Nature’s independence

I wrote this blog mid-June, one week after leaving San Francisco. 

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Riding through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada we were surrounded by pristine pine forest. The environment reminded me of journeys to Sweden, Istanbul’s Star Islands and the Croatian coast.

As I stood in the middle of a quiet road in the forest, two deer walked onto the road. Meters away from me, both deer stopped and stood still for what felt like a full minute. As I set a step in their direction, the deer gently moved off the road and graciously hopped into the forest. It was a magical experience.

Our road has been marked by beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to enter much of it: the vast majority of forest along the road is marked by “No Trespassing” signs indicating that “visitors are not welcome”.

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The craving for possession of land is foreign to me. In Sweden, any person can cross another man’s land as long as the visitor treats the land with respect. This “freedom to roam” is a constitutional right. After all, we are all visitors on earth – the land belongs to no one.

Bliss or pleasure is derived not from possession but from service: walks through the woods and squirrels playing in your backyard versus a document that states your ownership. As Emerson writes:

“Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But non of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which  no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

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The universe conspires in your favour

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Forty miles south of Kansas city, on a sunny afternoon, half our Spokes team stops to refill our flasks with cold water at a small roadside restaurant. After she walks in, Claire explains to the man behind the counter that we are crossing the country to help teenagers start hands-on projects, because we believe that every child deserves to feel empowered to realize their ideas. Within minutes, free nacho’s and hamburgers are on the table (this is America…) and we are offered a place to stay for coming nights.

At such moments, I feel like a monk receiving a three-star Michelin-dinner after asking for alms.

Surprisingly, such generous offers have occurred regularly during our journey. No week passes by without a stranger reaching out to help us. How can this be explained? Is this mere coincidence?

I believe the support flows from a deep commitment to the cause we are fighting for. We put our heart into this project. People see us, recognize our commitment and a desire arises with them to contribute – to be part of our story. This speaks to the natural desire of people to do good. Better yet, I experience now the incredible power that you can unleash when you fight for something you care about. 

I am not the first to observe this. Emerson writes in the first pages of his essay on self-reliance:

“Every heart vibrates to that iron string”

Paulo Coelho puts this into words in the Alchemist:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

And Seth Godin has created an entire body of work around helping people to overcome fear and do what they care about. As said in the Icarus Deception -“Fly closer to the sun.”

I commit to putting my soul into my work.

A quest for learning – summer 2013

This summer, I embark on an epic quest. With 8 students from MIT and UC Berkeley, I’m cycling 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington. Along our journey, we will teach hands-on science classes to a total of 1,000 high-school students on topics we deeply care about, organized as “Learning Festivals”.

Classes range from “How to build a heliostat solar panel?” to “How does the brain work?”. Each Learning Festival will end with a session in which we invite students to work on their own ideas. The goal of our journey is to let children experience the joy of learning and the power of turning ideas into reality.

Updates

For email updates of the highlights of our journey (2x per month), please leave your information here. I keep another blog during the summer, please find it here. 

A demo class in Amsterdam

A demo class in Amsterdam

How can you help? 

Thank you for taking the effort of reading this page! There are several ways in which you can help:

(1) We are looking for teaching locations across the country (see the map below). Are you in touch with school teachers, librarians or summer camp leaders along our route? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(2) We will be camping all the way. Do you have friends who live along the path, who are happy to host 8 students for a meal or a night? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(3) This journey will lead into a structural organization to support children in developing their own ideas beyond summer. Do you want to work on or fund the future of hands-on learning? Definitely reach out, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

Team

Along our journey, we are supported by a large team of web designers, educators and funders. During our trip, we will be 8: 6 MIT students, 1 UC Berkeley student and myself .

Our team of 8

Our team of 8

Curriculum

1. COMPUTERS, ART:  The algorithmic beauty of plants

Do you like computers, plants, or art? How about the intersection of all three? In this course, we explore the recursive structure of plants and learn how to make pretty pictures of trees, flowers, and abstract fractal-like patterns using a clever technique called L-systems. Everyone will have a chance to create their own computer-generated works of art inspired by life.

2. NEUROSCIENCE, GAMES:  EyeWire: a game to map the brain

EyeWire is a puzzle-meets-coloring book online game that enables its players to contribute to the brain mapping initiative, which was announced by President Obama in March. Developed in part by one of the Spokes teachers in the Seung Lab at MIT, the game teaches its players how to trace the “branches” of neurons through 3D reconstructions of brain tissue. To do this task, players “spot check” computer algorithms, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a connectivity map with synaptic-scale resolution of the “connectome.”

3. ENERGY, CONTROL SYSTEMS:  Build your own solar panel heliostat

Through assembling their own solar panel heliostat, students will gain insight into the fundamental working or energy from renewables. This class combines knowledge in mechanical engineering (designing a technical system), computer science (programming an arduino) and electrical engineering (soldering the board).

4. FOOD, GARDENING:  How to grow your own vegetables: inside, for free!

Don’t you wish you know how to make your own delicious food? With a few old plastic gutters, a handful of plant seeds and a bit of daily care, you will grow your own veggies in no-time! Add in a few quick and easy recipes, and you will be the most popular chef in your high school – period.

5. MUSIC, PHYSICS:  The Science of Music

Music has been called the universal language. In some sense its building blocks of rhythm, harmony, and melody arise from the nature of the human mind. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions! Come learn about the math, physics, and psychology behind the music we love and how to take a scientific approach to solving its mysteries.

