Building interdisciplinary bridges to create an innovative future

Tel Aviv University is busy breaking down barriers between faculties that previously enjoyed little interaction.

By
August 7, 2019 17:01
Tel Aviv University campus

Tel Aviv University campus. (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

Eager to enhance their post-university employability in an increasingly hi-tech world, the evolving preferences of prospective students have led to a so-called “crisis in the humanities.”

Yet among those students that opt to pursue an education in engineering instead, it is often said that fresh graduates struggle to bridge the gap between academia and industry expectations.

While universities have always focused on fostering intellectual curiosity and developing the next generation of researchers in addition to preparing students for the world of work, academic institutions are now increasingly required to respond to the swelling demands of millennial applicants.

Seeking to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities, and to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of its students, Tel Aviv University is busy breaking down barriers between faculties that previously enjoyed little interaction.

“A lot of the new, successful start-ups are not based on technological novelty alone, but also a creative idea, like Facebook, Waze, Google or Airbnb,” Prof. Yossi Rosenwaks, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at TA|U, told The Jerusalem Post. “In order to be creative and to form the next Waze or Google, an engineer must have a broader education.”

Introducing courses from the humanities to build the “soft skills” of engineering students would necessitate reducing the regular curriculum, a major shift in perception and priorities for a traditional engineering faculty. Yet after convincing the faculty of the merits of such a move, the university introduced the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Program for Humanities in Engineering, combining diverse spheres of engineering with studies of the humanities.

Open to an elite group of approximately 30 students each year, Rosenwaks sees the four-year honors program as a win-win for all involved.

“While three to four years ago it was hard to convince the faculty to reduce the regular engineering curriculum, all faculty members now understand that engineers of the 21st century must have soft skills,” said Rosenwak.

“Now staff hear all the time that companies are looking for graduates with soft skills. They want employees who know how to present, to argue, to persuade, to convince and talk to customers.”

Recognizing the desire of students from all fields of study to successfully integrate into Israel’s celebrated hi-tech sector, TAU launched “High Tech Plus” earlier this year, enabling undergraduate students to combine engineering studies with all dual-disciplinary courses, including from the humanities and social sciences.

In addition to their non-engineering degree, courses studied will include data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, encryption and information security. The program will conclude with an internship at a hi-tech company, and students will graduate with a double-major bachelor’s degree.

“Our belief is that students should go in the direction that their intellectual curiosity takes them, but we need to give them answers when they ask themselves about their future career-paths,” Prof. Leo Corry, dean of the Faculty of Humanities, told the Post.

“I don’t want to claim that if you want a career in hi-tech, then the best way to do it is to come to study humanities. But if you’re attracted intellectually to the humanities, come to study humanities and find ways to complete your skill set, either by studying a dual major or other courses.”

WHILE FEWER people are studying humanities at universities worldwide, Corry emphasizes that questions regarding employability are especially pertinent in Israel, where students commence their academic journeys at a later age after mandatory military service.

For humanities faculties at Israeli universities, that requires additional out-of-the-box thinking to attract applicants.

“We don’t want to just give the disciplinary content of the programs to those studying dual major degrees, but also the so-called soft skills associated with the humanities,” said Corry. “This is very much of value today to the marketplace: the ability to express yourself, collaboration skills, presentation skills and so on.”

According to a recent TAU survey, almost one-in-10 of humanities graduates are today employed in hi-tech companies, boosting arguments regarding the valuable nature of soft skills.

Google’s latest Project Oxygen findings, published in 2018, revealed that key technical skills were only considered the eighth most important quality for a great manager. The top seven qualities – including being a good coach, creating an inclusive team environment and good communication abilities – were all soft skills.

Seeking to drive future innovation, TAU won NIS 15 million (approx. $4m.) in funding from the Council of Higher Education last year to establish a unique Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in collaboration with Shenkar College of Design.

Headed by managing director Yair Sakov, a hi-tech sector veteran with 25 years of experience, the center aims to enable all students from all faculties to master the tools and language of entrepreneurship.

Tel Aviv University Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Prof. Yossi Rosenwaks (L), Dean of the Faculty of Humanities Prof. Leo Corry (C) and Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation managing director Yair Sakov (R) (Credit: Tel Aviv University)

“We don’t expect every graduate to come out and build the next Waze or Mobileye, but we understand that entrepreneurship is something that can be taught,” Sakov told the Post.

“The fact that graduates will have this entrepreneurial mindset and toolkit will enable them to do much better in whatever they do, even if they work for a transportation company like Egged, a food company like Strauss, a hi-tech company like Intel or a social venture. You need to be able to recognize gaps, needs and opportunities, and act upon them as a leader or as part of a team.”

From the upcoming 2019/20 academic year, all students at TAU will be able to study entrepreneurship, either as stand-alone courses or as a full program. Students will be able to choose between three entrepreneurial tracks, focusing on business and technology, social entrepreneurship and design innovation.

“I have been meeting with major international companies in Israel and they are ecstatic when they hear that we can produce a philosophy student who has a nucleus of business understanding,” said Sakov. “They want these people, firstly because they’re not engineers and, secondly, because one of the focal points of the future world will be human interactions.

"How will people interact and work with the entry of autonomous cars? What will the future kitchen in our homes look like? You need someone from sociology, philosophy or psychology to really understand the right way to interact with all this technology."


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