Embrace experiential learning to become robot-proof, President Aoun tells students’ families and friends

President Aoun speaks with students at Parent’s Weekend 2018 on October 27, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Students must prepare themselves for an evolving workforce in which artificial intelligence is expected to drastically disrupt employment in the near future, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun told family and friends of undergraduates Saturday.

“The mission of higher education is for students to become robot-proof,” Aoun told an audience that had arrived for Family and Friends Weekend, three days of events on campus and around Boston for the friends and loved ones of Northeastern students.

A Northeastern education combines lifelong learning, interdisciplinary and experiential education, and an approach to learning that Aoun called humanics, which encourages students to purposefully integrate data literacy, tech literacy, and human literacy.

It’s a model Aoun wrote about in his book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, and one that he posits more universities are likely to emulate to remain relevant in an era in which technology threatens to displace millions of people from their jobs.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“Experiential learning gives humans an edge over machines,” Aoun said. “Machines cannot negotiate, but we can learn to collaborate and negotiate and work with other people from all different cultures by understanding where they’re coming from.” And that’s the power of experiential learning, he said.   

To amplify his point, Aoun invited three students, Brenna Sorkin, Vanessa Gregorchik, and James Tukpah, onto the stage to describe how experiential learning has had an impact on their education.

Brenna Sorkin, a fourth-year computer science and information design student, is the operations director of Northeastern’s student-run product development studio, Generate. She attributed a lot of the group’s success to their collaborations with Scout, the university’s student-run design studio, which helps companies curate their brand and build an online presence.

Vanessa Gregorchik, a fourth-year design student and the executive director of Scout,  agreed.

“We’re so much more powerful in collaboration because we have more resources when we work together, and the two mediums need each other to survive,” she said.

Gregorchik and Sorkin explained how their cross-disciplinary partnership was one way Northeastern prepared them for life after college.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“I just recently decided to graduate a year early because I was so empowered by Scout to go out into the real world and start working,” Gregorchik said.

Aoun congratulated the three students on their accomplishments. “We are supporting the students and these student run activities, but ultimately they are ahead of us,” he said. “They own the university.”

Before the conversation ended, Tukpah, a fourth-year electrical engineering student and president of Northeastern’s Black Engineering Student Society, asked Aoun what he would do differently if he could be a student again with the resources available at Northeastern today.

“When I was a student, I spent a lot of time reading books or in labs,” Aoun said. If he could go back and do it again, he said, he would venture out into the real world more often than he did.

Aoun ended his address with one last piece of advice to students: “Welcome to Northeastern. Welcome to Boston. Now go explore the world.”