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Ayo Seligman

Ayo Seligman is the managing director of brand and creative at Minerva Project—an educational innovator that is redesigning the way people learn.

Redesigning education
Redesigning education

Redesigning education

Ep
108
Nov
25
With
Ayo Seligman
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Redesigning education.

Ayo Seligman is the managing director of brand and creative at Minerva Project. If you’re not already familiar with it, Minvera Project is an educational innovator that is redesigning the way people learn. So if you’re interested in teaching or education, you do not want miss this one.

Ayo tells Chris about graduating from UCLA’s design program and how starting a zine on the internet landed him a job at one of the most prestigious design firms in the world.

Beyond the proverbial origin story, Ayo and Chris talk in depth about the problems with America’s education system and the why, what and how this radical new school—through its unconventional methods is going head to head with ivy leagues.

Thank you to Gusto for sponsoring this episode.

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Episode Transcript

Ayo:
What we look for within our professors, first and foremost, is people that love to teach and that are passionate about teaching, because that, we believe, is actually one of the fundamental failings of higher education in general, that higher education is bias toward research scholarship and therefore biased away from the actual education of students.

Greg:
Hi, I'm Greg Gunn and welcome to The Futur Podcast. Today's guest is the Managing Director of Brand and Creative at the Minerva Project. Now, if you're not already familiar with it, the Minerva Project is a new university program designed to reinvent higher education, and it sounds really exciting. So, if you're interested in teaching or education, then do not skip this one. He tells Chris about graduating from UCLA's design program and how starting a zine landed him a job at one of the most prestigious design firms in the world.
Beyond the proverbial origin story, the to talk in depth about the problems with America's education system and they get into the why, what and how this radical new school, through its unconventional methods, is going head to head with the Ivy Leagues. I don't throw this word around a lot, but this episode is fantastic and it gives me hope for the future generations to come. Please enjoy our enlightening conversation with Ayo Seligman.

Chris:
I appreciate you doing this call with me, this podcast, and I'm very excited to talk to you about what your current project is. But for everybody that might not know who you are, can you introduce yourself and give us a little description or how you describe yourself to the world?

Ayo:
Sure. My name is Ayo Seligman. I'm currently the Managing Director of Brand and Creative at the Minerva Project. And Minerva is an educational innovator that established, back in 2012, a new university program that sought to completely reinvent higher education.

Chris:
Yeah, it's very topical and it's where I think I'm going to spend most of this conversation with you today is about Minerva. I'm very passionate about education and it's very interesting that this has been many years in the works and how it's coinciding with the pandemic that we're all trying to sort out, especially as the impacts ripple through all sectors of education. But before we go there, I want to go back into your past a little bit because your past is very interesting and I think it might be illuminating to some of the things that we're going to talk about. I see that you've been spending or spent a good portion of your career in branding and design, and you've worked at Landor and Associates. So, I want to talk about that a little bit. Can you tell us about your background and what you did for many years before becoming the Managing Director of Brand and Creative at the Minerva Project?

Ayo:
Absolutely. Yeah. So, I was born and raised in San Francisco, in the 1970s and '80s, which was basically a time when the gleam of the summer of love had started to fade. So, I think that I had kind of embedded in my background, a belief in social movements, I guess, is maybe the kind of best way to put it. And I went into design and then branding kind of serendipitously. I applied to UCLA in the design program because my high school guidance counselor suggested I probably would not be able to get in in a normal program, so I sought to kind of add some fuel to my resume, if you will, or to my application, so that I wasn't relying on SAT scores and grades alone.

Chris:
What year is it that you're applying to UCLA?

Ayo:
This was 1989, I want to say, because I graduated in '90, so yeah, it must have been '89.

Chris:
Okay. So, '89. Do you recall your SAT scores and what your grades were like?

Ayo:
That's a tough question. I mean, grades were high three 3.0's, I want to say something like 3.9 or thereabouts. And then I think the SAT-

Chris:
We won't hold you to it. You could [crosstalk 00:05:19].

Ayo:
Yeah. I don't even remember what the scale is anymore, but the numbers... Yeah, what is the maximum you can get on-

Chris:
I think, yeah, back then I think was 1,600 or something.

Ayo:
Yeah. Okay. So, I feel like I was somewhere in the 1,400s, higher in the math than I was in English, but I definitely was not kind of maxing out on everything, but I was doing pretty well. Coming out of a private college prep school, so I guess relatively competitive in that sense.

Chris:
I asked that because I wanted to give some context. You don't know this about me, but I applied to UCLA as well under the design program. I was rightfully rejected from the program, so I was like, "I wonder what you had to do to get into school." And I think there's a portfolio requirement as well, right?

Ayo:
Yeah, that was actually why I chose to apply, and then when I got there, I found out that it was super selective. So, basically, I had a really bad high school guidance counselor, but-

Chris:
Well, maybe not, because you are where you are, right?

