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Minerva Finale: From Here to Eternity

April 23, 2015

I know I have missed the last two weeks! Sorry! Both of my weekends have been traveling ones. I represented Minerva at the US College Expo in Toronto, and the last 14 days or so have been a blur of final assignments, practicing speeches, giving out informational cards, reconnecting with family, and flying on airplanes.

This will likely be the last post of my Minerva year one experience. As I say goodbye to San Francisco (for now!), I wanted to thank the people who have cared enough to follow my journey, and to share some of theirs with me. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity Minerva gave me to experience and shape the future of higher education, and for the supporters I was lucky enough to have in my corner. Every adventure I had, and every picture I posted, would never have been possible without the collective energy and effort of a village-sized group of people – the Minerva staff, students, and my own small army of loved ones.

I may not write another post for a while – it depends on whether I feel that I have adventures worth sharing – but I wanted to leave you with this photo. I took it at the Market Street prototyping festival. There is a face drawn in chalk at the middle righthand side of the photo, and to me, that face is San Francisco personified: colourful, focused, challenging and open to all that might be possible.

As I step boldly into my next year and a half, I want to keep this face in the back of my mind. I want to live gratefully and also dwell in possibility.

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Nothing but the best to you all!

Take care,

b

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Minerva Week 26: Layer by layer (?)

April 6, 2015

How does change happen? Big change, I mean. How does the old interact with the new? Do we have to build on what exists already? What if the foundation isn’t strong?

Image Credit: Make Use Of

This week, I spent seven hours 3-D printing and I honestly have very little show for it (I didn’t take a picture of all the half-printed stuff I produced, but the picture above gives you a sense of what it looked like). Most of that time was spent trying to figure out why the first layer of my print wasn’t sticking, or why the molten plastic was drying too fast. Needless to say, the mindless troubleshooting gave me time to think about the symbolic meaning of 3D printing. It’s a pretty good metaphor for incremental advances. Each layer is added on top of the one before. That means that what happens at the bottom constrains what can happen at the top. You can’t start with a penny-sized circle and then try to add a cup-sized circle on top – there will be nothing for it to hold onto.

When you have a great first layer, though, it becomes so much easier to build something (as you can see from the tiger face I was printing in the picture below!). All you need to do is just keep going, adding a little bit at a time.

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At Minerva, we’re trying to build our own first layer. So much effort has gone into constructing it, making it strong, level and stable. It’s hard work. It would be easier to just add a little change to the existing foundation (of higher education), but it would be impossible. The kinds of things that need to change about education aren’t supported by the current model. I was thinking about this as I finished off the hand-drawn timeline I made for Minerva. You can see it below. So much has happened and so much lies ahead.

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I was thinking about this question again on Saturday, when Minerva’s Student Experience director invited us to a beautiful rooftop to discuss how we can strengthen our first layer. What can we do as students and staff to make sure that students have an even better experience outside the classroom than we did? As we talked about things like residence hall design, meal plans, and location-based assignments, I was reminded of the many challenges that the staff have overcome to get us here. I saw the hurdles that need to be jumped to get us ready in time for the inaugural class. Difficult, but meaningful work has to happen, and all of us need to play a part.

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Today, I headed to the Asian Art Museum, in search of soul food and inspiration. I tried to be more aware of my surroundings, because I realized that I only have a few weeks left to enjoy them. I was struck by how much I had overlooked on past walks. I saw murals that I had never noticed before.

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The Asian Art Museum was a gem. Beautifully designed exhibits showcased exquisite artifacts from Korea, Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to name a few. The picture below is of contemporary Japanese pottery.

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The ‘layer-by-layer’ motif reared its head at the museum too! The art piece below called “TEA-ter totter”. The explanatory note from the artist said that there is an invisible force holding up the cups (metal rods inside the structure). These invisible rods are meant to represent the intention of the universe, a force that is much stronger than human intention. I could feel the artist speaking to me, almost directly, saying that you have to take the risks, make the effort of doing these hard tasks, because you will be able to manage them. People have managed them in the past, and by the same token you will be able to manage them.

