Learning with your pants on fire

Bill Gates said once, “If you have enough information to make a decision, you’re too late.”

In an article in today’s Economist, writer Philip Delves Broughton makes a similar point about the current state of education, particularly business education. Broughton, a Harvard MBA, proposes a radical way to succeed: work. But not just plain ‘ol work work — it’s a kind of work that networks, innovates and thinks beyond the narrow confines of the status quo. He says it’s no longer enough to get a degree to succeed, even an MBA. There’s another key to success.

Broughton quotes the new dean of Harvard’s MBA program who, when asked about the Goldman Sachs testimony before Congress, said: “The events in the financial sector are something that we have watched closely at Harvard Business School. We teach by the case method, and one of the things we’ll do through this experience is study these cases deeply as information is revealed over time so we can understand what happened at all these financial firms. I’m sure that at some point we’ll write cases about Goldman Sachs because that’s how we learn.”

Too late.

While case studies and after-the-fact analysis has an important academic function, such an approach in singularity won’t cut it in today’s marketplace. While you’re looking in the rear view mirror, you’re liable to get smacked with a Mack truck — or at least a new technology. The problem with the approach is that by the time the Harvardites figure out just what Goldman Sachs did and plot a learned assessment and strategy, the problem will have morphed. Effective learning also requires an additional pants-on-fire mentality.

Most sectors of our economy are changing rapidly. A whole lot of  change is technology driven, a lot is driven by market forces, and whole lot is driven by the complexity of problems we face. Whatever the need, the motivation, or the cause, however, the need is clear: the workplace likes creative, innovative and confident thinkers who know how to communicate. One young JMU alum I know is regularly dismayed by colleagues from other schools (including Ivies) who know how to theorize but who don’t know how to jump in and problem solve, who have basic knowledge but lack the confidence and wherewithal to think beyond he parameters of established processes. They don’t know how to think around the corner — or talk about it.

JMU, however, is honing these skills in students every day and turning out graduates ready to work, to network, to think and to look ahead. The advent of the College of Intergrated Science and Technology (now almost 20 years old) and the graduates it has produced is one measurable result. Another is the College of Business whose graduates come out ready to work, not only ready to theorize.  Every week, it seems, we hear about another JMU grad who has established a new business, a new technology, or found an innovative way to solve a problem.

In COB, they call it the Madison Quotient — that hard-to-quantify-yet-critical-for-success quality of knowing how to succeed. Other colleges have other approaches, but it permeates JMU. No field — not even such venerable disciplines as history or antropology — can afford the luxury of heaping a stationary body of knowledge into one’s brain and relying solely on it. Information, discovery, opportunity and innovation are moving too fast and thinking flexibly and creatively is more than a luxury today; it’s a necessity. JMU has known and practiced this for a long time. Right now, they’re figuring out what’s next.

To read more about Madison Quotient and JMU’s College of Business, go to their website: http://www.jmu.edu/cob/

And if you’d like to read the full text of Philip Delves Broughton’s essay, here’s the link: http://www.economist.com/whichmba/think-twice


Do you remember where you were 25 years ago today?

Ronald McNair, NASA Astronaut, died in Challen...

Astronaut Ron McNair (Image via Wikipedia)

I was folding laundry when a friend called to tell me the news. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded seconds after liftoff. Another friend remembers hearing the last words spoken: “Go with throttle up.” The event became a defining moment in American history; the image of the shattered space craft, iconic.

Such moments become markers in our lives. We remember them. We honor those we lost — as we do today on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. But there was a subtext to the Challenger’s flight that day — one that framed for a moment in time a change in America.

This morning National Public Radio aired an interview with Carl McNair whose brother Astronaut Ronald McNair was aboard the ill-fated Challenger. He told a wonderful story about Ron McNair who as a child watched the television series Star Trek, where the crew aboard the Starship Enterprise was black and Asian and white and men and women and, well, Vulcan. While he watched Star Trek, young Ron McNair dreamed.

