Google, UT Team Up to Train Students for 21st Century Economy

December 19, 2019

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business and Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science recently collaborated with Google Cloud to hold a Cloud Hero interactive lab competition. The game challenges users to become familiar with key Google Cloud Platform solutions to common use cases, while gaining hands-on cloud experience with big data and machine learning (ML). 

Players completed five solution-specific labs to compete to be Cloud Hero University of Tennessee. It is played through Qwiklabs, an interactive environment where players gain points the faster and more accurately they move through the labs. 

The event, a pilot program by Google, is rolling out at 11 universities across the country this fall. Google’s Global GTM Lead for Career Readiness, Higher Ed and Gamified Learning, Leslie Redd, said the aim of these sessions is to introduce students to Google Cloud Platform, pique students’ interest in ML and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and disseminate cloud training materials at the university level.

“We are excited to bring learning resources to university students to build a future pipeline of cloud-skilled talent,” Redd said. “We hope to enable and empower universities to leverage our learning resources to put on events like this themselves.”

The Cloud Hero Competition at UT was the eighth of the 11 contests Google Cloud is holding. More than 100 students, faculty and staff from several different disciplines attended the event. Interim University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd stopped by the game to observe the cutting-edge applications supported by cloud computing. 

Eduardo Ponce, a PhD student working on software development for scientific computing with Greg Peterson, head of the computer science department, assisted at the event. He said that most students don’t have access to or training in the powerful data-analysis tools fueled by cloud computing, so those who participated in the competition reaped the benefits. 

“It’s great, because I have learned most of these things by trial and error,” Ponce said. “Now, after a couple of hours, many students can navigate the Google Cloud Platform. In this workshop, you see everything together, back-to-back, and you can ask the presenters questions.”

Ken Gilbert, professor emeritus with Haslam’s Department of Business Analytics and Statistics, helped bring the games to the university. He credited Greg Peterson and Mike Galbreth, department head of business analytics and statistics, with leading the collaboration with Google. Christine Vossler, assistant director of Haslam’s Masters in Business Analytics Program, coordinated the event after attending a competition at Boston University.

During the three-hour session, Redd and other Google Cloud representatives delivered presentations on how cloud solutions are integral to applications that use ML and AI to sift big data (sometimes called the “oil of the 21st century”), described learning and career opportunities and supported students as they worked through the hands-on labs for more than two hours.

Cloud computing is the enabling technology for AI, which has been described as the fourth wave of technology, following steam power, electricity and computers. It is expected that AI will do for cognitive tasks what electricity did for manual tasks. 

Future careers will depend on ML and AI in diverse areas, from business analytics and systems engineering to medical technologies and the supply chain. ML and AI are already performing functions like facial recognition surveillance, autonomous delivery services, loan processing and certain medical diagnoses – all at rates far surpassing human speed and accuracy.

Given how transformative AI will be to the economy in the coming years, Gilbert said that it made sense for UT and Google to learn from each on other through this initiative. 

“Google provides cloud computing and software for doing AI through their business, but for their business to grow and prosper, they need an army of people translating that capability into applications,” he said. 

In turn, UT wants to train its students for good, high-paying jobs, which cloud computing can provide. Additionally, Gilbert says, UT is looking at developing a core training focus in cloud computing. If it does, East Tennessee could benefit from “Off-Silicon Valleying,” a term referring to small- and medium-sized companies moving their operations out of Silicon Valley. Their destinations are often uncrowded, small cities, where the quality of life is high and the cost of living is low.

According to an MIT study, the new digital economy is concentrated in five overcrowded technological hubs: Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles. The study listed cities with the population, educational resources and quality of life to become technology hubs. Knoxville is on that list.

“We want companies in the area like Clayton and Discovery to have a competitive advantage because of the pipeline of talent we are creating at UT,” Gilbert said. If UT quickly establishes a cloud computing certificate program, Gilbert said it could help promote East Tennessee as an off-Silicon Valley technology hub.


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist (865-974-3589,