My wife’s mother is a retired elementary school science teacher, and her sister in law is currently an elementary/middle school teacher and assistant principal. One of the sister in law’s students is applying for a spot in a summer camp for middle school kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers; I was sent a draft of the application essay for comments. The prompt is “how would you use math and science to change the world?” I decided to write a sample essay that, perhaps, the seventh-grade student could use as a model for how to more tightly focus her essay, which was very broad and general. In twenty minutes I whipped up 500 words, and showed the sample essay to my mother in law, who said that the language was at an impossibly high level for the student to engage! Also, of course, I veered off too much into social science territory instead of sticking to the STEM weeds. We were able to come up with an outline of how the student might restructure her essay, but will not send my sample essay. I thought that it would be fun to post it here on “Dispatches From a Dean,” however!


The TV show Humans is about a world where most families have a synthetic human companion – a “synth” – who cooks, cleans, and cares for them. This is a very interesting premise, but doesn’t totally reflect the world I see in 100 years. For one thing, the main family in the TV show is a traditional TV nuclear family: a married mom and dad who both work outside the home, and two teenage kids at home. But what about a multi-generational home with grandma living at home to help care for grandkids who are homeschooled? What if one parent works from home all day, and one of the kids has special needs? I would use science, math, and technology to design a home and synthetic companions that better reflect this more probable world.

For example, zoning laws in Northern California are changing to allow denser living. In Oakland we can now build “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs) in the back yard where grandma can live, and have easy access to the grandkids. ADUs are not huge, though, so we have to make careful use of space and the items within. We can use new advanced technology to make appliances smaller, quieter, and less energy-intensive. We would of course use recycled materials, and make sure that we have bins for recycling and composting. We’d also look at alternative fuels for heating and cooling. Maybe hydrogen cells that run on salt water? We have plenty of that in the Pacific Ocean! Perhaps the family synth would be hydrogen-powered.

I’ve never seen a bus in Humans, but in my world we’d definitely have mass transit options. Grandma might not be able to drive, you know! The buses wouldn’t be the slow and stinky diesel gas-powered beasts of today. They’d run on alternative fuels (maybe hydrogen cells here too!), and would be controlled via advanced Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Perhaps a fleet of synth-driven cars would circulate to ferry humans from the buses and light rail trains on major streets to their houses and ADUs. Maybe synths would not be needed, as self-driving cars would do the job.

I think that many folks would also live in densely packed high-rise units. So for these we’d need to come up with better green space ideas, since folks can’t be cooped up inside all day. Perhaps each high rise would have a rooftop garden with trees for shade and sunny patches for vegetable gardens. Gardens could also be built on each floor, and hydroponic systems can be used in places where soil wouldn’t work. Light, water, and temperature levels would be computer controlled, and also adapt to the presence of humans, pets, and synths.

In sum, my world would have many advanced and interconnected systems. I would need a strong knowledge of science and math to not only understand each individual element, but it is also essential to get the components to work together. I look forward to the challenge!

The Posse Foundation recruits high school students with high academic and leadership potential to attend higher education institutions in groups as a strategy for decreasing isolation and improving student success. An alumna from the very first cohort in 1989 will soon become the first Posse member to become a college president. Awesome!

One of my meetings today was about SJSU’s forthcoming search for a Chief Information Officer (CIO). A executive search firm will assist with the recruitment, and was on campus today to speak with administrators about the elements of the position. One of my comments was that information technology (IT) on campus is often viewed like a public utility: it’s a necessity, but we only notice it when it’s not properly functioning; the new CIO will have the opportunity to collaborate extensively with folks and make investments to refresh the infrastructure and reduce some of the problems. When I got back to the office I discovered a Pacific Standard magazine story about why the American Internet should be regarded as a public utility. While not directly reacted to IT on campus, I’ll have to share it with the new CIO…

I am on the board of directors of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a professional organization for deans of colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Fellow board member Kate Conley has published a very timely op-ed about the value of liberal arts eduction in 2017…and beyond. Please check it out!

 

Super Bowl LI returned to using Roman numerals after a one-year hiatus. It marked the fourth year of the end of my 20-year tradition of taking notes about Super Bowl commercials. Today, however, I’m continuing another long practice: checking out the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. I was happy to see that two of the ads with strong sociological themes did extremely well, landing in the top five most popular commercials: Audi’s “Daughter” at #3, and Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” at #4. “Born the Hard Way” commented on current U.S. immigration debates, as did 84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins” (29th of 66 commercials rated.). “The Journey Begins” is generating lots of interest to see the completion of the journey started in the ad. Hopefully good discussions will ensue after folks watch the entire 84 Lumber commercial.

I recently discovered the Atlas Obscura, a website that helps us “discover curious places—in your neighborhood and around the world.” The listing for Hidden Oakland has 21 entries for “weird attractions and unusual things to do in Oakland, California.” I have only experienced three of these places, so I need to get out more!

 

The January/February 2017 issue of Pacific Standard magazine includes a sobering infographic about the current state of homelessness in the United States. The infographic is also online, and a thumbnail is below:

homeless

The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and solutions company Esri has created “Wealth Divides,” an interactive project that maps the division of rich and poor neighborhoods in the United States of America. In addition to the well-known super-stratified city to the west of my current home of Oakland  — San Francisco — my childhood home of Atlanta is one of five cities featured (the other three are Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.). The project is a sobering reminder of the stark divisions of wealth in the U.S. The CityLab website has published a story that provides analysis of the maps for New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. 

Ever since seeing the first Star Wars movie in the summer of 1977 I have been a huge fan of the series, and it launched my love of science fiction in general. The first six movies’ depiction of people of color have not always been the best — Jar Jar Binks, anyone? — but a Star Wars scholar thinks that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story have improved the track record. I haven’t seen the newly released Rogue One yet, but will definitely check it out over the holiday break!

Citylab has posted a story about the status of various high-speed railroad projects in the United States. As daily commuter on Amtrak between Oakland and San José, CA I would love for a high speed line to be built along the Capitol Corridor. Alas, nothing appears to be currently on the drawing board, but one can hope!