity and education. He noted how every discipline should have its own view of the world and share that with its students, that they need a developed point of view from which to see and understand the world – it’s not just about learning facts and figures. But this needs to be done with criticality. Students need to be attentive to the construction of their subject and how perspectives are tied up in their discipline, and that there’s a difference between disciplinary language and semantics. For Lincoln, the Liberal Arts degree system in the USA is one of the best examples of a structured framework that allows for academic freedom and engaging with a broad range of subjects. This allows students to encounter many perspectives that will serve them well when working in industry.

In the industry context, multidisciplinarity is really important as (work) problems don’t arrive in neatly defined disciplinary boundaries. Problems are the starting point where the subject is not the focus, instead industry is looking for efficacy and outcomes. In this context, all ideas are potentially relevant in bringing about an outcome and collaboration is essential.

Lincoln reflected on how industry typically engages with academia and the assumptions that they often hold. Most people in industry will hold degrees and experienced university as a place where they are a learner, seldom seeing the inner workings of the research that happens. Typically they also rarely see interdisciplinarity. So their assumptions are that university researchers and engagement will operate in subject silos in a didactic manner where academia is in some ways irrelevant to how industry operates (key exceptions are in subjects that have brought industry into academia, such as Chemistry).

Being an archaeologist by training, I’m biased about the importance of history (!), so it was really refreshing to hear a STEM leader noting how important it is that students get a grounding on how their subject developed. This context allows students to see how subjects and concepts emerge over time. In this way, they are better able to innovate because they can better assess what is arbitrary and what is a choice, and what can be open to change.

While the session was focused on research, it prompts us to think about how we shape the researchers of the future both in academia and outside of it. It was really helpful to see how Lincoln articulated the strengths coming out of academia, based mostly on competencies over knowledge and prioritising inquisitive open minds. These are values that cross industry and academic boundaries.

Drawing on decades of experience within academia and industry, these insights give us a really good starting point for assessing what we do in our degrees and how we might want to prepare our students to engage with industry. We do encounter interdisciplinarity at the University of Bristol, but we can ask where this happens and to whom it is an option (e.g. open unit system with pros and cons of systems allowing a lot but not all students to participate). We can also think about how we frame students’ perspectives, how we want them to view and understand the world and the role of their subject in shaping the future.

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