Nazarbayev’s Education Initiatives (and Australia Day)

Kazakhstan has had only one president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since the office was created following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He established the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University. There’s a naming trend here.

January 26th was Australia Day, the national day of Australia (kind of like Fourth of July in the US), marking the arrival of British ships in 1788. Some people believe it should be called Invasion Day instead. There’s a connection here. Kind of. Only in my experience.

Out of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has arguably developed the most. Although his presidency has not been without controversy or many allegations of corruption, President Nazarbayev has always emphasized the importance of education in the nation’s development.

In 1993, Kazakhstan launched the Bolashak scholarship program, which finances graduate school and living expenses for promising students at overseas universities. In return, the students are required to work in Kazakhstan following their studies. What I learned is that there often do not exist job opportunities that take advantage of the education of those students, which unfortunately consigns them to work in more menial positions. Some people work around this by creating shell companies that are then contracted to overseas companies. I even heard of some students who didn’t want to return and let the government seize their collateral, usually a house property. But hey, if the house was worth less than the education, maybe that’s a good deal.

The Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS), another initiative of President Nazarbayev’s, are a network of twenty-ish schools for talented grade school students in Kazakhstan. Students take an entrance exam to qualify. Tuition is free, and non-local students are given free boarding as well. My impression is that these schools have much better instruction and resources than the average public school. Many of the scholarship students at Haileybury used to attend NIS. (GTL placed 11 MIT students across NIS schools in five cities.) I met two NIS Astana students, Rakhat and Sayana, and they were wonderful. We visited Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest mosque in Central Asia, had delicious beshbarmak at Sayana’s house, and saw a ballet at the Astana Opera.

The Bolashek program is pretty expensive for the state, and maybe it doesn’t make sense to educate everyone abroad, so President Nazarbayev created his own university in Astana. Nazarbayev University (NU) opened in 2010. The university operates entirely in English and hires an international faculty and staff. Tuition and board are free for all students (imagine that!), and students can even receive a stipend to study there. The university has pretty expansive facilities, including new maker spaces, a technocenter, and a hub for entrepreneurship. They are also opening up a new swimming pool.

In Astana, I was hosted by Chris, Saima, and Saima’s two sons: 13-year-old Emad and 9-year-old Zayd. They had moved to Kazakhstan only three months ago to work for NU. Chris is the current (and first) Chief Information Officer, and Saima works as the Director General for IT projects. Pretty fancy. From what I understand, they are trying to move the university to use more modern systems. Saima and I talked about SAP at some point, which brought back some ehhh nostalgic memories of being ESP treasurer.

The family had previously lived in Australia for five years, which is why we were invited to a celebration of Australia Day with a bunch of Australians who currently work at NU. In attendance were Elaine, Janet, and Michelle, who all work at the Graduate School of Education. Loretta, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, was there with her husband Tim, who’s been teaching at some other local university. I also met Alex, the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, and Chit, the new Associate Provost for Graduate Studies. Some pretty high profile people were there although I didn’t realize it at the time.

I got to talk to some of them throughout the evening, which was really interesting for me. I wanted to understand what they did at the university and what drew them there. Michelle teaches inclusive education and is currently researching how clinics in Kazakhstan administer tests for autism and what is happening to the diagnosed children education-wise. Apparently a lot of the time, any child diagnosed with something “abnormal,” whether it be autism or diabetes, does not receive the standard education, if any. Alex recently published a book on hardware chips for machine learning. I think his research deals with cognitive models of machine learning and creating an intelligence that is more general, unlike the models that solve a specific instance of a problem that people throw deep learning at these days.

Loretta used to teach business but now works on the administrative side at NU. I asked her about the admissions process and how the university recruited faculty. She has been in Kazakhstan for around seven years and had many stories to share. The day before the university opened its dorms, there was a mix up with the mattresses, and the Minister of Education (or former one, or something) ended up helping move the mattress onto the beds. Everyone contributed! Several people also shared reimbursement horror stories. One faculty member left with his family during break and never came back. (Just mentioning that this isn’t common.) He didn’t return his boarding passes, which the university needed for proof of travel. Kazakhstan has a culture where the cost of a  mistake or incident is not absorbed by the organization but by the individual. The travel person involved in this situation was panicking because he would have had to pay the full cost of the tickets, which was more than a year’s salary. The passes were eventually returned in an unmarked envelope.