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A state from Indonesia encouraged me to be calm and powerful.

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A 3000-year-old rhinoceros reminded me that sometimes things can be built to last.

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A beautiful mirrored wall by an Iranian artist showed me that reflecting can be a creative activity (that was a pun! 🙂 ).

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I took a look at the city that has shaped me so much in the past eight months, feeling so grateful to be someone who has opportunities to learn, grow, and reflect.

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Minerva Week 25: Prison, City Hall, and Japan

March 30, 2015

This week, I helped host a trip to a prison-turned-park to make kites inside an exhibit designed by a Chinese artist forbidden to leave his country. We went to Alcatraz to visit Ai WeiWei’s @Large exhibit. My task was helping my fellow students create kites that represented freedom to them.

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I worked on my kite with Thy, whose vision of freedom was beautiful. “It is something that can never be touched or taken away by others. If you are free, if you decide you are free, then you can be in jail and still be free. It is something inside you.” We decided to draw a circle of hands around a burning sun, a ball of light always visible but never within reach.

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In an ironic twist, when we tried to fly the kites on Alcatraz we were given a severe reprimand, because we might have been disturbing the habitats of protected sea birds. The whole saga (almost being ticketed, having to quickly dissemble the kites) reminded me that exercising my own freedom can block other freedoms. Not everything is allowed, and often for these reasons. I felt so guilty. Talking with another student, though, I realized that I was responding more to authority that was forcefully exercised(i.e. the Park guard yelling at us) than anything else. We weren’t flying the kites for more than a few minutes, and I doubt we startled any birds. Freedom is fragile.

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That evening, we had a special 10:01 meal. A documentary film crew had been following us the whole day, and we treated them to a showcase of “the best hits” of 10:01s past. Beaver tails did not make the list, but empanadas, hummus, suya (spicy Nigerian chicken), Vietnamese pancakes, and knafeh (Middle Eastern sweet cheese fried dessert – WOW) did. I helped prepare and enjoy food from four continents.

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The next day, we headed to city hall. We were meeting with people from the city planning department, the housing and homelessness department, and the Mayor’s Office for Civic Innovation (MOCI), an office whose work I had read about admiringly. To put it plainly, I learned from and was inspired by, four passionate municipal employees. They were generous with their time and candid with their reflections on the opportunities and challenges that come with working for change within government. One story that illustrated the ‘promise’ of innovative and effective government is the parklets. San Francisco was the first city to work out rules around converting public parking spaces into public social spaces (like in the picture below). One of the people we talked to was actually the person who wrote all of the detailed and involved rules and procedures that need to be followed for a city to collaborate with a community/business to get one of these things going. Now, these rules and procedures have been adopted by cities on four continents.

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This weekend, for my self-mandated exploration time, I walked through the city until I reached Japan (or a reasonable facsimile of it!). I saw people dressed in fancy frilly dresses (meant to look like characters from manga (Japanese comics), I think). You can see a few in the picture below.

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I bought an almost-too-adorable-to-eat “happy face crepe,” filled with green tea ice cream and decorated to look like a woodland creature. I felt no guilt when I ate its head. Maybe it was my hunter-gatherer instincts rearing up. I thought about how simple it was to arrange the chocolate chips, marshmallows and cereal bits on the ice cream to make a face, and how disproportionately happy it made me to see that little cute animal made of ice cream.

