Students Driving Force Behind Blockchain at Universities
Demand for blockchain job skills is growing rapidly and with it the demand for training and education. Upwork’s quarterly report lists blockchain as the # 1 hottest job skill and demand for the top 10 skills have risen 400% since 2017. More and more industries outside of the usual financial services sector are jumping on the blockchain bandwagon. Energy, real estate, supply chain, and healthcare industries are all beginning to explore its use. However, given the new and ever changing nature of the technology, developers with blockchain experience are hard to come by. Employers face difficulty finding talent and pay accordingly — the median income for blockchain developers in the U.S. is $130,000. There is tremendous opportunity in this field and university students are catching on faster than their professors. Even at top universities blockchain courses are often taught by students. Many blockchain programs start as initiatives driven by student clubs and organizations.
The computer science and finance industries have merged and this needs to happen in universities too. But universities are bureaucratic — it will be political and take time -Dr. Yermack, NYU
We contacted over 35 student organizations in the U.S. and Canada to get the scoop on the status of blockchain at universities. Many presidents/founders said there is little to no faculty involvement and they receive minimal funding with stringent budget restrictions. Blockchain programs often progress the same way. First, the buzz around cryptocurrency inspires students to start “bitcoin” clubs (a majority of clubs were only founded in the last year, when bitcoin was at its peak — a few presidents admitted interest waned a bit after the recent crash). Then, interest broadens and club members turn their attention towards the technological aspects of cryptocurrency and other applications of blockchain. The more robust clubs even divide their operations into distinct sectors such as investment, education, and innovation/development. Some groups like The University of Michigan Blockchain Development Club formed specifically to distinguish themselves from groups more interested in investing. Often the workshops hosted by these clubs are the only places students can learn fundamentals of blockchain development on campus. The few schools that do offer classes are either facilitated by students or were established at their suggestion/request. The consensus is clear: students want opportunities for hands on experience and to develop their own projects — and their schools aren’t necessarily providing them.
A perfect example of this evolution is Berkeley’s new blockchain certificate course. It began as a club called the Bitcoin Association of Berkley. This became Blockchain at Berkeley. Blockchain at Berkeley is part of the university’s DeCal program — student facilitated, accredited courses offered as Pass/No Pass for .5–2 credits. The course was announced just two weeks ago and over 7,400 students have already signed up. Students were lining the walls and sitting in aisles for the in-person “Blockchain, Cryptoeconomics and the Future of Technology, Business and Law” class this spring. One of the professors teaching the course, Greg La Blanc, advised students not to “compare it to the perfect blockchain course. Compare it to having no blockchain course at all.” Unfortunately, students have to settle for whatever is available.
David Yermack, a professor of finance at NYU Stern School of Business, initially received gentle ribbing from his colleagues when he started giving talks on bitcoin. He told Financial Times what many students we talked to have already experienced: “the computer science and finance industries have merged and this needs to happen in universities too. But universities are bureaucratic — it will be political and take time.” Ryan Schaeffer, a former student at UC Davis, experienced the political and bureaucratic nature of universities when he sought approval to teach a Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies course. He outlines the process on his blog. He and his fellow students proposed a policy to the Academic Senate to allow undergraduates to teach classes on the topics of their choice. The senate accepted the proposal for what they called “Student Facilitated Courses” after a year of research, presentations, and lobbying. Schaeffer says “I am still insulted by their choice [of the name] as it minimizes the effort that student instructors put in to design their courses.” Students are working hard to create blockchain offerings at their institutions and should be receiving more recognition.
Another notable example of a student-run educational initiative is Duke Blockchain Lab. They offer for-credit courses such as “Blockchain and Innovation”. Impressively the members of UPenn Blockchain taught a 3-week, once a week course on the fundamentals of blockchain to over 300 people. They also taught a semester long course on smart contracts to over 70 people.
Universities would be wise to take advantage of their student’s ability to fill the new demand for blockchain training and education. If their professors are unequipped to provide courses on a technology that has so much potential for application and the opportunity for high-paying careers, why not let students do the work? At MouseBelt Labs we believe some of the most innovative ideas come from the minds of curious and hardworking students. That’s why we are partnering with student blockchain organizations to expand the development side of their operations. We want to cultivate blockchain innovation and investing in student success is one way to do that. By providing opportunities for hands on development we are able to meet the demand that many universities can’t. We provide funding, non-monetary support like mentorship and internships, and are awarding grants to students who are working on their own blockchain projects. Interested students can apply on the MouseBelt university page here.