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How MIT students are trying to change education by Jenny X. '13

by biking across America.

It’s summertime @ MIT! I’m relaxing at home after graduating last week (more on that soon) and am here to spotlight an incredible project a few of my friends are participating in – Spokes: Biking Across America.

Who: 9 students from MIT and UC Berkeley

What: Biking across the country from San Francisco to Washington D.C., stopping at high schools to hold “learning festivals”, teaching students subjects the cyclists are passionate about.

What it might look like:

Biking!

Fixing bikes when necessary!

Science! (a sample of classes: “The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants” and “Eyewire: A Game to Map the Brain”)

Images from the Spokes blog 

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I first found out about Spokes after seeing the tweet below from Turner, a fellow resident of my floor Burton 1, and the one who cooked up the idea for this adventure.

In the following Q&A conducted over email, Turner indeed describes Spokes in more detail. The conversation has been slightly edited for length.

How did the idea come about?

The idea had a long history. I had always noted, largely thanks to my parents’ deep interest in education, a number of trends in education that I disliked. I also noticed that many, many people don’t have the ability to hold a proper discussion and learn from another’s opinions. Most simply argue their own opinion without shifting or learning. A number of my friends didn’t have the confidence to pursue a topic they loved, and that both saddened and frustrated me. Finally, it seemed learning had become a sad or painful experience for many of my friends. How terrible! Learning should be fun and positive.

The idea of biking popped into being while my family and I were climbing Mount Everest in February of 2012 with an alumni travel group. I was having a hard semester and wanted to change directions. Biking across the country, an endeavor one of the other people on the trip mentioned, seemed like a phenomenally fun thing to do, and also a great way to get out into the world, see some new things, meet some new people, and take a break from MIT and the physics I had been studying.

That trip failed to come together in the summer of 2012, and I headed out to San Francisco for the summer. After talking to a number of groups working on ed tech startups I noticed that many of them were basing their “solutions” to education on just a couple of schools or just a couple of conversations without properly exploring the incredible breadth of educational experiences available in the United States. Additionally, they considered their product a success when it sold to the teachers or to the schools. What about the kids? Too few of them were looking directly at the students using their products to determine if they were successful. It struck me that, in order to truly improve the education of the millions of students in the United States, one had to do something differently.

So I started putting together a team of friends to travel across the US by bike, see what education was really like in a variety of circumstances, and try out a solution of our own. We figured out that what all of us, with our many varied interests, had in common was a love of something, a passion, and we began to ask each other, “Why doesn’t everyone have the opportunity to pursue a passion? Why hasn’t everyone found a topic they love to learn about?” It became our goal to inspire students to learn what the love and to pursue a passion.

What was the process for involving partner high schools?

The original partner schools were found through Teach for America, and therefore were all Teach for America partner schools. We have been contacting a variety of additional schools and groups, including a homeschooling group in St. Louis and an experimental education group in Loveland, Colorado.

How did the mentors decide what classes they will teach?

First, a clarification. The teachers are not the same as the mentors. Mentors are being selected from all around the world through a variety of networks. Pretty much anyone can offer to mentor, but they’ll have to go through an interview and background check before approval. The cyclists are teaching the classes, but most will not be mentors.

To answer to question directly, the teachers chose topics that they found especially fascinating and were very knowledgable about. Inspiring a student is hard, but we thought that the first step was having a truly passionate teacher.

What part of the journey are you most looking forward to? What do you think will be the biggest challenge?

I’m looking forward to every inch of it! Everyday! I’m incredibly excited to be in the middle of the country seeing a part of the US that I have never seen before. I’m also incredibly excited to sit down with kids who have just discovered something new in the world – neuroscience, say – and watch them form an amazing project over the course of our project workshop. I’m excited to see other people find excitement, I guess.

The biggest challenge will be the teaching. LIke I said, our goal is not just to impart information, but to inspire curiosity. That’s a hard task. Every day we will be modifying our teaching style to accomplish that goal. It will also be difficult, as it is for any teacher, to keep the whole class engaged. We’re designing engaging classes, but it will still be a tough task, especially considering that we will only have a couple hours, or, at most, a day, with each group of students.

Gosh… everything will be the biggest challenge, haha! Everything has been. For example, we had a donor worth $10k to the trip drop out a couple weeks ago. It’s been an incredible challenge filling that gap.

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Best of luck to Spokes America, which kicks off TOMORROW, JUNE 11.
Follow their journey on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Vimeo. I know I will be!