[Editor's Note: Because several sessions took place the first and second days of the meeting, this will be a multi-part series of articles.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Candie S. Sweetser, who represents a sliver of Grant County, and most of Luna and Hidalgo counties, serves as chairwoman of the interim committee.
Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner welcomed the committee members to Silver City and noted: "It is recognized that for education, health and the economy, broadband is critical. We welcome you to expand this important technology to our area. When you are not in meetings, we invite you to explore Silver City. We have a nationally recognized and award-winning MainStreet program."
Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten said he was "so thrilled you are here. When you are done with Silver City, go explore outside in the county. Head up to Pinos Altos, Trout Valley, Lake Roberts, the Mimbres River and the large Chino Mine."
Evangeline Zamora, president of Prospectors, also welcomed the committee members. She invited other Prospectors to stand up. "We are a group of business owners, for profit and non-profit, formed to educate the legislators on the issues most important to us. Once a year, we hold a forum to let our legislators know what issues we would like them to support."
She acknowledged the sponsors, who provided breakfast and lunch on campus, and said a reception for the legislators would take place at 6 p.m. at Little Toad Brewery in downtown Silver City. "We have things happening, including in our forest, our municipalities and the newly renovated Silco Theater."
Sweetser said she is very impressed by the Prospectors on Grant County Day, when they show up in their copper and turquoise and are very organized.
A female resident, who asked that her name not be used, because she feared harassment, asked the committee members to "consider those of us who are disabled by electromagnetic sensitivity to items, such as wireless services, like the smart water meters, which made me sick, and cell phones." She alleged the electromagnetic emissions are listed as a Class 2 B carcinogen. "We ask you to make shielded wired services the priority for the 3 percent to 5 percent of the population affected by electromagnetic sensitivity."
The first agenda item, Western New Mexico University: Transforming the Future Together, brought WNMU President Joseph Shepard, Vice President for External Affairs Magdaleno Manzanares and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jack Crocker to the table to speak.
"I always wear pink on Wednesdays to bring awareness to breast cancer," Shepard said.
"People call us the Harvard on the Gila," Shepard said.
He said people try to point fingers at why "we're where we are in the state." He compared Arizona, with its about 8 million population, and New Mexico, with about 2 million people, but having about the same land mass. He said Arizona has more diversity in its economy and New Mexico depends on extractive industries.
"But not all things are better in Arizona," Shepard said. "They have traffic gridlock in Phoenix and New Mexico has a striking beauty. I recognize New Mexico has challenges from the budgetary standpoint. This committee has the ability to make changes."
He pointed to Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez, a committee member, as having seen tremendous change in Grant County. He also singled out Stephanie Garcia Richard, "who never forgot her roots here in Grant County. Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, who represents Las Cruces, looks at us as part of her district."
"I want to talk about technological changes," Shepard said. "Most of you are on the I-25 or I-40 corridor. The state of New Mexico has an average of 16 people per acre. We're a rural state, land rich and population poor. About forty-five percent of our residents qualify for Medicaid. We are a poor state. We don't have resources to put money into public services. What do we do about it? We have science, with the national labs and the Spaceport. We have higher education. Education is, in general, an economic driver. Our students mentor third graders, so they learn to read, because they are our future citizens. We have to take care of our children from birth to five years old, or we'll never succeed as a state."
He said technology has radically changed. "Your little smartphone is 10 years old. Tablets about seven years old. I remember as this technology began to develop. The cell phones were big boxy things. We have to think 10 years ahead. The bad news is that our state lags severely behind. Five years ago, our bandwidth at Western was 40 megabits per second with one point of access. Now it's 250 Mbps, still with one point of access. If you compare us to other four-year institutions in the state. Eastern has 1,000 Mbps and two points of access. Our one point of access comes up highway 180. Forty-five percent of our classes are now offered online. But we have the least amount of broadband access of any university in New Mexico. Our cost for less access is much higher than Eastern's better access. Almost one out of two of our students is taking classes online."
"Our state needs to understand that capital outlay needs to be more than buildings," Shepard said. "Capital outlay needs to be also for infrastructure. Virtual reality technology is here. In the future, it will be virtual reality without the screen. It will be like you are seeing and feeling as if you are talking right to the individual. We are the fifth largest state in land, but we have the least technological bandwidth. The good news is the same. Other states have invested in technology, but it's now outdated. We need to invest in the future. If you have a pacemaker, it can report to your doctor. We have cars that parallel park themselves. UPS and FedEx fly across oceans without a pilot. There are trains without conductors. With my phone, I can change the temperature in my house; I can turn on the washer or dryer. If we lack infrastructure, we'll continue to be left behind. Big data is a curse and a blessing. The future of where we're headed is data and we have to educate students to know what questions to ask."
