A Mature Ecosystem

The biology analogy applies to the complex interactions and niches in the American education establishment.  This is a good thing. A mature ecosystem can use inputs efficiently and accommodate many different needs.   It is robust and adaptive. 

I am impressed with the system. I find that it is much better than I understood it was before the visit. My earlier understanding was simplistic and outdated. I still thought in terms of a university or a school as the unit of analysis. I knew that schools created and maintained connections with other schools and the outside community, but what I didn’t really understand was the extent that all these entities have effectively merged.  This is why the ecosystem analogy is apt. The parts of schools are not only interacting with other parts and outside actors; they are dependent and cooperative with entities well removed from their own cooperation.   It is like the bird that eats berries on top of a tree in interacting with soil bacteria that allow the roots to take advantage of minerals many steps removed.

The coordinating mechanism is a kind of distributed decision making process. All the various actors are responding to the changing circumstances, incentives and opportunities. The mature educational ecosystem provides lots of shared services or at least opportunities that all can use. This makes the power of big institutions less overwhelming and empowers smaller institutions. It levels the playing field when everybody has access to resources that once were concentrated only in well-established institutions.

All this means that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher education. This is the same revolution experienced by big industry in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when the advantage of the big and established organizations eroded. You didn’t need to have in-house services when such things were available by outside vendors cheaper and more efficiently. The education establishment hung on a bit longer providing full services.  In fact, the positions of the majors strengthened as customers moved to prestige providers. There were few alternative products and it was hard to unbundle them. The value of the name was strong.  

I think this is changing rapidly. Educational wealth has been distributed wider. You can get a great education all over America and sometimes you don’t even have to enter a prestigious university program or a university program at all. The connections are all over the place now. 

In my old world, you went through different stages. I remember one book I read called them “boxes of life.” You didn’t skip them and you rarely went back. You graduated HS; some went to college; you got out four years later and went to work for the next thirty or forty years and then retired. You were done with formal education for the most part the day you graduated. Today things are different. You have to keep learning.  Students of various ages and occupations are mixing. Now you might go back to school or at least formal training many times during a working life. This education can be delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of times by a variety of providers. The traditional four-year institution enjoys no advantages and the paradigm that brings people in at the bottom, processes them through a set program and graduates them at the end may in fact be a liability.  

The new paradigm is much more customized.  No two people take exactly the same coursework. Their needs are not the same. No one institution can satisfy all the needs. The expertise will not be available at any one institution.  The expertise may not be available at all. It needs to be created in the process of the interaction of learning and teaching. It is an interesting new world.

My pictures show the New York Public library up top and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia below. From the trip, but not much related to what I have written.

Shoulder-to-shoulder we make friends

We met dozens of Brazilian Science w/o Borders student during this trip. The American instructions that received them like to bring them out to talk to us and they like to talk about their experiences in America. I can say with conviction that the kids are all right. They are adapting well as enhancing the reputation of their country. 

The biggest challenge is an obvious one – the weather. There is no place in Brazil that has weather as cold as they are encountering in New York or even Virginia. Lucky for them, this has been an unusually mild winter in most of North America. Nevertheless, it takes a little while to get used to cold and to learn the art of layering.

A more pressing problem is time management. Students in Brazil spend more time in class, but have less homework.The SWB students mentioned that they have needed to manage their time and priorities more closely.Being a student in America requires more self-discipline, they said.On the other hand, if they manage their time well, they have time off on weekends or in the evenings.This is not a lesson only Brazilians need to learn, of course.I learned it the hard way in college and have to relearn it all the time even at my advanced age.

They didn’t think that it would much help to have some kind of course in time management before leaving Brazil. It is something you just have to learn by doing, they said. I suppose that is true. They also were not that enthusiastic about additional English before coming. They said that they perfect their English faster in the real world situation. The vocabulary they need is too specialized and only their fellow engineers actually can help them learn it. I have to qualify this statement a bit. The students we met are very good English speakers already. They came with TOEFL scores above 90. Many in the second and third waves of Science w/o Borders student may not have this level of proficiency. In other words, some additional training might be useful.

