Jed Macosko of Academic Influence: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System
Empathy and compassion. I heard a rural student recently beg his more privileged counterparts to use their resources to help the people who don’t have them. The story he told about his rural schoolmates was shocking. I could tell that the more privileged students who heard him speak were moved to prioritize actions that would help others.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Jed Macosko.
Originally from Minneapolis, Prof. Jed Macosko has lived in Minsk, Princeton, Belfast, Tashkent, Chicago, Copenhagen, Moscow, Albuquerque, and Strasbourg. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science from MIT and earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley. After a postdoctoral research stint with Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Carlos J. Bustamante, he worked with Nobel laureate Kary Mullis at a start-up in Irvine, California then with Prof. David Keller at the University of New Mexico. Currently, Jed is a professor of physics at Wake Forest University. He continues his two decades of research on the mechanics of cells and molecular motors while teaching undergraduates the basics of big data and virtual reality. His lab has received millions of dollars in outside funding, and he is a contributing author of several books. His work has been cited thousands of times, and his patents have been developed in the biotech sector. One of his most fulfilling intellectual projects so far has been at AcademicInfluence.com where he serves as Research Director and Chief Public Liaison.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
My dad was a professor of chemical engineering and material science, so I was always intrigued by STEM research. I chose chemistry as my major as an undergraduate, and my Ph.D. was in the subdiscipline of biophysical chemistry, which I chose because I was becoming increasingly fascinated by the complexity of molecular machines inside each living cell. That choice, back in 1994, turned out to pretty important since I ended up studying molecular machines for the next 25 years. It wasn’t until about 2019 that my focus shifted to ranking universities. I had been helping a friend with his EdTech startup. It was pretty clear by 2019 that I needed to spend more time with one of the computer scientists at the startup — a super smart Ph.D. named Winston Ewert. Dr. Ewert and I spent a lot of time talking about the algorithm that he and Dr. Erik Larson had invented. The result of working closely with Dr. Ewert and others is a niffy college ranking website at AcademicInfluence.com.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In 1990, worked in a research lab affiliated with the global chemical giant, BASF. The lab was in Germany, and my grasp of German was decent but not great. When I asked my lab mate where to dump our leftover solution of concentrated sulfuric acid, he said something in German that sounded like, “Dump it in that jug”, but he actually said, “Dump it in that sink”. The jug and the sink were right next to each other. But the jug contained leftover organic solvents that people poured into it using a funnel. So, when I dumped the sulfuric acid into the jug, it started a violent exothermic reaction and the heat vaporized the solvents, pushing the sulfuric acid back out of the funnel and onto my face. Thankfully, I was wearing safety goggles, so the lesson I suppose I learned is, “Always wear safety goggles!” But perhaps a deeper lesson I learned and am still learning is, “Don’t assume you understand things; ask clarifying questions.” If I had fully learned that second lesson back in 1990, I would have had a lot less trouble. But at least I partially learned it, and hopefully one day I will completely learn it and not keep suffering from all the times I have assumed I understand things better than I actually do.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The project I work on at AcademicInfluence.com is extremely exciting. We have created an algorithm that determines the influence of every person who has ever published anything and that was recorded in one of two major online databases, each with over 100 million documents. Once we add in Wikipedia and Wikidata’s databases, it gives us the ability to rank, as of right now, 30,942,508 different people, most of whom have attended or worked for a university. Because we know which universities they attended or worked for, we can pool the influence and get the influence rankings of universities across the globe. We also have a way of estimating how each person’s influence accumulated over their lifespan. That means we can rank universities over different time periods. Finally, we know how much influence each person accumulated in each of their occupations, so we can rank universities by each academic discipline.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I am considered an expert in this field because I write, speak, and interview prolifically about all things educational, and my work is considered insightful by professors in departments of education and specialists with titles such as “Educational Director”. So, although I am in a department of physics and not on the faculty of a department of education, I am considered an expert. Interestingly, one of my papers published in the American Journal of Physics, which is the flagship journal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, has been viewed on ResearchGate more often than any paper published in my department or any other department at my university. It is a paper about physics but written to help teachers and others in the field of education.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
My kids and I are the product of the K-12 education system in the US (my wife arrived in the US for the end of primary school), and I’m happy with the way all of us have been educated. But, as I look around at my city and other cities in the US where I have worked, I see some shortcomings. Because of those shortcomings, I can’t give our education system an A+, but based on what I have seen in other countries, we are definitely not earning an F. Overall, I think we are sitting at a B+, but that’s just a combined score, whereas the interesting things come out when you break that combine score into different parts.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I take the “US education system” to be all aspects of how people in the US are educated. As such, an extremely positive area is that of internet access and the learning that can and does occur thanks to the world wide web. Of course, much ink has been spilled about how social media, reality shows, and even cute videos of cats doing silly things have made us “dumber” over the past two decades. But on the balance, the internet provides people in the US access to an amount of information that would have made the Great Library of Alexandria’s jaw drop.