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As I was walking, I stopped in parks and on benches to read. I devoured novels about cancer (The Fault in Our Stars) and North Korea (The Orphan Master’s Son). I spent my last night as a 22-year old (or am spending it as I type this!), thinking about what it means to be a free, healthy, loved person in this world. I think that part of the puzzle is paying attention, noticing the universe, finding beauty and meaning in the things around me, but there is much more to be figured out. May this next year of mine bring me further along the path to a meaningful life.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver, called “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Minerva Week 24: Yosemite

March 25, 2015

I was lucky enough to spend four nights in Yosemite National Park, courtesy of a trip planned by MORE, Minerva’s Outdoor Recreation and Exploration student group. Yosemite is a magnificent, expansive place. Each day brought new experiences. I climbed up rock steps that had been blown into being by dynamite. I saw deer, and bluejays, but thankfully no bears. I lay in my tent as a powerful thunderstorm raged all around me, feeling full of awe. I had wonderful companions who endured my backwoods humour and my four-days-of-no-showering backwoods odour! I did not open a computer for five days. It was invigorating and restful, and it is a bit of a shock to be back in the city. This week will be full, to say the least, so expect a proper update on Sunday. Until then, enjoy these photographs of the crisp, sunny days I spent in Yosemite!

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Credit for the first two photos goes to Rana Abu Diab, one of the other fearless campers! The rest are mine.

Minerva Week 23: Therapy, Earthquakes and Geckos

March 16, 2015

This week, I had dog therapy, experienced two (fake) earthquakes and saw all sorts of critters. I also FINALLY GOT OVER MY LINGERING FLU AND COLD. The cute dog in the picture below is Zola, a bonafide therapy dog. Usually, she visits people who are in the hospital, but she made a special trip to the residence hall to meet with us. My own golden retriever is thousands of miles away (he also had a cold recently, so I think we’re more connected than I thought), so I really appreciated the chance to have a warm, furry and cuddly friend around for a while.
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This week I learned about ocean microbes (though there is still so much to learn!), the economics of tradeoffs (on average, weekly hours worked have decreased and real wages have increased since the 1870s… in the UK at least!), retold Cinderella, and tried to use algorithms to optimize pairings of people. Fantastic stuff.
On Friday, I attended a session on Charisma with an interesting character called Ali Binazir, a doctor turned dating coach. I was unsure of what I was in for, but I really enjoyed it! My favourite part was an exercise where we had to imagine that we were 50 feet tall (the size of Godzilla), stomping around the city, and then imagine ourselves, still this gigantic size, relaxing on the beach. According to Ali, this was what appearing strong really meant – having the power of a giant but keeping it confidently and comfortably coiled inside you. It made me laugh to picture myself stomping around SF.

Art credit: georgegamewatch

Today, I went to the California Academy of Sciences. I’ve been meaning to go there for a while, and it just happened that it was free admission day for residents of Nob Hill! The stars had aligned, so how could I resist? The entire museum is stunning, but what captured my attention first was an earthquake simulator. Luckily, I haven’t experienced a bad earthquake (or any earthquake at all) here in SF. Perhaps it’s bad to wish for one, but I am curious about what it would feel like! This simulator gave me a vague idea. The two most recent serious earthquakes (1901 and 1989) were simulated in a little fake living room. I was shocked by how serious the 1901 earthquake was! Here’s a picture of the simulation room before the 1901 quake ran. It was dark in the room because the quake struck at 5 am or so.
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Next, I went to the rainforest biodome. A spiralling walkway took me up through the different levels of the forest. There were butterflies and small birds flying around at the top. I saw snakes, frogs, lizards, bugs and fish. I loved trying to spot the creature in the glass exhibit case. It was like playing I Spy. It took a different kind of focus and patience. Some of the frogs looked so stoic that they cracked me up.

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I hope you aren’t too put off by that spider. It would probably fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. The exhibit information told me that these spiders are born knowing how to spin their webs. Isn’t that incredible?

Next week is a short one, as we have a makeshift spring break coming up. I’ll be heading to Yosemite with a great group of students. I’ll take lots of pictures and tell you all about it when we are back.

Until then, take care!

Minerva Week 22: 3D Printers and Firecrackers

March 9, 2015

I finally know how to use a 3D printer! And yet it’s a toss up for my favourite moment of the week between watching the 3D printer build my ‘print job’ and seeing the largest Chinese New Year’s Parade outside of China.IMG_3266

I’ll tell you about the 3D printing first. Instead of printing words on paper, it makes 3D objects. It does this by piping melted plastic (just like you would pipe icing to decorate cookies), letting the plastic harden, and then piping another layer on top of it. Slowly, it builds up an object by building these layers one on top of another.

