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Opinion: While We Blinked (The Future Is Here, Sort Of)

A new world of problem-solving tech companies is fast emerging in our time, and today's students have a lot to gain by venturing out of the classroom, whether by field trip or Zoom tour, to see it for themselves.

President Barack Obama said, “The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.”

As educators, our goal is to prepare students for their futures. It would be nice if we all had a clue what that was going to be like. The future is both here and coming at the same time — at a pace faster than we could have ever imagined.

As I mentioned in my June 2021 column, I follow German futurist Gerd Leonhard and highly recommend that everyone, especially educators, spend time on his site. He once observed that “The future is exponentially different,” and I agree. He said, “Most future jobs have not even been invented yet.” I now see again why he said, “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years.” Check out his recent conversation with business strategist Anton Musgrave about the world in 2030.

I want to share just a few glimpses into the future that my students and I observed on a recent field trip. I took 16 students from my school in Oregon for an eight-day trip to visit companies in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I have been doing these trips since 1995, alternating coasts, but this trip really stunned me! It changed my life, my work and how I think as an educator. I had no idea how many products and services are coming that will change our world forever!

We visited Joby Aviation, which is in the business of electric aerial ride-sharing, and saw the future through the eyes of pioneers in the field of electric aircraft. Using six electric motors, Joby aircraft take off and land vertically to serve almost any community. I think of it as flight ride-sharing. The lesson for us all is that many of the jobs at Joby didn’t previously exist and had to be invented. People had to innovate and learn and create new jobs, with new requirements, to achieve new goals and develop new products. We were told over and over that everyone at Joby must be able to learn new things, because they are doing things that haven’t been done before.

We visited Zoox, an Amazon subsidiary, which is transforming mobility as a service by developing a fully autonomous, purpose-built, electric vehicle fleets designed for AI to drive and humans to enjoy. It is high-tech, on-demand, autonomous ride-hailing, an entirely new approach to human transportation. It was reiterated to students that as they leave school and enter the workforce, the skills that will be most needed are the ability to learn new things, to be creative problem-solvers, to work with a team and to have excellent communication skills. They were encouraged to gain these skills during their school years by doing projects and internships, working on teams, and solving problems that seem impossible.

At Retool, we learned that from startups to Fortune 500 companies, teams use Retool to power their internal apps. For starters, they build tools for companies to develop better software faster. My students spent time with different team members and were immersed in a high-energy startup environment, where people were doing things that had never been done before.

We visited Swarm, a company acquired by SpaceX that provides low-cost, global Internet connectivity. They do this using ultra-small satellites in a low orbit that cover every point on Earth. We saw all parts of the company that make this dream a reality.

Throughout the visits, we saw futuristic workspaces with a range of configurations — without individual offices, but created to enable communication among members. Some provide environments that allow phone calls that don’t interfere with others doing work. My students and I saw firsthand the joy and excitement of teams solving problems that didn’t exist a few years ago.

My students also learned that high-tech companies rely on human skills, abilities and creativity. They rely on and expect initiative and effort — the ability to work hard. As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, where you went to college doesn’t matter, because the real challenge is having excellent communication skills and the ability to work on teams, solve problems and rapidly learn new things.

These visits were just a few of many that shifted our view of the future. We talked to employees of Sama AI and Reddit, visited universities, met with venture capitalists, and visited CSBio, a company that makes peptides. Every company that wasn’t a high-tech firm was using high-tech tools in ways that were new to my students and to the world. For example, we visited Cloud Kitchens, food production facilities where dozens of restaurants rent space to prepare delivery-optimized food items. Designed for take-out only, they use amazing software that handles everything from processing food orders and collecting payment to ensuring final orders go into the right pick-up locker and to the right delivery service pick-up driver. Students saw the entire operation in full swing and learned many things from this experience that simply can’t be learned in a classroom setting.

I will write more about our other visits soon, because there are more lessons worth sharing. With AI suddenly emerging into the spotlight with an emphasis on education, with phone cameras improving because of new software being developed, with new medical devices such as the IQ Butterfly and medical breakthroughs coming at an ever-increasing pace, we need to get our students out of the classroom and show them their ever-changing and unpredictable world. The immediate benefit is that they will better understand how to use the education they are receiving. It will also give them some of the information they need to make decisions about their future studies and what they will need to succeed in the future.

It will be useful for students to understand theologian Leonard Sweet’s comment, “The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create.”

Note: Most communities have high-tech companies very willing to host students. I realize not all schools can conduct field trips, but they can use resources such as guest speakers, Zoom tours and videos to achieve similar results.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.