Ayo:
Well, yeah. I mean, I think it was more serendipity than it had anything to do with her efforts. Right. So, basically, I looked at applying to UCLA, and I thought, "Okay, well, if I can't get in on grades and scores alone, what else can I do?" And at that point, I was a big fan of the arts, and I really liked art class at school, and so I sort of thought, "Well, I've got some work here. Why not?" So, that was what I did.
And I will say that most of the work that I showed was in the fine arts category, so it was not in graphic design, per se, although there was probably some photography that I included. But I've always been interested in the arts. My father actually is a longtime museum director, so he actually was early on at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and then he also established the new iteration of the Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford University. So anyway, the visual arts were sort of like a huge part of my upbringing.

Chris:
Perfect. Okay, so let's jump forward a little bit. I needed to get that out of for my own edification. Okay. You're in UCLA now, you finished your design program, right?

Ayo:
Right. Right. Well, the design program there, I think you probably know this is, it's actually pretty general. It's not focused in the way that a typical art school would be. So, you're required to take things like ceramics and photography, in addition to the kind of color theory and the kind of standard design stuff.
So, it wasn't actually until my junior year that I encountered a professor by the name of Bill Brown who was sort of notorious in the school for being a hard ass, and so everyone was like, "Oh, yeah, that's a hard class." When I entered that class, my eyes sort of lit up. I was like, "Oh, man, this is what I've been waiting for, somebody that's going to push me in this category, which was graphic design and typography, that was sort of new to me." Right? So, I had spent all this time with color theory, and still life drawing, and photography, and ceramics, and blah, blah, blah, and even some nice stuff spatial planning, and environmental design, and some of those other things that I still kind of leverage today, if you will, in my career.
But anyway, Bill Brown, he was teaching the kind of two, maybe there were a few others, but the two kind of primary courses in graphic design at UCLA, and I really responded well to his kind of strict way of being, I guess, in part because I sort of have always balanced this analytical and creative side or these analytical and creative sides. So, that was kind of why graphic design was so appealing, because you deal with geometry, you deal with ratios and other mathematical principles at the same time as dealing with a lot more of the kind of intuitive artistic principles that the fine arts kind of offer up. So, it was this really nice balance for me.

Chris:
The pieces are starting to fall into place in my head right now as to why you are where you are, so it's very interesting.

Ayo:
There you go. Okay.

Chris:
You're kind of drawing or designing the contours of this thing, and I'm starting to get the shape, and then hopefully we keep filling in the pieces, right? Okay.

Ayo:
Yeah, right.

Chris:
So, you grew up around art and culture, at least from what we've just learned from your father, you get into the design program, and you also grew up in a time and place where social movements and cultural awareness was kind of a big part of who you are, and then you get into a general design program with lots of things in humanities, probably. One of the things that I think is interesting about the UCLA program, at least, the things that I knew about years ago, is that there's a broader understanding of art and humanities and not as concentrated of a design program. It's both its strength and its weakness, right?

Ayo:
Right. In fact, Bill Brown also taught at Art Center, and he would often say to us, "I really like teaching the UCLA students because they have that kind of breadth of awareness."

Chris:
Beautiful. Okay, so let's jump forward to the next major milestone, and maybe we'll just hit one more, before we get into the Minerva Project.

Ayo:
Yeah, great. I've got kind of a couple actually, but I'll try and be quick with them.

Chris:
Okay. Goa ahead.

Ayo:
All right. So, upon graduation, this is a time... early '90s, I graduated in '94, when the World Wide Web, and I sort of say that now in quotes, but at that point, it was all caps or initial caps and all of that, so it was very much a thing, and it was just emerging as a medium. And I found that super exciting as well, not so much because of the technical aspects of it, but because it offered this kind of greenfield opportunity to do exploration and investigation in the graphic arts and design.
So, quick jump. I moved to Portland, Oregon with my then girlfriend, and a good friend of ours was also living up there. He and I got together and put together... He was kind of, early on, interested in HTML, and some of the kind of other early coding languages. He's now a software engineer, and we put together this zine just to explore what was possible with the arts and design and technology limitations on the web. And that zine then got me an interview at a Internet marketing firm that was one of the first Internet marketing firms in the world, and I became their very first creative there.
And in those heady days, it was sort of easy to just say what your title should be. So, I think I was design director basically right out of school. That was a really formative experience because I was working with a mix of organizations and companies, but many of them were fortune five and 100 corporations, like Sony, we worked with K2 Sports on some of their first website. Anyway, so it was sort of taking some of these experiments we had done early on with our zine and applying them in a more formal and more kind of practical way, if you will, for these clients.
Fast forward just another couple of years, and my girlfriend, and I, and our friend that we had done that zine with decided that we were going to actually start our own agency, and we moved back to San Francisco to do that. And this sort of dovetailed perfectly with a lot of the .com startups. And so we had sort of a lot of market opportunity there and were able to establish ourselves relatively quickly. In fact, there was a New York Times article back then, I think this is probably '96, that mentioned our firm's name along with Organic and some of the firms that became major players in that space. We remained very small and boutique for the entirety of that firm's existence.
But that then led to an engagement at Landor, and that was my first tour of duty there. When the .com bubble burst, I was laid off from Landor, went out on my own, and did a bunch of work for a number of years out on my own, and then starting other little boutique agencies. And then I was hired again, this time as a creative director back at Landor where I was for another, I think, five years. And toward the latter part of that time, I moved from the design practice into the naming and writing practice, and then into the strategy practice. So, I was able to get a pretty broad exposure to all of those practices, and obviously, met a lot of colleagues, and worked with a lot of really kind of big global firms on kind of all aspects of branding consultancy.