We don’t need to reinvent wheels that are already turning really well. Our Brazilian students praised the reception they received from the student services departments. American universities are accustomed to foreign students. They know how to help and have created structures to do it. They have already thought about, tested and implemented all of my bright ideas plus many more that I have not thought about. Sometimes you have to let people do the jobs they do so well, w/o second guessing them or substituting your own judgement for theirs. 

The students praised the hand-on project based approach in American education. I mentioned some of this cross-discipline teamwork in previous posts. Everybody seems to like this as a learning tool, a way to speak English and a way to see how and why what they learn is important. Americans working with Brazilians on common goals. This is great.

I am reminded of the old saying that you don’t make friends fact-to-face; you make friends shoulder-to-shoulder, working on common endeavors toward shared goals.

My picture is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I managed to get over there for a little while in  Sunday.

There is a Tide

Our group of Brazilian education leaders has been getting a great reception everywhere we go and I understand that our partner groups on the West Coast and in the Midwest are enjoying similar results. No surprise really.  The Brazilians are spending $3 billion to send 100,000 of their best and brightest students overseas to enrich the educational environment.   

There is more, however.  This is the perfect time to be working with Brazil. The country is emerging as a cultural and economic power and is striving to have its STEM education match its new wealth and position.  American instructions, independent of the Science w/o Borders initiative, have decided that it is time to expand in Brazil. They want a bigger network of connections and alumni in the vast country that makes up half of Latin America.

There is also the matter of diversification.  Most STEM programs have lots of foreign students, but there is a great preponderance of Chinese and Indian students.  There is nothing wrong with this, but you lose the advantages of diversity if you have less of it.  

Having a larger number of students from a place like Brazil will bring in their unique experiences and talents, adding another ingredient to the powerful mix & besides those countries already sending large numbers of students (i.e. East Asia, India & some rich Arab countries), there are not as many sources as you might think.  Europeans are largely being absorbed into their own international system, i.e. a German student can very easily study in Italy or Spain, where the systems are more compatible and they have ERASMUS program that helps pay for their study and lets them work. Many other parts of the world do not have either large numbers of qualified students or cannot afford to send them. 

Brazil, in fact, was a more difficult case until the Science w/o Borders initiative and a good case study for how it can be difficult. The older generation of Brazilian scholars (i.e. people like me and older) was actually MORE likely to have international experience than those a bit younger. This was the ironic result of improvements in Brazilian universities coupled with challenging economic times. Until the 1970s, many of the best and brightest Brazilians studied overseas because there were few alternatives at home. One of Brazil’s educational successes of the last generations was to create an excellent university system.  But this kept Brazilians at home.  Of course, they were also kept at home by the hard economic times of the 1970s and 1980s, the hyperinflation and the decline of their purchasing power. This situation has completely turned around.

Brazil is a country of continental proportions. Like the U.S., it could and did absorb the energy of most of its people.  So instead of an international experience, a Brazilian who wanted to go far from home could simply go to a different state, like a New Yorker might go to Wisconsin to study. Unfortunately, the system did not develop much capacity to attract foreign students.  Even in large universities in Brazil, you can often count the number of foreign students on your hands. Only PUC in Rio has a large contingent of foreign students.  This is also something that needs to change. 

A second theme of our education mission, something that may become even more important than the actual Science w/o Borders program, is to create connections among Brazilian and American institutions, so that we get a two-way flow. Not only do Brazilians come to America, but Americans go to Brazil. We have a lot to learn from each other. 

I have been encouraged by the interest in Brazil among Americans but dismayed by the lack of practical knowledge.  Brazil seems a far off land of which we know little. Few Americans study Portuguese and an annoying number think that Brazilians speak Spanish. We should know more about the biggest country is South America. Relations between our two great democracies will continue to improve, but we need to know each other better. 

