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A ‘singular’ approach to higher education

Singularity University students catch on quick, a fact proven this month when one student secured a domain name, launched a web site, and turned a profit all during an hour-long lecture on finance and entrepreneurship.

Launched in June, Singularity University was born from the ideas of educational and technological visionaries and focuses on cross-disciplinary principles that have attracted 40 of the most qualified international students. From nanotechnology to cognitive computing, to future studies and forecasting, Singularity students in the midst of an intensive nine-week course said studying the intersections of complex topics has offered a better understanding of problems, and their potential solutions, in an interconnected world.

"We’ve clearly hit some kind of zeitgeist here based on the quality of students we’ve gotten attention from," said Salim Ismail, the California-based university’s executive director and former head of Yahoo’s product-developing business unit. "It’s kind of humbling, actually. You can feel unqualified talking to some of these students."

Singularity is based on the ideas explored in co-founder Ray Kurzweil’s best-selling book, "The Singularity is Near," which documents the exponential advancement of technology and its implications for mankind. Forty of 1,200 applicants were chosen for the first Singularity class–including award-winning scholars and a student who received a perfect GRE score–and expert lecturers have helped the class grasp the planet’s most pressing problems, such as pandemics and global hunger.

"We have evolved as a species to think ‘locally’ and ‘linearly,’ and [the university] is focused on teaching how to think ‘globally’ and ‘exponentially,’" Peter Diamandis, the university’s vice chancellor and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, wrote in a Singularity blog post July 7. "This is not an institution which seeks to compete with the MITs, Stanfords, or Oxfords of the world, but rather to complement those existing programs in a meaningful and unique fashion."

Singularity is based in the NASA Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, Calif., and runs side by side with International Space University.

Shawna Pandya, a Singularity student who has degrees in neuroscience and space studies from the University of Alberta in Canada, said the school’s application of complex issues attracted her to the university.

"I’ve always been very, very motivated by the two extremes of humanity, surviving and thriving," said Pandya, 25, a University of Alberta medical student. "I’ve wanted to explore…how to push the boundaries of how we create and invent."

Pandya said she wrote a 300-word essay to hurdle the first round of application screening, then a 1,000-word essay, explaining why she considered herself an expert in neuroscience and space studies. 

"It was pretty intense," she said. "But when I head about the university, there was no question about it, I had to sign up, and I had to apply."

Pandya and her 39 classmates pay $25,000 for the nine-week course that ends Aug. 29. Singularity’s executive programs later this year will cost between $12,000 and $15,000, depending on the length of each program. The nine-week course will expand to 120 students next year, university officials said, and distance learning courses could be offered sometime next year, although details have not yet been released. Ismail said several governments have asked Singularity to establish an online learning program.

Learning how fields as disparate as gene therapy and 3D printing, for example, can address pressing worldwide problems before they spread and affect entire populations would be a central focus in the next six weeks of Singularity classes, Ismail said.

"The financial crisis…and swine flu were both rooted in exponential factors," he said. "When the next big crisis hits, the next generation of leaders needs to spot exponential trends."

Students aren’t just learning from the most respected technology experts in the world–such as Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist George Smoot III–but using some of the most advanced educational technology to navigate the dense coursework, Ismail said.

The Singularity class has used EtherPad, a web-based tool for real-time text collaboration, throughout the university’s first semester. EtherPad lets students using different computers write on the same document, a function that comes in handy during extended note-taking sessions with the world’s most renowned technologists. Not even the popular Google Docs program allows real-time editing, instead taking up to 15 seconds for document changes to appear.

"It is honestly a think tank here," said Pandya, adding that students have recently dubbed the Singularity campus "sleepless U" after a rigorous day of 14 hours of lectures and workshops. "It’s not for the faint of heart. It takes endurance, but it’s hard not to be drawn in by it."


Singularity University

International Space University

Part One of’s video interview with Ray Kurzweil

Part Two of’s video interview with Ray Kurzweil

Part Three of’s video interview with Ray Kurzweil

Cell phones tackle reading, language barriers

Ray Kurzweil in eSN’s 10 Who’ve Made A Difference

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