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I learned how to use the 3D printer at Tech Shop, a makerspace (they have lots of neat equipment there, and all members pay a flat monthly fee to access it). Minerva swung a decent deal for a few of us students, so I will be a member until the end of April. The class I took was a motley crew! Well, maybe not motley but we were pretty diverse. Two kinds of architects, one origami enthusiast, one digital artist and another person who wanted to make a physical prototype for his startup. And me! My interest in 3D printing comes from my background in structural biology. Many times, I’ve looked at the 3D structures of proteins on computer screens and wished that I could hold them in my hands. My goal is to learn how to print a 3D structure of the protein I studied a few summers ago.

A figure from the paper we published about this protein.

What I printed at the end of the class was the kind little word below. YES. As in “YES you can do this! YES this is such a neat mixture of conceptual/computer manipulation and manual work/physical result!” I downloaded the 3D model of this object from a website called Thingiverse. People from all over the world post models of all sorts of things. This YES is mean to be worn as a necklace (it has a hole in the Y), and was created in support of the (failed) Scottish referendum. Someone I will probably never know allowed me to hold this word in my hands.

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After doing some more research on how to acquire materials (I’ll have to bring my own plastic to use with the printer) and making a reservation for my next ‘print job’ (you actually do press the print button to start things moving, which I thought was so cute!), I tried to head home. It was harder than I thought! Most of my routes home were blocked by throngs of people cheering for other people in elaborate costumes. It was the Chinese New Year’s Parade.

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My little photo doesn’t do it justice. There were lion dancers, dragons, brass bands and FIRECRACKERS! So much noise and smoke in the streets. Even later at night, when I was back in my room, I could hear the firecrackers being set off. Then, louder explosions drew me to my window. I saw fireworks coming from Chinatown. A beautiful way to end a weekend of discovery.

Minerva Week 21: Illness and Drawing the Future

March 2, 2015

Hi everyone!

It’s been a pretty quiet week for me. Not by choice, but because I was under the weather. From headaches to fatigue to sinus pain to nausea to sore throat, you name it, I had it (though thankfully not all at once!). Accordingly, this week was my first interaction with the U.S. healthcare system. Navigating the requirements of my insurance provider was a little more confusing than I was expecting. Apparently I need to call them before I want to go to the doctor, so they can approve me and create a file for billing. I was overwhelmed at the doctor’s office trying to sort all of this out, but one of the receptionists there was so helpful. She called the insurance company for me and was on hold all throughout my checkup. I was so grateful for her kindness.

The one neat thing I did this week was go visit the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a non-profit that has been exploring and predicting possible futures of healthcare, work and learning for 40 years. I made the hour and a half public transit trek out to Palo Alto to meet with a few members of their team. It was a big day for me, because I have been following IFTF’s work for years. I love their beautiful full-colour maps of the different possibilities for each domain of human life. Here’s an example:

IFTF’s Map of the Future of Science

On my way to their offices, I walked by a store that I could have sworn was from the future. It was a 3D scanning and printing shop. You could walk in, have yourself scanned, and walk out with a tiny doll replica of you. Wild!

From 3Dprint.com

I took most of my classes from my bed this week (a definite perk of Minerva), and slept the day away on Saturday. Yesterday, I finally started chipping away at a project I’ve been meaning to finish for a few months now. The Academic Dean of Minerva has often talked to us about ‘learning principles’ – strategies for learning more deeply and efficiently that are supported by scientific research. It’s been my goal to make a hand-drawn visual explanation of a few of these principles.

Here’s my video draft. Ignore the awkward transitions between different stages – it’s a work in progress and needs a lot more editing. It also needs narration! That’s my goal for the next few weeks. When I am done, I will let you know.

I wish you nothing but good health and sunny days. Until next time!