University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Welcome to the Future

Robots can't do everything. From interpreting data to cleaning up water systems to providing medical care for the elderly—the University of Minnesota is preparing students for the careers of the future.

Amalia Hornung; photo by Ackerman & Gruber

Amalia Hornung was mechanically inclined from a young age. Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, her go-to toys were Legos and K’nex building sets. “As a kid I really liked understanding how things worked and putting stuff together and taking it apart,” says Hornung, now a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Her coursework has allowed her to pursue her interest in structures and devices that solve problems. In a class last year, Hornung got to play with machines that are changing the way new products are developed and manufactured.

The Project-based Inquiry course invited teams of students to tackle an engineering challenge; Hornung’s team of four focused on the perennial problem of small, cramped lecture hall desks. Working in an on-campus lab, the students designed and manufactured a roomier portable desk using 3D printers, computer-guided laser cutters, and other automated tools to fabricate its plastic parts.

“I’m glad to have those skills under my belt,” Hornung says. Right now, she’s unsure of her exact future career path, but she sees exposure to 3D printing—a burgeoning area of automation in which demand is high for engineers—as an important part of her engineering training, regardless of the type of job she lands after graduation.

“To be able to work with a technology that’s an important tool in industry is something that’s really cool and really valuable,” says Hornung, who has a summer internship lined up with Twin Cities-based mattress manufacturer Sleep Number.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

The elective course taught in the College of Science & Engineering (CSE) is an example of how the U is preparing students for the careers of the future. Technological advances, consumer trends, and heightened awareness of pressing societal issues such as climate change and a graying population have sparked rapid growth in some sectors of the economy and given rise to entirely new industries. Demand is high for college graduates to fill jobs in fields such as automation, health care, data analytics, and environmental remediation, and is expected to remain so in coming decades. Among the occupations projected to grow over 20 percent nationwide by 2026 are mathematicians, market research analysts, and nurse practitioners, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The U is responding to current and anticipated demand from students and employers by adapting coursework, introducing new majors, and adopting new teaching models that emphasize experiential learning and collaboration. University leaders and faculty have embraced interdisciplinary teaching and research—the idea that emerging careers demand diverse skills learned not just in one department or college but through a variety of academic channels.

It’s impossible to predict with any certainty the shape of things to come in the labor market. Many occupations that will define the careers of today’s students don’t yet exist; some may be invented by those students over the course of their working lives.

So students, particularly undergraduates, should avoid following narrow paths based solely on job growth projections, says Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist in the Carlson School of Management. The foundation of any successful career, he adds, is a college education that promotes critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and the ability to apply core knowledge to novel settings.

These proficiencies have long been at the heart of the University’s holistic approach to education, and remain more relevant than ever as U students prepare to make their mark on a world that constantly presents new opportunities and challenges.

“It’s hard to predict what’s going to be needed in the workforce,” Sojourner says. “What we do know is that change is coming, and the ability to adapt to change is going to be really important, no matter what the future throws at you.”

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Playing well with machines 

From metal fabrication to medical devices and a host of other industries, technology is automating the process of making things—a trend that is expected to accelerate, destroying some jobs but also creating many new ones.

In Minnesota, occupations related to automation rank among the top 25 in terms of growth, according to Gartner, a Connecticut-based research and consulting company that tracks job postings. Employers are seeking college graduates with expertise in 3D printing, robotic programming, imaging systems, mechatronics (a branch of engineering that combines mechanical and electrical systems), and other disciplines needed to play well with smart machines.

Forging links between a core curriculum and commercial applications such as 3D printing and robotics is integral to undergraduate coursework in CSE. “It’s about using the fundamental tools of math, chemistry, and physics to solve today’s challenging problems,” says Paul Strykowski, CSE associate dean for undergraduate programs. “It’s not enough to just know some stuff. Students have to feel that the application, how they’re going to use this knowledge in the real world, matters to them.”