Science w/o Borders should jump-start this rediscovery. This is really something big and we are certainly not starting from scratch. Brazil is a fellow Western democracy, a partner in the Americas. We are old friends, who have just not kept up. The U.S. was the first country in the world to recognize Brazilian independence.  We have worked closely over the years. We were allies in World War II. Our scientist, leaders and people collaborate well. An American in Brazil recognizes familiar brands and American firms are present and making products in Brazil.  On the other side, Brazilian firms are present in the U.S. Budweiser beer is owned by a Brazilian multinational as are Burger King Restaurants, among others. It is just time to get to know each other better again and renew our wonderful friendship. The opportunity is now.

Maybe time for the Shakespeare quote:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.” 

I cannot add anything more, except to write that my pictures are all from Rockefeller Plaza in New York. They are related to the text only in that I wrote this the same day I took the pictures. 

New York: America’s Perpetual Gateway

My impressions of New York are almost completely based on movies and television and it gets worse. The movies and television that provide my points of reference are limited & out of date. I have at least three “my” New Yorks, mostly chronological. There is the New York of Little Italy and the Jewish lower East Side. This I learned mostly from movies, often comedies or musicals. The second New York is a violent, dangerous bankrupt city of the 1970s. The one portrayed in movies like “Death Wish.” The last one is closer to modern, the one in “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” When I went to the real New York, it seemed familiar and different. Landmarks are familiar; people are different.

New York has long been the door to America and a place of immigration and immigrants, but they are different and the communities are ephemeral. The Italians and the Jews of song and story are mostly gone, assimilated into the larger Americans community. The current groups are Chinese, Russians & Chinese.  Within a generation they will also be assimilated.  

Many of my attitudes are ex-post-facto. I think of the immigrant waves of the early 20th Century as ordinary Americans because I knew that they and their children became ordinary Americans. People at the time probably thought of them as foreign.

The violent and dangerous New York lasted a generation. The city was seriously mismanaged and for a time seemed unredeemable. Crime is a terrible form of oppression. If you cannot feel safe at home or on the streets you are not free and all the great attributes of a city mean nothing if you crime prevents crime prevents you from taking advantage of them. There are lots of explanations for the drop in crime. Any explanation must take into account better policing and an attitude change. During the1960s and 1970s, authorities tried to attack the “roots of crime”. This worked not at all. A direct approach to attacking crime did better.The direction of causality goes in this direction. Disorder is both a large contributor to both crime & poverty. Crime is also a cause of disorder, so if you attack crime directly you also attack disorder and hence poverty. The best anti-poverty program may be attacking crime, not the other way around. No matter what happened, it worked. The violent and disorderly New York disappeared in the 1990s. The picture below is related to a single act of violence, BTW. It is where John Lennon was killed in 1980.

The Seinfeld/Friends New York is also gone, but at least the current version is recognizable. 

One of the big successes has been the area around Central Park and the park itself. During the 1960s the place was falling into wreck and ruin. Crime was a problem, but so was simple deterioration. Central Park was designed to look natural, but it is not. It requires lots of upkeep.  In recent decades, management of Central Park has been taken over by a private organization of local people. They raise most of the money to keep the park up and they manage the process. It is a good example of getting people involved in their communities and it works. 

It is likely that today’s New York is a better place to live than in any time in its history. It is easy to be nostalgic for one or the other of the mythical cities of the past, but the modern one is cleaner, with better maintained buildings and less crime than ever before. The only problem is that it is getting harder to afford living in New York, especially Manhattan. It is becoming more a city of the rich. As we look back on the sweep of history, we understand that this too will pass. We should enjoy it while we can.

Stevens Institute of Technology

The Stevens Institute of Technology is a venerable institution founded in 1870 by a family of inventors who made their money and reputations making industrial machines, especially steam driven ones. The Institute goal is to be integrated into the community and into the needs of business.  We are hearing this all over.   Schools seem to have gotten the message. But a dean at Stevens put it nicely.  

He said that their goal is to connect innovation with business with technology as the catalyst.

Stevens in fact partnered with Parsons on the Solar Decathlon and in many ways is the Yang to Parsons’ Yin. Stevens is an engineering school with a “design spine”.  They want to integrate design into their creations in the first year.  The students work on interdisciplinary projects from the beginning and – interesting for engineers – they must take humanities courses every semester.