Chris:
I have a bunch of questions to ask you. Your second tour of duty at Landor, is that when you started to move from a design practitioner or a creative director into the strategic space?

Ayo:
Yeah. So, my title was always creative director, and I guess, because I had worked basically as a brand consultant my entire career, a design consultant, in primarily smaller boutique shops, I sort of had to wear multiple hats always. So, I think many of the folks at Landor started to recognize that I had these other capabilities, and so I was asked first... And this is four years in as a creative director in the design practice, I was asked by the head of the naming and writing group there to join her group because she saw that I had some capabilities in that area and she wanted to actually begin to bridge the gaps between the two silos because it had been sort of relatively siloed where the naming and writing group were sort of treated as an afterthought, or a forethought, but the integration with the design group wasn't as good as it might have been. So, she asked me to join that group in order to kind of bridge that gap because of my deep experience in the design practice.

Chris:
Okay. Now, how did you go from that to getting involved with the Minerva Project?

Ayo:
Right, at the end of my time at Landor, it was sort of a time of, I'm going to say uncertainty at the organization, because we had had a number of... This is actually just after the Great Recession, right? So, I think Landor was still, at that point, kind of struggling to find its footing as a global agency again, right? I mean, it's gone through multiple reinventions in its history, its long history, and this was sort of one of those times. So, we were sort of in a time of a little bit of uncertainty, and there was some discontent in the morale, etc, etc.
So, I was just sort of looking for what's next, but I think, maybe more importantly, I had my two kids and was really starting to think about our collective future and seeing all these major complex challenges that they would be facing in their lifetimes and that we're already facing now. And it certainly gave me pause.
I wanted to do something with my career and my capabilities that I felt was, I guess, more focused and more intentionally helpful to their futures, right? So, I wanted to sort of get away from helping Chevron make more money, or Microsoft sell more packages of their Windows Software and into something that really felt like it was substantial and meaningful. And I think also importantly, I wanted to look at what it was like to go in house and really build something instead of what I had done my entire career, which was develop, I think, great solutions, hopefully, in many cases they were good, I think, for clients and basically say, "Here you go. Now you go ahead and implement and make it happen for the next bit." Where I actually wanted to work at implementing it and see what that took. So, there were, I guess, these sort of multiple kind of strands that came together.
And the kind of basic pivot here was that I went out to lunch with a colleague, and we just kept kvetching talking about the future. He also has kids, and we were just talking about what next? What was kind of interesting? And education consistently kept coming up for me and him actually, frankly, as well. Anyway, the next day, he forwarded me a LinkedIn message from one of his former colleagues, who became my boss. So, it was this really kind of serendipitous like, "Let's just throw out this idea, oh, education, to the universe," and it was almost like immediate, right? This immediate kind of response came back.
Anyway, when she was describing Minerva to me, it was just checking all of these boxes, right? It was a greenfield opportunity to kind of create a brand from scratch, not only that, it had to be a premium brand that was going to be able to go head to head with the Ivy League, right? So, huge challenge, and therefore exciting. It was in this space that was really meaningful, something that I believed in. I really believe that education is fundamental to helping us solve these complex challenges that I'm talking about, right? I mean, everything from global warming to global pandemics, right? So, it basically checked all these boxes. It was a really exciting opportunity. I really believed in the model that was being described, the concept that was being described, and at that point, it was very much just that, a concept on a series of slides that the founder had developed in order to get funding.
So yeah, it was really exciting, and I kind of didn't really give it a second thought. It sounded like it was a really perfect kind of jump. And I figured, look, I've got all of these great connections in the branding and design world, if this thing is an abject failure in a year, I can go back to what I've been doing and all will be fine. Thankfully, it wasn't.

Chris:
Are you getting in pre-launch or had this already been launched? Pre-launch?

