PopTech Blog

The Numbers We Need the Most

Teach for America is a data-driven organization. A quick perusal of the organization’s website reveals some of the detailed statistics on recent recruits. The 2009 corps is more than 4,000 teachers; 18 percent were the first in their family to attend college; 15 percent attended grad school or worked as professionals before applying. But last week, The New York Times reported on another batch of numbers indicating, counter-intuitively, that TFA alums might demonstrate less civic engagement than peers who turned down an offer or who quit before their two-year commitment was up. Understanding these stats is certainly worthwhile, but the attention to TFA veterans should not come at the expense of attention to TFA teaching and the positive impact it has on public school students.

The focus of the story, by TFA alumna Amanda Fairbanks, is a forthcoming study from Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, who surveyed everyone accepted by TFA from 1993 to 1998 and posed questions about voting, charitable giving, and civic engagement. The Eduwonk blog zeroed in on the findings themselves and suggested that the differences are interesting but hardly tragic: “while 92 percent of the sample overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of TFA completers did. You decide how much of a problem this is given that these rates are about double the averages for the age-cohort overall.”

And as a future data point myself, a recent recruit for the 2010 cohort, I also couldn’t help but trip over anecdotal evidence that conflicts with the study results. Every alum I spoke with during the application process is highly involved in some sort of civic enterprise; so are most of the alums they know. My informal polling is no way to make a counter-argument (see, I’ve already absorbed the data-driven ethos), so instead I’ll say this: the data on civic participation for TFA alums is intriguing, but is of less civic importance than the data on how those teachers are improving classroom education.

Put simply, we should focus more on how education is changing for the students and less on how life is changing for the recruits.

Fortunately, Amanda Ripley did exactly that in an Atlantic article published just days after Fairbanks’s NYT piece. For her in-depth feature, Ripley had access to 20 years of Teach for America data linking teachers to student testing results. Her snapshot: the organization has test-score stats for 85 to 90 percent of the nearly 500,000 students taught by 7,300 TFA teachers annually. The impact of this information in recent school years has been extraordinary:

In 2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization’s internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent. That data relies largely on school tests, which vary in quality from state to state. When tests aren’t available or sufficiently rigorous, Teach for America helps teachers find or design other reliable diagnostics.

How does TFA achieve results like this? I don’t head to the summer training institute until June, but my current perspective aligns with Ripley’s conclusions: the organization finds people who don’t give up when faced with a daunting task (the word “relentless” turns up frequently during the application process) and teaches them the techniques to engage any student they meet. In practice, this means applying an intricate combination of strategies on a moment-to-moment basis to manage classroom behavior, tailor instruction to individual students, and reevaluate anything that isn’t working. Ripley captures this process in motion, chronicling in detail the methods of William Taylor, a math teacher at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. who is not a member of Teach for America, but who embodies the skills the organization aims to replicate.

Watching an effective teacher can be mesmerizing and extraordinarily intimidating. On a recent observation visit to a TFA teacher’s classroom, I saw middle-schoolers read in attentive silence, cheer at the start of a grammar lesson, and race to organize themselves into diligent literature study groups. The short videos that accompany the Atlantic article offer a taste of these classroom approaches, which teachers then multiply through an entire class period and across a six-hour day. I am under no illusion that this will be easy.

But considering the results that effective teachers, some of them TFA recruits, are having in classrooms today, I have to ask: Is it more important that the young adults in front of those classrooms might, after two years, change their patterns of civic engagement relative to their highly-engaged peers? Or is it more important that they are committed to a national experiment to refine the elements of good teaching and share them with the students who need them most?

Haiti: Ways to Find Information and Take Action

The images coming out of Haiti in the days since the devastating earthquake have been horrifying. Although the news today is beginning to report increasingly unsettled conditions, there continues to be a flood of support for the rescue and relief efforts.

A few members of the Poptech community have been directly involved:

Ushahidi (founded by Poptech Social Innovation Fellows Ory Orkolloh and Erik Hersman), has launched a Haiti deployment to aggregate information about the ongoing response efforts including missing persons reports, emerging threats, and survivor news:


The Ushahidi Situation Room, Day 3

- For extensive coverage, the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake 2010 page has aggregated posts, blogs, Twitter feeds, and resources.

For members of the PopTech community looking to help, here are a few ways:

- Charity Navigator recommends sending money and not supplies to an established charity. They’ve posted guidelines on choosing the right charity to help fund Haiti Earthquake Relief Efforts.

