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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

September 11, 2013

Brilliant!Science: Extraterrestrial Life

Earlier this year, the Academy launched Brilliant!Science: Decoding Human Health. It was such a success that we will again be offering a series of events focused on a particular theme. This fall’s Brilliant!Science festival is all about Extraterrestrial Life and will feature a number of Fellows of the Academy. Some of the most brilliant minds from NASA, the American Institute of Aeronautics, SETI Institute, the Kepler Mission, and others will be on hand to discuss what scientists know about the conditions necessary to support life, how they use scientific data to visualize what extraterrestrial life might look like, and the challenges and prospects of exploring the great beyond. Click here for details.


But that’s not all. Please check out some of the major lectures and workshops that will be presented at the Academy this fall. They reflect the Academy in its role as a Public Stage for Science. After all, the Academy aims to engage people of all ages—from “birth until eternity.” It’s not just for kids, even if it is great for kids. Join us for some great adult fare. You’ll leave thinking in new ways. New can be good. Give these programs a try.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:40 pm

August 9, 2013

Two Careers in Science Interns Win Gates Millennium Scholarships


I am delighted to report that two of the Academy’s Careers in Science interns were selected as Gates Millennium Scholars earlier this year. This is a wonderful honor and potentially a life changing opportunity for both Timmy Yu and Rabiya Subedar. Timmy and his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was five years old with, in his words, “nothing but a backpack and aspirations.” He attended Lowell High School and participated in College Track, an organization we partner with. He will be attending UC Berkeley this fall.
Rabiya is of Indian and Persian decent. She was curious about science from a young age but had little access or exposure to it. She joined Careers in Science to learn more about the field and is now interested in pursuing a molecular cellular biology degree at UC Berkeley. Rabiya attended Mission High School and participated in College Track.
This year saw the largest and most qualified pool of applicants, with more than 54,000 students applying for 1,000 scholarships that were awarded around the globe. The scholarship provides substantial funding for students to attend any U.S. college or university they choose.
Both interns highlighted their work and dedication to the Academy as a key success factor in their accomplishments and motivation. Thank you for the honor, Timmy and Rabiya, and congratulations to you both.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 1:58 pm

July 9, 2013

Pathways to Learning

Part 3 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…

More Radical Changes?

While distance education may provide new income opportunities for colleges and universities, particularly at the graduate level, the options for significantly reducing the cost of education at the undergraduate level will be more limited unless radical changes are made in the structure of the undergraduate experience.

Fully Web-based undergraduate programs would seem to be less costly than residential education, but whether they really are depends largely on the level of personal faculty/student interaction needed in any particular online program. Online education that is designed to have minimal engagement between student and faculty will certainly be less expensive than highly interactive programs. Which types of student can learn effectively using online courses is another question.

Looking Ahead

A common myth is that if information is available, students will learn. Well, Web or no Web, learning begins with motivation and then takes discipline, and both are needed for success.

Woody Allen supposedly said, “80% of life is just showing up.” Showing up on the Web isn’t enough. Being surrounded by a lot of information doesn’t mean you actually learn anything. If it did, you could skip reading a book and just hug it. What is clear, however, is that there will be many more pathways to learning in the future, probably more routes leading to a college or university degree, and likely a restructuring of the “badging” role diplomas play. Innovation will accelerate, and more intense competition will develop among a wider variety of traditional and new players. Darwin will be delighted, wherever he is logged on.

Higher education is in for unprecedented innovation and competition. The great power of competition is that it tends to lead to higher quality and makes achieving it the price of survival. In most cases, the marketplace, not academic committees, will choose the winners. And that, perhaps, is the biggest change of all.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:39 am

July 5, 2013

Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum

Part 2 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…


Many colleges and universities are choosing to use new digital technologies to become better residential undergraduate institutions—to offer more varied and challenging programs, foster livelier intellectual interaction, and develop stronger residential communities.

These institutions recognize that the central power of residential education is the power of the learning community. Their goal will be to use Internet tools to enhance traditional education, not replace it. Some methods of doing so include the following:

Computers for Information, People for Interaction.

One potentially powerful use of technology is in helping students gain information and develop skills so that live faculty can spend their time interacting with students as only humans can—so far at least. Screens for information. The classroom for interaction. If students can learn the fundamentals using computer-based modules, faculty can be liberated to challenge students to think (a remarkable concept in itself). It’s all about using technology for what it can do best, so that people can be freed to do what they do best.

Rich Offerings for Small Institutions.

The Internet makes it possible for small institutions to provide specialized course offerings despite their size. Consider classics. Although the number of colleges with significant classics departments is relatively small, even modest programs can become more comprehensive by using communications technology.

