“The problem is that math students get jobs,” said Larry Smith from the University of Waterloo’s Problem Lab. “They get good jobs and well-paid jobs, which means they often don’t think about their careers carefully enough.”
The Problem Lab, housed in the Mathematics and Computer Building, isn’t exactly a career counselling service, but is instead a venue for students and researchers to learn about problem analysis and to focus their productive energies on innovations that address real-world problems.
Smith, who helped bring the Problem Lab into being and directed its work, is part professor, part visionary and part motivational speaker. He said he feels a special kinship with student in the Faculty of Mathematics and hopes to encourage them to embrace entrepreneurial thinking in shaping their careers.
“In some ways it’s wonderful that math students enjoy a lot of options,” he continued. “But then they’re not always maximizing those opportunities. Sometimes it’s too easy when your 4th year co-op employer offers you a job, and lots of math students would tend to take the job because the salaries are handsome by any standards and especially to someone in their early 20s.”
For Smith, it’s not that there is necessarily anything wrong with taking a job or working for companies that are keen to hire math students. But at the same time, he sees a cost in the missed opportunities for vital innovations that our world desperately needs.
“The role of the university isn’t exactly to get students jobs,” he said. “It’s to empower students to do the most useful thing they possibly can, to help them develop their talents and maximize their impact on society. That’s what I want math students to be able to do.”
The Problem Lab helps students on this path of innovation and entrepreneurship in several ways. First and foremost is their unique approach to ‘problem analysis,’ which needs to be understood as distinct from problem solving. Problem analysis is about forming a deep appreciation for the intricacies of a particular problem, since without fully understanding exactly what the problem is, it cannot be solved.
“One of our events is the Problem Pitch,” Smith said. “It’s the only pitch event like it in North America where students receive support for research and development based solely on how well they understand a problem, rather than their proposal of some solution.”
Another facet of the Problem Lab’s approach is to help students find a problem they are truly passionate about. Without having a deep and abiding passion to address some significant issue, interest will inevitably wane.
“You need to start with the things you care about,” said Smith. “Some students start somewhere else because they think there’s money or a career there. Even though they find the subject boring, they try to make themselves do it. But they’re always going to do it in a superficial way.”
“And sometimes to find your passion you have to leave your comfort zone,” he continued. “You have to ask questions that aren’t asked in the classroom. You’ve got to learn some new skills and sometimes go against the grain. The truth is, if you want to be an innovator, you’re going to have to do that anyway. You can’t be an innovator by just taking orders all the time. You stand by yourself and say, ‘I think I have a better solution.’”
Learn more about this revolutionary approach to innovation and entrepreneurship and how to get involved on the Problem Lab website, or drop by the office in MC2057.