Episode 3: A Moonshot Worth Making

by Jan 24, 2020

Welcome to Education and Technology Futures, a videocast that highlights interesting trends and connections in the worlds of education, technology, and culture. In this episode, we ask why moonshots (as well as mars-shots or mindshots) matter, and what kind of big idea(s) are worth pursuing on the education front.

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Well, it seems that we may have to find a substitute for the word ‘moonshot,’ the term commonly used to describe any bold initiative that seems beyond our current reach. 

That’s because, according to President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX has definite plans to land their Starship on the Moon before 2022. After that, they plan on ferrying humans there by 2024. By 2050, the company hopes to have 1 million people on Mars.

Mars, you say?

I guess when reaching the Moon or Mars becomes common, we’ll have to look to the next frontier. A ‘mindshot’ perhaps? Maybe not as tangible or concrete as landing on the Moon or Mars, but recent work in brain-human interfaces could usher in entirely new and unexpected realities. 

Consider the progress researchers have reported in helping paralyzed patients communicate with the outside world. In a recent experiment, using electrodes implanted in a part of the brain associated with motion, a  volunteer paralyzed from the neck down imagined moving his arm to write each letter of the alphabet. That brain activity, in turn, helped train a computer model to interpret the volunteer’s commands, tracing the intended trajectory of his imagined pen tip to create letters. The upshot is that the computer could read out the volunteer’s imagined sentences with roughly 95% accuracy at a speed of about 66 characters per minute.

Pretty cool, right? But whether we’re talking about ‘moonshots,’ ‘mars-shots,’ or ‘mindshots,’ such endeavors always make a certain number of people ask, “What’s the point?”

That was the exact question I asked when I read the College Board’s recent report on the benefits of higher education for individuals and society.

According to the report, college graduates who enrolled at age 18 and earned a degree in four years “can expect to earn enough relative to a high school graduate” by age 33 to make up for paying tuition and other costs and for being out of the workforce while in college. Equally important, getting a degree means greater employment stability and a reduced risk of becoming unemployed.

While the benefits of obtaining a college degree are undeniable, for too many Americans these benefits are still inaccessible.

That’s because significant barriers remain for young adults who want to attend college, especially those from low-income backgrounds. According to a recent report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, critical gaps in affordability exist even at public flagship institutions for all but the wealthiest students.

The barriers are even more daunting for the 70 million adults in the U.S. who have attained only a high school diploma, and they’re practically insurmountable for the 2.3 million adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons.

All of which leads me to ask, “If higher education isn’t accessible to everyone in the U.S., regardless of their race, background, or current socioeconomic status, what’s the point?

To my way of thinking, the most important thing we can undertake in the next decade is making college-level education affordable and easily accessible to everyone in the U.S.

That seems to be a moonshot that really matters and one that’s really worth making.

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