Forget the surfing, dude. There are students at Southern California universities who are crazy for all things blockchain, and they’re pushing their schools to get with the program ASAP.

UCLA, the University of Southern California, the University of California at Irvine and Caltech are where you’ll find new courses on the digital technology and headline-grabbing on-campus conferences and student collaborations with some of the blockchain startups springing up on “Blockchain Beach,” as some have dubbed the stretch of coastal California from Santa Monica to Marina del Rey.

Many students say they’re motivated by the perception that blockchain is the latest disruptive technological force, and they want to be a part of it.

Students are even getting together on their own to teach each other blockchain computer coding, which promises to be the new entry-level skill for jobs in the burgeoning digital world.

Minor, Not Miner

Next fall, USC will launch what could be the nation’s first undergraduate minor in blockchain technology. Could a blockchain major be far behind?

Not necessarily. Like all new subjects, blockchain technology can still encounter resistance from universities.

“Academics tend to be more conservative and cautious about what makes its way into the curriculum,” USC electrical engineering professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari, tells ThirtyK. This spring he began teaching the first graduate blockchain course at his university.

Besides, blockchain is “inherently interdisciplinary,” increasing potential obstacles to the development of a curriculum, he says.

“We tend to be organized in disciplinary silos,” Krishnamachari says. “When a new subject comes up, you’re having to answer questions about which particular subject area it corresponds to. There’s a bit of a barrier if the subject doesn’t fit cleanly into the mold of a traditional discipline.”

Such concerns, however, haven’t dimmed student interest. Krishnamachari says that on the first day of his Blockchain Technology and Applications” graduate course, “I couldn’t get into the class.” More than 70 students had packed into a cramped space dedicated to seminars. The professor ultimately winnowed the class down to 25 students.

Standing Room Only at UCLA

It has been much the same at other universities, where newly minted blockchain courses have prompted an ourpouring of enthusiasm. At UCLA, for example, professor of finance Baghwan Chowdhry taught an undergraduate management course called “Financial Technology: Cryptography, Blockchain and Contracting,” with numerous students from outside the business school angling to attend. Chowdhry, who nominated Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of bitcoin (BTC), for the 2016 Nobel Prize in economics, had to turn many people away for the highly popular class.

As courses, spurred by student demand, have been implemented, student groups have organized well-attended “summit” meetings, with industry luminaries making speeches and engaging in question-and-answer sessions.

For example, UCLA’s Cyberdays conference in February drew Ethereum co-founder and ConsenSys founder Joseph Lubin, TruStory founder Preethi Kasireddy and TrueBlock founder David Moss. Students plan an encore session in October, though they haven’t released the names of the star speakers.

Many students say they’re motivated by a general perception that blockchain is the latest disruptive technological force, and they want to be a part of it.

“Maybe a year or a year and a half ago, an informal group of students and a couple of alumni and faculty members got together, saying Hey, blockchain is a big deal, and we should be doing more on campus to promote access to [blockchain] education, interaction with the industry, etcetera,’” Adam Spar, an MBA candidate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, tells ThirtyK.

That led to a series of on-campus activities and, eventually, to the formation of Blockchain L.A., an inter-university alliance of mutually supportive groups.

The Road to Personal Wealth

Some students are motivated, like Spar, by the prospect employment in a vibrant new field. Others have been inspired by get-rich-quick stories stemming from successful initial coin offerings, says IT professor Nitin Vasant Kale, who teaches USC’s first undergraduate course in blockchain.

“In the fall of 2017, news of bitcoin was everywhere, and a lot of students came because they wanted some investment advice, which is not what we do,” Kale says.

It’s a disclaimer that Kale makes on the first day of class. “They’re here to explore how cryptocurrencies work and how blockchain can impact businesses,” Kale says. “But investment, price watching and forecasting are not part of the course.”

Nevertheless, the field is fluid and some students are taking full advantage of what they learn in class to move in entrepreneurial directions. “I had a student last fall who told me he was taking a leave of absence because he was moving to Dubai to start a crypto exchange business,” Kale says.

Ed Newton
Ed Newton contributes to a range of business and general publications. He was an award-winning staff reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times for nearly a decade and later wrote for Reuters and the New York Post.