The Stevens Institute has eleven Brazilians taking part in Science w/o Borders. I will write more about those impressions in a separate posting, as I have talked to Brazilian SWB kids at several places now.

The Stevens folks were talking about their illustrious alumni.  Among them was Frederick Taylor, founder of “Scientific Management”.  It is interesting. He was a true man of his times.  We can revere what he did to reform industry while understanding that it has been overtaken by events.  I wrote a post about that a couple years ago.

Capacity to Innovate

Parsons School of Design

We sometimes think of innovation as new discoveries, a new software or medicine. We still have the image of the lone genius building something new in the basement or the garage.  The basement or garage may still be part of innovation, but the genius is not alone. Innovation also and perhaps more importantly is the application of techniques and technologies in different ways that satisfy developing needs. After all, a new discovery that cannot be communicated or applied is as useful as … nothing. Innovation must always exist in a human society context.

I admit that I was a little confused when I saw that the Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York was on our list of visits. I was thinking in that narrow sense that design meant only something like making nice looking furniture, modern art or maybe high fashion. I was wrong. 

People at Parsons explained that they work on teams to embed scientific and technical innovation into systems, i.e. designs that serve human needs. Theirs is a multi-disciplinary approach of engagement with complex problems of art, design, science & technology all wrapped into something that works for people They started with the example of their work on the solar decathlon/empowerhouse, where their team designed and built a modular house that was functional, comfortable, attractive and produced its own energy using passive and active solar power. 

It was impressive as was the philosophy behind. You have to go where the problem is and help solve it for the people there with their cooperation of those affected by the problem and will be involved in implementing solutions, my kind of thing. Partnerships frame the definition of the problem and the solutions.  

Parsons already has two SWB participants who are doing well, BTW.

The New School was founded in the 1920s, among others by people fleeing the tyranny of totalitarianism in Europe. You still get that feeling from the building, which was designed in the 1920s and by the decoration. Our room featured large murals by the Mexican artist Jose Orozco. It was a product of the times, featuring heroes like Gandhi and villains like Lenin and Stalin. I wondered why Hitler was not featured until I found out that it was pained in 1931, when Hitler was just a dark cloud on the horizon. A painting on the wall of the hall is from a bit later time, the Spanish civil war. You can see that below and it is self-explanatory. Let’s hope the world never has to go through a period that bad again.  It is useful to be reminded of such dark times; I hope the memory helps us avoid it. George Santayana famously said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But it sometimes seems that those who remember don’t fare much better.

Historically Black Colleges & Universities

We visited two historically black colleges, Howard University in Washington and Morgan State in Baltimore.  These universities at one time were designed for blacks, who were often excluded from other universities.  Today they have enrollment of all races; hence the name “historically” instead of currently, but they still enroll relatively more African-American students on average.

The Dean at Morgan State explained some of the history. The Morrill Act in 1862 funded educational institutions by giving the states federal land to establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. These universities were supposed to concentrate on practical subjects such as agriculture, science and engineering. Many of our great public state universities are land grant colleges. Wisconsin and Minnesota are among them, but some private institutions such Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also started life as land grant institutions. While these institutions were not “white” few blacks could take advantage.  A second Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 specified that states using federal land-grant funds must either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or allocate money for black colleges.  Sixteen exclusively black institutions received 1890 land-grant funds, among them Morgan State. Howard is different. It is funded by the Federal government, one of only three institutions that get direct funds from the Feds.

Today these institutions maintain their commitment to sciences and practical arts, making them potentially good partners for the Science w/o Borders program.

The top two pictures show Morgan State University. The bottom is Howard. 

Micron in Manassas

Our Brazilian friends and I went to Micron in Manassas near Washington to give them an idea about how high tech firms are integrated into a well-functioning educational community. Micron makes computer memory.  This is a very complex business with a heavy capital investment and a lot of R&D. The Micron people told us that they absolutely require three things: uninterrupted electrical power, an abundant water supply and an educated workforce.  None of these things are as easy to get as they would first appear.  

