The Nation’s Business

Turning UBC into a Berkeley or Caltech

‘To compete with the Internet, we have to optimize personal interaction and reconfigure classrooms’

Peter C. Newman April 26 1999
The Nation’s Business

Turning UBC into a Berkeley or Caltech

‘To compete with the Internet, we have to optimize personal interaction and reconfigure classrooms’

Peter C. Newman April 26 1999

Turning UBC into a Berkeley or Caltech

The Nation’s Business

‘To compete with the Internet, we have to optimize personal interaction and reconfigure classrooms’

Peter C. Newman

Few of Canada’s essential institutions are suffering from greater turmoil than our universities. In this Age of Internet, when we can all become our own professors, the future of higher learning depends directly on the speed with which its leaders can accommodate change.

Vancouver’s University of British Columbia is meeting the future head on. President Martha Piper, a feisty PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics from McGill University, is planning a series of reforms that will turn staid UBC upside down—and inside out. “Internet,” she told me last week, “is information, it’s not knowledge. Using the Net allows us to access facts more quickly, but it’s not application, and it’s certainly not problem-solving. There’s a need, still, for interaction, for personal and peer deliberation—and that will never fade.”

Piper is in the process of drafting a new educational approach that will revolutionize not only university learning and teaching, but the actual shape and feel of classrooms. ‘Too long,” she insists, “we’ve been locked into a form of passive teaching, where you can’t move or talk, only take down what you hear.

Most students who sit daily in the tiered lecture halls are looking down at 50 haircuts and one face. If we’re going to effectively compete with the Internet, we have to optimize personal interaction, and that will require reconfiguring classrooms.”

Instead of the traditional desks that lock students into position, forcing them to become passive recipients of their professors’ wisdom (or lack of it), she intends to transform classrooms into learning laboratories.

Students will share round tables with their teachers, who will lecture for 10 minutes or so, set out a context, pose a problem, and have the students cluster into a “task force” that comes up with solutions. “Students,” she says, “must begin to manage their own learning, start taking up some ownership in the process, which should be much more experimental and self-directed.”

Piper’s vision for the university—which this year boasts a student body of 33,000 plus 1,900 faculty—is that it become recognized as an intellectual catalyst and supplier of knowledge workers for Canada’s West Coast high-tech industry. “Interestingly,” she notes, “these companies don’t cluster around universities strictly for the applied research, but for basic research as well, because that’s where the real eurekas take place. Scientific breakthroughs are becoming much more multidisciplinary, so that geology is being changed by the physics of matter, for example, and anthropology is being explained through the application of DNA sequencing.” Piper’s dream is to turn UBC into a lively research centre that cross-pollinates with the computer and Internet wizards of the private sector. UBC would become the Canadian West Coast equiva-

lent of Stanford, Berkeley and Caltech, which supply much of the brain power to Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Adds Piper: “Unlike airports or convention centres, research universities are not easily built or willed into existence, because they evolve only after decades of investment and commitment.” (Already, 67 companies using UBC-developed research have been established in the province, employing 1,500 and attracting investment of more than $700 million.)

Piper intends to make UBC a more specialized high-end, research-oriented institution with greater emphasis on graduate studies. It would be re-engineered to foster the atmosphere—and provide the facilities—required to do something that most universities have lost the will or means to achieve: create new knowledge.

The UBC campus already boasts several unique features. Nobel Prize winner Michael Smith now heads Canada’s first research centre devoted to biomedical research into the causes of genetic diseases. The Rick Hansen Institute, run by the Man in Motion himself, is doing invaluable research into removing barriers faced by the handicapped. The Sing Tao School of Journalism (where I teach) is breaking new ground by turning reporters into authors. UBC was the first Canadian university to teach “cyber-sawy marketing” as a serious subject.

Piper’s objective is not only to turn UBC into the country’s most intensely researchoriented university, but to reach out to its community and the country at large. “Canada’s future,” she maintains, “will depend on knowledge. But as well as the public sector and the private sector, the social sector will become equally important. This will encompass nonprofit organizations, manned by volunteers, aiming to create human health and well-being.”

These are ambitious goals, but Piper is one of those enlightened scientists who knows a lot, is still learning and will not take no for an answer. Her record in and out of academia is that of an inquiring mind and an unquiet spirit. Deep into our interview, she pauses and reflects on what it really means to add value to a product or process. “I grew up on Lake Erie in a family of four children, sandwiched between two wild and crazy brothers. As teenagers and avid water-skiers, they decided one summer to build a home-made ski jump. It was decided that I, their sister, could not participate. Standing on the shore, yearning to ski, I observed the limitations of their process, interpreting the flaws of their product. Gradually, the value-added solution became apparent, the use of Ivory soap, applied at strategic places. This contribution resulted in two important outcomes: a successful ski jump and the right to jump, as an equal with my brothers.”

That’s why Martha Piper’s adult dreams stand such a good chance of coming true.