Mostly, I heard the story of a university being born. Of the opportunity to establish new systems and programs, to be part of the beginning of something. Throughout January, I asked several people about Kazakhstan’s issue with brain drain, and some responded by pointing to examples such as this – the opportunity to fill a sector that is still underdeveloped – as a possibility for encouraging people to stay. I wonder how things will develop in the upcoming years.


Back to High School! Part II

I’m now back at MIT, but I still need to finish writing up part II of my last post, so here goes:

11:25 AM [Lunch]

Students at Nueva have an extremely long lunch period. Part of that time is so students can eat lunch, but part of that time is also for student clubs to meet. I ate a solidly decent lunch of ravioli with Apple. I asked him about his classes, his outside projects, and what teaching is like in general. He asked me a few questions about what I do and what I’m interested in. He mentioned that teaching teaching at private schools often has fewer requirements (no certs required, no test prep required) and more freedoms. Apparently to start as a teacher, you can shadow / be mentored by a more experienced teacher for a bit to prepare for real teaching.

As lunch went on, I was able to take a bit of a mental break from all the activity and interaction. Near the end, I met Donut, a CS teacher and MIT grad. We talked for a bit about MIT, Course 6, and talked some about shared interests. She teaches a machine learning class (that I went to at the end of the day), so we talked about how she runs the class (which I’ll get into later).

Donut is also the new head of Invention Studio (after Connie left), so at the end of lunch, we listened to a team’s dry run presentation for their Design Review event. Along with the two student heads of Invention Studio, we listened to the student’s presentation and gave them some advice to prepare for Design Review (which was in 5 days). Nueva was a school built on design-thinking and a lot of other alternative methods. To Connie Nueva often represents the ideal picture / the extreme bounds that high school education can reach. Despite all of these things aligning, I think I saw the students struggle with lots of the same things students in my high school struggle with and students at MIT still struggle with.

The main struggle I saw was an uncomfortability with uncertainty. If students don’t know how to do something, their mind shuts off or it flounders around. These students in particular didn’t know how to get past an engineering blocker in their product. Rather than trying to take some first steps towards progress, they stalled because they couldn’t see most of the steps to get to their goal. Something about the size and unfamiliarity of the problem puts a mental block on students that they need a mentor to pull them up from.

12:55 PM [Third Block]

In third block, I visited a class that was on the philosophy of science. In particular, the discussion was about usefulness of intractable scientific theories. Before class, students read a reading about string theory and multiverse theory, which are essentially grand physics theories we aren’t really sure how to measure. Packed into this problem comes lots of questions — are these valid theories if we can’t support / deny them? how many resources should we put into these problems? are these theories just mathematical models or are they describing how the universe “actually” works?

Lots of these questions were brought up in students’ pre-discussion questions, so during class we slowly tried to step through a few of them. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get too deep into these questions. Students, while some were happy to contribute, would get distracted from whatever point was being made. They weren’t able to dig deeper into these problems — so it hit me that this was a problem with lots of discussions I had in high school. I’d often feel disengaged because the discussions wouldn’t matter. They would be a bunch of people saying a few surface-level random thoughts about a potentially interesting subject with no actual consequences.

2:15 PM [Fourth Block]

In the last block of the day, I went to Donut’s machine learning class. Class was fairly unstructured work time based on a lab about word vectors and NLP. Through the lab, students were given a brief intro to the subject material and asked to play with the code (potentially in line with some suggested tasks). One super bright side of this structure is that students had the freedom to use these tools for whatever they found interesting. In subjects like ML, this is especially great because these tools can be used for so many things. The downside is that students aren’t necessarily developing a solid understanding. As with all self-studying, students get out however much they put into it and for some students this may not be enough (though it is hard to say what “enough” is).

3:30 PM [End of Day]

After all these classes came to a close, I went back downstairs to pick up my things and Lyft back to work. Before I left, I got to stop by and thank all the wonderful teachers and students I met throughout the day. Nueva truly does seem like an awesome place to work — lots of awesome teachers and students. Reflecting a bit on what it’d be like to work at a private school, I imagine I’d really enjoy it. Each day, I’d get to work with a bunch of bright kids. I’d get to work with and learn with really passionate teachers. I’d also get to face different challenges each day and work on sharing the subjects I love with others.

