Mission to Learn

I fell into a fascinating website the other day, Stanford 2025 (http://www.stanford2025.com/#intro), describing a design team exercise to imagine what Stanford University might look like in 2025. The designers worked with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, asking groups to pretend it was the year 2100 and they were looking back at Stanford in the year 2025.

Each group was tasked with remembering what going to university had been like in 2025, after the 2014 design exercises had inspired some progressive changes in how students at Stanford learned. To focus the exercise, the design group prepared a basic toolkit and left the toolkit up on the website for anyone to use in a similar exercise.

I was struck with how different the imagined 2025 university would be, but also with how possible the changes were, with just some simple shifts in mindset and motivation. The one that really excited me was their exploration of purpose.

The “Purpose Learning” group described the current 2014 system as “Students declare majors and focus their studies on declared majors.” In 2025 “Students declare missions and couple disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fueled it.”

Statements made in 2014 like “I’m a Biology Major” morphed in 2025 to “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” A student with a double major in computing and political science in 2025 might develop a personal mission statement stating: “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”

The Purpose Learning group imagined Stanford connecting with the Olympics every two years, establishing seven new labs with each Olympic games focused on seven different local to global problems that the host city chose to concentrate on. Just as the Olympics attracts the best athletes, the Impact Labs would attract the best faculty, students and community members to create world-record progress on tough civic, environmental, political, social and cultural problems.

The outcomes for the imaginary 2025 students included:

  • Stanford graduates accelerated both their personal sense of meaning and outward global impact
  • Alumni fondly reflected on how their personal missions established at Stanford acted as an anchor as they charted their path beyond the Farm
  • An endless list of contributions to issues of poverty, health, infrastructure, renewable energy, global governance, space travel, artistic and cultural achievement, etc.

What really struck me about this vision was how much more it challenged students to make a difference in the world, as compared to the current paradigm of being taught information that can serve as a career substrate but isn’t particularly motivational to contribute towards the public good.

I have a related idea I’ve flogged around my university, only half seriously because I doubted there would be much possibility of implementing it. The idea is to create a capstone course called “Making the World a Better Place.”

In this course, students would do something in the community with their education that created positive progress, and they wouldn’t graduate until they presented their project to faculty. Students could work individually or collaboratively with other capstone students, reporting back each week for feedback and support from their fellow students and the Better Place faculty.

A final presentation and web-based report from each student or group would conclude the course, preceded by two or three dry-run presentations and drafts of their writing/website so that faculty could work with students to improve their speaking and writing skills. Success wouldn’t necessarily be required, although preferred, but at least a sincere attempt to accomplish something outside the ivory tower would be needed before receiving a diploma.

Turning education from majoring to missioning creates the expectation that life is not only about self-improvement but also about accomplishing a larger task that gives back to the community.

That’s a learning outcome I can get behind.

Corporate Influence

I enjoy congruence, when seemingly random bits of information on similar subjects converge.  Novel ideas are often inspired by news nuggets from diverse sources that connect by a common thread. Today’s blog about the influence of corporate contributions on academia and non-profit organizations was stimulated by three such converging influences.

The first was sent to me as part of an email list about bees, and covered the recent announcement that Bayer CropScience made a $750,000 donation to the University of Guelph to support and preserve pollinator health through sustainable pest management. Bayer, if you don’t know, sells neonicitinoid pesticides, the top-selling pesticides in the world today, which rightly or wrongly are receiving considerable blame for causing honeybee colonies to collapse and die.

Those who support Bayer will applaud them for their concern about pollinators, while those who accuse them of beeocide are undoubtedly livid at the university’s collaboration with the evil pesticide empire.

The second converged item was an article from the 12 May 2014 New Yorker, about how the head of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, has alienated environmental purists by pushing the Conservancy towards collaborations with industry to find win-win outcomes so that industry improves its bottom line by doing environmentally friendly things. The article starts with an example of how Dow Chemical, one of the planet’s worst polluters, is being encouraged to plant trees and preserve wetlands that absorb some of their outflow pollution.

Critics are quoted in the article as condemning the Conservancy’s “schizophrenic anti-biodiversity, anti-protected-areas rhetoric,” while Tercek defends their interactions with industry as realistic and effective.

My third converged moment was at a talk I attended describing Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit that fosters partnerships between government, industry and academia. Mitacs operates by placing graduate students with corporations and government who then conduct research useful to those organizations. The students eventually use the research towards their graduate degrees.

The clear concern here is that of intellectual property, and whether the students can publish results freely when there is proprietary information involved. According to Mitacs, they can, but cynics wonder about undue influence of industry in designing and interpreting student’s experiments in which negative results might inhibit product sales.

In spite of these many concerns about corporate influence, academia and non-profit organizations have many motives for accepting industry dollars. The key reason such funding is so tempting for academics and non-profits is that we don’t have enough of it, and corporations are awash in it.

But there are other temptations as well. Products are exciting, and who doesn’t want to be part of inventing something? There is that thrill and pride that comes from being part of a team creating something that has enough value to others that they purchase it. It’s seductive, and one reason we can be so easily drawn into the corporate mindset.

