This article was originally featured in Career Education Review, Spring 2023.
From plants that are best friends to batteries made out of salt, 2023’s emerging academic programs are surprising and dynamic.
Gray DI, a software and services firm serving higher education, has witnessed the success of colleges and universities that make bold and data-inspired decisions to launch innovative new programs. Every January, Gray hosts a webinar highlighting five promising academic program areas to watch. Creative AI (e.g., ChatGPT), cybersecurity, data analytics, and esports are among past years’ successful programs.
Early adoption of a new emerging program can result in positive outcomes for students and schools. A few years ago, Gray suggested a program that might raise a few eyebrows: Cannabis. A small rural school decided to risk the launch and address the growing demand for professionals trained in dispensary operations and cannabis science. “The program changed the landscape for the school and the community, creating significant revenue and jobs,” Rowles says.
Launching an emerging program may also carry some risk, ranging from slight embarrassment to revenue loss. “Leveraging existing courses and revamping them to fit a new program can reduce that risk,” she says. A successful emerging program has the power to put a school on the map and uniquely position it to capture all of the existing demand in its market.
In 2023, Gray identified the following programs that run the gamut from research-based programs to those with broad appeal across award levels. The programs address cultural and economic shifts, new technologies, and scientific innovations.
When the word “selfie” was added to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary in 2014, along with “tweep” and “hashtag,” it may have been the creator economy in the embryonic stage. After some years and maturing, professional creators have grown a rich economy, inspiring the next generation of content-building entrepreneurs, including product and service influencers, bloggers, vloggers, writers, gamers, and artists. Dreams of launching to the moon have morphed into dreams of launching huge follower streams on YouTube.
“Gray recognized the creator economy as a timely academic program area because it reflects a cultural phenomenon driven by the younger generation, one that is changing how people interact, play, and shop for goods and services,” Rowles says. “Some might think this is not a real career path, but it can be very lucrative.” The NCAA’s new name-image-likeness (NIL) policy also creates opportunities for student-athletes. To succeed, these entrepreneurs will require various skills, such as photography, communication, accounting, and product marketing. They need to know how to run their business. “If colleges and universities do not address this program opportunity, other providers will,” she says.
One of the key challenges facing the energy industry is how to generate more energy and store it for future use. Better energy storage could cover a multitude of suns. “As energy demand increases, and interest in renewables such as solar and wind grows, storage innovations are needed to increase capacity, improve security, lower costs, and bolster the transition to green energy,” says Rowles. “This industry has the potential to make a huge impact economically, environmentally, and politically if we can figure it out.”
Current research is captivating. Sand is being explored as a low-cost, high-efficiency thermal storage solution. Salt batteries may one day replace lithium batteries. Quantum batteries could prove ideal for a wide range of applications.
Energy storage programs allow schools to capture more students interested in chemical engineering, material science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. Research institutions may quickly “level up” existing programs to establish a niche and attract students who want to significantly impact the world around them.
Climate Change Adaptation
Unless you have been hiding under a polar icecap, you have likely heard about melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, extended wildfire seasons, and enough tornados to bring all Kansas to Oz. There is an increasing need for a workforce that knows how to adapt to the varied impacts of climate change.
“The economic impact of climate change is expected to be measured in the trillions of dollars,” says Rowles, “both in terms of direct losses from climate-related events and the cost to implement adaptation strategies.” One example is the six-mile, $119 billion sea wall New York City is planning. However, as we all know, just building a wall is an inadequate solution to most problems.
Higher education can prepare students to address physical and structural adaptation projects and institutional and social policies and plans that will be required. These include public health strategies, emergency response actions, and occupational upskilling. Consider the opportunities in architecture, engineering, economics, political science, agriculture, human resources, and communication.
Science of Well-Being
What makes us happy? That age-old question may finally be answered. A staggering 4.3 million learners have enrolled in Yale’s Science of Well-Being course on Coursera, making it the platform’s most popular course of all time.
Well-being is a broad term. It encompasses physical, emotional, and mental health practices and economic policies that help individuals and communities thrive. Growing interest in personal fitness and mindfulness apps and services such as health, wellness, and lifestyle coaching indicate a strong interest in personal well-being.
“Some economists are reconceptualizing wealth as happiness,” says Rowles. “The World Health Organization has been studying well-being at a societal level for years. Its annual ‘Happiness Report’ ranks people’s happiness in countries across the globe using such metrics as per capita GDP, social support, and life expectancy.”
Programs in this discipline could include all award levels, from certificates to graduate degrees. They can be focused on specific topics, such as positive psychology or wellness coaching. Schools could also take a holistic approach to the Science of Well-being by incorporating curriculum across many disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, economics, fitness, nutrition, public health, and public policy.
Your next best friend may be found under the forest floor or on your windowsill.
New research in the understanding of plants and plant systems points to an emerging program that could have broad appeal across institutional sectors and disciplines. This program area encompasses disparate fields such as botany, computer science, agriculture, engineering, mycology, nanotechnology, and environmental studies. Plants, like humans, interact, communicate with, and react to the world around them, giving off visual, chemical, and electrical signals. “I like to call them ‘Plantennas,’” says Rowles. “Scientists are also exploring the possibility of an intricate ‘Wood Wide Web’ under the forest floor. By harnessing plants’ sensing and communication abilities, we might see a new ‘Internet of Plants’ in the not-too-distant future.”
Plants can remove toxins that are harmful to humans, known as phytoremediation. “Suction flowers,” says Rowles, “or maybe ‘Bloombas’.” Scientists are also researching the possibility that plants can detect odors. Akin to service dogs, plants could one day help monitor certain medical conditions. While the idea of smart plants as an academic program is somewhat speculative, it could have a wide-ranging impact on our everyday lives if the science of smart plants is fully developed and achieved.
New and emerging programs can offer unique opportunities for colleges and universities. “As you think about which programs might suit your institution, consider how they fit with your mission, capabilities, and resources,” says Rowles. “For early adopters, the risk may be worth the reward.”