The Minerva Project - An Olin-like Experience

By
Chelsea Bailey '16

 

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Avery with Minerva's founding
dean, Dr. Stephen Kosslyn.

 

Many of our graduates leave Olin not only with an
engineering degree, but also with a unique and growing passion for education.
Earlier this summer we talked to Andy Pethan ('11) about his decision to
become a teacher.   Other alumni choose to get involved with
education without going directly into teaching. This week we touch base with
Avery Anderson '08, to see how she is impacting the future of education by
working with The Minerva Project,  an
exciting San Francisco-based startup.

 

1.      I've
never heard of the Minerva Project - 
what is it?

First and foremost, Minerva is planning to offer an
unparalleled university experience. Just like Olin, it's starting out with
a mission to attract the brightest and most motivated
students worldwide and to accelerate their life
trajectories by providing a rigorous education that builds off foundational skills
(think spiral learning). Freshman year students will take four cornerstone
classes which will emphasize theoretical analysis,
empirical analysis, complex systems analysis and multi-modal
communication. The curriculum for these classes and the way they are taught
will be built up from the best practices of traditional liberal
arts teaching while harnessing the power of new pedagogical research and
the leaps in technology that have been made in the past 20 years.

Minerva plans to go beyond classroom learning as
well. Our students will travel from residence hall to residence
hall in cities across the world (traveling to a new city every
semester) where they will live and study together and have a chance to
experience what the world's greatest cities have to offer through
co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

Unlike Olin, which is changing engineering education by
graduating 75 students a year, Minerva will also have a high admissions bar but
with no cap on the number of students admitted. And no, you won't end up in a
classroom of 100+ students. We're capping all classes at 25 with more of them
in the 15-20 student range. All classes will take place using our video
learning platform (which is the project I'm working on), led live by one of our
professors.

 

2.       How
did you get your job at Minerva?

I got my degree from Olin in Mechanical Engineering so I
sort of went through a transformation in the past 5 years.   After I
graduated, I started out with pure mechanical work (product design and
development), then moved through robotics where
I spent more time programming than in SolidWorks, and
eventually landed in web development where I found a company that was
desperate enough for a web developer that they hired me to learn web development
on their dime. 

I actually ended up at Minerva because I went to Olin. My
initial talk with my boss was about my early Olin experience which is
incredibly relevant to what we're doing at Minerva. He was doing customer
development and he ended up recruiting me as a full-stack web developer. 

3.       What
is your day to day job like?

Currently, I'm building out the online
platform that will replace the physical classroom. My day-to-day is
anything from small things like knocking bugs off our bug list to huge things like
design sprints (with lots of post-its UOCD-style) looking forward 5-10 years. I
spend about half of my programming time programming in a pair which means we
have two keyboards, two mice, and one editor. When we're addressing big code
architecture questions or even just trying to root cause a bug, we tend to work
so much faster in pairs that it's more than justified. I will say, there's
nothing quite so exhilarating as problem-solving in a small group.

 

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Avery pairing with a
coworker.


4.       What's
your favorite part of the job?

I love the team. Not only are they a great group of people
but our culture of pairing has helped us create deep bonds very quickly. All of
a sudden I find myself saying "I can't wait to go to work" in the
morning. 

I love what I'm working on. As an Olin alum, building a new
school is nothing new to me and it's something I can put my whole weight
behind. 

And I love that every day I learn something new. Our
constant pairing keeps everyone learning from each other. Every week our whole
company participates in an active learning seminar where we both test our
platform and learn about the latest research in teaching methodologies from our
founding dean, Dr. Stephen Kosslyn. And really, we're trying to think 5 years
in the future which means we're all sitting on the cutting edge of what's
happening in technology.

It's great!

 

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An ideation session in
process!


5.       What
do you think the future is for online education?

Online education got a bad rap back in the day from schools
which did a disservice to its students through its use of predatory loans.
However, in 2012, we saw a resurgence of interest in online education with the
year of the MOOC (Massively Open Online Courseware) where companies like EdX (where Dr. Mark Chang and Marco Morales '11
now work), Coursera and Udacity opened up a lot of
knowledge transfer classes to the general public. A lot of people have
benefited from classes like Stanford's 101 Computer Science course or
MIT's Intro to EECS. And it seems like there are several
companies starting to nail the lecture-based class format online.

Technology
can enable much more than just lectures when it comes to higher
education.  When technology is leveraged in service to "the science
of learning", the opportunities expand in such interesting ways. 
Imagine the ability to effectively host small, interactive, seminar-based classes
with students sitting all over the world.  And, there are ways
to take advantage of tried and true teaching techniques
like the Socratic
method, while also facilitating a lot of methodologies
based on new research that has come out (like Eric Mazur's research on Peer
Instruction
). Technology
can also help track learning and progress helping both students and faculty to
drive the best performance and learning outcomes.

We're living in a world
where, increasingly, communication is happening not in person, but
over the web via different channels: twitter, email, video
conferencing. Distributed teams are a reality now. Olin gives it students a
huge boost up in the workplace through its emphasis on project-based
teamwork (How many Oliners have ended up as Project Managers? And most of us
are still in our 20s!) Minerva hopes its students blow everyone else out of the
water in their ability to work in cross-cultural distributed teams. It
takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something and
when our students graduate they'll be well past that level.

 

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A meeting with the
engineering team and their remote designer.

6.       How
is Minerva changing the way America views/treats education?

One of the things Minerva is
emphasizing is teaching at the undergraduate level. A few months ago,
Minerva announced the Minerva Prize (which some Olin faculty have already been
nominated for) which awards a $500,000 grant every year to a professor outside
the Minerva Schools who are advancing innovation in teaching. We hope
that if we can help make teaching as significant to universities as
research, we'll see more advancements in teaching across the board.

We're also putting a lot of emphasis on a global education.
While Minerva is an American university, no longer will you find yourself
surrounded by 90% American students. We're drawing students from all over the
world and placing them all over the world. It's like if study abroad was on
steroids and had an amazing curriculum. 

7.      You
graduated in 2008.  What strengths did
you leave Olin with and where were the gaps? 

There were wonderful things my Olin education provided me,
and some skills that I had to fill in on my own.   I left Olin with:

  1. An amazing network of people who have been incredibly helpful in connecting me with new contacts/job opportunities, reviewing resumes and portfolios, and being supportive
  2. Strong team skills
  3. A penchant for getting stuff done
  4. An engineering framework for considering problems
  5. The confidence to talk my way into anything and believe that I can do it (naively or not).

 

However, there was a lot of stuff I had to pursue on my own,
and for that the mentorship I found along the way was indispensable. 

 

8.   Do you have any advice for Oliners
who'd like to pursue a career similar to yours?

After leaving my first web development job last year and
beginning my job search again, I was given some incredibly good advice:
"Find a job whose requirements are two skills you have and one skill you
want."   In retrospect, this is
advice I'd been inadvertently following since I graduated and it really helped
me make some smooth career transitions.   

Finally, it's important to believe you can do anything,
but equally important to have respect for the time that people
have put in to get to that point before you. As mentioned before, mastery
comes from a lot of observation and listening, and 10,000 hours of deliberate
practice.   Not from being cocky and
outspoken, and believing you know the answer before you actually know the
answer.

Minerva is hiring!  If Avery's experience has piqued your interest,
feel free to email her at
avery@minervaproject.com

 

 

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, Education-Minded Oliners, Making a Difference