Category Archives: Science Education

Teaching It Forward

(This is the text of my talk at #TedxSanJose April 14.)

I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is affecting a million teens each year. It’s a deadly epidemic and one for which there is no vaccine – or good cure yet. The Gates Foundation (@gatesfoundation) calls it the Silent Epidemic.

1 million high school students do not graduate each year in the US.  The Gates study established that shockingly, many of them are bored and choose to drop out rather than graduate.  They are not engaged enough to come to class, to read, to stay in school and graduate.  This is a deadly epidemic and one I care deeply about. I am going to tell you about my search for a cure.

Let me begin with a story. Sergio Alvarez is a 9th grader in NY. He has failed every math class through 8th grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future where he engineers planes. But you and I know the harsh reality—this is very unlikely. We know that kids like him get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and struggle the rest of their lives.

But wait, this is MY story. In my story, Sergio discovers OpenStudy, an online study site. He meets Hero, an OpenStudier who takes an interest in him. 6 months later we get a note from Sergio saying he is making 90s in math. This is a fairy tale with a happy ending…only it is not a fairy tale. Sergio is an actual user on OpenStudy and there are thousands more like him.  And for Sergio and the others, it is not an ending, but a beginning.

This is when I realized that we had created something good, something powerful, something with potential. Something that could even cure an epidemic.

We call it OpenStudy and it all hinges on this: between success and failure there is a human.  A teacher. A mentor. A peer.

So how did this realization come to me?  Let’s go back several years.

I was driving my three kids to school one Spring in Atlanta in a crowded Blue Honda Fit.  My eldest, then 16, had a Chemistry test and asked me to explain osmosis in the car.  I launched into the beautiful explanation of an award-winning Chemistry professor.  He looked at me and said, “That’s cool, but I think I’ll ask my friends!”

That was my thunderbolt!  It was the best thing that ever happened to me in the carpool lane.

I realized the tremendous power of peer learning.

My son graduated and now we are looking forward to Sergio’s graduation with a little help from his friends that he has found on OpenStudy.

So that’s my story of Sergio and Hero. Unfortunately, there are a 100 m young people globally who don’t even have a school or college to go to.  How do we find enough Heroes to teach these 100 m hungry learners?

My answer is: they will teach each other. To do this I needed a platform for global scale peer learning. And it couldn’t just be academic research. I had to make it real.

This decision has changed my life.  With two co-founders, Ashwin Ram and Chris Sprague, and the blessings of the National Science Foundation, we created a startup. Then I decided to move to the Valley. Why the Valley? Well I’d heard this is the best place for entrepreneurs.

I also had to reinvent myself. I traded my academic robes for jeans, my car for a bike. I’ve also learned a lot—like how to face rejection making the rounds on Sand Hill Road.

But we were funded and I thank our investors, the National Science Foundation, the Gates & Hewlett Foundations, NIH, GRA, and Learn Capital.  You see, it’s all very well to have good ideas, but you need funding to make them a reality.  And most of all you need a great team.  You need a lot of help from your friends, and your friends’ friends, and their friends. The Valley is a giving place.

So with the team and funding and friends, we built OpenStudy.

We now have a hundred thousand Sergios and Heroes on our system.  Let me introduce you to some of them.

Meet Erik. He’s an engineering student at Texas A&M University. Learning is easy for him, but when he teaches, he feels like he has done something worthwhile.  And he loves how he can reach NASA engineers who put a context to the equations he studies.

Meet 17-year-old Samuel in Ghana. He taught himself about computers and found OpenStudy as he was working through an MIT Computer Science course. He said he gained the confidence to attack his chemistry tests because he saw a lot of questions and answers on OpenStudy. “I can walk to my chemistry test with confidence,” he said. I think he can walk into any college admissions office now. In fact, he is already being recruited.

Christy is one of our most sought after math experts. She feels the pain of the math deficient; she made it through remedial math at a community college. She now is on her way to a PhD, and is a college teacher in Arkansas. She knows the difference a mentor can make.