Uninterrupted power means exactly that. Even a little hiccup in power can cost thousands of dollars when the very expensive processes are interrupted. I am not exactly sure how water is used in making chips, but it evidently is a large part of the production. The educated labor force is a little surprising.  There are not many people working at Micron. It would seem to me that you could import the relatively few people needed.  The Micron folks explained that they were really talking about a kind of social ecosystem and a strong social ecosystem requires educated workforces in various businesses that support Micron in direct and indirect ways, as well as a diverse population that brings a variety of ideas.  

Somebody questioned this idea, pointing out that Micron was headquartered in Boise, Idaho, hardly a big or diverse metro area. Our hosts admitted that this seemed to be an exception to the rule. They also explained how Micron came to be located in Idaho in the first place.  It was a semi-random event. A rich guy called JR Simplot provided the start-up capital for Micron.  Simplot made a fortune pioneering the production of frozen French fries and then made his fortune bigger by becoming the supplier to McDonalds.

Micron spends a lot of time and money trying to shrink the size of the memory it makes. This won’t be possible very much longer with the technologies and materials available.  Some of the processors are currently only twenty atoms wide. That is 20 atoms. Think how small that is. They probably cannot shrink down to the subatomic level, so researchers are looking for alternatives to the flat silicon materials.  This is the current holy grain and Micron is helping fund research at Virginia universities in search of it.

Later that day we went to the Naval Observatory.  This is where my pictures came from. We could not take pictures in Micron so as not to potentially compromise proprietory information. 

The main duty of the Naval Observatory use to be to keep perfect time and write almanacs for navigation. The device up top used to keep track of the changes in the earth’s rotation. The earth does not rotate at exactly the same time. There are a few seconds difference. Scientist are not sure why. 

The Observatory has an interesting library. You can see it in the picture. It has some race books, including copies of Newton’s “Principia” (pictured) as well as Galileo and Copernicus. 

No Bright Boundaries & Never a Finish Line

The cost of higher education is through the roof.  Well … it depends on what you mean.

Higher education is going through profound changes that are changing the shape, but we are still seeing only the old beast in a kind of persistence of vision scenario. We still see clearly the old world that we know and loved, the great universities with the names we all know. But this is always a limited resource, one that cannot be expanded. There are only so many “Top Universities”. That is why it is getting harder and harder to get into them and more expensive for the happy few who make the jump.

But maybe the big names like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and even our own beloved UVA are analogous to big names like Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard & Rolls Royce – great old luxury vehicles. The best universities had all the advantages, including things like professors with great credentials, big libraries and prestigious pedigrees.  The only advantage that really remains is the pedigree. Internet has largely equalized the advantage of the libraries and we have trained up so many great professors in the last couple of generations that there really is not a significant difference among the top hundreds of institutions. The great old universities are the bright stars, but most of the educational universe is made up of the dark matter that we sometimes don’t see. 

Lots of learning is not university-based at all. We have options. If you live in a decent sized city, you can go to free lectures at think tanks & foundations. W/o leaving your house, you can listen to a wide variety of courses on I-pad and you have an interactive experience online with programs such as the Khan Academy. 

And then there are Community Colleges. I was mightily impressed by my visit to Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). They have great facilities and faculty and they provide a quality education for only 25-33% of the cost of a public university and less than a tenth of the cost of a good private institution.   Beyond that, they have open enrollment. This I like. 

I dislike stringent entrance requirements. This wall you need to jump can determine your life chances and you have to jump this wall when you are too young to really know what is going on. Far better, IMO, is to have lots of chances, lots of options. After all, it doesn’t really matter what road you take to success if you arrive there.  All the matters is if you know the material or not. I like the idea that you get to try until you succeed or until you decide to stop.  Why be punitive?  When Edison invented the light bulb, nobody penalized him for his thousands of “failures.” 

Community colleges are flexible and responsive to the needs of customers.  In Virginia, almost nobody is more than a half hour’s drive form a community college course.  They take the courses to where the demand lies.   NOVA sometimes holds the courses on the premises of firms.

