Blockchain, Robots, and Mars: Where do University Students Start?

By Axel de Vernou

What do space tourism, cryptocurrency, and artificial intelligence (AI) have in common? This semester, Yale College is not offering an introductory course dedicated solely to any of them. While these topics may be covered in certain high-level engineering or finance courses, students, especially first-years, have very limited exposure to them in the classroom. Yet these topics are constantly heralded as “the future” of our world—revolutionary processes that are shaping our understanding of human society and identity.

If colleges are meant to prepare students to tackle the world’s greatest issues, then it has never been more difficult for them to carry out their responsibility. Ideas and topics that seemed far-fetched a week ago can rise to relevance in the blink of an eye. The world is changing rapidly, and with that comes significant pressure for today’s college students. Universities like Yale, however, have not updated their course lists each semester to reflect the unrelenting pace of global developments, leaving extracurricular organizations responsible for picking up the slack. 

Students interested in fields such as space tourism, crypto, and AI must now constantly be on the lookout for accessible research, online courses, groups, and initiatives to stay informed about trends in the industry. Each of these three fields have worked to democratize information for aspiring students.


I. Artificial intelligence (AI)

Fifteen years ago, the overwhelming majority of Yale students matriculated without ever having interacted with any form of AI. Nowadays, it is quite the opposite. STEM majors will unquestionably run into AI at some point, and it is almost inevitable for students pursuing majors in economics, political science, environmental studies, and even history or the humanities to encounter the technology in their studies. Data, which drives the development of AI, pervades contemporary society. Consequently, individuals in almost every industry have had to rely on quantitative analysis to uncover new trends or describe previously inexplicable processes.

How can students, whether deeply intrigued by specific technologies or apprehensive of how AI will intersect with their studies, keep up with the mind-blowing pace of digital and robotic developments? Dr. Priyadarshini Panda, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, manages the Intelligent Computing Lab for this very purpose. While she offers a course on neural networks every fall semester, it is primarily intended for experienced graduate students. The Lab, on the other hand, fulfills the key role of encouraging Yale College students to explore their passions in a supportive space before moving into the workforce or on to graduate-level classes.

After joining the Lab, “students wouldn’t be very surprised by the terminology in [graduate] classes. It helps them to get that little bit of research insight,” said Dr. Panda. “If undergraduates find the work useful and both of us feel like there is a sort of synergy, we take up a project together.”

Before even considering the Lab, however, there are a variety of resources available to students that can turn their surface-level knowledge into more fundamental understanding without necessitating any kind of hands-on expertise. “Today, if you want to do a Python-based application, you can do it on your own on the web. . . without having a proper machine or the knowledge to install [advanced] toolkits,” said Dr. Panda. She cited Coursera and freely accessible YouTube videos from AI enthusiasts and academics as excellent resources for students to begin immersing themselves in the world of AI in a self-paced manner. 

Students may in fact find independent exploration of AI more effective than learning in the classroom, no matter what discipline they are hoping to pursue. Political science, for instance, increasingly relies on AI models to predict election trends; doctors and sociologists use AI to predict vaccine efficacy; and students looking at agriculture or sustainable development need to learn about AI as it continues to automate these industries. “Learning a bit of data science or AI through these Coursera courses is an alternative way for you to pick up a new topic without being under the radar of grading and you can take it up at your own pace,” said Dr. Panda.

However, it may be challenging for students to find time to add courses. For students who appreciate a more structured way of exploring a subject and who want to immerse themselves in a community of equally curious individuals, student clubs and organizations are a useful alternative. FIRST at Yale (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an example of one such club that seeks to inspire the next generation of college students leaning toward STEM careers.

Despite the accessibility of programming platforms and websites online, the team component of FIRST at Yale is invaluable, said Miriam Huerta ‘23, Treasurer of the organization. Students build robots together, and on the side, “professional engineers mentor students. . . and you get to ask them for help and learn from them,” which encourages a mix of collaboration and self-paced learning. College students hoping to best prepare themselves for the rapid expansion of AI, which can be an intimidating subject, should endeavor to find a community with whom to share their discoveries. “What’s most common, at least at Yale, is people come in wanting to do STEM and end up switching out of it,” Miriam observed. FIRST at Yale takes a hands-on approach that improves engagement compared to the college’s theoretical introductory classes.


II. Space Tourism

The balance between independent research and finding communities within student organizations applies to space tourism and crypto as well. While AI has occasionally made headlines in the past few years when a technology company has made a breakthrough innovation, the same cannot be said about space tourism. Until recently, the idea of traveling into space was foreign to citizens across the United States. But now, business leaders and professors recognizing the speed of this new trend are launching their own initiatives to catch students up and spark an interest in this emerging industry. Members of Yale’s community who have little exposure to such a new topic can take advantage of new resources appearing across the country.

Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space, has worked assiduously to support the space industry by investing in private companies, sharing research with news organizations, and promoting education in the field. “I think the biggest misconception is that the current ‘space race’ has no impact on everyday citizens,” said Mr. Taylor. “I’d argue the opposite—as more and more people go to space, whether it’s Richard Branson or your next door neighbor, it not only inspires other people to want to become astronauts, but [also] motivates companies to make flights and technology cheaper and more accessible.”

For Mr. Taylor, this desire to bring more people to space has translated to Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program and the company New Space, which is part of Voyager Space. The former aims to give ordinary people the opportunity to travel into space and learn about how the industry is evolving. Yale students can also use Space for Humanity’s website to find out which organizations and advisory boards are most involved in the topics that interest them.

Not only do Mr. Taylor’s initiatives enable college students to engage with space tourism, but they also encourage a deeper understanding of the history and future trajectory of the field. With the news constantly heralding individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for their expeditions into space and highlighting the new frontiers that have been opened to humankind, college students will need to immerse themselves in the field instead of just learning basic facts. 

Dr. Robert Goehlich, one of the first professors to offer a rigorous class on space tourism to students across the world, values this philosophy in his teaching approach. As a space tourism expert and adjunct assistant professor at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus, he worked with their College of Business to construct a course that places students in the shoes of those who are pioneering the growth of space tourism. “Teaching a class means for me. . .also listening to the students’ opinions and having interactive activities, rather than ‘teaching’ the subject as a monologue,” explained Dr. Goehlich. 

How exactly does he do this? First, the class tasks students with playing different roles within the space tourism market, ranging from operations managers, to the marketing team, and, of course, to the tourist. Students from across the world—whether from Yale or any other university—can Zoom into it virtually, collaborate with other thinkers, solve complex problems, and analyze current trends in the industry. Dr. Goehlich started with this approach in 2003 when he developed and taught the first space tourism course as a visiting professor at Keio University in Yokohama, Japan. Since then, he has maintained his strategy of building scenarios and team meetings into the curriculum. 

His overall goal is to clear misconceptions that students may have about such a nascent industry while converting their surface-level knowledge to deeper comprehension. “Space tourism is a field where reality, hoaxes, and science fiction are mixed up in such a way that it makes [it] difficult to distinguish between reality and wishes. The ‘wish’ is to start tomorrow at large-scale, but the ‘reality’ is the existing challenges and the smaller step-by-step successes,” explained Dr. Goehlich. Distinguishing between what is currently feasible and what ambitions engineers and politicians have is an essential part of truly grasping the implications of space tourism.

The methodology of exploration explained in the AI section above holds true for space tourism, as well. While Dr. Goehlich’s course seeks to expand the reach of space tourism instruction to students across the world, it may be difficult for students to add an extra class to their already-busy schedules. Thus, Dr. Goehlich also launched a Space Tourism Fund last year to support student learning by providing access to textbooks, encouraging discussions about learned material, and providing a budget to eligible participants to use creatively. His course and fund aim at a similar objective: teaching students about the “safe operation of the spaceships, an environmentally friendly operation, and having a profitable operation that is economically viable.”

To learn about all available options for programs and courses, college students will have to sacrifice time to do the scouting. These hours of research pay off if the program or course that is ultimately chosen align with their interest and provide an enriching experience. The overwhelming part of the equation is the sheer quantity of resources and potential opportunities that appear after a Google search, forcing students to constantly filter their results and abandon many alternatives. Notwithstanding, one can never go wrong by settling on an initiative, such as Dr. Goehlich’s course, which stresses real-world application and immersion into an industry of choice. 

Featured image: Messier 16 (The Eagle Nebula) from NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

III. Crypto

The final member of this trio that occupies a great space in the news cycle but is poorly understood by many college students is cryptocurrency. Memes, hype, and celebrity influence have superficially informed many people about crypto while overlooking the fundamentals of the revolutionary technology.

Professor Sarah Hammer, Managing Director of the Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to change that. Hammer co-teaches a Wharton online class available to anybody through Coursera that introduces students to digital currencies and the basics of crypto. While she started her career in investment and portfolio management, she soon realized that cryptocurrency would reform the way we think about financial infrastructure. The technology currently used to clear and settle trades as well as today’s regulatory framework are outdated, according to Hammer. Crypto would replace a system that often allows for credit exposure and slow transactions with a decentralized, rapid mechanism of sending money. “Crypto has many features which obviously are different from many financial instruments, and we need to study them,” said Hammer.

To that end, Hammer participated in a congressional hearing earlier this year to make the case that crypto needs to be studied and considered in its entirety before rushing to regulate it. We have to “understand the technology. . .the way it is being used, and get data on the size of the markets and where the risks are,” said Hammer. If crypto is predicted to override traditional financial instruments and centralized banks in favor of an organized blockchain, more students will need to take on the research Hammer described. 

