At top schools like Wharton, students are flocking to classes on bitcoin and blockchain

A meeting for the group Blockchain at Berkeley fills an auditorium. 
Source: UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson

Last spring, Associate Professor of Computer Science Emin Gün Sirer was scheduled to teach a 600-level course on blockchain technology at Cornell University, an advanced class intended for PhD students.

"Usually when you have five to a dozen students in such a class, you're teaching a popular class," Sirer tells CNBC Make It with a laugh. But when Sirer arrived on the first day to teach, he was shocked: 88 students had shown up.

"It was pretty interesting to see that level of interest," Sirer says of the students, most of whom were undergraduates.

Those Cornell students aren't an anomaly: At other top universities across the country, students are anxious to enroll in courses focused on the proliferation of blockchain, a decentralized ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

Blockchain 101?

According to a new survey of 675 U.S. undergraduate students by cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase and Qriously, 9 percent of students have already taken a class related to blockchain or cryptocurrency and 26 percent want to take one.

Among courses on blockchain, the University of Pennsylvania offers "Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, and Distributed Ledger Technology," taught by Kevin Werbach and engineering professor David Crosbie; University of California at Berkeley offers "Blockchain and CryptoEconomics," taught by computer science professor Dawn Song; and Cornell offers a course on Cryptography.

Last year, Song had around 100 students from her department competing to nab one of 25 available seats in a blockchain class she co-taught with faculty from the business and law schools on campus. This year, she's still seeing high demand for her blockchain course.

"It's still very popular," Song tells CNBC Make It. "I think students are intrigued to learn about the technology which is very broad ranging and both has deep historic academic roots as well as exciting new frontiers."

The course professor Werbach, who teaches legal studies and business ethics at The Wharton School, will be co-teaching this fall is the university's first full-credit class entirely focused on blockchain.

A big reason for the increased interest in blockchain classes is job prospects, he says.

"There is rapidly growing student interest," says Werbach. "They're seeing opportunities with companies that want students to work in this area, which include both blockchain focused start-ups as well as major companies.

"Wharton sends people to all the Fortune 500 companies, and investment banks and technology firms. A very high percentage of those leading firms now have blockchain or distributed ledger projects, and they're looking for expertise in that area," Werbach explains.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Kevin Werbach speaking.
Source: The Wharton School

Indeed, job postings related to bitcoin on LinkedIn increased nine-fold in the financial services industry and four-fold in the software technology industry (as a proportion of overall job postings on LinkedIn) over the last three years, according to data provided by the platform to CNBC Make It. As of Monday, there were 2,770 open jobs related to "blockchain" posted on careers website Glassdoor.

Tech companies like IBM, Facebook and Amazon have all started blockchain initiatives.

And though the most widely known use for blockchain is cryptocurrencies, industry proponents say the potential applications are numerous and far-reaching, from tracking the supply chain of food as it travels from farms to your plate to helping you shop for electricity. A full 84 percent of companies are "actively involved" with blockchain technology, according to PwC's 2018 Global Blockchain Survey.

Plus, the bitcoin craze

Of course, 2017's bitcoin mania certainly helped peak students' interest when the price of the cryptocurrency (which relies on blockchain) rose from less than $1,000 at the start of the year to a high of over $19,000 in December, drawing the attention of everyone from young people to the likes of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. (Wednesday bitcoin traded near $6,270, according to CoinDesk.)

The Penn Blockchain Club, for which Werbach is a faculty adviser, started in the fall of 2017 and had amassed 300 members by the end of that year. Today, they're at nearly 600 members, Werbach says.

Berkeley's Blockchain at Berkeley student club, which consults on building blockchain applications for companies and has worked on blockchain projects with companies ranging from wireless tech giant Qualcomm to the French aerospace company Airbus, also saw a swell of interest, Alan Lai, a sophomore electrical engineering and computer science student in the club, tells CNBC Make It.

"After December 2017 when the blockchain craze occurred, the following semester we had 2,000 people interested in our info session on Facebook," Lai says. "We had 400 applications that semester as well. This semester we had [approximately] 250 applications."

At Cornell, the university's blockchain club has attracted over 100 members from fields of study ranging from hotel management to biology. When speakers have come to give lectures for the club, the attendance has often been "so large we had difficulty finding a room," Sirer adds.

Blockchain is just a piece of the puzzle

While Sirer is excited to see the students' passion, he has a word of caution for blockchain fanatics.

"What you want to avoid at all costs is overspecialization early on in your career," he explains. "If you end up going to a program dedicated to blockchain, I think I personally would say you're making a mistake."

Studying with a niche focus — even a buzzy one like blockchain — is less useful than learning overarching principles, concepts and foundations underlying computer science and engineering Sirer argues, especially in an industry as fast-paced as high tech.

"The right thing to do is establish a broad, strong base," he says. "All of our courses are structured in a way that they convey principle. We are not teaching people how to use today's blockchains — tomorrow's blockchains will look nothing like today's."

Berkeley student Lai, for example, has interned at two blockchain companies not only as a developer, but also as a marketer, he says.

At Wharton, Werbach agrees. Focusing an entire academic education on one emerging technology would be a mistake, he says, given that there isn't yet enough material to teach a full degree on blockchain with sufficient rigor. He too encourages students to think about the topic in a holistic way.

"In order to understand blockchain well, you actually need to learn a bunch of subjects that we already teach in the university, things like economics and finance and law and distributed systems in engineering," Werbach explains. "I think someone who is taking a bunch of related courses because they're interested in blockchain is going to get a well-rounded education that is going to serve them well and be useful even if this industry falls apart."

Still, Werbach says the subject is worth paying attention to and learning.

"I am confident that whatever happens to the price of cryptocurrencies or the success of some of these first generations of companies that have done token offerings, this technology of blockchain and cryptocurrency is here to stay," Werbach says. "It is a fundamentally new approach that is valuable in a lot of contexts."

Don't miss: Yale economist: Here's how likely it is that bitcoin will become worthless

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