- Partners in Health, a healthcare organization, has been working on the ground in Haiti for more than twenty years. You can donate here.

Serena Koenig, Director of Haiti programs for Partners in Health, spoke at PopTech 2006 on the PIH philosophy: equal lives deserve equal treatment.

- The Red Cross has set up a mobile site (text “Haiti” to 90999 to send a $10 donation to the Red Cross) where they have reportedly raised more than $5 million. (More text donation options from MobileActive.

- The Extraordinaries has set up a page that is crowdsourcing efforts to help locate and identify the missing. They have built a facial recognition system that allows individuals to match photos or videos of missing people with news images coming out of Haiti.

- Haiti Open Street Map is using GeoEye imagery to tag collapsed buildings and help later reconstruction efforts.

- The Haiti Missing Persons Index, the Haiti Volunteer Network, and the Haitian Earthquake Registry are other ways to locate people and opportunities to help.

The Doomsday Clock: It is 6 minutes to Midnight

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have spoken and the verdict is: 1 minute of respite.

Launched in 1947 by scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the Doomsday clock has only been changed 18 times since its inception. The last change occurred back in January of 2007, when it was moved 2 minutes forward from seven minutes to 5 minutes before midnight.

Today we stand 6 minutes away from catastrophic destruction.

During the announcement, panelists shared some hair-raising numbers:

- In a world where 1 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day and a child dies every 6 seconds, the world spends $1464 billion on military expenditures in a single year, $90 billion of which is spent on nuclear weapons programs.

- 9 countries have a total of 23,300 nuclear weapons.

- 8,393 of those are deployed on alert status.

- And using 0.03% of the weapons would cause catastrophic climate change.

The key concerns are nuclear proliferation and war, climate change, and biosecurity—though only the first two were referred to during the announcement. While we are still in a precarious state, it is believed that recent intentions by global leaders including restarting talks on arms reductions and securing fissile materials as well as globally addressing GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions are a move in the right direction. But this move is only indicative of a change in attitude and for a more substantial shift; we need to see action.

We are reminded of Einstein’s words, spoken 65 years ago, after the one and only time nuclear bombs were used in war; “Everything has changed, save the way we think.”

Here’s to hoping this minute back is truly a sign of a change in the way we are thinking.

For more information on the Bulletin of Atomic scientists and the Doomsday clock see here and here.

VIDEO: Willie Smits and Katy Payne

This week, join us as we learn how to rebuild a rainforest (with a plant used as currency in Indonesia) with biologist and activist Willie Smits, and listen as animal researcher Katy Payne samples jungle sounds to decode the language of elephants. Ready?

Watch Willie Smits on saving rainforests:

Biologist Willie Smits has spent the last thirty years searching for ways to restore fragile ecosystems. From his home in Indonesia – a leading producer of greenhouse gases – Smits has discovered a method of sustainable energy production: using the forest to generate biofuels with a carbon-positive impact.


Go Deeper:

- Willie is Chief Science Officer of Tapergy; find out more about their reforestation efforts and the Sugar Palm.
- Willie and Borneo Orangutan Survival using Google Earth to drive reforestation participation. (Oct 29, 2009)
- Willie is also known for and committed to orangutan research through RedApes.org. (@redapes)

Watch Katy Payne on elephant songs

Animal communication researcher Katy Payne has been studying the sounds of African elephants and humpback whales for decades. Her research has led her to fascinating conclusions on how acoustic phenomena shape relationships and communities. In 1999, Payne founded the Elephant Listening Project to monitor elephants’ movements.

Go Deeper:

- Watch Katy Payne on CBS’s "60 Minutes."
- More on the "60 Minutes" shoot with Cornell researchers.
- Buy Katy’s book Silent Thunder on B Corp Better World Books.

Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches and Awareness

This afternoon in New York City, free fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were handed out to commemorate Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, while The King’s greatest hits were sung by a group of impersonators with autism, the latest activity of the FREE (Free Family Residences and Essential Enterprises) Theatre Arts Program, a group that uses music and dance as therapy for individuals with mental challenges and developmental disabilities.