He said new technology, from the criminal justice perspective, is face recognition for tracking and surveillance. "They are also exploring face recognition for those taking tests on the computer."
"In a couple of final thoughts," Shepard said. "In the future, we won't have to say: 'Hey, Siri.' You will just have to think it. This committee is in charge to diversify and to advocate for infrastructure. We want to be at the forefront to attract the best and brightest."
Manzanares said his remarks would be brief: "I want our focus to be on economic development and technology. Western also serves as a community college. We call it the Department of Community and Workforce Development, which includes applied tech and vocational technology and which I also oversee. We work in the Cobre, Deming and Silver school districts. We have electrical technology and welding technology courses. This is not just for the welder around the corner. Welders also work at NASA, EXXON-Mobil, Sky Harbor Airport, ship building and other top jobs. A welder can make $90-$100 an hour."
Public-private partnerships are key. "Bechtel Corporation approached us to educate students to work with them. Rural Electric in Mesa, Arizona, is sending students to us to be certified. They might work in Lordsburg or Reserve. We have the welding program and they can cross-train with the electrical program and we are seeing how this technology is converging on practical applications. We are developing drone applications. We are moving in the direction of teaching applied tech online."
Crocker said online is being expanded to include video conferencing in the classroom. "If they move to a smaller classroom, they have the capability of projection and internet technology. The familiar Polycom is becoming outdated. A student can stay at home to take classes online at home."
He said for video conferencing Western uses the Zoom technology. "It saves us money. A student can actually take a class synchronously at the same times as the active classroom or asynchronously on their own time. We also have the capability of electro-capture, which videos the class, so the student can go back and watch it more than once or to study for a test."
Crocker said Western chose the Applied Liberal Arts and Sciences University designation to attempt to keep the traditional university, but also add the applied aspects of education.
"We have a new course—Humanities 176, which uses the Canvas platform for face-to-face instruction online at the same time as the live class," he continued. "Within Canvas students and professors can access all assignments and messaging. Technology is emerging to be used no matter how the students want to access learning. Growth is in online courses. The social work bachelors degree and masters in social work are only online. We moved from about 100 students to almost 700 students. It showed the market was very much attuned to what we were seeing happen. The competition grows with more and more schools going to online courses. In 2008, about 6 percent of our courses were online; in 2016-17, 45 percent of our courses are online. One of the effects is on where students are taking classes. We're seeing a decrease in face-to-face classes. Our MBA program is totally online. Some freshmen have to take online courses, even when they are living in the dorms. It's been a culture change from the 'sage on stage' to online. As it has shifted, we have had to bring along faculty like me who were used to just the classroom. We have had to be trained. It's a totally different approach to teaching."
He said it was something "we have to face in our lifetimes and certainly my children will face it."
"We are looking at it, within the next decade if not sooner, that 40 percent of all jobs existing today will be automated," Crocker said. "Any task that can have an algorithm to do it, it will be done." He asked what the largest hotel chain is and got the answer: AirBNB. "Uber is now the largest taxi company."
He said the largest growth would be in robotics. "The health care industry is working on a tiny robot to clear out arteries."
Already, a monitor can go into hospital rooms, with the physician on the screen. "Robots can take blood pressure."
For a long time, automobiles were built by hand; now it's by robots. Robots are starting to go into construction. Crocker said he saw a demonstration of a robotic bricklayer that can lay 1000 bricks an hour.
"In education, we have a great fear of the uberization of education," Crocker said. "It can use a Watson that knows more than the professor. We are moving to the capability that no human is needed in the classroom."
He said the scariest is the whole social impacts. "Humanoid robots can be human companions and converse with you. They are being powered by artificial intelligence or AI. Computing power doubles every 12 months and that continues. Google is doing major research on AI. It can outstrip the human brain."
"What does it mean for students?" Crocker asked and answered. "They have to know how to fit into the evolutionary direction. It is the greatest weakness in universities. The students have to become our future. Homo Deus is moving from traditional religions, which are still powerful. In the Enlightenment, they moved to humanism. Homo Deus is taking the next evolutionary step to become immortals, to become gods."
He said a scientist is going to transplant a human head. Cryogenics makes a frozen brain that can be transplanted into another human.
"Our jobs are our identities," Crocker said. "What will we do if we are becoming useless as humans?"
The questions and answers will be covered in a future article.