For a black child growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in South Carolina, however, it was a big dream, one that might have seemed impossible. As a 9-year-old Ron McNair got a taste of the challenges on a trip to his local library — the white library — where he asked to check out a book. He was denied. The police were called. Still Ron McNair dreamed and worked. He eventually earned a doctor of philosophy in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked to become an astronaut, not aboard the Starship Enterprise, but aboard the Challenger, part of a crew that was black and Asian and white and men and women.

Back in the 1950s colleges and universities were a lot like South Carolina’s public library. Not everyone was welcome. That’s not true anymore. Colleges and universities now reflect that Starship Enterprise crew that Ron McNair watched. Students come from every corner of the globe, from every kind of ethnic and cultural background. They come together and they work and they dream.

So while you remember the Challenger tragedy, today, remember also the Challenger’s victory. The diverse crew was the new, improved America. And we are all better for the change they represented.

When the Challenger lifted off, though destined for tragedy, it is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

To find out what happened to young Ron McNair when he went to the library — and if he got his book — read or listen to the entire NPR interview with Carl McNair here: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/28/133275198/astronauts-brother-recalls-a-man-who-dreamed-big

You can also read about the late Elizabeth Gauldin (’50), another veteran of the United States space program. http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/gauldin.shtml

What if art cured disease?

Francis Collins (geneticist)

Dr. Francis Collins (Image via Wikipedia)

If you believe science and art are opposite or incompatible, think again. Consider instead any of the world’s 60 children suffering from Progeria, a genetic condition that causes their bodies to age at a rate seven times faster than the normal human body. For these children, life expectancy is about 12 to 14 years. The disease is incurable.

So far.

In 2003, these children and their families got a glimpse of hope when they heard this news:

On April 16, 2003, a press conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to announce the discovery of the Progeria gene. Leading the announcement was PRF Medical Director Dr. Leslie Gordon. The panel of speakers included Dr. Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. W. Ted Brown, world expert on Progeria, and John Tacket, PRF’s Youth Ambassador. (text from the website of the Progeria Research Foundation)

Did you catch the name Dr. Francis Collins? He spoke at JMU over the weekend as part of the university’s yearlong exploration into the convergence of science and art. On Saturday, following his talk and a performance of by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a multimedia dance inspired by the mapping of the human genome, Dr. Collins, scientist, and Liz Lerman, dancer, sat down to discuss the intersection of art and science. What they had to say was revealing and inspiring.

Dr. Collins, who now heads the National Institutes of Health, explained how the discovery of the Progeria gene began as a leap of faith, the kind artists take whenever they explore. One of Dr. Collins’ post-docs took a stab at a hypothesis. In the end, the hypothesis was utterly wrong, but serendipitously the gene was discovered. “One (genetic) letter out of three billion,” Collins said. It was the courage to be creative, the ability to wonder ‘what if’ that inspired the science, and in this case with a spectacular result.

Science is not all about standing on firm ground. It is instead about thinking imaginatively — considering, attempting and reaching beyond what one might see as logical. Herein is the critical juncture of science with art. Dance master Liz Lerman, whose company has collaborated with JMU dance students throughout the year, pointed out in the discussion how it is important to leap into the unknown. Whether perfect or not, a reach, a dance, an experiment — the leap into the creative — “puts something in the room.” Something you can work with. That’s exactly what happened with the Progeria gene. Finding it was unexpected. It did not begin with a fact-on-fact process; it began with a creative jump. It began with a ‘what if?’  And in a beautiful way, it found a solution that art engendered.

To read more about the groundbreaking research in Progeria, explore the website of the Progeria Research Foundation. Here you can find the announcement about the discovery of the Progeria gene. http://www.progeriaresearch.org/progeria_gene_discovered.html

And to learn more about the yearlong Dance of Art and Science, the innovative collaboration among artists, scientists and educators, go to the JMU website:  http://www.jmu.edu/

Dukes making news

One Duke and one former Duke made national headlines this week.

Charles Haley ('87)

The National Footbal League announced that Charles Haley (’87) is a finalist for the NFL’s Hall of Fame Class of 2011. Haley — the only football player in NFL history to earn five Superbowl rings — was a fourth-round draft pick out of JMU in 1986. He went on to a successful career with the San Francisco 49s and the Dallas Cowboys. Read Charles’ Be the Change profile here: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/haley.shtml

This is the first year that fans can vote for their favorites. So if you’d like to vote for Charles, here’s the link: http://www.fanschoice.com/ The fans’ choice list will be announced on Feb. 6. so vote right away!