A second area that is going well is how communities are supportive of their local schools. Last month, NPR reported on a poll they had conducted [https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/NPR-Ipsos-Parent-Child-Education-04282022] where parents answered questions about how satisfied they were with their school districts. It was surprising how positive parents were about things like how educators handled the pandemic. For example, 88% of respondents agreed “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic.” When parents feel overwhelmingly positive about their children’s teachers, it means that the US education system is doing at least some things really well.
The third area is the US institutions of higher education. In 1993, my department chair in Tashkent, Uzbekistan returned from a US school tour and told me that the primary schools were “decent”, secondary schools were “fine”, but universities were “AMAZING!” That same observation would be true today. To an outside observer, US universities are simply amazing. The research and teaching that transpire at these citadels of learning is nothing short of astounding.
The final two areas are the most recent: real-time video-based learning and artificial intelligence (AI) enabled learning. Both areas have seen a dramatic increase over the past ten years across the globe, and much of the technology behind these “EdTech” innovations was developed in the US.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Here is a brief list of areas that should be prioritized for improvement to help lift our primary and secondary schools up to the impressive stature US universities have in the eyes of someone seeing America for the very first time:
1) Standardized tests. Universities use them to select their incoming classes and, at times, to improve their individual departments from year-to-year, but never to ensure “no college student is left behind.” If universities can downplay the role of tests that are standardized across the nation, then so can primary and secondary schools. It should be a priority to reconsider the role of standardized testing in our primary and secondary educational systems.
2) School choice. Although often a contentious issue, the goal with prioritizing this area is to find a way to extract all the benefits from giving students and parents choices in their education without inflicting any of the negatives. One could imagine a school system where each school is held accountable because parents and students are allowed to “vote with their feet” and choose schools that are doing the best with the resources they have.
3) Teacher autonomy. This happens naturally as we prioritize rethinking standardized testing, but it can be directly encouraged as well. For example, teachers should have the ability to form “teams” with other teachers and together request funds for field trips, guest speakers, and other events and resources that they personally are responsible for implementing and utilizing.
4) Empathy and compassion. I heard a rural student recently beg his more privileged counterparts to use their resources to help the people who don’t have them. The story he told about his rural schoolmates was shocking. I could tell that the more privileged students who heard him speak were moved to prioritize actions that would help others.
5) Faith and spirituality. We should celebrate the many ways humans connect with the supernatural. The US has always benefited from the deep underpinnings that its many different faiths has provided. The US education system should prioritize exploring ways to tap into that resource.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The US is doing well churning out pre-med and pre-engineering hopefuls. Next to pre-business students, these two STEM-focused educational tracks make up the largest groups of incoming college students. But more can be done to engage young people in STEM.
First, local and state governments should pour money into science museums and other “discovered” learning environments. Long gone are the days when the spinning stars at the local planetarium inspired young people, who now have access to powerful GPUs and VR headsets. But just because planetariums and reconstructed dinosaur bones have stiff competition from new entertainment technologies doesn’t mean that it is time to raise the white flag and close all the museums. On the contrary, this is the time to double-down on new ways that these communal places of learning can attract the young and old alike.