17-year-old Saifoo is in Pakistan and has helped thousands of users. Thousands. I’m ready to write him a recommendation for Cambridge.

Here is Catherine.  Can you believe this Biology graduate student in Australia was too timid to answer a question when she started?  She is now a moderator, a power user, and hands out judgments and wisdom on the late night shift.

Our solution is really blindingly obvious, especially to anyone with a teenager.  Give them a Facebook-like social site and the social interactions will lead to engagement. The peer-to-peer learning creates a win-win scenario. Our users complain happily that they are addicted. Addicted to math!  When was the last time you heard that?!

Today there are over 100,000 registered users, from dozens of partnering institutions including a who’s who list of the MITs and Yales to the community college systems of West Hills and Piedmont. Our users ask thousands of questions a day and get help within 5 minutes.  And it works: 80% of our users surveyed reported that using OpenStudy had helped them gain a better understanding of their course material.  But numbers aside, there are stories like Sergio’s.

Why do they do it? Why do they come back? Learners come for help, for an explanation, to talk through their problem with someone.  They stay because someone has taken an interest in them and is willing to help.  And then they come back so they can help someone else in turn.  They are engaged because it is like playing a game where good learning behavior is incentivized.

Let’s pay another visit to Saifoo.  Saifoo has hundreds of fans. He answers questions in a few different topics but he has helped most learners in math.  Each time a learner is happy with Saifoo’s explanation, he gives Saifoo a medal.  Over six months Saifoo has gathered a bounty of 4000 medals. The medals, the fans, and the testimonials are all part of the game mechanics that keep our users, young and old, coming back for more and more.

As they stay they become a part of a family, a community of practice.  And they realize what it means to be in a community, helping one another. As Voltaire said, when one person teaches another, two people learn.

As satisfying as this is, there is more.   As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle schooler with the MIT engineer…the American with the Pakistani, the Tanzanian, the Turkish…black, white, brown…they learn to interact and be courteous. They learn to be helpful, to work together, to communicate.  For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion.

We have created a platform where millions of learners can come for help and there are people waiting to help them.  Not for money…but because it is their passion.

We have found a vaccine for the Silent Epidemic. Our goal is to inoculate every student across the United States and on every continent.

But this vaccine can’t be manufactured in a lab. It will take each one of you to help. My call to action is simple: pay it forward by teaching it forward. Take 10 minutes to teach 10 people. That’s it. It will grow virally as some of those you teach will teach others who will take 10 minutes themselves to teach 10 more. 10 will teach 100, 100 will teach a thousand, a thousand will teach millions.  Together, we will reach all the Sergios in the world. Together, we will make a difference.


When education works.

It was a win for education today, twice on #TedxSanJoseCA

Angela Zhang, winner of the Siemens Science Talent competition. She asked for journal articles from a Stanford cancer researcher, learnt about it and then proposed a award winning project, performed the research.    Home schooled Roberto Granadas (13) and his brother, Ernesto (7) lit up the stage with their duet on guitar and drums.  Angela spent hundreds of hours performing research and Roberto started playing along with Jimi Hendrix songs as a four year old .  This is what is right with education today.   Why can’t we do this again and again and again?  Why are there any kids that are not fired up about something? Anything?

Every kid is an opportunity to achieve the impossible.  Why then are there so many missed opportunities? Just pondering #TedxSanJoseCa.

MicroTeaching Challenge to STEM Folks on Digital Learning Day

On Digital Learning Day, give some of your time to a teen in need. Got STEM Smarts? Help a struggler in Math. Your 10 mins could make the difference between a future scientist and a janitor.   We know about micro payments, what about micro service? Microteaching?

There are 1000 questions in math alone, looking for an explanation. Plenty of help needed in Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well. Hundreds of good people are already helping.  Have you done your share?