Professors bring their own research and industry experience to classroom discussions of advances in computer software, materials science, and sensor technology that are driving innovation in automation. And students gain hands-on experience by participating in design and research projects that leverage automation technologies.

A gift from Clifford (B.S.B. ’62) and Nancy Anderson funded the Anderson Student Innovation Labs, over 10,000 square feet of space on the Minneapolis campus outfitted with the latest 3D printing and other automation tools. The two-year-old labs are open to all CSE students, including those enrolled in the project-based-learning course that Hornung took last year. This spring, over 160 freshmen were enrolled in the course, introduced in 2017.

Hornung returned to the Anderson Labs recently to build a robot—the assignment for all students in her introductory mechanical engineering class. Each robot had to perform a specific task. Horning designed hers to “reduce the tediousness of the tea-brewing process” by lowering a teabag into a cup of hot water, steeping it for the prescribed time, and playing a tune when the tea is ready. The course culminated in a robot show at McNamara Alumni Center where students put their robots to the test. 

Graduate students and talented undergraduates have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and dive deep under the hood of automation. Mechanical engineering associate professor Michael McAlpine relies on students drawn from a variety of University programs to help advance research on 3D-printed replicas of human organs, for use as stand-ins during surgery, and perhaps eventually as replacements. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers lead projects tailored to their strengths and interests, sometimes assisted by undergraduates. Students “learn along the way and push into new territory that is being defined for the first time,” McAlpine says.

In the new Gemini-Huntley Robotics Research Laboratory (see “Here Come the Robots,” here), students work side by side with faculty on an array of projects involving robotics and the related field of artificial intelligence.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

An environmental imperative

Protecting the natural environment is one of the great challenges facing society. Concern about environmental degradation is spurring investment in new technologies and conservation strategies to preserve clean air, conserve water, and combat climate change. This environmental imperative is resonating throughout the University, informing coursework and student experiences in many fields.

“We’re recognizing that so many issues—social, economic, environmental—are cross cutting and can’t be understood in isolation,” says Bonnie Keeler (M.S. ’07, Ph.D. ’13), an assistant professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs whose work focuses on the environment. “Whether you’re an engineer, an economist, a geographer, or a planner, you have to consider the environment.”

This awareness is woven into the fabric of the Grand Challenge Curriculum, a University-wide initiative launched in 2015 to immerse students in complex global issues. Many GCC courses address sustainability topics such as renewable energy, global warming, and the health impacts of environmental decline. A parallel research effort awards grants to projects in key areas such as sustainable agriculture and water quality.

The CREATE Initiative, a two-year project focused on improving access to clean water in lower-income communities, won a $720,000 Grand Challenges Research Initiative grant in 2017. Faculty and graduate students from across the U will spend this summer in neighborhoods in Minneapolis and Atlanta, working hand in hand with community organizations on water issues. 

“What we’re doing is very different from business as usual,” says Keeler, codirector of the project. “It’s a chance for students to really get to see the world through the eyes of community members and learn how the University can be of service to them in addressing their concerns.”

Rebecca Walker, one of 11 students in this year’s program, is excited by the prospect. Growing up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the doctoral student in ecology, evolution, and behavior saw fishing livelihoods ruined by water pollution. The experience inspired her “to study the environment and help find a way forward” for communities threatened by environmental decline.

She sees her summer fieldwork as basic training for a career working on environmental problems at the local level. “I see this as laying the groundwork for what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my professional life,” she says.

The CREATE Initiative is a joint project of the Humphrey School and the Institute on the Environment, established at the U in 2007 to bring together students in disparate fields for study and research. IonE offers a sustainability minor available to all undergraduates, and oversees the Acara Challenge, an annual competition in which students tackle seemingly intractable environmental and social problems. Winners receive awards of up to $5,000 in fellowship funding and $500 in prize money.