A good example is the multi-institutional classics department developed some years ago among the 15 institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South. Most of these colleges have at least a few classics faculty, but usually too few to offer a large variety of courses in Greek and Latin culture and literature. By banding together through the Internet and telecommunications, the faculties created a virtual classics department linking faculty, course offerings, and students across their institutions. The goal was not so much to reduce the cost of education, but to make it richer intellectually, to make each institution more competitive for the finest new faculty, and ultimately to increase the number of students who study the classics.

This consortium model can be applied in many other areas and in larger institutions as well, particularly in topics in which each institution has too little expertise to offer a full program, or in which critical teaching expertise can best be found outside of academia. Examples include biotechnology, e-commerce, genetic engineering, and many other fast-changing fields in which any one institution may find it very difficult to offer the highest-quality programs.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have made relatively little use of shared teaching. The goal has been to gather, on the same campus, all the faculty members needed to teach each program they choose to offer. In the future, it seems inevitable that colleges and universities will be knit together by webs of teaching and research consortia that magnify the power of smaller groups of faculty on individual campuses, and make it possible to maintain up-to-date curricula in fields that are changing rapidly. The goal will not be to concentrate all the expertise on a single campus, but to have enough high-quality expertise to form the best alliances.

The Internet may also change the definition of faculty. When information was stored only in books, and books in libraries, faculty had to live near the libraries, and students had to come to them to learn. Faculty therefore had to make teaching their professional lives. But with the power of the Internet, experts who do not choose to make teaching their primary career can still participate in educating students. Much has been written about the power of the Internet to allow current faculty to access many more students. Far less attention has been paid to the possibility that many more people will be able to be faculty, part-time, and greatly enrich educational offerings. There’s an old saying, “There are those who teach and those who do.” Well, now “those who do” can also teach. It’s coming.

To be continued…Part 3: More Radical Changes and Looking Ahead.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:04 pm

July 2, 2013

Darwin’s Idea: Competition Drives Evolution. Education, It’s Your Turn.

Part 1 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…

By now, you may know of my fascination with the power of the Internet and digital technologies to change the opportunities students will have to learn, and to unleash competition and innovation into the world of education, particularly higher education. It’s a world long buffered—even isolated—from significant competition. Well, the same forces that have washed like a tidal wave over business, governments, and social interaction over the past couple of decades—the forces of change driven by fast, inexpensive digital communications—are now impacting the world of higher education. The future began some time ago.

All that said, it’s tempting to be so beguiled by the MOOCs (massive open online courses) on the screen that you slip into believing learning is just another form of downloading. It’s not. Being in the presence of information is not the same as learning. If it were, then just sitting in the library would be a great way to prepare for an exam. Listening to Horowitz recordings won’t make you into a great pianist either.

Learning and Carnegie Hall have a lot in common. Success at both takes practice. Having access to a great MOOC about history won’t make you into an historian. To really learn, you must do, and active doing—which generally means investigating, thinking, writing, and “working out the math”—tends to be hard work, particularly at the start. Success takes discipline, motivation, and determination. I’ve yet to see a website where they are on offer.

Though there is much to explore in the new fascinating world of education on screen and online, the fundamentals will remain the same, since people have a stubborn tendency to remain the same. Learning is not downloading. Learning takes doing. Doing takes discipline. So, show up for class with your assignment done—wherever class may be. There’s no shortcut.

New Technology, New Competition
Colleges and universities have long competed on the basis of faculty quality, brand-name recognition, price, and programs. But there has been almost no competitive market based on the methods of teaching and learning. For centuries, higher education has been rooted in secure notions of how faculty should teach and students should learn. Professors have been the holders and transmitters of knowledge. Students have been required to visit professors and attend lectures or seminars or recitations or laboratories at set times. Virtually all colleges and universities, the old and venerable and those established just yesterday, will teach the same way this fall because it’s the way they taught last fall.

Now the climate is ripe for innovation: costs are high enough to drive it, and new tools make it possible. We have the technological ability to provide learning environments anywhere and anytime. Unconstrained by bricks and mortar, new competitors can enter the worldwide educational marketplace, and established institutions can compete with each other in new ways. The driving forces, as in the rest of the economy, are income and competitive edge.

Of course, just because income beckons and innovation is technically possible doesn’t mean that new methods will be accepted enthusiastically, will be adopted quickly, or will be implemented well. What is inevitable is a great deal of experimentation. Innovation is coming to higher education, and it is gaining speed at a pace that most faculty curriculum committees find dizzying.

Stanford has done much to accelerate the pace of innovation. While many colleges and universities have been offering online programs for the past decade or so, Stanford has made it “socially acceptable” among the truly elite. Stanford has raised the bar and sent a message to its peers, in polite academese of course, that simply doing things the same way year after year is not the future Stanford has chosen. Pay attention, peers. Change and innovation are coming.