One drawback that usually comes hand in hand with working at a private school is the feeling of not making a meaningful impact. Why serve the privileged students at the top when there are so many others that need it? If part of the goal of teaching is to make a difference in the world, how much of a difference is working at a private school? Later that night, I ended up talking to Connie about this, and she passed along some insight that I feel like I had started to realize a little bit after teaching in ESP programs and spending the day at Nueva: when you’re teaching at privileged schools like Nueva, you’re directly teaching the next generation of world leaders — the people who need to be able to make the difficult decisions — so hopefully as a teacher, you can rub off on them and prepare them to solve the problems in the world.

Thanks to everyone who read any of my lengthy (and probably confusing) posts! It’s been lots of fun writing these posts over the last month, and I’ve gotten lots out of spending time reflecting on my experiences — hopefully I’ve also helped you learn something new/realize something you didn’t know before!


Back to High School! Part I

Yesterday, I visited The Nueva School and shadowed a student and a couple teachers. This trip was a great opportunity to learn more about what teaching looks like in an alternative independent school like Nueva (and was a nice vacation from my work). Here are some random unorganized thoughts from things I observed:

8:25 AM [Before School]

Arrived at school via a Lyft. I walked up to the front desk and said I was visiting teacher Apple (replacing names with food for privacy). The receptionist called Apple, but he wasn’t there. Despite this, she asked if I knew where I was going and let me in anyway.

This was, to me, the first of many oddities at Nueva. At my middle school or high school, I would’ve been promptly and rudely escorted off school premises with the harsh warning that if I came back, there would be consequences. If you weren’t there with a purpose, you meant trouble. Even if you were an alumnus there to visit a teacher one year after graduation, they assumed you meant trouble. I think there were even times when I was a student when they saw us as troublemakers. I think this attitude from staff / security directly led to less behaved kids. At Nueva, it seemed like none of this existed.

At some point, I met my student host, Barley, who gave me a tour of the school. The school itself has an awesome innovation-lab — makerspace, chemlab space, and art studio space equipped with the materials, tools, and staff to make almost anything! Everything about the school is very open. Students are free to walk anywhere. Teachers have desks at pods out in the open. Almost all classrooms are glass walled. There are lounge spaces everywhere for students to hang out and work.

8:45 AM [First Block]

During my first block, I observed an advanced computer programming class. This class felt a lot like the independent study computer science classes I had in high school. Students were roughly left on their own to work on whatever they wanted. This ranged from learning a new language to working on fairly deep systems or ML problems. For me, this kind of class was super important for furthering my cs knowledge and developing self-study skill, but unfortunately I saw kids struggle with the same problems I did. In particular, this kind of self studying is heavily dependent on the teacher’s knowledge of resources or the availability of “good” textbooks (with the right pace for a HSer). A second problem is self motivation. If kids aren’t internally curious, they won’t learn anything. Luckily for Nueva, most of the kids seem rather curious except for a couple 2nd semester seniors I talked to.

This first takeaway I had from this is that it is important to learn skills. In particular, I’d want to learn enough breadth of topics to be able to help my students at least get started in any area. On the flip side, though, it’s unclear how much knowledge is enough. At what point should I focus less on learning and focus more on teaching? The second takeaway (or rather question) I left with is how can we teach kids to be internally curious? Connie pointed out to me one morning that waking up and directly going into watching econometrics lectures on youtube is something that even kids in higher education don’t have. I’m not exactly sure why people like me randomly enjoy learning things or if it was a learned skill at all, but maybe some answer to this question could help motivate other students.

10:05 AM [Second Block]

In my second block, I followed Barley to linear algebra class. Connie told me the teacher, Cauliflower, changed the way in which she saw math so she was really excited that I’d get to meet her. The linear algebra class was structured with students presenting solutions to problems (which generally asked for some proof). As the student presented their solution, other students, along with Cauliflower, would ask questions and note how ideas could have been explained more clearly. Naturally, the students’ presentations were full of mistakes and confusing explanations, so personally I couldn’t follow the line of questions Cauliflower and other students were asking. They never really led to a better understanding for me, so at some point, I started zoning out the questions until I found a solution. To me, this seems like the main downside — if a student doesn’t think about the problem in the same way (e.g. I saw many of the problem very visually), then the questions asked just add to the confusion.

