USC

USC adapts to growing student interest in cryptocurrency

Classes are being revamped to include blockchain curriculums and crypto student organizations are rapidly growing.

Jill and Frank Fertitta Hall at USC.

Prospective USC students who dream of studying cryptocurrency or blockchain technology may soon be able to do so as interest in the emerging space grows among the university’s student body.

Cryptocurrency is a digital token that uses blockchain, a decentralized ledger of all online transactions across a peer-to-peer network. Transactions take place online securely and without the need for intermediaries.

USC’s first blockchain class was taught in fall 2017 by Professor Nitin Kalé at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. Kalé also helped create the blockchain minor for the Information Technology Program, making Viterbi one of the first schools in the world to offer an academic program in crypto.

A number of other California universities, such as UC Berkeley and Stanford, have also recently started offering courses on blockchain and crypto. According to a report released in 2019 by Coinbase, a San Francisco-based company that operates a crypto exchange platform, 56% of the world’s top 50 universities now offer at least one course on crypto or blockchain.

The blockchain minor at Viterbi focuses on the technology and applications of blockchains, and courses within the minor discuss crypto. The curriculum, however, does not include financial investment and trading. Kalé said the goal of the program is to educate students in blockchain innovation, its applications and the latest developments in the blockchain space.

“Of course, we do cover new growth areas such as NFTs that have been big this year with an emphasis on the technical and engineering aspects of such innovations,” Kalé said.

According to Harrison Macdonald, a sophomore majoring in economics, even students with no background in crypto can get involved in the community at USC. For students interested in the field but are without prior experience, he strongly recommends adding the blockchain minor.

“It’s a great intro into crypto and blockchain. It really outlines everything you need to know going into the space,” Macdonald said.

During the pandemic, Macdonald and a couple of his friends started a small crypto fund and traded all sorts of crypto coins including Bitcoin and Ethereum, two of the most popular cryptocurrencies on the market today. According to Macdonald, it was an engaging way to spend time during the pandemic with fellow young investors at USC.

“I’ve been in crypto for a pretty long time – ever since I was in high school,” Macdonald said. “I’ve always been very interested in finance, payments, decentralization and all of that good stuff. And I’ve always been entrepreneurial as well. And so I think it was only natural that crypto was sort of there.”

The recent volume of media attention on cryptocurrency speaks volumes on its growing presence in the mainstream investment world. Vitalik Buterin, one of the co-founders of Ethereum, made an appearance in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People List of 2021 and AMC just recently announced that the theater chain would accept cryptocurrencies for ticket purchases.

Growing membership numbers in Blockchain at USC, a student-run club that focuses on teaching students about cryptocurrency and helps them build a network in the space, reflects crypto’s rapid move toward the investment and commercial mainstream. Macdonald, who also serves as president of Blockchain at USC, said the club has seen an unprecedented boost in membership.

“It was just a couple years ago that we had around 20 members and now we’ve seen over 200 people join our Discord [an instant messaging app that clubs often use] channel from just before the pandemic to now,” he said. “There has been an incredible boost in engagement and interest.”

Mike Ma, a junior majoring in data science who serves as Vice President of Blockchain at USC, said the club is trying to become an incubator for blockchain projects. Blockchain at USC is currently the only crypto organization endorsed by Viterbi and is the largest organization in Southern California for crypto.

The explosion of interest in the student-led crypto club isn’t the only change Ma has seen at USC following pandemic-induced optimism around crypto. Ma said he’s noticed more professors mentioning Bitcoin and integrating crypto in class discussions when he switched his major from mechanical engineering to data science.

“It’s a small change, but crypto is everywhere now,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about it.”

Tech and engineering aren’t the only areas where knowledge of crypto is becoming essential, either. In order to keep up with the changing dynamic and growth in prominence of crypto in recent years, Professor Anthony Dukes at the USC Marshall School of Business said the school is planning to implement topics related to crypto in its curriculum.

“Our Internet Marketing course, MKT 556, is currently being revamped for Spring 2022 to include topics related to cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies,” he said.

Macdonald believes that more and more young people will join the crypto space, resulting in more startups and products being created. The most important thing to do is engage with people who are in the actual industry, he said. Blockchain at USC regularly invites guest speakers the members can network with; they recently invited Jesse Powell, founder of the San Francisco-based crypto exchange and bank Kraken, which is now one of the world’s largest exchanges for trading cryptocurrencies.

“I think there is a lot of opportunity for USC students to engage and create products in the space. And it starts with taking some courses,” he said. “But I also think that joining clubs, where you can engage more with the actual industry, is super important for young people who are looking to go into this space and start something.”

For Ma, crypto is a wealth equalizer through which anyone can make money and get involved in a global network of investment. Through his involvement in a crypto organization, Ma was able to travel extensively and meet people from all over the world.

“Crypto is a way for underprivileged people who didn’t have a tendency in the traditional tech or big finance world to have a chance to make money,” Ma said. “Anyone can contribute to the Bitcoin network and make money. I think getting to know people and what they’re working on while also learning about their culture is really awesome.”

Correction made Sept. 30 at 10:30 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Harrison Macdonald’s last name. It has since been corrected.