Print this page

Physicists explain how to beat automation and navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Ilias Perakis, Ph.D., and Lauren Rast, Ph.D.
  • September 08, 2021

The first Industrial Revolution, the one that built cities and takes up the most space in history books, was driven by water and steam. The second was fueled by electricity. The third was the result of simple digitization. Today, we are living in the early days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered in part by artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science, and quantum engineering.

The first Industrial Revolution, the one that built cities and takes up the most space in history books, was driven by water and steam. The second was fueled by electricity. The third was the result of simple digitization. Today, we are living in the early days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered in part by artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science, and quantum engineering. A convergence of physical, digital, human, and biological sciences is forcing companies across all industries to re-examine how they do business and what kinds of employees they hire.

More and more, repetitive work is being taken on by computers that use AI techniques such as machine learning. What is left for humans? Anything that requires creativity and critical thinking. Research has shown that five skills are of the greatest value to today’s employers. These are what you could call “21st century skills”:

  • problem-solving,
  • critical and creative thinking,
  • collaboration,
  • communication and
  • ethical reasoning and mindset.

When combined with technical specialized training, these skills make workers more competitive for high-demand, high-paying jobs in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields.

person reading building it together reportThe Building (IT) Together report from Burning Glass Technologies, commissioned for the city of Birmingham by a consortium of local groups, has identified three main areas for economic growth and workforce development in our region: advanced manufacturing, information technologies, and life sciences and biotech. These recommendations also align with the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Accelerate Alabama 2.0 economic development plan for recruitment, development, and workforce training. As both plans note, employers are seeking candidates who have demonstrated proficiency in using specialized skills to solve complex problems.

What is the best way to prepare for this future? The 21st century skills are not specific to any individual discipline, but the right blend of training and opportunity is crucial. In the UAB Department of Physics, our existing hands-on research projects and faculty expertise let students pursue highly sought-after experiences in materials science, lasers and photonics, computation, and high-tech instrumentation. These experiences are now critical for all STEMM fields and 21st century jobs.

Our courses integrate new AI-enabled, socially rich, remotely accessible activities with the best of face-to-face and in-laboratory experiences. In-person or online, our students benefit from one-on-one, high-quality interactions with faculty researchers who have international reputations. You don’t become a physicist by watching a professor talk. You must be a problem-solver, work effectively in teams, have STEMM content knowledge, must be a self-directed learner, and must make ethical decisions.

The problems addressed by physics research are complex. They require skills such as imagination and the ability to break down a complex problem into manageable parts. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. So we train students to tackle situations they have not encountered before through team-based learning and project-based lessons.

Three examples will give you a flavor of what our students learn:

  • In Machine Learning Applications in Physics and Materials Science, students solve real problems while learning about one of the hottest branches of artificial intelligence and getting hands-on with industry-standard tools.
  • Understanding the World through Data gives students of all disciplines an introduction to computer modeling as a way to develop reasoning, critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving skills. Throughout the course, students make and explore conjectures in physics and data science as well as biology, the social sciences, business, and more.
  • Reasoning through Modeling and Simulation of Data dives deeper into modeling and simulation, with a focus on using acquired knowledge for project-based cooperative learning in the analysis of real-world datasets.

UAB has always set itself apart by welcoming undergraduates into our research labs as early as their freshman years. Students who discover an interest in any of these areas can join our research teams working on projects in advanced computation, advanced materials, and lasers and photonics.

student working on physics assignment on laptopThe impact doesn’t stop there. Over the past several years, our faculty have developed an online course called Coding with Physics that uses hands-on, experiential learning and “gameful” learning concepts to help teachers in Alabama high schools get their students excited about science. Our Understanding the World through Data course is a foundational class in the Magic City Data Collective project. This public-private partnership aims to help Birmingham students explore careers and gain data-literacy skills while tackling real-world projects for local companies and organizations. We emphasize the development of digital fluency, i.e., an ability to use technology in order to create new knowledge. For example, when learning a new language, a literate person can read and speak, while a fluent person can use it to create a story or a poem. All students and life-long learners must be able to learn and use the new technologies that they will need to solve problems in the future, including those technologies that do not exist yet.

No one wants to spend a career looking over their shoulder as a robot is trained to do their work. We are doing our part to prepare a generation that looks forward instead.

Ilias Perakis, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Physics. Lauren Rast, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Physics.