Ayo:
Yeah. So, I was the 10th employee. I was the first hire by my boss, who is the chief experience officer. And we had funding and a nascent team. The kind of largest portion of the team was the software engineers, but we did have the beginnings of an outreach team, we had the beginnings of the marketing and experience team, of which I was a member, and we had the beginnings of the academic team. So, we had some of the key team members in place, but we did not have the program developed or designed fully, we definitely did not have students yet. We had a website that was absolutely horrible to look at, and horrible even in its messaging, but it was enough to kind of recruit the early team members. So, that was actually one of my very first undertakings, was to establish the baseline for the brand.

Chris:
Okay. So, our audience probably are like, "What the heck are they talking about?" So, I did go through and read a bunch of things and watched a few videos on the website itself, so let me go through the high level stuff and then you fill in the gaps for us, the things that you don't see on the site, right?

Ayo:
Perfect.

Chris:
So, The Minerva Project is a pretty radical, innovative approach to teaching, and the best way to describe that I think is a college without campus. And the idea is you can get tuition room and board for around $32,000 a year, which is roughly half the cost of a comparable school. It's a four-year school, and you live together in some residential building. And what happens is you begin in San Francisco, I believe, and then you get to live in places like Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Hyder- I don't even know how to say hi it. Hyderabad.

Ayo:
Hyderabad, yeah.

Chris:
Hyderabad, London, and then Taipei, I believe, and then you go back to Francisco. So, it's taking on something that you probably could not have predicted about how we learn, and the rising cost of tuition, and dealing with lots of issues, and inclusion. And it's almost like you guys saw what is happening in 2020 back in 2012.

Ayo:
Yeah. We like to say, right now, that we're 12 years ahead of plan. Back in 2011, 2012, we were looking out and thinking this is going to take 20 years really to gain traction. And the speed at which we've been able to do what we've done, I still find remarkable. But that's right, it is a four-year program, students move around the world in the global residential rotation. And I think importantly, that aspect for the undergrads is critical, but the things that really span all things Minerva are our approach to teaching and the way that we structure curricula.

Chris:
Can you expand on that?

Ayo:
Yes, for sure. So, the pedagogical approach we call fully active learning, and what that's about is basically taking the flipped classroom model and kind of doubling down on that and making sure that every single class that you're in and every time you're in a classroom space, the students are engaged to the fullest extent possible. So, lectures are forbidden. In fact, we have technological means of limiting the time that the professors can actually speak in any given string, and all of the lesson plans are designed to engage students in discussion, collaborative work, debate, etc. So, it's really a way of taking what the science of learning has demonstrated and applying it in an educational model that hadn't been done before.

Chris:
Okay. So, as a person who grew up in an American public education system, this sounds very foreign and very different. My son goes to a private school. They use the Harkness method, and it's very discussion based, and you sit around in very small circles, and it's about asking questions, and memorization, and so there's no place to hide. There's no way that you can go through the program and not make it all the way through without having formed study habits, learning habits, and a point of view into the world. It sounds similar, right? Very discussion based.

Ayo:
Yeah, it's actually not dissimilar at all. That aspect, especially actually at the K through 12 level, some of the more progressive schools have already kind of adopted some of those techniques.
On the curriculum side, and this is another area that is kind of fundamentally different, especially in the higher education world. On the curriculum side, it is about developing structured connectivity across disciplines and making sure that student assessment is based upon really intentional skill development. So, instead of, "Oh, you learned that content," or to your earlier point, "memorized that fact," this is about you are demonstrating the use of that skill or that habit in your coursework, and really importantly, over time, across courses and across the four-year experience.

Chris:
Can you give us an example? Can we take like a class or a subject where you're like, "Okay, so this is how the lecture or non lecture would work, these are the kinds of things they're doing, and then this is how they will be evaluated"?

Ayo:
Yeah, sure. So, the classes I think, importantly, as well, we haven't mentioned this yet, but the classes are all online, so that was another thing that we sort of, I guess, preempted. And that online platform, actually, facilitates a lot of these techniques and the curricular structure and assessments.
Okay. So, I join class, and I can be at a cafe, I can be in my dorm room in the residence hall, I can be back home because I'm visiting parents, whatever it is. So, there's a great deal of flexibility that that online environment allows, it also allows our professors to join from anywhere in the world, so we're able to get top talent and not worry about where they live.
So, I join class, I log in, and I see the listing of my classes, click the class I'm going to attend, and come in, and it's like, I guess I'd say like Zoom on steroids. At the top level, you see the thumbnails of the other students that are with you in your class as well as the professor that is facilitating the class. At the same time, you can split the screen and have documents or slide decks that are helping to kind of inform the structure of the class. Often, classes will start with a poll that looks at what students took away from their pre class work, whether that was reading or some other kind of assignment, and that sort of establishes the baseline for the discussion to follow.
And then the professors will facilitate a series of activities, often discussions, but there are also things... like in our computational sciences courses, they'll do collaborative coding work, they might look at a piece of text and mark that up in breakout groups, etc, etc. So, each class is different and is designed, as I said, to keep the students engaged. So, there's there's not a lot of redundancy but there are a lot of the kind of same techniques that the professors use, which are things like polling, collaborative documents, micro debates and discussion in breakouts. The professors can basically go to each breakout and observe what's going on in each of those breakouts and actually provide commentary or feedback in real time. So, that's sort of a real kind of rough sketch of the classroom experience.