On the positive side, though, there were so many awesome things the students seemed to get out of the class. Even though it seems like many of their linear algebra knowledge is very jumbled, I think they are developing what people describe as “mathematical maturity” fairly visibly. Students were comfortable with admitting they didn’t understand things. Nearly all of them were comfortable with asking questions or adding comments even though there were ~17 students in the class. Students were also comfortable with going slow and making sure they understood and believed each step before moving on. While they’re not quite all the way there yet (they still miss points and little details), it’s clear that they understand what math is really about (in contrast with classes like calculus). I really admire Cauliflower’s ability to foster question-asking and slow thinking about all the problems.



Classes are so much more fun when it’s not just a lecture. From the teacher point of view, I think it’s pretty boring to just drone on at students for an hour without a break. And for students, it’s even more boring — trying to concentrate on someone talking at you for hours on end is incredibly difficult. But when there’s interactivity — something to get you out of your seat, a cool demonstration, problems that make you participate — suddenly, the class is far more engaging.

Some of the best fun in my own teaching experiences has come from the interactive activities that I’ve created for students. For the last 2 weeks of my GTL experience, I taught statistics to 4 different classes. These students were in years 3 and 4 of high school, which means that any activities needed to strike a balance between usefulness, non-cheesiness, and actually being engaging. Throughout the different classes, I tried a couple of different interactive segments, and wanted to share how I thought they went!

(This point of view has been slightly shaped by my experiences running teacher orientations for ESP, sharing many tips, including some on interactive techniques. We’ve modified our own handout from the one here.)

Guts Round

Those of you who did math competitions in high school might remember something called a “guts round” – a team-based competition to answer questions quickly. I first tried writing a guts round as a review session for a summer camp 2 years ago and found that it worked amazingly. It’s become my review session activity-of-choice, especially for groups that I have very limited time with.

My guts round consists of 15 questions divided into 5 sets of 3 questions. Each team (of 3-4 people) only gets 3 questions at a time, and in order to see the next 3 questions, they have to submit their final answers to the previous 3 questions. Each question has a certain number of points, and the point value (and difficulty) increases as time goes on. As students submit their answers, I grade them in real-time and project the team’s point progress onto the board.

A team that strategizes well will try and speed through the first sets of questions to spend time on the far more difficult later sets that are worth more points. However, going too fast can lead to careless errors, losing out on “easy points”.

The final scores for one class’s guts round, an incredibly close game. Note the systematic errors in problems 3, 9, 13, and 15 — immediately after finishing, reviewed those problems to show them how they work.

From what I’ve seen, guts rounds are incredibly fun. Students like working together and competing against each other to be the best team. But they’re also invaluable learning tools.

  • Students get to work with each other, and so have a chance to learn from each other. For most questions, at least one person on the team knows how to do the problem. Team sizes are also small enough that everyone works together on every problem, meaning that the knowledge gets shared with everyone.
  • The difficulty gradient allows students to directly review of problems that they’ve seen before and also see questions that they haven’t seen, pushing their knowledge even further.
  • The live grading lets me see if there are any questions that most groups are having trouble on, letting me review specific problems and concepts with them.

Of course, they’re not perfect, as teams might be uneven and so the “losers” learn less. As a whole, though, guts rounds are probably my favorite activity to run.

Height and Standard Deviation

Wholesome notes written to me by the class I did this activity with!

I was at the end of my lecture on measures of variation – range, variance, and standard deviation – and managed to run out of content with 20 minutes left. To fill the rest of the time, I decided that I wanted to show them why we care about standard deviation as a measure using a live demonstration of the standard deviation and the normal distribution!

I had each student tell me their height in centimeters. I wrote them all out on the board and used my computer to calculate the mean and standard deviation. Then, calculating the mean plus or minus one standard deviation, we found that 11/16, or 68.75% of students, were within that range. Supposing that human height is normally distributed, statistics predicts that 68.3% of people should be within this range – very, very close to what we found!

The point of this demonstration is to show that the standard deviation has interesting properties that relate to how far away numbers are from the mean. The definition of standard deviation seems pretty arbitrary, especially when you see the content for the first time. Why are you squaring things? Why the square root? Why not just the variance?
But when students see the most useful property of standard deviation, its relevance to the normal curve, even if the definition isn’t completely clear yet, they see why it is used.

The activity also led to lots of fantastic questions from students. Why 68.3%? What does “normal” mean? How far away from 68.3% can it be? The fact that these questions get asked means two things: first, students actually understood the activity; second, that it was an interesting enough activity to pique their curiosity.

