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UALR magazine

Spring/Summer 2008 • Vol. springsummer No. 2008

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Q&A with Dr. John Ahlen

Dr John Ahlen, President of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority

Dr. John Ahlen is president of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, a state agency promoting scientific research, technology development, business innovation, and math, science, and engineering education.

On Arkansas’ Globalization Outlook

By Robin Henson

Why do Arkansas students need a global education?
It’s globalization of the economy. Often people say, ‘I don’t see globalization where I live.’ Yet, you can’t even get dressed in the morning without seeing where your clothing comes from; it’s Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, China, and Italy.Look at the large companies some of our board members represent. When they have a new product idea, their global companies have a dozen places around the globe to get it made. They would like to make it in Arkansas, but if we don’t have the workforce, they have to go somewhere else. Another example is our graduate students in science and engineering. They are international students coming from all over for their education in this country. Many want to stay, but an increasing number go back to their native land. Many of the skills they could use here now can also be used in other countries.
How does study abroad prepare students for their careers?
A little more than a generation ago taking foreign languages may have been required for certain degrees. The assumption was if you spoke English that was all you needed to worry about. I think now familiarity with other cultures is much more important. It’s not just because we’re in a globalized economy, but because we’re exposed to so many different cultures in the workplace and through our work that require an understanding of differences among people.
How does having more globally educated graduates affect a state or a region?
Look at what happens if you don’t have them. If we don’t have internationally trained, globally aware students, Arkansas might appear to do just fine and get by. But is that good enough in a global economy where others are working harder, working smarter, and aspiring to an economic position that many in the U.S. take for granted?We need to emphasize global competition, which more and more is in the area of technology. That means states and regions need to emphasize more math, more science, and more engineering in order to be globally competitive with other regions.

What are current collaborations between the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority (ASTA) and universities that affect global issues?
We are working with Arkansas State University, UALR, and UA Fayetteville on a National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant ($9 million) to research nanotechnology and bioproducation and reach out to middle school and high school students to interest them in pursuing science and engineering degrees in college.
In your time as ASTA president, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in education that reflects globalization?
Faculty research previously seemed to be driven mostly by professional curiosity and a desire to discover things that nobody else had observed. Professors wrote papers and converted that knowledge into lessons for students. Research drove higher education, publications, and professional activities.Recently we had a physicist who spent 30 years in higher education come visit and said he had missed opportunities to commercialize new products. His professional interest has shifted, and he is not going to miss that opportunity this time. He now has a team of multi-disciplinary, multi-national scientists and has an expanded vision of taking new ideas to the marketplace.I think his major change in attitude is a result of the publicity of globalization of the economy and the new approach to regional economic development centered on scientific and engineering innovations. The multi-disciplinary and multi-national makeup of his team is a reflection of global nature of the 21st century economy.
How has the higher education curriculum evolved in those 25 years to encompass globalization?
The contemporary curriculum has had to keep pace with rapid change and accelerating technological developments, in terms of both content and delivery during the last 25 years.There have been many changes. Students are more tech savvy. Both students and faculty are more ethnically diverse. Entrepreneurship is an emerging and important skill. Foreign languages have increased value. Often the most interesting academic work is at the intersection of disciplines, requiring multidisciplinary teaching credentials.If students are technologically trained and believe in lifelong learning, all kinds of things are possible in the global economy.
What is your vision for Arkansas’ development of globalization initiatives?
Arkansas has students in middle school and high school who are inspiring in their approach to academic rigor. Arkansas has talent in its colleges and universities to prepare students for technical jobs at every level and professors can infect them with an entrepreneurial spirit and encourage them to take risks. Arkansas communities that want to be globally competitive will attract these well educated entrepreneurs back home.The vision is to provide visible pathways to Arkansas’ young citizens that allow them to receive support for going to college, studying hard disciplines, and becoming entrepreneurs. I see a culture of technology-based entrepreneurship springing up around the state.I think it’s possible because 25 years ago there were very few people who thought about such economic development. Today, Arkansas has the talent and resources to do all of this here. The challenge is to invest in Arkansans and increase that capacity.