RSU Experts Draw on US Experience to Develop a Higher Education Interwoven With IT
Assistant Professor Jevgenijs Proskurins, Head of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Department of Physics, and Uldis Doniņš, Head of the RSU IT Department’s Information Systems Division, recently returned from the US with a store of knowledge and fresh ideas to share with both colleagues and students – for example a new study course where future healthcare professionals would be able to learn programming, ideas for a new 3D printing technology laboratory, and pedagogical innovations in higher education. They spent five months in the state of New York as part of a co-operation programme between Latvia and the University of Buffalo administered by the Riga Business School.
Representatives from three Latvian institutions of higher education - RSU, RTU and the University of Latvia – went to the USA as part of this cooperation programme. Their positions and daily responsibilities are very different, but all of them are more or less related to IT. Among the participants were a vice-dean and an associate professor working in artificial intelligence and digital art theory, as well as an expert in 3D modelling and several doctoral students who are still on their way to receiving their academic degrees and just beginning their academic careers. All of them were united by an interest in IT and pedagogy, as well as by the goal to apply this knowledge to Latvian higher education.
‘Today's challenges are so complex that they require seeking solutions by bringing together knowledge from different sectors. Interdisciplinarity has become a prerequisite for development, and often IT is one of the components of the formula to finding a solution. Information technology has entered every sector so much that just knowing Word, Excel and Power Point is no longer enough, no matter what field a person works in,’ explains Jevgenijs. For this reason the Department of Physics, which Jevgenijs heads, is planning to offer a basic IT course to prospective doctors in the spring semester. ‘The aim is not to teach future doctors to program, but rather to raise awareness of the possibilities offered by modern IT, for example how to connect different information systems, like medical data registers,’ Jevgenijs elaborates. ‘The Department of Physics is located in the RSU Medical Education Technology Centre – the interdisciplinarity at this location, where there are so many gadgets and where doctors, engineers and IT specialists bustle around, is obvious,’ he adds.
The participants of the cooperation project from Latvia together with representatives from the University of Buffalo at an international student event.
Photo: University of Buffalo
In addition to the belief that IT should be integrated into all study courses at RSU the project participants also began working on the content for a study course on the basics of 3D printing. This is a course that could be offered to RSU students already in the upcoming academic year. At the same time creating an open-type 3D laboratory is also being considered. This laboratory would be available not only to healthcare and medical students at RSU, but also to the participants in the newly-established RSU Business Incubator and other interested people, adds Jevgenijs.
The art of programming and presentation
With about one fifth of students coming from abroad, the University of Buffalo is one of the most international universities in the United States. This helped the Latvian delegation feel at home, Uldis says. Being a doctor of engineering, he participated in the courses he chose together with undergraduate and graduate students. ‘On the one hand, we were students, on the other hand, the accumulated academic experience allowed us to look at the study process and at US higher education from the lecturer's point of view,’ he says. The number of students in his courses stood out to Uldis. ‘The courses I chose had about 250 students each, and the study process was mostly organised in the form of lectures and very intensive individual and group work. All of this was led by one lecturer with eight assistants helping the process run smoothly,’ Uldis shares his impressions.
In Buffalo, he had chosen to learn such current and fast-changing subjects that some of the courses did not, and could not have any textbooks, for example Bio Micro Electro Mechanical Systems and Lab-On-a-Chip. He also studied biomedical informatics, the development of biomaterials in regenerative medicine, as well as machine learning in the field of biomedical data and other courses. During the machine learning course, students were introduced to algorithms that allow robotic systems to see trends in data and predict which population group is at a higher risk of catching a disease, for example. Students were intensively involved in classifying and forecasting tasks. In the Data Intensive Computing course students had to program algorithms themselves, for example, to come up with an algorithm capable of analysing data arranged in 110,000 excel columns and 30,000 rows in a reasonable time span.
There was also a more general course in project management and communication in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which is offered on an undergraduate level in the US, regardless of the chosen field. ‘This is something that would be worth establishing in higher education in Latvia as well – introducing project management and how to communicate the results of one’s work already at a bachelor's level and the ability to later also be able to develop these skills in master's programmes, regardless of specialisation,’ contemplates Uldis. In the US, where there is more competition, students are taught to "sell" themselves in 30 seconds almost from kindergarten. This is also important for scientists, who are often so deeply specialised that they can only speak in the jargon of their own sector, making their message incomprehensible to the general public, Uldis adds.
Online instead of onsite
Sometimes negative events have positive side effects. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans, it also enabled people to experience both onsite and online learning at the University of Buffalo. All students at the university, including those from Latvia, switched to online studies on 15 March. Only international students remained on university campus - they met their fellow students and lecturers via Blackboard, the e-learning environment used at the University of Buffalo. The tools they used daily were mostly the same as at RSU - Panopto and Zoom, Uldis explains.
The moment before studies moved online. The University of Buffalo in the background. From the left: Uldis Doniņš and Jevgenijs Proskurins.
The cooperation programme’s original intention was for programme participants to spend one semester at the University of Buffalo as students, so that later the knowledge and experience they acquired could be tested in Latvia. They would then return to the United States for another, more specific semester in terms of content, in which the participants would step into lecturers’ shoes at the University of Buffalo. The development of the pandemic in the world will dictate whether this plan will be implemented, Uldis and Jevgenijs say, but it is already clear that RSU students will benefit from what they have learned – they can expect new courses interwoven by IT in the next academic year.
Winter and spring at the University at Buffalo. Left to right: Jevgenijs Proskurins, Head of the RSU Department of Physics, and Uldis Doniņš, Head of the RSU IT Department’s Information Systems Division.