Greg:
Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back with more from Ayo Seligman.

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Greg:
Welcome back to our conversation with Ayo Seligman.

Chris:
In terms of evaluation, the coding one makes a lot of sense to me because it doesn't need to be multiple choice. You give them a problem and it either does it or doesn't, right? And you have to demonstrate that via a project. How else or what other examples can you cite that are like this where the teacher, instructor, professor can have a pretty fair understanding, like you do understand the concepts?

Ayo:
Yeah, right. Okay. So, let me get into the learning outcomes, what we call in the undergraduate and graduate programs our HCs our habits of mind and foundational concepts. So, that's a set of roughly 80 different habits and concepts, like they sound, but you can think of them as kind of micro skills. For example, when thinking about a macro skill like problem solving, a micro skill that fits into that is what we would call the break it down concept. So, that's like taking a more complex problem and breaking it down into constituent parts that can then be solved more effectively in an individual way.
So, you can imagine an assignment where students are given a text and said, "Okay. So, read this text, and use the hashtag, break it down concept to determine how the author has structured his or her argument." Similarly, in a course like a computational sciences course, look at this macro goal that we want to achieve with the code and use the hashtag, break it down concept to structure your approach to solving that challenge in a way that you can write discrete pieces of code to solve it. Does that make sense?

Chris:
It makes total sense, and it's very interesting the parallels to what the school is doing and a process to something that I've been using to teach my kids. And I say, kids, like I have two children, but also, when I was teaching at Art Center, we would just sit there and reverse engineer everything. And I think complex problems are hard to understand, but if you can distill them down to their essence and you boil it down... we call it boiling it down and breaking into the five ingredients, you are able to say like, "Okay, that, I can take on," and if that's still too big, you boil that down again until you can get it to a point in which I can solve that problem now. So, we're really teaching people how to learn, essentially, and how to reverse engineer or understand anything that they put their mind to.

Ayo:
Right. Right. And that's in the kind of space of problem solving, but you can also... Well, I'll give you another example. We have a whole other category of kind of macro skills around bias, which obviously can relate to problem solving as well, but our students are taught how to identify bias in various types. As you may know, the psychological and sociological texts and science really look at a whole breadth of biases that we have, both that are kind of intentional and unintentional. So, this kind of category of things includes a number of those kind of micro skills, if you will, that are really aimed at identifying, mitigating, and even utilizing biases, like in a persuasive argument, for example.

Chris:
Okay. Here's another thing, and it's going to get really heady. You guys were talking about education, and one person's on the inside, we're doing it kind of a renegade style. But here's something I pulled from the site, and then I want to map it to something a little bit more grounded so everybody can hopefully stay with us here. So, here's the three interconnected features about the way that you guys do what you do. Cross-contextual curricular scaffolding, and scaffolding is breaking it down. And cross-context is making sure you apply this across a bunch of different things so that you really truly have mastery over it, right? In which concepts are repeated with increasing complexity across diverse contexts. Two, fully active learning, where students are engaged in every class session. And three, systematic formative feedback and assessment. We've talked about this, all facilitated through an advanced virtual learning environment, your Zoom on steroids, and I think you guys call this Forum.

Ayo:
That's right.

Chris:
Now, the context. My son went to an amazing private school where they basically implement these concepts, but I'll explain it in a way I hope everybody can understand. So, when they talk about everything is cross context, it's like you don't go to chemistry class, you don't just go to math class, and you don't go to Spanish. So, what they have them do is they grow a garden and they learn the Spanish names of the fruits and vegetables that they're growing, and then they make a recipe, and then they're able to cook things, so they're learning about culture, Spanish culture, and language, while understanding chemistry baked into that. This is the kind of integrated learning. So, you're not even aware that you're learning these things, it just becomes a part of the activity and what you're doing. That is, in essence, like a very simple way to understand it. Did I get that right?

Ayo:
Yeah, that's great. At the K through 12 level, that is a great way of describing it. And you can just imagine that it gets more sophisticated as you kind of move up the ladder of your educational progress.
So yeah, the contextualization of those ideas is critical, and then what we look at as our kind of gold standard, is what we call transfer, which is when a student is able to take something that they've learned in one context, like in your example, the chemistry in cooking, and apply it to something that is completely novel and completely different. So, the idea of maybe that heat causes reactions, maybe that gets applied to the life sciences and global warming, just making that up. But that's exactly right. So, that idea of cross-contextual scaffolding is not just about breaking it down, but it's also about building upon each of the kind of steps that any student takes, right? So, as they learn, things become increasingly complex, the challenges become increasingly complex, and that they're able to make more informed choices... and this is at the university level... more informed choices about their path forward.

