PopTech Blog

Deborah Kenny knows how to fix the education system

Deborah Kenny

Deborah Kenny, founder and chief executive of Harlem Village Academies, noticed Eugene when he showed up for the first day of school. Head down, making no eye contact, he walked past the teachers greeting the students and seemed to grumble to himself. Later that day, while the teachers were administering a test to determine students’ reading levels, Kenny saw that Eugene hadn’t even picked up his pencil. In fact, it seemed that he was tearing up. Only later did she find out that his response was due to his inability to read. At all. But without fail, every year he was moved up to the next grade.

Kenny invited Eugene’s mother to meet with her. His mother knew he’d be severely handicapped without learning how to read. And Eugene knew he didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was in jail. Seven years later, as a result of his education at the Harlem Village Academy, he’s reading the Iliad, has taken the chemistry regents exam and is on his way to college. “We know what works,” Kenny said. “But do we have the political will to scale up?”

Kenny attributed the Harlem Village Academy’s success to bringing out passion in teachers: establishing a culture that gives them ownership over everything they do, creating a sense of team spirit, and developing a space where teachers learn from one another. Based on that approach, the school produces students who are wholesome in character, avid readers, sophisticated intellectually, independent thinkers, and most importantly, compassionate.

Deborah Kenny

(Top photo: Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Bottom photo: Kris Krüg)

John Legend on music, education and the gift of opportunity

John Legend

John Legend’s activism is deeply intertwined with his music. As he mentioned in his talk that led this morning’s PopTech session on Teaching & Learning, this juxtaposition has not been as common since singer/song-writers of the sixties. But it’s time, says Legend, to put the politics back into music — specifically in order to address a public education system that he describes as “completely broken”.

John Legend

Legend had been working on his latest musical project called “Wake Up” with co-creators, the Roots. They wanted to include a video portion in the piece that explored the neighbors and people living and being educated in impoverished communities. As they started to research the project, they realized, serendipitously, that filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (who directed “An Inconvenient Truth”) was just putting the finishing touches on a documentary that covered the same topic: the film became Waiting for Superman

He closed his session by playing piano and singing two songs: the aforementioned “Wake Up”and a song from the film “Waiting for Superman” entitled “Let ’Em Shine.” This in an enormously important film, says Legend, who urged everyone in the room to see it. “Kids need to break the cycle of poverty,” says Legend, adding that right now we’re not giving low-income and minority kids a chance to succeed. “We, the adults, owe them that chance.”

(Top photo: Kris Krüg. Bottom photo: Thatcher Hullerman Cook.)

Matt Berg: Using Code to Make Africa Healthier

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Matthew Berg says Africa is ready to code.

Berg says that Africa needs to build its local technical capacity if its going to be able to locally, and sustainably, address the continent’s profound health issues. So, he helped create the Rural Technology Lab to train the continent’s first generation of programmers. They are learning to build community initiatives by leveraging the exploding popularity of mobile phones with technologies like RapidSMS.

Matt Berg

With the help of this lab and the MillenniumVillages Project, Berg has created ChildCount+, a mobile-phone-based health platform. The project works with community health care workers to ensure that mothers and their children are part of community health systems. By using basic SMS messages, communities are able to register patients as well as track their health in a community patient registry. The pilot program has already registered more than 10,000 kids and 5,000 mothers.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

OK Go: "Improbable is what we do"

OK Go @ PopTech

OK Go closed Friday’s session with a brief talk about the current state of the music industry and how they’ve managed to succeed around it thanks to video, content-sharing and being able to put performance back into the musical experience. “Now that the music ‘industry’ has kind of imploded,” said Kulash, “videos no longer have to be ads. They can be more like art.”

The band played several acoustic songs, showed an amazing video starring a bunch of rescued dogs, got the crowd to sing along with them and rocked a lovely set of handbells. Here’s a little video of the bell song shot by a slightly over-caffeinated yours truly from the best seat in the house:

And just because it’s super cute, here’s a video of the slightly star-struck Kulash talking to Kermit the Frog about ping-pong and recording a cover of Muppet music.

(Photo credit: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)

Simon Hauger and Azeem Hill on education, cooperation, and bad-ass hybrids

Post updated 1/26/11.
Check out Simon Hauger and Azeem Hill’s talk about the West Philly Hybrid XTeam from PopTech 2010.

Original post published 10/23/10.

The West Philly Hybrid XTeam came this close (thumb and forefinger ever so narrowly spaced) to winning the Progressive Automotive XPRIZE’s $10 million prize this year.

Azeem Hill and Simon Hauger

The XTeam’s amazing run through the semi-finals brought the West Philadelphia High School students who make up the team, their teacher/coaches, and their mentor Simon Hauger much deserved attention and accolades (they even got props from President Obama).

And while winning the prize would have been awesome, the program’s real value is in the way it has changed team members’ educational experience.

Azeem Hill and Simon Hauger

Hauger and team co-captain Azeem Hill, a senior at West Philly, took the stage Saturday to share the XTeam story and offer insights they’ve gained over the years. Hauger, who came to teaching from a career in engineering, started the team as an afterschool project for students who wanted a hands-on science experience.