There also are good strategic and philosophical arguments to be made for collaboration with industry. It’s a positive social good for industry, government, academia and non-profits to work together towards common goals, each contributing a different set of skills and experiences towards solving knotty problems in health care, energy production, transportation, environmental protection and many other social needs.

The tradeoff in accepting corporate funding and the accompanying industry culture is the loss of independence, which is perhaps the strongest value that drew many of us to academic and non-profit pursuits in the first place.

We need to create an appropriate infrastructure that recognizes the broad spectrum of stakeholders who bring differing ideals and motives to issues, while protecting the sanctity of independent research by academia and analysis/commentary/opinion from non-profits, insulating both groups from being financially beholden to special interests.

The simple solution to mitigate potential conflicts between industry interests and those of the academic and non-profit worlds would be for government to provide more funding to keep independent bodies independent and balance corporate interests. One way to do that is for government to rebalance the structure of corporate participation to insure it supports independent systems.

Perhaps a tax used specifically to generate a broad range of independent opinions from academics and non-profits would serve citizens the best, particularly on issues where corporate activity has the potential to negatively impact human or environmental health.

Corporations have gargantuan impact on our environment and virtually every aspect of human life. They should be partners with the academic and non-profit sectors, but only if their funding is buying independent analyses rather than inflating the corporate bottom line.

We are far from achieving that balance yet, as those three converged moments I started with indicate. But we do need to have that conversation, and fast, as independent thought is becoming increasingly submerged in the sea of influence that is too easily brought to bear when dollars are not disconnected from products.

Whatever Happened to Pastoral Beekeeping?

I began to keep bees in the 1970’s, when beekeeping was still the most pastoral of pastimes. I vividly recall long days of tedious repetitive physical labor, the heft of honey-laden supers, that inexpressible feeling of turning off a blacktop road in a flatbed truck and heading down a barely passable forest path that suddenly opens into a sun-speckled bee-loud glade with its peaceful apiary.

Being a good beekeeper then meant being in tune with the seasonal cycle of both bees and flowers, manipulating colonies to peak in population just before the honey flow. You had to respect your bees and know the flowering patterns in the meadows and fields they visited, in a way that made you and the bees partners more than your being just their keeper.

The hard physical labor in beekeeping remains, and it’s still important to read the state of each colony and the surrounding bloom accurately. But today we live in a more complicated era when pests and diseases have pushed beekeeping from pastoral to chemical.

Discussions at the coffee shops where beekeepers chew over their beekeeping no longer focus on how to prevent swarming, or what’s in bloom. Rather, beekeepers are more likely to yack about the bewildering array of pesticides and antibiotics required to keep their colonies functioning, many of which have become less and less effective due to overuse and misuse.

I was reminded of this tragic shift in emphasis away from managing bees and towards managing chemicals by the 2014 Ontario treatment recommendations for honeybee diseases and mite control (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/inspection/bees/2014-treatment.htm). Ontario’s guide is a good one, similar to guides found in states and provinces around the world. Almost all jurisdictions recommend similarly intensive chemical-heavy beekeeping, and they share the realistic assumption that chemicals are required if colonies are to survive.

Take control for the varroa mite, arguably the most serious honeybee pest today. It feeds on pupal bees while they develop, and again on adults when they emerge, but its major impact is through the viruses it transmits and activates.

The options for varroa control are grim: use one of a number of synthetic chemicals, most of which the mites have become resistant to, or use organic acids such as formic acid that are marginally effective, noxious to apply, and have a narrow range of temperature conditions under which they can be applied.

Then there’s the bacterial disease American Foulbrood (AFB). It’s a serious disease, and most jurisdictions today require infected colonies to be either burned or the bees killed and the comb irradiated.

Many guides still advise beekeepers to use preventative treatments, applying antibiotics in the spring and fall whether the colony is infected or not. Not surprisingly, AFB resistant to antibiotics from this extensive exposure has become a growing problem, an expected consequence of using antibiotics to prevent rather than cure disease.

There are other pests and diseases treated chemically, such as small hive beetle and the fungal disease nosema, and for these as well as viral diseases there are a host of monitoring regimes that beekeepers conduct to regularly assess their disease and pest loads.

Taken together, monitoring and treatment take up a considerable portion of the time beekeepers spend with their bees. Apiaries seem more like a hospital emergency room than a glade in the woods.

I’d consider myself a curmudgeon on the issue of how chemical dependence has supplanted traditional beekeeping skills, except for one thing: the chemical approach isn’t working. Honeybee colonies continue to die at a rate of about one-third of all colonies annually. You’d think with that kind of mortality we might be inspired to take a step back and ponder whether beekeeping chemicals might be part of the problem.

The peace and calm from the bee-loud glade stand in marked contrast to the dissonant tone created by our growing dependence on pesticides and antibiotics to keep bees.

Here’s the present-day irony: honeybees will die if untreated, but relying too heavily on the treatments has accelerated colony demise.

We’re trapped in this tragic cycle of increasing chemical use. Only a conscious and concerted effort will return us to the beekeeping of yesteryear, when keeping bees was the most natural of pastimes.