Chris:
There's a bunch of things I have to ask you here. It's like okay, I'm getting super excited here. So, the way that I see this is, whoever or whomever designs the curriculum, that's where the genius is, and how all these classes are subjects are interconnected and how they relate to each other and how they build up in complexity over time.

Ayo:
That's right.

Chris:
One of the beautiful things about a facilitator as a professor is, the professor, if the structure is designed correctly, if the prompts and the polls and the questions that are being asked of each student and the reading material, then what is the role of the professor in this case? Because my understanding then is that you don't need subject matter experts, you need somebody who's curious, who's open and encouraging, but is that the case, or do you really need subject matter experts at this point once it's been designed so carefully like the way you've done it?

Ayo:
Yeah, this is a great question. So, it's a little of both. What we look for within our professors, first and foremost, is people that love to teach and that are passionate about teaching, because that, we believe, is actually one of the fundamental failings of higher education in general, that higher education has biased toward research scholarship and therefore biased away from the actual education of students, actual in class learning. So, that's what we look for, first and foremost. That said, the subject matter expertise is crucial as our students advance in the program, right? So, once they've determined their major and then their concentration within that major, they are reliant on people that actually know what they're talking about at a very high degree in those subjects. So, in the natural sciences, when we talk about Earth systems, we really want somebody that knows that subject matter at a level of great mastery.
So, it starts general, and the first year of coursework is designed to provide a breadth of exposure and to introduce those 80 some odd habits and concepts that I mentioned earlier. And then as they progress, they focus further. And by the time they're in their fourth years, they're actually creating novel products. And that's kind of what we call the capstone project, which takes up a portion of their third and most of their fourth year. It's almost like a thesis that you would find in a graduate program that they defend at the end of their fourth year.

Chris:
Very interesting. And you mentioned this. How many different majors are there in your school?

Ayo:
Yeah. So, that's another area where we're a little bit unconventional. The majors themselves align with what we call the schools or the colleges. So, there are five majors; natural sciences, social sciences, computational sciences, arts and humanities, and then business. So, within each of those five majors is a set of... I believe, there are nine each, of concentrations that actually follow this really interesting... And this, again, is sort of the genius that you mentioned before, which by the way, I have zero to do with, where they're organized as a matrix with one axis being scale, so micro to macro, and another axis being specificity.
So, for example, in the business college, we've got new business ventures, scalable growth, and enterprise management. So, that would be one of the axis, right? So, moving along from like new to complex large enterprise, startup to complex large enterprise. And then the other axis is management, finance, and managing operational complexity. Another example, maybe more clear in the natural sciences, one axis is that scale I was talking about, molecules and atoms, cells and organisms, Earth's systems, so that's the micro to macro, and then the kind of theoretical to applied, theoretical foundations of Natural Sciences, research analysis in natural science, and then problem solving in complex systems.

Chris:
Do you start off on the micro level and then move your way up or is it the other way around, or is it all at the same time?

Ayo:
No. So, the concentrations are something that the students select one or two of, and the beauty of that matrix means that they can actually double concentrate relatively easily because there's quite a lot of overlap in their coursework. So, I misspoke earlier. There are six concentrations within each of the majors, and then there's overlap in the coursework among them.

Chris:
All right. I'm going to try to do a lot in the next 10 minutes or so that we have left together, and let's see if we can do this. If you're listening to this, as a parent or as somebody who's considering a program like yours, it sounds pretty radical, but we're not even done talking about the things that are different. When you say that tuition room and board is about $32,000, and that's less than half, you have to start thinking, well, where did the other half go.
And so the college without campus has certain things, and you can look at its pros and cons. There's no cafeteria, there's no sports field, there's no specialty rooms and facilities to do things, right? You live together in a building. And the pro to this, according to Ben Nelson, is that the students get to learn to be independent and to figure out how to navigate in a place, and that's much better for their own personal development than say, joining a specific club. And some of the students who graduate say this about the program, that it helped them to become more mature, to take initiative, to develop a level of ingenuity and ultimately confidence by figuring things out on their own.
What else are the differences that... Because it just doesn't go nowhere. You're cutting out the things that you believe are not important, that might be some classes that are filler classes that may not be really related to the learning outcome that you have, and facilities. What else are you removing?