Chip maker Micron told us that they decided to stay in Manassas partly because NOVA was responsive to training needs in math, ESL, tech writing and other STEM and George Mason was there for research support. 

Our Brazilian friends seemed as impressed as I was and there are lots of places for cooperation on Science w/o Borders.  NOVA already has students from many countries. They can take some of the Brazilian students in their second year.  More importantly, NOVA has extensive experience in English teaching.  They can bring some of the Brazilian students up to speed in English. It may be the start of a beautiful friendship. 

All universities, especially public universities are supposed to contribute to the general welfare. This means educating the people, giving advice to firms and producing public intellectual goods. NOVA people told us that they have three sorts of students. Some are the traditional type who are preparing for a four year institution; other are non-traditional students and still others are in it to hone their job stills. The task is to serve the people in their various permutations. When universities become more exclusive, they cannot do this task well anymore. Open enrollment is something we used to have and now don’t in good universities.  That is why I like the idea.  We need to make it easier to go in and out of the learning environment. We cannot set up walls that hold people back or need to be jumped. 

We used to think that we graduated HS. Then we went to college. We came out four years later and we were done.  This is changed. We no longer have the easily discerned boundaries and there is never a finish line for education. If we ever think we are finished, we ARE finished in the other sense of the word.

The picture up top show part of the NOVA campus in Annandale.  Below is a computer lab where they teach development math. Students learn at their own pace. They have tutors to help, but much of this is programmed.  The people at NOVA say that it works a lot better.

Making Science w/o Borders a Reality

We are taking some of our Brazilian friends on the road, or maybe they are taking us. The bottom line is that twenty-eight leaders of Brazilian universities are going to the U.S. and I get to go with them along with the executive director of Fulbright in Brazil and one of my Brazilian Embassy colleagues. We will break into three groups going to the east, west and middle of the U.S.  The first goal is to sell leaders of American institutions on Brazil and sell Brazilians on American institutions. 

That will be the easy part. Enthusiasm for exchange is through the roof. The second goal is harder: we need to channel that enthusiasm into practical results with real-live students and scholars moving between our two countries.  

This is a Brazilian program; we are helping them and helping ourselves by making sure they get a good reception in the U.S.  Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff set in motion her plan, Ciência sem fronteiras or Science w/o Borders, to send 100,000 Brazilians to study overseas in the STEM fields (Science, technology, engineering & math).  Half should go to the United States.  President Obama’s 100,000 Strong for the Americas aspires to send students from the U.S. in the other direction.  

Currently around 9000 Brazilians are studying in the U.S.; not many considering there are more than 192 million Brazilians.  The Brazilians hope to get four or five times that number within the next few years.  We got the first couple hundred Brazilian on planes for the U.S. last month.  Now we have to do the same for a few thousand more.  Our presidents have given us the direction, but if it is really going to happen it is up to us.  Ringing in my mind is “If not us, who? If not now, when?”  Maybe I am given to a littler hyperbole, but only a little. 

We have the opportunity of a lifetime and what happens in the next couple of months will be crucial to the relations between the U.S. and Brazil for the next decades. This is not just hyperbole.  In the next couple of years, we will exchange tens of thousands some of the best and brightest of our countries.  If it works as I believe it will, this will create pathways and connections that become self-sustaining with a positive feedback loop. People and ideas will flow between the two biggest democracies in the hemisphere; friendships will flower.  

My group will be on the east coast. I chose the east coast because it is the part of the country I know best, where I can add the most value.  (I also am happy to have the opportunity to go home and will save the USG a little money on the days I can stay at my own house.) We will be in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.  There are many more places we should go and we have not forgotten about them, but we had to go where we could in the short time we have.   Our inability to reach a wider group is one reason I will write on this blog at every stop.  

This will be a journey of discovery for me.  I want to come back knowing more about the landscape of American higher education as pertains to exchanges. I want to understand the practical details of Science w/o Borders and the role that we can play to make it a greater success.  And I want to make a record of all this so that I can share what I think will be an important learning experience.  

So I invite you all to come along.