Are you really a good teacher?  Think your explanations of Lenz’s law are outstanding? Well try it out on an unknown learner in North Dakota, home schooled, and at home.  What about an ESL learner?  Is it Raoult’s Law that they don’t’ understand or can’t do algebra?  Are they in middle school or college?  Here is a true test of your ability to articulate an explanation on the fly!

Go on, take the challenge.  Let’s see how you can handle this! is an NSF SBIR project.

Meet the Rock Star of Math Help on OpenStudy

“Hi, my name is amistre64, and I am a mathaholic.

Why do I use OpenStudy?  I came across it in March.  It was free and looked like something I could use to both teach and learn about math, and math related accessories 🙂

I used to be in construction work, but now I am going to college to get a Master’s in math to become a college math teacher.”

Amistre is on OpenStudy a lot.  He is always there.  He has achieved the level of 100, the highest attainable level on OpenStudy. There are few at this level.  He will help you only if you care to learn.  The “Give me an answer and let me be gone” attitude does not work for him.  His explanations in calculus are a joy to behold.  Here’s an image of an explanation, midway through one of his conversations.  You can see the entire conversation here

Why does he do it?  His answer is, quite simply, “to help”. Amistre is proof that altruism still thrives, that people passionate about learning are willing to teach our hapless teens.  We don’t pay Amistre.  The community “pays” him through their regard and appreciation.

He has over 800 fans, which means there are hundreds of students on our system who appreciate him, who gave him a signal of their regard and respect, who want to get to know him.  When someone appreciates his help, they give him a medal.  He has earned that again and again, more than 6,000 times in Math.

What does that tell us?  In contrast to reports of high schoolers’ apathy to math and to studying, we have evidence that high schoolers do care about learning. When provided the right framework, when someone takes the time to talk to them and help them solve a math problem, they truly appreciate it.  With typical teenage fervor, they shower Amistre with tokens of their appreciation.  By “fanning” him they are saying that he is a Rock Star of Math—the Justin Bieber of Math Help on OpenStudy!

For me, every time a kid thanks Amistre, I see another vote for learning.  The way Amistre sees it, every time he gets a medal, he turns the light bulb on for a kid, and he’s got his reward.

PA is the #2 Best Job says Money magazine.

Twice in a row, Money magazine has listed the PA profession as #2 Best Job. And the #3 “hottest” growing profession. Well, it is no wonder that it is very competitive to matriculate into Emory’s PA program, ranked #3 nationally. Last week, several Emory students were fortunate to hear from Dana Sayre-Stanhope, Director of the program and Terry Mize, Director of Admissions about what it would take to be accepted by this program. For one, you need at least 2000 hours of contact time, directly dealing with patients to be accepted into the program. “Sick people,” said Terry, “you have to have dealt with sick people.”

It is clear that service plays an important role in evaluating the applicant.  On average, successful applicants demonstrate 5800 hours of direct health experience.  During their 28 months at Emory, PA students spend almost as much time in community and humanitarian service.  There are more women than men in the program, with high GPAs (average 3.4), 10% have Master’s degrees and GRE scores of 1100. Oh, did I mention, the 1100 compete for 50 seats! Phew. The hopefuls in the room were glad to have an opportunity to meet and mingle with current PA students. One of them, Kathryn Aiken, a second year PA student, originally from University of Florida said to me, “Tell your students to shadow a PA. It is not enough to shadow a doctor. Their interviewer will want to know why they are interested in a PA, not MD or nursing. And they need a convincing answer.”

“We look for a story.” U. Chicago Medical School Provost

I was so impressed by Dr. William McDade’s compelling presentation to Emory college students yesterday. Dr. McDade is an MD, PhD, and serves as Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues and Associate Professor of Anesthesia & Critical Care at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. I hope the students in the audience heard him clear and loud. “We look for a story,” he said. Pritzker looks beyond grades to find the human in the numbers. “We want to hear, what makes you remarkable?” Like every other school, when they are trying to “make the class”, they have a strong focus on diversity. “Diversity breeds excellence.” he went on to say. If I was a premed, I would listen.