Winning ideas in 2018 included using GIS data to help rural communities in Uganda adjust to climate change, and deploying insect-eating bats to combat mosquito-borne diseases in developing countries.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Bracing for a gray wave

In an uncertain world, one mega trend is indisputable: We’re all getting older. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65; retirees will outnumber children for the first time in history. This demographic tsunami has profound implications for health care; millions more people will require treatment for the ailments of age, including chronic conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, and dementia.  

Medical schools can’t possibly train enough geriatricians—physicians who specialize in caring for the elderly—to handle the coming wave, says James Pacala, M.D., head of the University Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. “What’s needed is to train everyone in the workforce who deals with older patients in basic approaches to assessment and therapeutics that geriatricians have shown result in better outcomes.”

In the Medical School, doctors in training are introduced early to modern principles of geriatric care such as working in teams with nurses, social workers, and other health care professionals, and paying attention to nonmedical factors such as conditions in the home. Students enrolled in long-term care clerkships make a house call to an older adult, and recently the Medical School introduced video case studies that challenge online learners to assess the health status of an elderly patient.

The School of Nursing is a national hub for teaching and research in gerontological nursing, or caring for elderly patients. In the bachelor’s nursing program, competency in gerontological care is “hardwired into the curriculum,” says Christine Mueller, the school’s associate dean for academic programs. Students studying to become registered nurses take coursework on common medical conditions of the elderly and learn how to treat them through clinical experiences in hospitals, emergency rooms, and nursing homes.  

Mark Wanyama is a student in CCAPS's Long Term Care Adminstration program. He wants to improve healthcare for the elderly.
Photo by Ackerman & Gruber

Nurse practitioners are in high demand in the healthcare industry because they can diagnose illnesses and injuries and prescribe medications—services traditionally provided by now-scarce primary care physicians. The School of Nursing offers a doctor of nursing practice program for registered nurses who want to become nurse practitioners. Two specialties are available in caring for the elderly; in recent years, enrollment in one of those tracks, gerontological primary care, has been the second highest among the 11 specialties offered. 

Promising careers in elder care are not restricted to medicine and nursing. In the College of Continuing and Professional Studies, students majoring in health service management and working adults can take courses leading to state licensure as a nursing home administrator. The program includes a 1,000-hour practicum at a Minnesota nursing home; students shadow the home administrator, pull overnight and weekend shifts, and spend a day “in residence,” eating in the dining hall and taking part in exercise sessions and other senior activities.

Professional managers are sorely needed in a growing area of healthcare beset by workforce shortages and revenue constraints, says Rajean Moone (Ph.D. ’08), faculty director for the Long Term Care Administration program. “We need to figure out how to inspire leaders and innovate in an industry that is really, really tough right now.”

The wisdom of Big Data

In the digital age, satellites, corporate networks, social media, and web-connected machines produce vast amounts of information that can shed light on matters once closed to human understanding. The power of data analytics or Big Data has been used to thwart internet hackers, boost crop yields, explain the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and search for distant galaxies.

One of the challenges in this exploding field is finding the talent necessary to parse rich data stores and divine knowledge from them. “Companies are frankly drowned in data; they truly lack insight,” says Ravi Bapna, associate dean for executive education in the Carlson School. “Unless you know how to analyze the data to draw out the patterns and narratives that inform business decisions, it’s of no value.”

Scientists and other professionals versed in data analytics are much sought after by internet companies, financial firms, retailers, and others. Hot data-oriented occupations include business intelligence analysts, information security analysts, and informatics nurses (specialists in the management and use of patient data), according to BLS and Gartner.

As a student, Aayush Agrawal helped develp a statistical tool for Land O'Lakes. Now, he's senior data scientist at the company.
Photo by Ackerman & Gruber

Data analytics has long been a strength of the University, and in 2015, the increasing relevance of data science to the economy and society led the U to double down by launching a data science master’s program. The two-year program is a collaboration between CSE, the College of Liberal Arts’ School of Statistics, and the School of Public Health. Graduates of the rigorous program—last fall, about 20 master’s candidates were admitted out of over 500 applicants—have gone on to work for employers such as Target, Seagate, and Walmart.