The Virtual Football Team?
Will residential higher education be replaced by websites? I certainly hope not. The residential undergraduate experience is a marvelous invention, a relatively safe halfway house between home and independence. Living away from home, students grow up, learn to work with others, find out about the world from their faculty and peers, are exposed to intellectual, cultural, and human diversity, are challenged to explore beyond their familiar and comfortable worlds, and yes, even attend classes and earn degrees. They seek out peers, professors, and staff to talk, debate, and work through what at times seem like (and may be) life crises. In most cases, they bloom, both intellectually and socially. Their parents marvel at them, and they come to marvel at their parents. In short, the process works, and it works very well indeed. It’s not the only way to bridge home and career, but it’s a very good way. It’s also expensive.

To be continued…Part 2: Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:05 am

June 20, 2013

White House Honors Academy’s Elizabeth Babcock and Education Programs

On June 11, the Academy’s own Elizabeth Babcock, Chief Public Engagement Officer and Roberts Dean of Education, was one of 12 people honored as a “Champion of Change” by the White House. The event in Washington, D.C. highlighted museums and libraries across the country making a difference for their neighborhoods and our nation. Elizabeth was the only honoree from the West Coast, and she received the honor on behalf of a digital learning lab collaboration with the San Francisco Public Library, KQED, and Bay Area Video Coalition.

Elizabeth was nominated by Luis Herrera, Head Librarian of the San Francisco Public Library, to recognize the work that she and her collaborators are doing to design and launch digitally-infused youth programs. The learning network will consist of a digital learning lab at the main branch of the SFPL, a mobile digital learning lab, digital learning programs for youth delivered around the Bay Area, and new programs that link the educational offerings of dozens of Bay Area organizations.

You can read more about this partnership in the piece below, written by Elizabeth for the Champions of Change blog on the White House website.

Elizabeth at the event (center, in red)

Catalysts for Change: Museums and Library Partnerships in the 21st Century
By Elizabeth Babcock


I’ve always been drawn to museums and libraries, perhaps because they embody principles I cherish—equitable access to educational opportunities, cultivation of curiosity about the world, a commitment to care for our planet, and respect for cultural diversity. My own path has reinforced the importance of these values to me. I’ve explored a wide range of careers as an anthropologist, community organizer, user experience researcher, teacher, and most recently, museum educator.

At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where I lead our public engagement, exhibits, and education teams, I put these values into action each day. My team and I share the scientific and educational resources of this natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium so the public can connect with the natural world and advocate for the biodiversity and sustainability of life on our planet.

I am honored to be recognized as a Champion of Change, representing one of the many innovative projects stemming from library-museum collaboration. The San Francisco Public Library, the California Academy of Sciences, KQED, and the Bay Area Video Coalition have created a digital learning lab and a regional youth program network to equip young people with the 21st century skills they need to make community contributions. We have been supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the involvement of many other organizations and foundations.

Our learning network has a STEAM focus (science, technology, engineering, art and math), leveraging the unique technology, science, and art resources of the Bay Area. It aims to provide teens with the access and skills they need to use emerging technologies, and to transform them from media consumers to media producers. We also hope to encourage interest in STEAM areas through multidisciplinary experiences and leadership opportunities.

As I write this, hundreds of Bay Area youth are taking part in workshops on new media tools and are creating and displaying transmedia as part of the Bay Area Youth Media Network Festival at the San Francisco Public Library. Partners include a range of youth media organizations, artists, and filmmakers. Last October, hundreds of San Francisco families and students participated in a pop-up festival on design and new media, during which they tried first-hand 3D printing, digital storytelling, and remixing digital video. A youth advisory board guides the work of this collaborative, injecting a critical youth voice into the design of the teen space at the San Francisco Public Library.

I am proud to be part of the exceptional team that is working diligently to expand STEM and new media opportunities to the diverse youth of the Bay Area. I am equally heartened by the surge of collaboration, which the Academy helps to lead, among informal learning organizations. One such collaboration links museums, aquariums, and educational researchers in a professional community focused on the Next Generation Science Standards. Several STEM-focused after school networks link program providers across the region to expand science learning in out-of-school time. Local school districts include informal learning organizations, like the Academy, as program partners in their STEM strategies.

These are just a few of the collaborative efforts that are springing up in our region, building on a foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship led by our libraries, museums, and other informal learning partners. Museums, libraries, and their partners are truly catalysts of change in our communities.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:40 pm

June 14, 2013

Academy’s Chameleons Produce 29 Little Ones



A little story courtesy of our aquarium staff…

Jackson’s chameleons are charismatic reptiles that are very popular with Academy guests. Male Jackson’s chameleons have three elongated horns on their head. This species is native to the humid, cooler regions of East Africa, but was introduced to Hawaii in 1972. A shipment was legally imported for the pet trade but arrived in poor condition, so the animals were released on the island of Oahu “to recover”. The chameleons survived, and over the past 40 years have established populations on several islands. They are now considered an invasive pest and a threat to native Hawaiian insects.