Very specifically and very clearly, Dr. McDade told the students in the room that he sees students taking the most rigorous science courses they can find in an effort to impress admissions committees. While that is good, he adds, “Don’t go crazy. Take the premed core and do something else. Learn about compassion, ethics, literature. Learn how to relate to people.” One significant competency needed by successful physicians is collaboration skills and Dr. McDade emphasized the need for college students to develop this skill. “Learn how to be in a team.”

Don’t you see this as another definitive vote of support for significant role of a liberal arts education in preparing future physicians? Is this not another argument for why we want our premeds, our future physicians to be, not only able to handle the science, but also have learned about being human through intellectual engagement with subjects like ethics, philosophy, history and experiential encounters that build the skills of compassion, collaboration and caring? Premeds, are you listening?

For AP Calc Teachers, a MIT OCW + OpenStudy Course to prepare you!

Where is a teacher to turn when he or she is assigned to teach an AP course, in Calculus.  Well, try one of the OpenCourse ware courses says, Susan Gilleran, a seasoned educator from Ann Arbor Michigan.  She recommends MIT OCW’s Introduction to Calculus.  (

What is OpenCourseWare you ask? The concept of sharing educational resources freely around the world, referred to as “open education resources (OER)” or “open courseware“, is now gaining mainstream acceptance both inside and outside of the academy and has been adopted by over 200 higher education institutions worldwide.   According to the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCW), open education has three main advantages: access and distribution of knowledge to regions of the world where higher education is not readily available; recruitment and retention of students, as well as curriculum development and research collaboration among faculty; and sustainability of interest in and access to higher education.  The OCW Consortium offers thousands of free, high-quality courses, developed by hundreds of faculty, used by millions worldwide. OCW is attractive to students (42%), self-learners (43%), and educators, with large numbers (46%) of users from the US.

The largest OER provider is the OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium, which includes over 200 universities that are making thousands of courses and other materials available online via web sites, iTunes U, and YouTube EDU. Some of the world’s best institutions of higher learning offer their courses on OCW, MIT, Yale, Berkeley, University of Korea, Johns Hopkins, U Michigan, U. Delft to name a few. These courses are immensely popular; MIT’s well-known OCW site gets 9 million unique visitors.  About 40 to 45 percent of OCW users are traditional students (15-24 years old), another 40 to 45 percent are professionals and independent learners, and the rest are teachers, educators, and others.

For the K-12 community, Open Educational Resources and the OCW content offer educational enhancement opportunities at several levels.  Course material on all manners of subjects is freely available and downloadable in different formats and can help teachers better prepare themselves or improve and enhance their instructional content.   Consider this:

  • For teachers being asked to teach a relatively new subject or just reenergize, (a Math teacher being asked to teach Physics- does it ever happen?)
  • For students wishing to prepare for AP exams or college level courses
  • For high school students wanting to explore a new subject, anthropology?
  • For college-bound students in the process of applying, wishing to learn about the institution and its academic environment, well, you have the insider’s view now.

What is missing on OCW courses are the people to answer questions and chat with.  Recently, OpenStudy, a company that I co-founded, offers way for learners on OCW to meet and chat and learn together and fills that  very need.  Why study alone when you can study together?  There are 5000 others like you studying Single Variable Calculus on OpenStudy’s study group for this course.  Check it out and let me know. (

Kawasaki on entrepreneurs, education and Singapore

In a conversation at the Stanford Global Entrepreneurs Challenge held in Singapore, Kawasaki held forth about all three. Paraphrasing wildly,

On education:When you educate young minds that the best thing that can happen to them is to land a government or a MNC (Multinational) job, why are you surprised that they dont want to be an entrepreneur?  They are not prepared for it. ” In America, if you work for a large company for a long time, people ask why. In Singapore, if people leave a large company, people ask why. This is a huge difference.”  He also said that the educational system, great though it is, has not really focused on “being creative” which as we all know is essential for entrepreneurship.

