Dozens of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are exploring the next phase of decentralized technologies in a bid to put Black students at the forefront of new blockchain protocols. 

“These schools see it as a way to participate in Web 3.0,” said Tonya Evans, chairperson of the MakerDAO Foundation and visiting professor at Penn State’s Dickinson Law School. “We were not participating in the dot-com era. Most of the Black community didn’t know about it at the time.”

This story is part of the CoinDesk U series about blockchain at universities. See our ranking of U.S. universities here.

With many programs being only a couple years old, few schools have dedicated blockchain courses, even as students from blockchain groups have started to teach themselves. But efforts are mounting, according to educators contacted by CoinDesk, with many universities looking to deepen their relationships with the crypto industry.

“On the East Coast, certain majority-white colleges do this with their spare time anyway,” said Ryan Cooper, a graduate of Bowie State University who started the blockchain group at Bowie. “At HBCUs, you have to incentivize this.”

For instance, blockchain will likely remain just a part of courses at Howard University and not become a full-blown major “until there is a killer research rationale for doing so,” said Todd Shurn, a professor of computer science at Howard University. 

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Morgan State’s FinTech Center started a blockchain group in 2019 and had a multimillion-dollar investment from Ripple in February of that year. The school teaches a blockchain fundamentals course but is still a few years away from a certification program, said Judith Schnidman, the FinTech Center’s program coordinator. Morgan State has taught the course three times, and students at the end of the course have to create a decentralized application on Ethereum.

“We’d like every university to have a blockchain major,” Schnidman said. “We want students to graduate with enough skills to break into this field.” The university is also in the process of creating a post-secondary certification, which can be done as a minor or a focus in the school’s MBA program.

Inter-campus efforts

Several universities are talking about collaborating to create a major, Schnidman added.

“The whole world is different because of online,” she said. “Even before the whole COVID thing, we were talking about doing a multi-university, multi-disciplinary blockchain major.”

Last year at the HBCU Blockchain Curriculum Development Institute, Morgan State brought 45 faculty from roughly 30 universities who had to submit course proposals to teach new courses or modify a course to include blockchain education. The winners were invited to New Orleans for a three-day working conference to turn their proposals into courses, one of whom was a genetics professor who wanted to incorporate blockchain into his genome projects, Schnidman said. 

While Morgan State already offers a class, the university would have to make many decisions about which blockchains to include before creating a blockchain major, said Ali Emdad, associate dean of the Graves Business School at Morgan State. At the moment, the market is fragmented. 

Corporate engagement

Morgan State’s most recent endeavor is a partnership with Binance US, enrolling 42 students in a crypto trading program where the exchange gave each student $200 in crypto to trade. The students started the challenge on Sept. 14 and it will end on Nov. 8, and the student who makes the most from trading will give a presentation at the end of the challenge about his or her strategies.  

“You can be anywhere you want and work at any hour you want,” Emdad said. “The goal is to inform and educate our students on an area of fintech that is changing very fast.”

Emdad said he sees the project serving as a focus group for Binance US and an opportunity for students to learn crypto trading and maybe join a crypto exchange or crypto startup in the future. Since the trading resembles what goes on in traditional markets, Emdad also said the challenge may be wrapped into future finance courses at Morgan State.

Blockchain, cyber or robotics? 

One of the current barriers to creating blockchain programs at HBCUs is a lack of funding. 

“There are so many technologies that have the potential for impact and they’re competing for space in these student’s heads,” said Shurn, the professor at Howard. “It’s tough particularly in COVID times because budgets are even tighter than they were. … Do you add a blockchain course or a cybersecurity course?”

At Howard, blockchain plays a large role in the intro to engineering class and is a part of the senior project for computer science majors at the school, Shurn said. The program is split between computer science and business at Howard, with the computer science department focusing more on coding and consensus algorithms while the business department focuses more on blockchain workflows and crypto trading.

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“We’re more interested in blockchain and blockchain applications then we are in crypto,” Shurn said. “That isn’t as relevant to us as writing code behind a smart contract.”

Howard was in the middle of applying for grants from fintech companies and fintech accelerators before the pandemic hit, Shurn said, and the university was going to put on a blockchain event that would have involved stakeholders who could have helped fund the blockchain program at the school.

“Momentum for blockchain at Howard won’t really occur until there is some investment by a third party in a collaborative project,” Shurn said. “It could be IBM, it could be a startup, but it would have to be some major collaboration between some funded source and the university.”

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