Dawn Evans ('11), spokesperson for NephCure

Another Duke in the news this week is current basketball standout Dawn Evans. She is making news not only as the top scorer in the nation but as a champion for many individuals suffering from serious kidney disease. Diagnosed last year with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, Dawn’s determination to succeed despite the obstacle is inspiring.  Yesterday’s USA Today featured Dawn and her story.  You’ll want to read it and see the video clip.  Here’s the link.


Both Dawn and Charles are testimony to JMU’s potent merger of excellent students, a challenging atmosphere and sincere support — a formula that cultivates success.  Every student has potential, and so many — like Dawn and Charles — achieve it.

The Moon, the Storm, and the Jungle

Last week, we featured the work of two young local students, Irene Lui and Lillian Hereford, winners in a contest sponsored by the Office for Multicultural Student Services at JMU.  The third winner is Alex Hunter-Nickels, a sophomore at Harrisonburg High School. As a member of the HHS Habitat for Humanity club, helping others, as Dr. King did, is something Alex has grown up with.  His family has hosted many refugees in their home, and Alex and his parents have participated in service trips to Costa Rica, Spain and El Salvador. Alex is also musician. In addition to performing with his high school’s marching and concert bands, he plays guitar and sings lead with his band, Wolfe Street Tower.  Alex’s winning entry, which you will find below, is a poem, The Moon, the Storm, and the Jungle. It was inspired by Dr. King’s words: “Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”

The Moon, the Storm, and the Jungle                  by Alex Hunter-Nickels

A cold street I walk upon
Through a cold, foreign night
The moon seems to be the only light
The moon seems to see through me
My fright with its might
My tears with its fearless eyes
Though I have never spoken to it
Though it is so far away
Though it is not my moon, but everyone’s,
The moon guides me with its light

Martin Luther King is our moon
And his words … are the light
Which through the shadows I see.

A snowy storm I tumble through
A snow with the power to blind
I search for warmth
But only does the ice bite back
Where am I?
Only the piercing wind replies
Finally, I fall to my knees,
And a shadow falls upn me,
A soft hand drifts slowly down,
Powerful, yet kind and true,
I feel its warmth,
Through a foot of falling snow

Martin Luther King is that hand,
And his words are his warmth,
Through the cold and hopeless

A thick jungle I am lost within,
Freakish creatures and strange noises
Make me shiver, skin to bones,
Make me cry, make me moan,
I am hot and tired,
I am lost and screaming,
Through the shadows and the bearming rays,
Desperation is my jail cell,
I am trapped within,
Then a path I stumble upon,
Or was it there all the time?
I feel the reason I live to tell this tail,
Was not for luck or chance,
But because that path was reaching out,
To everyone and everything lost in that jungle,
For as I looked up from the path I had found,
I was not alone,
I was not afraid,

Martin Luther King reached out to everyone he could,
Through his words, he still speaks
Through his dreams, he still watches us,
Through his hopes, he still feels,

I look at the shadows beside me,
And I realize,
There is light … and in the deepest darkness.

You can read more about Dr. King’s legacy on the JMU and how the university is celebrating the life of this American hero.

You can also learn more about JMU’s Center for Multicultural Student Services at http://www.jmu.edu/multicultural/about/staff.shtml


Artful tributes to a man who changed our world

Some lives reverberate through history. Some set high standards. Some change lives.

Martin Luther King did all of the above.

To help celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, last fall JMU’s Center for Multicultural Student Services sponsored a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Creative Expression Contest for area youth. Students were challenged to artfully illustrate the topic, “How has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired your life’s journey?”

Irene Liu, a 4th-grader at Smithland Elementary School, is one of the three winners announced in December.  Irene who is 8-years-old likes to play violin and read.  Her winning essay follows.