Second, universities STEM departments and STEM-based businesses should open wide their doors to high school internships. The government can support this greater openness by offering grants and by offsetting liabilities, which have been a big obstacle in the litigious environment of the US.
Third, thought leaders can encourage investment in high-quality STEM YouTubers and other STEM content creators. These educators have garnered hundreds of hours of viewing time for their high production-value videos and podcasts. More of these resources should be developed, and anyone with any platform of authority should encourage those who listen to them to support these efforts.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Girls and women, like any demographic, can bring unique gifts, perspectives, and expertise to whatever projects they undertake. As a demographic, women are not new to STEM subjects. So, one reason that it is important to continue engaging girls and women in STEM is to keep alive the rich heritage that they have always contributed to STEM fields. Another reason is because the involvement of women in STEM is, at the present moment, yet another example of a demographic group being underrepresented. According to statistics that were published last year [https://www.bigrentz.com/blog/women-in-stem-statistics] only 3% of STEM-based companies have female CEOs. Given that over half of college-educated Americans are female, the statistic about CEOs is an indication of sever underrepresentation. As mentioned, any demographic group has the potential to add unique gifts, perspectives, and expertise, so for the STEM fields to underrepresent any demographic group, particularly one that comprises half of the world, is a travesty.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Volumes have been written on this subject, and, although I am considered an authority in the education field, the specifics of increasing this engagement are not my expertise. But I am confident that if those who have this expertise are consulted when implementing the ways, I suggested we increase overall STEM engagement, then the overall increase in STEM engagement will also be shared by girls and women. A rising tide floats all boats, and in this case, I believe that the most underrepresented demographics will rise the fastest. Perhaps one way to ensure that happens is to make the amazing achievements of women (and other underrepresented demographics) in STEM fields more obvious to young people. I think the US is starting to do a better job of highlighting those achievements, but much more could be done.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Each of these five ideas that I would implement directly correlate with the five areas that I mentioned earlier should be prioritized:
1) Stop focusing on standardized tests.
2) Increase accountability by using school choice judiciously.
3) Give teachers more autonomy.
4) Teach students to give others a leg up.
5) Celebrate the ways humans connect with the supernatural.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my students wrote in an essay that he submitted at the end of this past semester the following:
…the main issue with inequality is the common saying: “It’s cheap to be rich and expensive to be poor.”
I had heard things like this said before, but because of the nature of the class he was in, which dealt with (among other things) inequality in educational opportunities, this common saying has been haunting me ever since I read his essay.
It reminded me that there is a universal force that makes the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer until the principle of entropy maximization slows the growth in both directions and brings everything to an equilibrium — an equilibrium that is unfortunately very lopsided: many people at the bottom and few people at the top. What is true with financial richness is also true with educational richness. Does this mean that we give up and just let the few that are educationally rich become even richer while those who are educationally poor slide further downward? Absolutely not! But as we work to educate the entire world, we must remember this universal force so that we don’t kid ourselves into thinking our task will be easy or that, once we get everything just right, things can be left on their own. No, it will be a constant uphill battle, but it will be worth it because if even one child, who was on a trajectory toward the bottom of the heap, can be brought upward to greater knowledge and education, it will improve the good of our planet by an inestimable quantity. Indeed, who can measure the increase of value to the world when one human is brought to a higher state of mind?
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I have always admired Bruce Springsteen for his passion on the stage. I would love to have a private meal with him. I would love it if one of the topics of conversation could be whether popular music is a good way to teach kids about STEM. For example, I wrote the words to a song called “Born in the DNA” about a strand of RNA created “down by the centrosome “and who is destined to “end up as a pile of broken up genes” and “spend [his] short life just making machines”. I even had a friend illustrate what this strand of RNA might look like:
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Main site: https://academicinfluence.com/
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Jed Macosko of Academic Influence: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.