UM Technology Summit Focuses on Need for STEM Education

Sen. Wicker, university leaders promote role of new facility to help meet workforce demands

Chancellor Vitter welcomes guests and panelists to the UM Technology Summit. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter welcomes guests and panelists to the UM Technology Summit. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and the University of Mississippi hosted U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and technology industry leaders Wednesday (Aug. 31) for the UM Technology Summit, at which the senator and others agreed that the need for more science, technology, engineering and math students will continue to grow.

The summit brought together longtime professionals from the computer, telecom, internet and cyber security industries, among others. They discussed advances on the horizon and ways that universities can help industry meet its new workforce demands and spur entrepreneurship.

The event reinforced Chancellor Vitter’s commitment to strengthening STEM education, growing the university’s capacity to address future workforce needs and enhancing UM’s status as a Carnegie R1 Highest Research Activity Institution.

The Tech Summit also complemented many of the university’s recent efforts in this area, including the new STEM building and the chancellor’s initiative to establish a leading, interdisciplinary research and education program in data science.

Wicker, who chairs the Communications, Technology, Innovation and Internet subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, among other assignments, touted the university’s vision for the $138 million STEM education building.

The building, envisioned as the crown jewel of the university’s Science District, is designed to facilitate project-based, active learning that cross-trains students beyond single-subject expertise. The goal is to have the 200,000-square-foot building completed by fall 2018.

“We have got the STEM building and ground is already broken,” Wicker said. “It’s a two-year effort, but it’s going to be the next big thing for Ole Miss.”

Wicker, who opened the summit with remarks at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, gave an overview of the future of technology and his work in Washington on those issues. He noted that more than 50 percent of Mississippians live in rural areas and half of them lack broadband internet service, but efforts to expand that access are underway.

“Our state and this university are not only a vital part of technology and internet progress today, but in many important respects, we are leading the way,” Wicker said. “It is, in fact, our problems and our unique challenges in Mississippi that are causing us to have to be a world leader.”

For example, UM’s Diabetes Telehealth Network is the first of its kind in the nation. In Sunflower County, some 200 diabetes patients were given a tablet computer that allows them to communicate with their doctors at the University of Mississippi Medical Center Jackson.

“In two years, hospitalizations of these chronically ill diabetes patients have been virtually eliminated because of this program that we’re doing,” Wicker said. “This is today’s Ole Miss, and we ought to be proud of it.”

The next goal for the program is to expand it to 20 percent of the state’s chronically ill diabetes patients, he said. Some projections suggest that it could save Medicaid $190 million annually, while greatly improving health in Mississippi, the senator said.

Another program in the works would allow physicians to communicate with paramedics and patients in ambulances en route to UMMC. The service could become available in early 2017.

“We will be the only state doing this in the nation because we have to, because we’re rural and we have a connectivity problem,” Wicker said.

Following Wicker’s remarks, panelists conducted a roundtable discussion at the Inn at Ole Miss. There, industry professionals and tech entrepreneurs underscored the need for more STEM-trained professionals to meet future demands on their industries.

Panelists included Jim Barksdale, former president and CEO of Netscape Communications Corp., Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Hu Meena, president and CEO of C Spire, Rich Langford, strategic alliance manager for education with Microsoft Corp., Marc Siry, vice president of Comcast’s Strategic Development Group, Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, Bob Curbeam, vice president of Space Systems, a mission area within Raytheon Co., Tom Becherer, founder and CEO of DeltaBridge, Jay Monroe, executive chairman and CEO of Global Star, Bill Rayburn, co-founder of FNC Inc., Josh Gladden, UM vice chancellor for research, LouAnn Woodward, UM vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the UMMC School of Medicine, and John Palmer, founder and chairman of GulfSouth Capital and Skytel.

Barksdale led a discussion focused on ways the university can position its students for the disruptive changes that will drive future innovations. He briefly discussed the history of technology and connectivity from his perspective as a business deployer of communications systems, noting that all technology and invention come as a result of necessity.

Each new invention historically creates a rush to produce new technology, resulting in new jobs and a demand for skilled workers to fill them, Barksdale pointed out. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the digital age, he said.

C Spire’s Meena called upcoming changes to the industry part of managing a “data tsunami” and noted that the university is in a prime position to train these new tech-savvy employees.

“Every industry is now a technology industry,” Meena said. “What an opportunity for Mississippi to lead. Sometimes it’s hard to see around corners and get ahead. But, in this match we know where the puck is going. We need to skate quickly to that point.

“There is no doubt the need for computer engineers and software professionals is only going to increase, and we need to prepare our young people accordingly.”

Data usage on AT&T’s network has increased by 150,000 percent since 2007 and is projected to increase tenfold by 2020, Flynt said. The company is developing technology to handle the growing demand.

“We’re on a path to totally changing our network from being a hardware network to a software network,” Flynt said. “That has huge implications for our company and for our need for employees and skill sets.

“We’re at a very interesting time. Our leaders have decided we can’t hire enough people to do this, so we are re-skilling our own people, offering them opportunities to learn new skills in software. STEM is very, very important to us. A, because we need new people coming in with these skills and B, we need partners with us to reskill the employees we have.”

Vitter concluded the summit by thanking Wicker for his “insightful leadership” and the panelists for sharing their experience and expertise.

“It has been extraordinary to explore the future of technology and the role of higher education, UM in particular, with these thought leaders,” Vitter said.

“The University of Mississippi is well-positioned to be a national leader in producing STEM graduates educated in a new paradigm that prepares them for the global, fast-paced, team-oriented workplace of the future. We look forward to continuing the dialogue on addressing the challenges of today and growing the opportunities of tomorrow.”