CSE plans to introduce a data science bachelor’s degree this fall. “Data science … is part of the toolbox that we feel students have to have,” Strykowski says. 

Other parts of the University not generally associated with data geeks have embraced data analytics. The Carlson School debuted its master’s in business analytics degree in 2014. As part of the accelerated one-year program, students serve as analytics consultants to Twin Cities companies. For 14 weeks, firms are paired with teams of graduate students skilled in data visualization, predictive analytics, and other techniques. “We want them to apply their skills to a real-world problem with a real-world client, with real deadlines,” says Bapna, who serves as academic director of the Carlson Analytics Lab.

Many graduates of the program receive job offers right out of school. As a Carlson student, Aayush Agrawal (M.S. ’17) worked on a team project for Land O’Lakes that involved developing a statistical tool for comparing growing conditions on agricultural test fields spread across the country. Today, he’s lead data scientist for Land O’Lakes, working with students in the Analytics Lab on other data assignments for the company.

Agrawal says his student project honed not just his analytical capabilities but also his collaborative skills, vital for success in business. “As a member of a team you get to learn a lot about team dynamics and how to set expectations and deadlines,” he says. “No matter how good you are as an individual contributor, teamwork is something you can’t avoid; you have to work in teams to get big things done.”

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Food systems: a full menu of career options

In 2013, the U launched a new food systems major for undergraduates looking to set their own place at the table in an evolving food sector. Rising consumer demand for healthier, less processed foods is driving innovation at food manufacturing startups, which are often gobbled up by giants like General Mills and Kraft Foods trying to break into new markets.

Students preparing to enter an increasingly complex, interconnected food industry must understand food production “from field to fork,” says Len Marquart, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. This entails innovating, collaborating, and exercising the imagination as well as mastering technical skills. “Students coming out of college have to be willing to try new things, take a new approach,” he says.

The food systems bachelor’s degree offered in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) instills systems thinking in students aspiring to work for a food company or start their own enterprise. Coursework gives students an overview of the food industry and shows them how they might develop a new ingredient, grow more nutritious produce, or market a new breakfast cereal or line of healthy snacks. Students can specialize in areas such as organic and local food production, agroecology (the study of farming areas as ecosystems), and sales and marketing. 

Eric Sannerud helped establish CFANS's food systems major. He went on to found Mighty Axe Hops.
Photo by Ackerman & Gruber

Food systems students are following in the footsteps of alumnus Eric Sannerud (B.S. ’13), who as a student put together his own food systems major and had a hand in the creation of the new bachelor’s curriculum; he led a student petition drive and made the case to college leaders. “The program was something that people in CFANS had been talking about long before I was a student,” Sannerud says. “I learned about it and became engaged in the process myself.... I’m hopeful that I helped make it happen.”

Upon graduation, Sannerud founded Mighty Axe Hops, a Foley, Minnesota, firm that grows the beer ingredient and sells it to regional breweries. The CEO is a CFANS mentor, providing counsel to students who take part in the college’s well-established program for networking and career exploration.

Many food systems majors and other students studying nutrition and food production work on class projects or conduct research with food companies in the college’s Joseph J. Warthesen Food Processing Center on the St. Paul campus. Manufacturers develop new foods and production processes at the state-of-the-art facility, making it an incubator for relationships that can lead to internships and job offers. 

Making connections also means continuing to foster a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching about nutrition and the food business. Marquart sees the U’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative as a catalyst for bringing together students from disparate backgrounds to work on projects such as developing new crops.

“The idea is that you not only think within the department but across departments,” he says, “because food science and nutrition on its own is isolated; it has to be nested in the context of how it fits in the world.” 

Phil Davies (M.A. ’88) is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor. He has written extensively about economics, technology, and the environment for local and national publications.

Read More