Besides a great excuse to wear bedazzled jumpsuits, Elvis is sometimes linked to autism causes through an autistic character who appeared in his final movie, “Change of Habit.” For original music about autism, you might turn to the album “Songs of the Spectrum” with songs sung by Jackson Browne, Dar Williams, and Mike Viola. 90% of the album profits go to autism groups.

peanut butter & banana sandwich

Here’s my recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches:

Roast 1 split banana at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, spread two slices of bread with your favorite peanut butter. Cut the roasted banana halves into two pieces each and place on one slice of bread. Squish the slices together.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter (or fry a piece of bacon, if you like, then removing bacon and using grease in pan) in a skillet on medium-high. Fry sandwich on one side for 3 minutes, until crunchy and golden. Flip and fry another 3 minutes.

With this holiday’s successful “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No.1” campaign, an effort to put the band’s 1992 song “Killing in the Name” at the top of the Christmas charts in the UK instead of the newest winner of the television show “X Factor” and raise money for Shelter (a national organization that work on issues of homelessness), we can expect to see more ways groups use music celebrity avenues to raise awareness and money for causes. You can donate to the campaign here; £94,183.00 was the tally as of this afternoon.

What are your favorite examples of recording artists’ celebrity or subversiveness being used for social good?

From Here to Zero Energy Buildings

Editor’s note: With cold weather in the U.S. affecting even Florida, where frozen iguanas are dropping from trees and strawberry crops are in peril, this is a moment to evaluate the sustainability of current energy needs. Below, Bruce Sullivan talks about building new houses with less energy impact; for more on this subject, watch Dan Nocera present an idea for personalized energy at PopTech 2009, and find out about proposed “cash-for-caulkers” incentives for home weatherization the White House is considering.

In a typical year, millions of houses are built. Each house will last 50 to 100 years. Today each new house encumbers society with a debt of energy required to operate it over its life. The vast majority of houses built today are old-fashioned energy hogs, and each one is a missed opportunity.

Energy visionaries have set their sights on homes that create more than they consume. In ten to twenty years, every new building could be a “zero-energy building,” Or “net zero.” The technology exists today, all we lack is the proper motivation.

Zero Energy Habitat for Humanity home in Wheatridge, CO, a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

A zero-energy building is one that creates more energy than it consumes over the course of a year. In order to achieve this feat, a zero-energy building will be small, efficient and grid-connected. Here are some key attributes:

· Smart design is the key. Homes must be designed for their climates and sited to take maximum advantage of nature’s gifts of sun, wind, water and light. Designs must make the highest and best use of material.

· Small homes use less energy. All modern needs (and many of our desires) can be accommodated in 400 to 500 square feet per person.

· Highly efficient structures that incorporate super-insulation and air-tight shells will not need central heating systems. Insulation uses no energy and never wears out .

· Renewable energy generation, such as photovoltaic (solar electric) panels or wind generators , will be essential. These systems must be connected to the utility grid. They will generate more energy than the building needs on summer days, but will require some energy from external sources at night and during winter.

The challenge is no longer technical. The equipment and know-how exist today. What we need is a commitment to this destination and a clear roadmap showing how to get there.

One big obstacle for designers and builders is that they don’t have a good way to estimate the efficiency of their projects during design. A number of proposals are now under review to establish a building efficiency metric and labeling system. One of these is the Energy Performance Score, which is simply an estimate of how much energy a building would use each year. A typical new home may have an EPS around 120. An “efficient” home might be 50, while a zero-energy home would be, well… 0. You can see that we have a long way to go from our current practice to reach zero energy.

Since on-site renewable energy generation may not be possible for all building sites, ultimately some homes would have to generate excess energy. And despite our yearning for decentralization, we will always need a utility grid with central power generation.

Enterprising young designers from around the world put net zero principles into practice every year for the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Twenty teams of college and university students compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house.

Zero-energy doesn’t have to be expensive. Many Habitat for Humanity chapters around the U.S. build very efficient homes. In Bend, Oregon, where I work, the local Habitat projects use small size, high efficiency and solar energy to achieve EPS ratings as low as 23. With annual energy bills of only a few hundred dollars, this is truly affordable housing. From there, it’s just a small step to true zero energy.

VIDEO: Luis von Ahn Harnesses Brainpower

As the latest tech products and applications launch at CES this week, we are releasing Luis von Ahn’s talk about the power of big groups and small increments of time to solve problems computers cannot. What other forms of social good are possible in this new decade as we turn more attention to microcontributions of time and energy?

Watch Luis von Ahn on harnessing brainpower.

