By Third Grade…. Is that what matters?

Yesterday NPR discussed President Obama’s proposal for universal early childhood education. A popular argument for universal early childhood education cited by Gene Sperling, an economist who I really admire–as much as one can admire an economist–is that spending on early childhood education save taxpayer dollars down the road. Sperling sites research suggesting that every dollar spent on high-qulaity pre-kindergarten education saves between $4 and $17 down the road in terms of things like higher wages and decreased juvenile delinquency. Nice, right?

This morning, continuing their look at the President’s proposal, the station showcased Georgia’s early adoption of universal early childhood education legislation. Critics of the policy point to the added cost and evidence that by third grade the gains seen due to early childhood education basically even out. In other words kids who went to pre-k are performing at the same levels as those who didn’t.

Aside from the point that the evidence is arguable on that last point, I think both commentaries point to a common but pretty disturbing perspective: That the value of the child can be measured–should be measured–in future achievement. Essentially we are saying, it doesn’t matter so much what high-quality early childhood experience means to a child, unless it translates into higher test scores, higher wages, or increased employability later. We value the child on for his or her future potential, not for the inherent value of that child as a person. I find that to be one of the saddest comments on our educational system and our society as a whole.


Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.




stemsteam valveIn order for America to remain competitive–or more accurately, to regain our competitive edge–we need to focus on education. Specifically, we are told we need to focus on STEM education–Sience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Prophets (as well as charlatans) of growth, economic development, and good public policy from the White House to the school-house to the work-house tout the importance of STEM education to the nation’s future. These advocates of a new American exceptionalism see a future tied to the steady progress of science, the power of innovative new technologies, the efficiencies of enlightened engineering and an understanding gained through the judicious application of mathematical principles to an ever-increasing cauldron of useful data. In large part, they are correct. Our educational system is hopelessly out of date, we are not educating students for the present let alone for a successful, self-directed future. STEM education recognizes the need to keep up with new discoveries and changing technology, to build an understanding of the hardware Unfortunately, this vision of the future comes up wanting in some important ways, with STEM education reifying false partitions between the “serious” disciplines of science and mathematics, and the more “liberal” and “fine” arts–the very areas that are spurring new innovations that will shape our future.

A growing chorus of voices, however, is not so much eschewing the call for STEM education as it is questioning the completeness, and yes even the wisdom, of an educational paradigm that neglects the arts. This chorus calls for reconsidering the STEM movement, to develop a more complete STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Art) paradigm of education. The reasoning goes that without arts education, future workers will lack necessary creative and collaborative skills that are increasingly important. John Tarnoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post does a good job making the argument that many of the new jobs created by the technology boom are in fact in creative areas. “Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas,” Tarnoff notes. And those workers are not always easy to find.  There is, therefore, a basic economic argument for creating systems and policies that encourage STEAM education.

But is an economic argument the only way to justify STEAM focused education? I won’t get into a long discussion on the nature of education (publicly funded education in particular), or ask whether we shouldn’t be considering factors beyond worker training when developing goals and drafting policy– educating an informed and able citizenry for example, or promoting democratic ideals and ethics. No, what I’m talking about is a more basic principle, but one that continues to be demonstrated as we evolve socially, culturally, and technologically. I call it the principle of connections.

We too often divorce the “hard science” disciplines from the arts (and here I include the liberal arts), just as we often assume that “nature” and “technology” (or even industry) are mutually exclusive, perhaps even conflicting ideas. Throughout history, however, such dichotomies have been consistently discredited. It is equally as wrong to assume that the engineer or scientist lacks creative capacity as it is to write off the observational, technical and analytic skills of the artist or philosopher. From Leonardo da Vinci to E.O. Wilson our greatest scientific thinkers have also often displayed immense artistic talent, each grounded in their abilities to observe, analyze, document and most of all imagine. In fact scientists and engineers are among the most ardent advocates for STEAM over STEM thinking.

There is one more connection, I’d like to add to this discussion, though. That is making, or the manual arts (would that be STEAMM education?). Shop classes, home economics and all forms of manual learning (what we might call labor) continue to be stripped from our school curricula in order to make room for more reading, writing, science and math. From a purely economic standpoint this makes little sense, especially in light of the Obama administration’s focus on bringing manufacturing strength back to the American economy. From an educational standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of disastrous. Instead of stripping manual arts from the curriculum we would do better to more thoroughly integrate them into every aspect of learning. Math, science, art and all the rest would likely benefit from providing hands-on experiential opportunities for students to learn. Take students out of the classroom and away from the textbooks and computer screens for a significant part of each day and lets see if achievement (not to mention satisfaction) doesn’t increase.