Fortunately, launching oneself into the intricacies of crypto and space tourism takes less time than might be expected. “Part of what makes crypto unique is that it is such a fast-moving space. If a student has motivation to get involved, they can get up to speed very quickly and. . . they will not be behind other people,” said Hammer. “A student who is motivated can get ahead of the curve—all they have to do is reach out and learn.”

One dilemma that comes with independent online research, however, is the process of avoiding fallacious data or facts that seem credible. Indeed, Professor Joseph Bonneau of New York University warned that misinformation is rampant with respect to crypto. “There are a lot of people doing [crypto] to try to make money. In some cases there is some bad behavior—people pushing ideas behind coins they have a financial stake in, or people muddying the waters trying to make it sound like their version of something is new and better when it’s really just a copy of something else.” 

To steer clear from conflicts of interest and unfounded research, students should start by consulting academic resources that rely on information provided by professors. After grasping the fundamentals of crypto, students can then successfully distinguish misleading from explanatory articles or videos. To help with that process, Bonneau co-authored a textbook titled Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies, one of the first of its kind, in 2016. It is accompanied by a Princeton Coursera course based on the material in the textbook. To democratize the research that Bonneau and his co-authors assembled, there is a free unedited version online. “The book is pretty widely used and I’ve talked to many people who read it outside of any formal class to get into the space,” said Bonneau.

In terms of classes, Hammer believes that a lot of work can still be done. “Universities need to offer more courses about fintech and blockchain,” she said. Ideally, Hammer would want to see more classes that are “cross-disciplinary in nature [with] more practitioners speaking in the classroom,” so that students can visualize how crypto fits into the economic, political, and social developments of our time. To address this shortcoming, UPenn students in the Bitcoin Laboratory are actively reaching out to other schools to harness student talent in different communities with varying experiences. “The best innovation is coming from students,” said Hammer. Yale students should keep this in mind when founding and joining different organizations—their work has the potential to contribute significantly to the field they choose to pursue. This type of involvement will encourage the transition from surface-level to well-ingrained knowledge as students gain exposure to a new industry.


IV. Student Perspectives

To acquire a better understanding of AI, space tourism, and crypto, students will need to introduce a mix of online learning and research into their schedules. By taking a sufficient amount of time to find the right resource, whether it be a virtual course or a comprehensive textbook, college students can make sense of the issues that frequently appear on the news with little in-depth exploration. Even so, students seem to agree that the university needs to respond more diligently to quick shifts in crucial industries.  

“With online resources, you lack the ability to ask related questions and spend a lot of time just looking for the right information that relates to your goals. With university classes, all of the learning is structured, and getting doubts cleared up is quite simple,” said Shankara Abineni ‘25, who plans to focus on the intersection between AI and economics while at Yale. Luis Halvorssen ‘25, who plans to participate in YUAA (Yale Undergraduate Aeronautics Association) and YUDI (Yale Undergraduate Diversified Investments), echoed this sentiment. “There is plenty of accessible information on the internet, but a. . .class or professor would definitely help in making that individual effort much easier.” Miriam explained that before adding new classes, the current selection needs to be updated. “Introductory classes could definitely be improved,” she said. 

Perhaps students would benefit most from curation of content. Joey Guardino, who will study astrophysics as a first-year at Columbia University after his gap year, believes that there is a wealth of precise and helpful information available online—so much so that it becomes overwhelming. Some examples of resources he follows include the astrophysics and astronomy tab on Apple News, Universe Today, NASA, SpaceNews, SpaceFlight Insider, Air & Space Magazine, and Scientific American. 

But students cannot feasibly juggle all of these sites with their coursework. Joey’s solution has been turning to more specific, curated resources. I “pay for a subscription called Brilliant, which is an online organization that creates a vast collection of courses by award-winning professors and researchers for mathematics, physics—including astronomy—computer science, finance, and so much more,” said Joey. With all of this information in one place, Joey can better organize his research instead of having to sift through the infinite number of new discoveries published online.

If Yale and its peer institutions hope to prepare their students for the transformational changes that will define the future, they will need to react more quickly to economic, political, and technological shifts by introducing classes that support student learning. AI, crypto, and space tourism are just three examples of industries that may completely revolutionize our understanding of the world, and it is the responsibility of today’s institutions to channel expert-driven information to a classroom environment. In the meantime, as students wait, an abundance of Coursera classes and online research tools are readily available. The challenge at hand is filtering through all the content to ensure that the most accurate and well-researched resources serve as the foundation for your understanding.

Axel de Vernou is a first year at Saybrook College. You can contact him at