How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed My Life Journey by Irene Liu

Martin Luther King Jr. changed my LIFE. Because of him, now there is no segregation or Jim Crow Laws.  He gave a famous, inspiring speech called “I have a dream.” The speech changed many people’s lives. He stood up for the people that were not white, like me, because I am Chinese. I am proud to say that I am a free American Citizen.  I am also proud for changing other nationalities’ lives so now we are treated equally.

Gandhi inspired Dr. King by changing something without violence. Dr. King made PEACE without violence, which inspired me to stand up for myself without violence on things that make me upset, and also not to be afraid to do it. I am happy that freedom and peace finally came knocking on our doors. I will remember those famous days. It was so sad when Dr. King died. I felt bad. My life was changed from racism to freedom, thanks to Martin Luther King Junior!

by Lillian Hereford

Another winner is 11-year-old Lillian Hereford, a fifth grader at Hunter-McGuire, the lower school of Staunton’s Stuart Hall. Lillian, who has a pony named Pippy and two dogs, Daisy and Gomez, loves dangly, sparkly things, polka dots and getting dessert at Dairy Queen. She’s also a whiz at fixing electronic things — when she’s not playing tennis, basketball or soccer.


In explaining her winning art, Lillian wrote: “The black and white people mingle just like the black in the picture mingles in to the white.  Martin Luther King said we’re all humans and even though we look different or we don’t have the skin color like others we should appreciate each other. In the picture all the swirls are different colors and different sizes or more spirals than the other but in the end we are all connected like the swirls are in the picture. Martin Luther King’s dream was for every one to live in a beautiful world with mutual respect for each other.

Indeed, Lillian. Well said.

Congratulations to Irene and Lillian. On Monday, I’ll post the work of the final winner, Harrisonburg High School sophomore Alex Hunter-Nickels.

Special thanks to Trey Lewis of CMSS for helping me connect with the winners. To read more about CMSS at JMU, go to their link at http://www.jmu.edu/multicultural/

Faces with futures

Alexandra Robbins ('07) and her Cambodian friends

Changing the futures for children in Cambodia

Look carefully at the faces of these beautiful Cambodian children. Imagine now, how they have lived.  These children are members of families who work in municipal dumpsites throughout Cambodia, picking up trash to scratch out a living of less than $2 a day. With no access to health care or regular education, many impoverished Cambodian children suffer destitution, servitude and illness. Too many live and die in these conditions.

For some, however, there is a better future. At Aziza’s Place in the heart of Phnom Penh, 21 children live and thrive. Described as a learning center, Aziza’s Place allows children to receive public education, medical care, regular meals and the personal attention of a “family.” Providing the direction for Aziza’s Place and nurturing these children are Alexandra Robbins (’07) and Daniel Haney (’07), interim co-directors.

“Since we have only 21 children,” Alexandra says, “it makes our program very unique and structured.  We give each child the nurturing and opportunities they deserve.” The students study English, their native Khmer language, mathematics, computer skills and Chinese. They also have opportunities for soccer, karate and dance — opportunities completely unavailable to their families.

Daniel Haney ('07) and friends

After graduating from JMU with a degree in political science, Alexandra considered the Peace Corps, but it was Aziza’s place that won her heart. “We get to put our ideas into action,” she says. Daniel got a taste of the world during a Study Abroad trip while at JMU before earning a degree in geographic science. Both Alexandra and Daniel, deeply engaged with Aziza’s place since 2007, hope that someday the Cambodian people will be able to take over the responsibility for the center.

Together, these two JMU alumni are committed to changing lives. In the face of poverty and lack of opportunity, the children of Aziza’s place have a new future. It’s best said here, I think, on the organization’s website: “Now, twenty-one children are growing and striving at Aziza’s Place. Each of their stories are unique, but mirrors the larger obstacles impoverished children face in Cambodia. Their destitute life on the dumpsite, parents with HIV/AIDS, and even a life of servitude do not hold back the will of these children to learn and succeed.”

That is a brighter future.

To learn more about Aziza’s Place and to see a compelling video about the children’s experience there, go to their website:  http://www.azizafoundation.org/projects.html (Don’t miss the video!)

You will also be able to read more about Alexandra and Daniel in the spring issue of Madison magazine.

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