Computer scientist Luis von Ahn’s programs harness the human brainpower to solve complex problems. von Ahn invented ReCaptcha, a program that uses squiggly characters that humans easily decipher but blocks spambots – and helps digitize millions of old texts. The CMU professor also makes games that use human knowledge to improve computers. Find them at gwap.com.

Go Deeper:

- Luis’s blog and personal site

- See more examples of transcription accuracy and reCAPTCHA resources

- ZDNet on new questions for reCAPTCHA (December 2009)

An Interview with Better World Books

While in Atlanta over the holidays, I asked Xavier Helgesen, Co-Founder of Better World Books, a few questions about what the social enterprise book company does—how they find used library books, why they are located in Atlanta (change.org blogger for Social Entrepreneurship Nathaniel Whittemore includes Atlanta in his recent post on burgeoning “regional innovation ecosystems”), and why Better World Books is a B Corp (find out more about B Corps in our December blog post):

Questions for Xavier? Tell us what you think in the comments—we are planning to highlight more B Corps in the coming months.

The Future Has a Future Again

As we’re nearing the end of a year and the end of a decade, it’s time to look back and ahead.

Photo: Gardard Eide Einarssons’s installation on the Louisiana Museum photographed by Finn Broendum.

With at least three formative events in this young 21st century (9/11, the Tsunami, and the Great Recession) providing some sort of apocalyptic arch and instilling a profound sense of anxiety, it is no wonder that former visionaries are gathering at conferences asking “Where did the future go?” But, at the end of the day, the end of all days didn’t occur, and as the New York Magazine points out in its comprehensive review of the “Aughts”: “The Times is still published every day. There are more bicyclists on the streets than sanity would dictate.” Plus, we got Barack Obama, Mad Men, the iPhone, Twitter, and Foursquare…. and and and….

In the last days of a restless decade, we can lean back and enjoy again, with cautious relief, a modicum of optimism. When even the newsletter of management consultancy Arthur D. Little – not necessarily known for being conducive to enthusiasm – arrives in your inbox with the bold subject line “The Future of the Future,” it indeed seems to indicate that, yes, the future has a future again.

Therefore it feels appropriate to end this year, this decade, with a super-list on the future curated by super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (and first presented in his lecture at the “Where do we go from here?” symposium at the Louisiana Museum during the UN climate conference in Copenhagen):

"The future will be….

(List compiled by Hans Ulrich Obrist; via @Andrian Kreye/sueddeutsche.de)

The future will be chrome. Rirkrit Tiravanija

The future will be curved. Olafur Eliasson

The future will be in the name of the future. Anri Sala

The future will be so subjective. Tino Sehgal

The future will be bouclette. Douglas Gordon

The future will be curious. Nico Dockx

The future will be obsolete. Tacita Dean

The future will be asymmetric. Pedro Reyes

The future will be a slap in the face. Cao Fei

The future will be delayed. Loris Greaud

The future does not exist but in snapshots. Philippe Parreno

The future will be tropical. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Future? …you must be mistaken Trisha Donnelly

The future will be overgrown and decayed. Simryn Gill

The future will be tense. John Baldessari



A future fuelled by human waste. Matthew Barney

The future is going nowhere without us. Paul Chan

The future is now – the future is it. Doug Aitken

The future is one night, just look up. Tomas Saraceno

The future will be a remake… Didier Fiuza Faustino

The future is what we construct from what we remember of the past – the present is the time of instantaneous revelation. Lawrence Weiner

The future is this place at a different time. Bruce Sterling

The future will be widely reproduced and distributed. Cory Doctorow

The future will be whatever we make it. Jacque Fresco

The future will involve splendour and poverty. Arto Lindsay

The future is uncertain because it will be what we make it. Immanuel Wallerstein

The future is waiting – the future will be self-organized. Raqs Media Collective

Dum Spero/ While I breathe, I hope. Nancy Spero

This is not the future. Jordan Wolfson

The future is a dog/ l’avenir c’est la femme. Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron

On its way; it was here yesterday. Hreinn Friðfinnsson

The future will be an armchair strategist, the future will be like no snow on the broken bridge. Yang Fudong

The future always flies under the radar. Martha Rosler

Suture that future. Peter Doig

‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ (Shakespeare). Richard Hamilton

The future is overrated. Cerith Wyn Evans

futuro = $B!g(B Hector Zamorra The future is a large pharmacy with a memory deficit. David Askevold