A clean, well-lighted place...to buy books

people at the PT bookstore

If there’s one thing PopTech attendees enjoy almost as much as connecting with one another, it’s reading. The intensity of the sessions, the opportunity to share ideas, and the sheer number of people you meet can be overwhelming during conference week. You find yourself in need of occasional solitary, quiet moments, wanting to take an even deeper dive into some of the things you’ve been learning.

Lucky for us, PopTech has an excellent, on-site at the Opera House, albeit temporary, bookstore. Set up and run especially for the conference by the good folks at local booksellers Owl & Turtle Bookshop, the store packs in a wide selection of books from PopTech presenters, attendees and community members both past and present.

We had a chance to chat with Joseph Barber, manager of the Owl & Turtle, in between his very brisk sales. Have a listen and find out who’s hot and what he’s been reading.

(Photo credit: Michelle Riggen-Ransom)

Marriage was invented to get In-Laws

The PopTech team wanted to share another clip with you, this time from Stephanie Coontz’s presentation earlier today at PopTech. Enjoy!

Tom Darden is making it right in New Orleans

Make It Right’s Tom Darden said he’s used to seeing looks of disappointment when he takes the stage instead of Brad Pitt, but maybe he’s selling himself short.  His passion for the organization’s green building project in New Orlean’s Ninth Ward is obvious and he’s a commited activist.  Besides, it’s the homes themselves that are the real stars and, honestly, who doesn’t love the Big Easy?

Tom Darden

Darden joined Pitt when the actor launched Make It Right in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What started as a three-week volunteer mission turned into a full-time job for Darden who is working with a team of world-class architects and designers to build 150 completely green (and conceptually stunning) homes for residents of one the city’s hardest hit areas.

Darden’s presentation at Friday’s conference was at times an emotional one. Whether choking up when recalling a MIR homeowner donating his energy savings back to the organization or showing a flash of righteous indignation at criticism of the added cost of cutting-edge design, Darden wears his emotions on his sleeve, which seems appropriate given the stakes.  Make It Right wants to rebuild the Ninth Ward, rebuild it green, and rebuild it beautiful.

“The symbolism of rebuilding the Ninth Ward sends a national message,” he said. “What will it take to get green designers and builders to build these kinds of homes on a national level?”

Innovating new ways to drive down costs of building the LEED Platinum, cradle-to-cradle homes is a big part of what makes Make It Right a leader in the green building movement. Steep initial costs have slowly declined over time as builders, designers, and architects have found more efficient ways to meet the rigorous LEED standards. For example, Darden showed a wireless light switch that eliminates about 70% of electrical costs in initial building.

Building them green is not all that matters – the homes have to also be able to withstand flooding. Most of the homes are raised and, in one case, the house actually floats. Darden also showed off a new duplex design and one for a new multi-family building, evidence of Make It Right’s plans for scaling up in the future.

Darden believes the work they’ve done in New Orleans has far-reaching implications. “We think that this could really roll out beyond New Orleans to other markets around the US,” Darden said. “At Make It Right, we don’t think it should take a disaster to make green building available and affordable.”

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

PopTech Science Fellow Gidon Eshel does the math on meat

When you’re writing up a post about the guy who refuted Michael Pollan’s now infamous PopTech quote about vegans and hummers, you don’t really want to get the facts wrong. PopTech Science Fellow Gidon Eshel is a statistician who grew up working on a dairy farm in an Israeli Kibbutz: a rather curious combination that’s led to a deep knowledge of how what we choose to eat affects our planet.

Gidon Eschel

Last year, when journalist Adam Pasick of New York Magazine questioned the math behind Pollan’s on-stage, rapidly re-tweeted, statement that “A vegan in a hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef-eater in a Prius.”, it was Eshel’s phone that rang for an answer. As Pollan himself quickly admitted, that statement, while arresting, was not correct. And it was Pollan who suggested that Eshel be a presenter at this year’s PopTech, perhaps as a sort of virtual mea culpa.

Facts aside, Pollan did raise a important point about food choice. Using some simple math, Eshel showed the PopTech audience how a meat-based diet far exceeds the carbon emissions of a plant-based diet, and calls most people’s usual way of eating MAD (actually an acronym Mean American Diet). His recommendation is to eat plants, avoid animal products, and favor laws that promote the first and second suggestions.

Eshel calls switching to a plant-based diet “low-hanging fruit” for reducing carbon emissions — no pun intended.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

2010 Science Fellow Casey Dunn: Superorganisms

Casey Dunn

Casey Dunn is rethinking what individuality means.

The biologist and 2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow studies the origins of biological complexity and diversity. Dunn is fascinated by deep-sea superorganisms known as siphonophores, which can reach more than 100 feet long. Challenging the definitions of individuality, siphonophores function as a single animal, yet comprise thousands of organisms that are genetically identical but function in different ways. Dunn explores how evolutionary pressures have acted on the siphonophore itself, and whether natural selection is also acting upon individual organisms within it.

Dunn also founded Creature Cast, a collaborative blog about zoology.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)