Ayo:
Yeah. Well, those are two of the big ones. The third, I think, major kind of cost center for many universities is tenured professorships. So, we also do not offer tenure professorships, which runs in line with that philosophy that professors, for undergraduates, should be good teachers, where tenured professors tend to be researchers that don't teach much or at all. So, that's another kind of cost center.
I think, importantly, when we talk about what we don't do on the campus, one of the things that we also philosophically believe is that the campus environment does a few things, right? It sort of protects but it also coddles, right? It also kind of shelters and shields from the real world. And so as you were explaining, our undergraduates, as soon as they arrive, and by the way, they come from all over the world. We have only roughly 20% of our undergraduate classes are from the United States or North America. As soon as they arrive in San Francisco, they've got to be adults right away, right? So, it's a little bit of trial by fire, and for that reason, it's not perfect for everyone, in fact, it's not right for many. But for those students that are hyper driven and really want that level of independence and that level of kind of accelerated development and maturation, it's excellent.
Anyway, I was going to say that one of the things that we also fundamentally believe about the college with no campus is actually this idea that the city is a better campus than any university can offer, even those with enormous funding like the Ivy League or others that have a lot of money. The city provides, especially if it's a really kind of major cosmopolitan center, provides any number of better opportunities than a university can provide on its campus, right? So, think of the library, think of the movie theater, think of the gymnasium, think of the sporting arena, all of those things in a major city are even better, right? You get an even better assortment, wider assortment of gym types, of eateries, of all those things that you sort of get spoon fed, if you will, when you're living on a campus.

Chris:
So, in a way then, the core parts you provide, and then the rest, as the individual can decide for themselves, is à la carte and they just do it as they want, right?

Ayo:
Exactly. And that's how the cost is reduced.

Chris:
Okay. I think I want to end this on like a big business discussion with you, and that it is very hard to launch a university like this, and to get people enrolled, and to get them to trust you, and the whole system, I think, from an outsider's point of view, it looks like you have to keep a consistent flow of students in there, otherwise the system starts to fall apart, but maybe I'm wrong.

Ayo:
No, that's right.

Chris:
Okay. So, how did you guys pilot this and even attract students because it sounds risky, and people don't like risk?

Ayo:
Yeah, no, it's a great question. I think for one thing, I talked a little bit about the type of student that is attracted to this, and it is a kind of pioneering mindset. And certainly, in those early days when we were identifying our first class, they were all hyper pioneers, if you will. In fact, part of the way that we attracted them was by presenting it as a co-founding. They were helping us establish this university, and that did attract a set of students that was really keen to kind of reinvent education alongside us. That said, there was also a lot of work that went into audience segmentation, and targeting, as well as all of the design and messaging that went around the materials and website that we used to do that outreach.
As well, we spent a lot of time thinking about experienced design, thinking about how can we create experiences and even kind of small magical moments in this journey, especially at the outset, at that point, but we've continued this kind of way of thinking to this day, and we continue to challenge ourselves in this way. But how can we kind of create some magical moments that show these students that were willing to maybe take this risk, that we were kind of in it together, we weren't spoon feeding them anything and we were very much committed to making sure that this was an exciting time for them and was going to be engaging in the ways that they hoped it would be and anticipated it would be, and that we were basically going to be there for them and with them, co-building and collaborating on the design and development of it?

Chris:
And I think I read that you've now graduated two classes so far.

Ayo:
That's right, yeah.

Chris:
Okay. And how are they faring in the world, because this is one very interesting experiment that can have great ramifications, I mean, mostly positive, into how other universities need to start looking at themselves, especially today? So, how are they competing in the real world? Are they being sought after? What kind of positions are they having? Do you have any data on that yet?

Ayo:
We're gathering it still, and I don't personally have any at my fingertips. But I will say, anecdotally, that that first class of students with whom I'm relatively close and stay in touch, they have secured some of the most impressive jobs out of school that I've ever heard of, as well as a number of the most coveted graduate programs. So, I think we've got a student that's at Harvard Medical School, we've got a number of students that have founded their own companies or own organizations. One of the students with whom I'm very close is now working in the content group at the National Geographic Channel, and she worked on my team a lot during her time at Minerva, so she was always very passionate about media and content.
So, suffice to say, it's going exceptionally well. We're gathering that data and we'll have that available in short order. In fact, we're looking to get that out there in the next few months.

Chris:
Right. Because you may have people who are going to criticize you, but at the end of the day, it's kind of hard to argue with results, right, at the end of the day?

Ayo:
That's right.

Chris:
Because I think the whole idea of the program is, it's what you walk away with in terms of things these students can demonstrate in the real world.

Ayo:
Well, let me interject, a concept in there at this point, because results is also sort of a subjective concept, right? And so, one of the things that we're doing as well is to also redefine what's important, right? So, instead of saying, "Oh, what salary did they walk away with or graduate into?" We're actually looking at what kind of an impact are they making or are they kind of preparing to make, and especially as that relates to societal good or civic engagement? So, we're also trying to kind of look at those results in a way that may be more aligned with the kind of triple bottom line thinking that corporations talk about.

Chris:
I remember now what I was going to ask you just really quickly. What kind of degree do they graduate with?

Ayo:
Yeah. So, it's either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences degree.