On entrepreneurship in Singapore, I have to say Guy is more enthusiastic.  He notes that resources are being deployed and  that the government has decided to pursue this trail, and we know

Singapore’s track record when the Government decides to pursue something. (This is the country whose per capita GDP was three digits a few years ago and look at them now! Wow!)  But some things like regulations will have to ease up.

The best quote though, came at the end, when he was asked whether

Singapore’s small size would be an obstacle.  “They have to go international” he said and added in pure Kawasaki-ese, ” Israel has five million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has five million people, six entrepreneurs, and one opinion.” but he concludes, “If Israel can do it, why can’t Singapore?”

So look out Silicon Valley, here comes Singapore Island. Agree or disagree?

Why science for Tibetan monks at Emory?

Today (October 18) in a rare moment, His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained the background for why he encouraged teaching monks modern science.  At a lunch at Emory, honoring the science faculty and translators who have been working for three years on developing a ground breaking science curriculum for Tibetan monastics, His Holiness started with, “Let me give a little background.”  He talked about how an early 5th Century BC university, Nalanda University, possibly visited by the Buddha, was the inspiration.  Early scholarly works from Nalanda were translated into Tibetan and set up the framework of logic and learning that is followed even today in monastic training.  This system of logic is ingrained in Buddhist teaching, said His Holiness.  He said, people have asked him if science would not destroy religion.  His response, “The Buddha himself said, Do not believe what I say because I say it, investigate it for yourself.” And for this reason, he said, there was no conflict between the inquiry based approach of science and Tibetan Buddhist monastic training.

Faculty from Emory, Georgia Tech and other universities have been teaching at Dharamsala the past two summers.  The curriculum, initiated in 2009 by Geshe Lobsang Negi and me, has gained popularity and students.  It is a two way street, as we teach the monastics modern science, quite often we are forced to reevaluate what we have taken for granted.  “If I had an object shaped like a cone, would the force of gravity be different on the pointed edge or the flat edge? ” “When you talk about a cell, are you talking about its body or its mind? ” and so on.

To take it to the next level, we welcomed six special freshmen this month on campus, six monks wandering through introductory biology and chemistry with other Emory freshmen.  I can’t wait to see their mid term grades.

Stanford Advice to Emory premeds

Emory undergrads were privileged to hear Mr. Greg Vaughn, Assistant Director of Admissions at Stanford Medical School talk to them about what Stanford was looking for in a premed applicant.  A standing room only crowd kept Mr. Vaughn for at least three hours, as he explained, took answers, fielded questions and provided information.  There are several applicants to Stanford in this year’s Emory applicants, and we hope they were all present.  Also present were many freshmen and sophomores, and Mr. Vaughn was especially welcoming to these early starters.

What DOES Stanford look for?  I particularly liked the very first slide in Mr. Vaughn’s deck, “What We Value”. The answer is “Scholarly Endeavors, Clinical Experiences, Service.”  In the next few slides Mr. Vaughn talked about how the application should bring out evidence of “originality and creativity” in academic and non academic activities. I also heard the theme of “Deep involvement in research and scholarly activities”.  If you are considering applying to Stanford, not only should you have research on your resume, but you should also be prepared to talk about your research project, its impact on you and your academic career.

On Leadership, Mr, Vaughn shared with us a model of a Leadership Ladder, from involvement to advocacy to legacy.  You start by attending a prehealth club for example, move to become the president, then become an active advocate for the cause, and leave a legacy behind that persists after your departure.  For many in the audience the concept of “distance travelled” must have been reassuring; Mr. Vaughn noted wisely that when looking at applicants, Stanford considers where applicants started in their freshman year and where their academic journey took them.  It is the distance travelled that is meaningful – not a list of activities.

Of course, most important, an applicant should be able to articulate what they hope to get out of a Stanford education, because like everyone else, Stanford is looking for the perfect “fit”.  Learn about the curriculum.  Learn about what makes this school of medicine distinct and different.  Learn about yourself and know what you seek in your graduate professional experience.  And be able to articulate that!