Last November, Steinhart Aquarium staff traveled to Hawaii and collected invasive chameleons for our display in Tusher African Hall. One male and two females were collected to join a male already on exhibit. The goal was to establish two breeding pairs to sustain our collection for years to come. After all, birds do it and bees do it. Presumably chameleons do it, too.

We were successful far more quickly than we had anticipated. On May 7, one of the females gave birth to 16 baby chameleons. And on May 21, the other female gave birth to 13 babies. Most other chameleons lay eggs, but Jackson’s chameleons give birth to tiny offspring that closely resemble the adults.

Steinhart biologists have been busy making sure the babies continue to thrive by taking them out for field trips on sunny days and giving them the appropriate foods for their size. We have already found homes for a number of them at other AZA-accredited institutions, and are working on placing the rest.

These kinds of projects enhance the sustainability of zoo and aquarium collections in at least two ways. First, we collected adult animals from where they are considered to be invasive, rather than from their native habitat. Second, by breeding these animals and distributing their offspring to other institutions, we provide healthy specimens that are better acclimated to live displays and reduce the need to collect from the wild.

During your next visit, stop by Tusher African Hall and say hello to the adult Jackson’s chameleons!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 2:17 pm

May 9, 2013

Life in the Docent Lane


Sporting my snappy orange coat, I recently joined Peter Ralston and Brian Shinoda, two of our veteran docents, for a tour of duty on the public floor. We started at Human Odyssey, advanced to Claude and the Swamp, then off to Earthquake, with the finale on the living roof. It was fascinating. First, my two companions really knew what they were doing, in contrast to the rookie. When a visitor asked us, “What should I see?”, I replied exuberantly, “Everything of course!” Fortunately, my colleagues rescued the moment and provided the visitor with a very sensible way of organizing his day.

Then there were the dozens of questions about all sorts of issues, practical and scientific. I decided to watch and listen.

I discovered that the orange coat really changed my relationship with the people on the public floor. First, I slowed down. I wasn’t just getting from one point to another; I was lingering and looking eager to conversation. Then, the orange coat sent the message, “I’m here for you. Ask me for information, advice, help, anything.”

I came away having had a great hour on the floor. I came away admiring even more just how important our docent corps is to the success of this institution. They put a human face on all of our other wonders. They make the Academy welcoming, warm, inviting, friendly—AND they provide a lot of scientific information that amplifies what’s in the exhibits.

So, thank a docent when you see one. They really matter to the success of this place. And thank you from me to Peter and Brian—my two expert guides in my first foray into docent-dom.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:06 am

April 24, 2013

Online Access to the Academy’s Collections

New and improved web portals for our biodiversity collections are now online. The basic functions are working, while the specific configurations are being refined. New features and content are being added weekly. Check out the links on this page marked as “New Portal”.

While our basic collections data have been publicly available on the web for a decade, the new portals mark the first time that we have provided data, images, and mapping capabilities in a single integrated website. We have now published more than 1.28 million specimen records via the collection portals, and more than 700,000 of these can be mapped using latitude-longitude data. The map below, for example, shows the collecting localities from our fish collections using a “heat map,” where darker red means more data from that spot.

The 1.28 million records we are publishing are just the first of our estimated 28 million to represent the Academy in the digital world. They represent years of work by Academy staff, and will help us document species distributions and monitor the potential effects of climate change on biodiversity.

Fish localities

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 10:25 am

April 10, 2013

Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability


Greg Farrington

Since its founding in 1853, the Academy’s central focus has been on exploring the Earth’s remarkable diversity of life and sharing those wonders with the public.

More recently, it has become obvious that the daily activities of the 7 billion humans who now live on Earth present unprecedented challenges to the sustainability of life on this planet, our only home in the universe, particularly human life.

These two issues are now the central themes of today’s Academy: How did we get here? How will we find a way to stay?

In order to engage these issues head-on, the Academy is taking steps to more clearly define its role in addressing the challenge of sustainability, in a way that grows naturally and organically out of the existing strengths of the institution—specifically the Academy’s programs of exploration, research, education, and public engagement.

I am pleased to announce that a new chapter in the Academy’s history has begun with the creation of the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. This new institute includes all of the Academy’s current research and collections staff and activities, and it will also develop an expanded portfolio of activities that includes leadership of the Academy’s sustainability initiatives, integration of Academy Fellows more closely into the life of this institution, and engagement of Academy scientists in new and creative programs of public outreach.

Stay tuned for further news and updates about this new Institute at the Academy.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 2:09 pm
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