A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend our university’s annual Computer Science Research Expo, which is a day filled with student poster sessions, student and faculty research presentations, and industry panel discussions. I hadn’t had the luxury of spending an entire day focused on one topic since coming out of retirement into a busy administration role, and it was a real treat. The overarching theme was cybersecurity, something that, sadly, is now critical to everything from ensuring our banking information and personal identity are secure when we use the Internet to protecting national security. There was an exciting vibe in the room. Our undergraduate and graduate students outdid themselves, my young colleagues in my former academic unit blew me away, and I was struck once again by the critical importance of healthy and close relationships between universities and industry. We need each other; we both have big roles to play in what is currently referred to as the innovation eco-system.
Teachers may not always see it this way, especially on the more challenging days, but they are members of one of the most rewarding professions we have. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this, and the public needs to be reminded of why this is true as often as possible. Teachers at all levels have the opportunity to have an enduring impact on our students’ lives, from nurturing their inquisitive natures from an early age and planting the seeds for lifelong learning to sharing in-depth knowledge about complex topics. Every level in the education process has its rewards, from watching the joy on a child’s face when she realizes she can read to watching your sports team, science fair participants, school band, or debating society reach beyond what they thought was possible. The nearer you are to the end of a student’s time in the education system, the more likely you are to see what happens to your charges as they start their lives as independent, contributing young adults, but teachers earlier in the system should never doubt for a minute the influence their individual roles may have had on the directions their former students took.
In my case, I spent nearly 30 years teaching computer science to university students. That’s a lot of students over many years, and I was one of the lucky ones who got to watch these students turning into responsible, productive young adults. Thirty years ago (well, really 35 years ago, since I’ve been retired for five years except for this strange outlier year) we were using mainframes and punch cards; when I retired we were developing apps for mobile devices. It makes one wonder what computer science will look like 30 years from now! When I started in the business right after I graduated from university, the IT industry was called DP (data processing), and you were either in the business of programming data processing applications for large industries or developing new hardware. Networks were not even on the scene. Since then, information technology (IT) has become truly ubiquitous, and the industry is large and diverse. Companies obviously still need computer systems to manage their integrated enterprise management needs, however, IT areas are as far-ranging as gaming, smartphone apps, web development, cybersecurity, quality assurance, testing specialists, and applications for embedded systems, and beyond; opportunities abound and new ideas keep emerging. By complete fluke, because of the nature of the subject I taught, I have become a close observer of this world of innovation and entrepreneurship.
As a teacher I have been extraordinarily lucky – privileged, really – to have had a front-row seat in watching our graduates build an IT industry that has transformed our economy and hence the lives of many people. I’ve watched in amazement as former students of mine have begun start-ups right here in our town that have become successful companies. I say that I’ve watched in amazement because start-ups take good ideas, yes, but they also take convincing people that your idea is worth investing in. They require taking risks, taking risks with your money, your family’s money, your investors’ money. It involves worrying about your first employees, who usually put in far more than normal working hours and sometimes going without full pay at first, all because they believe in you. I am proud and humbled to say that an impressive number of my former students have been successful in turning their start-ups into successful, sustained businesses that in turn employ many of our newer graduates, keeping them in our province and improving our economy. My students, who knew! So proud.
These thoughts went through my head as I listened to former students, as panel discussion participants, talk about next steps in building an even more successful cybersecurity industry in our region. These thoughts went through my head as I contemplated how these committed citizens, my former students, give of their time, talents, and chequebooks to champion important community and province initiatives to make sure our region is the best it can be. These thoughts went through my head as I watched our young undergraduate and graduate students, undoubtedly nervous as they explained their posters to industry participants, and marvelled at how well they did and what passion they showed for their work. Their future is bright.
Based on what I’ve seen of our young people these days, despite the dire stories in the media, our future is in good hands. And the seeds for their success rests with their families for sure, but also with those teachers – from early childhood educators right through to the post-secondary level – who have had an impact on their students. Most teachers will never know with whom they had the greatest impact or precisely what they did that left a special mark with that student, and that is a pity. Because your work with your students does have an impact. You are nurturing our future.