Journey

Our route from San Francisco to DC

Our route from San Francisco to DC

Partners

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My class

The class I will teach is called: “Grow your own vegetables – the joy of making what you’re eating”. I have created an entire outline of my class (using pictures, very few words) here.

See you in DC!

See you in DC!

Principle Pragmatism

I was fortunate enough to attend the Tällberg Forum 2012 in Sweden last week. During the Pathfinder program, a 3-day long leadership training, I was caught by a simple term: “Principle Pragmatism”. Principle pragmatism equals the least possible compromise in your action for being true to your ethics. Differently put, principle pragmatism means that you walk your talk.

In order to practice principle pragmatism, we need to take two actions. First, we need to make explicit our values & ethics. Second, we need to actively judge our actions with those ethics as a yardstick.

30 Days of USA

It all started in NYC…

Bringing a sponsored delegation of 35+ Kairos fellows from the Netherlands to the annual Kairos Summit was the result of six months of hard work with Mingus Vogel & Frithjof Wegener. Not only were we the largest non-US delegation present at the forum, but also did the quality of the Dutch group far exceed all expectations. Others agreed – click here to see our feature in Sprout Magazine.

The time in NYC was amazing. I had the opportunity to discuss Kairos’ global strategy with a twenty-odd group of global fellows, hailing from China, Hong Kong, UK, Sweden, Spain, US and the Netherlands. I connected to 50 of the most promising student led start-ups in the world. I started and deepened friendships with people who were putting all their energy into making a change in this world. I celebrated the event with an unforgettable party on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And it was wonderful to finally spend time in person with people I had been working with so much through email and phone. Thanks Vic, Sam, Dylan, Andreas and Ted!

After 5 days of overwhelming experiences in the Big Apple, it was time to head to Boston  on the evening of Superbowl Sunday. Not an avid sports fan myself, I missed the game during the 4-hour bus ride to Boston, only to find out that the New England Patriots (supported by most people in Massachusetts) had been beat by the NY Giants. Luckily, my new roommates weren’t big sports fan either – they invited me to join a forget-the-loss-and-celebrate-anyway party in Cambridge. A very warm welcome to a new home.

MIT is probably one the easiest place on this planet to make yourself at home. Within the first days, I learned about the future of digital screens at the MIT TechFair [very cool video here], I got a desk in an office with four ultra smart PhD’s at the MIT Engineering Systems Division and I started taking my first classes. True to my nationality, I bought a bike within 24 hours of arrival in Cambridge. And no lack of good times with new friends — I had dinner with a new group of people for each of the first seven days.

During the first weeks, I was immediately confronted with the density of great people at MIT. My second week at MIT, I had the pleasure to attend a business model workshop by Alexander Osterwalder; a presentation by Amory Lovins – the most impactful advocate of sustainability driven by enterprise; and a lecture on life lessons by Joi Ito, the MIT Medialab director and founder of the first Japanese Internet Service Provider.

But not only does MIT offer the opportunity to listen to great people, you can start very personal conversation. The amount of students, entrepreneurs and MIT faculty I met over the past month with the goal to start new projects has been amazing. Everybody is open to discuss big ideas, and people love to get their hands dirty working on turning them into reality. Within a matter of days, I had discussions with CEO’s, governmental leaders and directors of MIT research labs and faculties.

Next to my research, I have taken the opportunity to participate in a handful of classes at MIT. These classes allow me to work with the rich variety of people within MIT: business-savvy Sloan MBA’s and Sloan fellows; creative geniuses and product designers from the MIT Medialab; save-the-planet-engineers at MIT’s D-lab and holistic systems thinkers at the MIT Engineering Systems Division. The courses I’m taking vary from Media Ventures – which is all about building a company around the future of media and communications – to Power & Negotiations, which teaches you to become a hard-nosed dealmaker (practicing negotiations for 1.5 hours each class!).

But I’m not here to only listen and talk — I’m here to start exciting projects and build meaningful solutions! Over the course of the past three weeks, I’ve been exploring a solar panel cleaning business, a new battery cathode technology and a children’s storytelling software app. Currently, I’m working with two great teams: one on biomass gasification in India and another on a software application that taps into the power of social by empowering people to accomplish challenges by incentivizing their friends.

These ideas will hopefully lead to participation in the myriad of competitions here. Competitions I’m preparing for – such as the MIT IDEAS challenge, the Clean Energy Prize and the MIT100K – reward winners with prizes ranging from small grants to giant budgets and incentivize students to solve important problems. If you are looking for inspiration in another form, you can attend one of the many amazing speaker series – at the Deshpande Center, the Harvard Business School or the Martin Trust center for entrepreneurship.

Shifting from the past to the future, the month of March promises to be even more exciting than the past 30 days! Next weekend I will be in NYC – to meet long-lost friends and learn the art of 3D-printing; the weekend after I will be blogging at the MIT Energy Conference; and the last 10 days of March will be spent in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

All in all, I’m having an amazing time here. I feel like a painter who has received a new canvas to design his life upon, and I’ve started this month to put down the coarse outline. The more people I meet, the more color is added to the piece – and I’m curious to see what things will look like in a couple of months. I will have worked with wonderful people to start important projects; I will have learnt from all the great professors around me and I will have built friendships with people from all kinds of backgrounds which I hope to kindle for many years to come. May the next months be as spiced up as the Sichuan dinners I get around here!