Blockchain, a new digital “open-ledger” technology, has the potential to play a role in everything from developing digital cryptocurrencies to changing how a range of industries operates. For Bryant students, exploring this innovation is a perfect opportunity to investigate new ideas and gain an important edge. A powerful partnership between coursework and co-curricular activities helps them figure out how to shape their interest in technology into a path to success.
“We have the chance to not just get ahead of other students at other institutions, but to get out in front of entire industries as well,” notes Bennett Stefanowicz ’21, an Actuarial Mathematics major and president of the BryantBlockchain club.
Two years ago, Kevin Mentzer ’91, assistant professor of Information Systems and Analytics, was approached by students who had heard about blockchain and were interested in learning more. In response, Mentzer, who has conducted his own research into the area, developed a special course to give students a fuller understanding of how the technology works and how it’s being used.
“The course is about students thinking beyond what is doable today and realizing that they can push the next thing. It’s about them realizing it hasn’t all been done before and thinking about what's going to be next."
The class also offered opportunities for hands-on learning. In discussing the equipment that digitally “mines” cryptocurrencies, Mentzer remembers asking the students, "How many of you have built a machine before?,” Because none had, he made the construction of a mining “rig” a learning experience.
“The course is about students thinking beyond what is doable today and realizing that they can push the next thing,” Mentzer says. “It’s about them realizing it hasn’t all been done before and thinking about what's going to be next.”
Inspired by the class and eager to keep learning, Tobias August '19, now a project controls engineer at Bechtel National, Inc., founded the BryantBlockchain club to explore further, with Mentzer as its faculty advisor. In fall 2019, the club was officially recognized by the University, joining more than 100 other Bryant clubs and organizations that help students explore their interests, make invaluable connections, and prepare for their futures.
“All of this has been very student-driven,” Mentzer notes. “It’s always exciting to see students excited about a subject.”
“There’s no textbook to learn about this. Everything we’re learning, we’re learning from experience.”
Exploring the future
BryantBlockchain has attracted students from a range of majors, from Actuarial Mathematics and Finance to Accounting and Global Supply Chain Management. “We have a variety of backgrounds coming together through the club,” notes Stefanowicz. “That give us some advantages, both in terms of being able to understand different elements of blockchain and in doing new research.”
In addition to learning about the technical aspects of blockchain and how it’s being adapted for different industries, the students are also learning more about the lifecycle of new technologies. Blockchain is still a developing technology, Mentzer notes, and it’s too soon to tell if it really will change the world. The students' process of discovery in learning about emerging innovations, however, is still vitally important. “It’s eye-opening for students when they realize there are questions they can’t just Google,” says Mentzer.
“There’s no textbook to learn about this,” agrees Stefanowicz. “Everything we’re learning, we’re learning from experience.”
Finding new ways to aid others
The club has also found ways to adapt their studies into new areas. During the summer the group used its new mining rigs, built with funds from the University, to assist with the Folding@Home project, which relies upon a decentralized network of machines across the globe to conduct scientific research into a variety of diseases and illnesses, including COVID-19.
"I think it's a huge opportunity for students to be on the cutting edge of technology.”
Through the network of donor machines, Folding@Home has amassed more computational power than the world’s largest supercomputer, and BryantBlockchain’s contributions have been in the top 2.2% of teams worldwide. “It’s a good feeling to be part of that effort,” says Stefanowicz.
Though it wasn’t the original purpose of the rigs, Mentzer sees the club’s involvement with Folding@Home as an extension of the club’s mission statement: exploring where new technologies can take us beyond how they are originally envisioned.
An important advantage
Developing insight into where the future might be headed provides students with a key advantage. “I think it's a huge opportunity for students to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says Stefanowicz. “It's helping us prepare for our futures, and I’ve already benefitted from my experience with BryantBlockchain.”
"When students show an interest in learning about new technology and can demonstrate what they’ve done to explore that interest, that puts them right to the top.”
His knowledge of blockchain concepts helped Stefanowicz stand out during his actuarial internship with Liberty Mutual Insurance during the summer of his junior year and aided him in securing a job as an actuarial assistant with the company. “They were very impressed with my knowledge about how blockchain could potentially impact the industry,” he explains.
“Companies are going to now hire people like Bennett and say, 'We don't really understand why, what is this all about?',” Mentzer affirms. “When students show an interest in learning about new technology and can demonstrate what they’ve done to explore that interest, that puts them right to the top.”
The future, Mentzer notes, is always changing, and as the BryantBlockchain club evolves, he imagines it will, too. He envisions the focus expanding to other emerging technologies, affording more avenues for exploration. He’s also considering adjusting the special course to focus on a different idea that promises a brighter tomorrow.
“It’s up to where the students want to take it,” he says. “That's the beauty of this.”