On February 29th, The New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University hosted Tinkering with the Future:Will the DIY Movement Craft the Future?. I hate to be a spoiler, but the answer is pretty much YES, makers, tinkerers (tinkers?), crafters and the like will play a huge role in our future economy and culture creation–if we do it right.Tinkering

There is no point in my going into a protracted summary of the afternoon’s events. You can watch a webcast of the symposium here.

Some highlights to look for:

  • Tim Wu, Professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires explains how tinkerers created the twentieth century as we know it. He talks about how the technological innovations we all know, love and need (or at least wouldn’t know how to do without) were, for the most part, created by amateurs working away in their garages (both literally and figuratively).
  • Dale Dougherty, Founder and Publisher of Make magazine, and Tom Kalil, Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy answer questions about the maker philosophy, who makers are, governments role in harnessing the innovations of makers and promoting the maker ethic and the economics of the maker movement. In this conversation, moderated by David Plotz, Editor at Slate, Dougherty and Kalil discuss the fundamental contributions makers will have on the economy and on society as a whole. They also get into some discussion about how our educational institutions need to learn from and emulate the maker ethic. It’s interesting to hear Dougherty, the maker and Kalil the wonk compare notes.
  • Annie Lowrey’s conversation with Mitzi Montoya, Dean of the College of Technology & Innovation at Arizona State University, and Jim Newton, Chairman and Founder of TechShop is incredibly interesting for it’s educational implications. My favorite part of this conversation is the answer each gives to my question about what kind’s of technologies we should have in our schools. Again, I hate to be a spoiler, but Newton responds that we should put all shop classes back into schools, while Montoya lists three things that she thinks every student should study: Art, Shop and Programming. Who would have thought someone named Mitzi would be so smart.
  • Journalist and Author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe explains briefly how he coined the term “crowdsourcing”, and gives an enlightening talk about how opening up problems to a wide undefined audience can reap huge results. He sites as his example InnoCentive. The website set up to crowdsource answers to important (and profitable) scientific questions. Howe does a much better job than I can at explaining exactly how this works. But he sites three remarkable findings that I’ll mention here: 1) 1/3 of the problems posted on InnoCentive are solved. A remarkable ration when you consider that these are problems that the brightest minds in their respective fields have worked on, sometimes for years. 2) There is a pronounced positive correlation between the the researchers who solve a particular problem and how far outside their area of expertise the problem is. Basically (but not exactly), the less they know about a field, the more likely they are to solve a problem in that field. 3) For the problems that are solved most of the people solving them knew within twenty minutes that they could solve the problem–remember these are problems that the best minds in the field have often spent years on.
  • The final two discussions, Crafting the Do-It-Yourself Economy and Can Our Patent System Support (or Survive) the DIY Movement? are both fascinating conversations. The first focuses on the future of employment–the future nature of work, actually. A topic that is important to educators and policy types because it should be informing how we build our current systems and educate young people. The second looks at how a broken patent system (or at least a system that has not kept up with modern technology) could either stand in the way of the DIY ethic, stifling innovation and the economy as a whole; or could encourage open platforms, tinkering at the edges and real innovative potential. Both are definitely worth watching.

Do-It-Yourself Drones on the Kojo Show

Do-It-Yourself Drones: New Civilian Uses for Unmanned Aircraft.

Once a useful technology is developed, people will find all sorts of new and interesting uses for it. Unmanned drones have changed the nature of the battlefield. Now new civilian uses are being found for drone technology. From crowd surveillance and land surveying to ecosystem monitoring and investigative journalism. Do-it-yourselfers and commercial interests are taking drones to new heights.

This afternoon’s discussion on The Kojo Nnambi Show explored the new eyes in the sky, and the legislation that’s making it possible.

Tinkering with Tomorrow: DIY in the Future Tense

Well here you have it: the wonks at the New America Foundation have officially caught the do-it-yourself (DIY) bug. Thanks to publications and websites like MAKE magazine and the DIY ethic is increasingly attracting mainstream attention. Across the country, and around the world, groups of really smart people are forming to think about and make really cool stuff–like the Capitol Region’s own HacDC. And now the Beltway intelligentsia are starting to take note of the profound social and economic effect the DIY movement will have on the future. I also happen to believe that the DIY movement holds incredible potential for informing educational reform–but that is a discussion for another time.

On February 29th the New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University are  sponsoring Tinkering With Tomorrow: Will the DIY Movement Craft the Future?

From the website:

New technologies are making it easier than ever to turn an idea into a reality. 3D printers, open-source software, hackable products, and collaborative communities have turned traditional tinkering into a full-scale “maker movement” that allows – and encourages – everyone to tap into their inner entrepreneur. Can this movement usher in a new age of innovation? Will hackers have a profound impact on the economy? And if so, are we prepared for it?

The agenda is packed with more really smart people talking about really interesting things. I’ll be attending, and if you’re anywhere near Washington, DC on the 29th you should check it out, too.