The future will be bamboo. Tay Kheng Soon

The future will be ousss. Koo Jeong-A

The future will be…grains, particles & bits. The future will be…ripples, waves & flow. The future will be…mix, swarms, multitudes. The future will be…the future we deserve but with some surprises, if only some of us take notice. Vito Acconci

In the future…the earth as a weapon… Allora & Calzadilla

The future is our excuse. Joseph Grigely and Amy Vogel

The future will be repeated. Marlene Dumas

Ok, ok I’ll tell you about the future; but I am very busy right now; give me a couple of days more to finish some things and I’ll get back to you. Jimmie Durham

Future is instant. Yung Ho Chang

‘The future is not.’ Zaha Hadid

The future is private. Anton Vidokle

The future will be layered and inconsistent. Liam Gillick

The future is a piano wire in a pussy powering something important. Matthew Ronay

In the future perhaps there will be no past. Daniel Birnbaum

The future was. Julieta Aranda

The future is menace. Carolee Schneemann

The future is a forget-me-not. Molly Nesbit

The future is an knowing exchange of glances. Sarah Morris

The future: Scratching on things I could disavow. Walid Raad

The future is our own wishful thinking. Liu Ding

Le futur est un étoilement. Edouard Glissant

The future is now. Maurizio Cattelan

The future has a silver lining. Thomas Demand

The future is now and here. Yona Friedman


The future is without you. Damien Hirst

The future is a season. Pierre Huyghe

The future is a poster. M/M

We have repeated the future out of existence. Tom McCarthy

The future has two large beautiful eyes. Jonas Mekas

less, few tours in my future. Stefano Boeri

Future is what it is. Huang Yong Ping

The future is the very few years we have remaining before all time becomes one time. Grant Morrison


Future is more freedom. Jia Zhangke

My art is very free, I don’t know what to do in the future. But I am positive. Xu Zhen

The future is inside. Shumon Basar, Markus Miessen, Åbäke


The future will be grim if we don’t do something about it. Morgan Fisher

The future is reflexive and coming together. Olafur Eliasson

The future is listening. Shilpa Gupta

The future lies in the unknown. Ann Lislegaard

Nothing stinks, only thinking made it so. Sissel Tolaas

What the future is, you only know next morning. Die Zukunft kann man nur ueber Nacht definieren. Peter Sloterdijk

The future is a disease. Peter Weibel

VIDEO and MP3s: Zee Avi, John Forté, and Zoë Keating

This week, new videos and the accompanying mp3s from Zee Avi, John Forté, and Zoë Keating, three of the talented musicians who graced the PopTech 2009 stage in October. Find out their upcoming tour dates and how to support their music with the links below.

If you are still seeking gift ideas, you might donate a goat (and hear a new track with Zoë!), contribute to the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows’ organizations, join the PopTech Impact Fund, and purchase books from 2009 PopTech speakers.

Watch Zee Avi perform at PopTech 2009

Shortly after posting self-styled videos on You Tube, singer songwriter Zee Avi woke up to 3,000 emails one morning. One offered her a recording contract with Brushfire Records. Since then, Avi left her home in Kuala Lumpur for Los Angeles. Avi performs melodic, melancholy songs tinged with irrepressible optimism.

Download mp3s: Honey Bee, Bitter Heart, Poppy, Just You and Me

Go Deeper:

- Zee’s personal site, zeeavi.com, and her MySpace page
- Zee’s upcoming tour dates
- Zee’s Twitter, @zeeavi

Watch John Forté perform at PopTech 2009

John Forté is an accomplished musician and producer who recently released StyleFREE the EP, his first album since serving seven years in federal prison. Forte’s career was interrupted by a 14-year sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense; Former President Bush commuted his sentence in 2008.

Download mp3s: Face You World, Play My Cards For Me, Running Up That Hill, The Breaking of a Man

- John’s personal site, johnforte.com, and his MySpace page
- John’s upcoming tour dates
- John’s Twitter, @john_forte

Watch Zoë Keating perform at PopTech 2009

Cellist Zoë Keating uses a cello and a small box of electronics to create a one-woman avant-garde orchestra. A former member of the cello-rock trio Rasputina, Keating has played live on radio and television, in the Nevada desert, in medieval churches, punk clubs, and in venues across North America and Europe.

Download mp3s: 1 and 2

- Zoë’s personal site, zoekeating.com, and her MySpace page
- Zoë’s upcoming tour dates
- Zoë’s Twitter, @zoecello

More music in 2010!