Chris:
So, that'll probably put some students and parents at ease because like, "What kind of hippie-dippie school is this? Do you get a piece of paper or what do we get here?" So, that those things are transferable or equivalent to whoever your competition is right now, right?

Ayo:
Oh, yeah. It's a fully accredited program and the degrees are fully accredited. In fact, we've also got a master's program that is also fully accredited.

Chris:
The timing of this conversation couldn't be more ideal because I literally just did a live stream yesterday, a panel discussion with the future of education and we were talking about lots of things. But it sounds like you're actually doing the kinds of things that we were talking about as a concept, you've already made reality, in that you've created this hybrid. And I think it's a hybrid because the learning part, remote, online, but then there is the physical connection, and that's something that people still crave. And the thing that online schools don't typically do is to make sure that the learning outcome is what it's supposed to be, and that's what universities have traditionally done a very good job at, is they spend the resources and the time and energy to make sure, theoretically, by the time you get done with school, you've learned what you're supposed to learn, and you're doing it, and you're cutting the costs.
And I read a bunch of things, and we're not to get into it, but in terms of like inclusion, the scholarships, and doing everything that you can, financial aid to help people from diverse backgrounds to be a part of this educational model.

Ayo:
Yeah, that's right. And in fact, our admissions process was also a major focus of reinvention when we began, and it's been refined over time. But the whole goal was to actually do away with things that have bias as a kind of fundamental part of them. The SAT we talked about at the beginning is one of those things. It's been shown repeatedly that the SAT is a much better measure of a student's ability to get coaching and help, which is obviously benefited by financial means, than it is of actual capability. So, we don't take any of those standardized tests. In fact, we've developed a battery of assessments that we give our applicants that are designed specifically to measure their ways of thinking, how they think, and are done in such a way that people can't prepare for them, so that sort of eliminates that element of the bias. Because I think there are roughly five categories, maybe six, of these assessments, they also measure different types of capability.
Similarly, as you discussed, the cost to apply is very low, and we do a lot in terms of financial aid.

Chris:
Okay. So, maybe the last question and probably the right way to end our conversation together today, which is, you guys are doing something interesting, and you've been doing this for years, as some schools are just very lately waking up to the situation, and I'm a big believer in this. COVID hasn't changed anything, it's just accelerated everything. So, maybe schools had been cruising on this idea that they have decades to figure this stuff out, and then all of a sudden, it comes to a crashing halt. What kind of lesson or message do you want to share with some of those people, because I think it's over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, very few of them are pushing the envelope or trying to rethink the system, to reimagine it, to redesign it the way you are, what kind of message can you send out to them? Because you are one school. If more schools can learn from what you're doing, I think we as a society benefit. What's your message to them?

Ayo:
Yeah, a couple things. I think, first and foremost, try not to look at this time as a problem but instead as an opportunity, because it really is that. Of course, that means a lot of work, which is maybe the second part of my message, which is that we're here to help. We actually have a number of universities that we're working very closely with, and now we've even got a high school program, The Minerva Baccalaureate that we've introduced with two partners as well that's starting up this fall. But we're working with a number of universities already to help them innovate and reform in these ways so that they can be more resilient, but also more effective in their teaching methodologies.

Chris:
Where can somebody go to find out who to talk to, if they're in lower education or higher ed, and they want to actually pick your brain and have a meaningful discussion about this? Who do they reach out to and where do they go?

Ayo:
Oh, yeah, thanks for asking. So, minervaproject.com is the website that frames our strategic partnerships work. The bulk of our conversation was focused on the Minerva Schools at KGI, which is our university program, and that can be found at minerva.kgi.edu. But if any of your listeners are interested in exploring conversations about these strategic partnerships, I would point them to minervaproject.com, and there you can find a number of our strategic partnership leads.

Chris:
Ayo, I think I could sit here and talk to you for a really long time about this, and I do appreciate your time. I think it was very enlightening. I'm energized myself trying to think about, in the way that we teach people, what lessons we can learn. And I wasn't asking necessarily for the audience, I was asking for myself too. And I wish you guys nothing but the best and I hope that you're able to make a real dent in this thing, because it's a real problem, it's a real, real big problem, especially as the tuition keep going up and the jobs that people are promised aren't really there anymore, and it's so lopsided that I think it's going to come crashing down if somebody doesn't figure it out. So, I'm rooting for you. I'm going to be looking from the bleachers kind of rooting you on and hoping that this is a movement and this is the beginning of that.

Ayo:
Yeah, I'm confident that it is, and I really, really appreciate that, Chris, and I've appreciated our conversation today too. You've asked some great questions and I think you've got a really good understanding of the complexities of what it is we're trying to do because it is definitely not a simple offering, but then how could it be?

Chris:
Right. It's a big problem. It can't be a simple conversation, right?

Ayo:
Exactly.
I'm Ayo Seligman, and you are listening to The Futur.

Greg:
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