In hindsight, one thing I should have done was predict 68.3% before getting their results. I had never done this activity, so wasn’t sure how well it would work. But for the future, I now know to put faith in height being normal.

Mental Math

I really like mental math – squaring and multiplying numbers in my head, calculating days of the week across any year, and more. The actual math content of mental math is not difficult, as it’s simply learning the tricks to keep numbers organized in your head. With lots of practice, the math becomes second nature, and it can seem like “mathemagic”.

Art Benjamin, a professor at Harvey Mudd, does “mathemagic.” I learned these tricks from his book of the same name.

Students in years 3 and 4 are already immensely familiar with algebra and variables – but the jump from arithmetic to algebra often leaves people wondering about the connection back to reality. Mental math lets me do that in a very “practical” way.

One example is with squaring numbers, and the difference of squares. Students have had this factoring ingrained into them: x^2 - y^2 =(x-y)(x+y).

Calculating 65\cdot65 in your head seems like a daunting task, until cleverly seeing is as part of a difference of squares.

65^2 - 5^2 = (65-5)(65+5)=60\cdot70=4200

Adding 25 to both sides, we can then find that 65^2 is simply 4200+25=4225!

The trick works any square ending in 5 – for 2 digit numbers, it’s as simple as taking the tens digit, multiplying it by one more than itself, and then sticking “25” at the end of that number. With some more explaining on the board and a few extra examples, I can get students to do 95^2 in their heads without me saying anything!

Throughout GTL, I did a few examples of mental math during my introductions to showcase things I do for fun. (Wow, what a nerd, Paolo.) My main goal in demonstrating mental math to them was so I could promise them to teach the tricks to them later in the week, I think I also earned a little respect by doing math faster than they could type it into their calculators 😛

Exercise Pairing

One of my classes this week!

This isn’t so much an “activity” that I did, but instead a small technique I used in lessons to make it less boring. I get tired of lecturing, and students get tired of listening. Oftentimes, when I had an example that I wanted to work through, I used a technique that I love telling people about during ESP Teacher Orientations – Think-Pair-Share (#100 on the link above!).

I’d write the problem on the board, then let students copy it down, try to understand it, and think about how they’d solve it by themselves for a little bit. After a minute or so, I’d have them talk to their neighbors about their different approaches, then work together to find a solution. When it seemed that most people had worked through it, I brought everyone back together to talk about the different ways that they got to the answer.

Think-Pair-Share is fantastic for breaking up the monotony of lectures without having to plan out an entire activity. I just need to prepare different exercises, and students get the chance to work through problems individually and collaborating.

I know for a fact that I’m still not a perfect teacher. I made mistakes in explaining content, bored students occasionally, and used inefficient or ineffective ways of explaining material. There are always things to improve, and so here’s to improving during future ESP programs and maybe future GTLs 🙂

Much like Sarah, this post was truly a “Splash on Planes” for me – sitting in JFK waiting for my flight to BOS. I’ve got a few final thoughts on everything that I learned during GTL, teaching and otherwise (mostly the latter), that I’m very excited to share in my last Splash on Planes blog post.

Week One: Scotland and Aberdeen

I first started drafting this in an Edinburgh hostel, halfway through our first weekend trip – first to Edinburgh and then to Glasgow. Now as I’m waiting for my Aberdeen to London flight (after which I’ll be doing some travel around Europe), I’ll try to finish this post up – since my flights been delayed almost 3 hours :(.

I’ll give an overview of impressions of Scotland and Aberdeen and my host school. This was eventually one long post but I’m going to split it.

Scotland and Aberdeen

Aberdeen is located in Northeast Scotland – and it is is *really* north. It lies just above 57 N, placing it just at a higher latitude than Kodiak Island, and just around the northern border of Newfoundland and Labrador – (thanks Wikipedia). It’s industry is quite reliant on the North Sea oil and gas industry – you see this as soon as you land in the ads for random oil/gas industrial services as you go to baggage claim.

Aberdeen is the 3rd largest Scottish city by population, behind Glasgow and Edinburgh (“pronounced edinbruh as I figured out”). People from Aberdeen are called Aberdonians, similar to the Dundonians of Dundee to the south, and different from the Glaswegians of Glasgow. I asked one of the CS teachers what Edinbrugh-ians? were called and she didn’t know :P. Update – wikipedia says “Edinburgher”.

The first thing I noticed about Aberdeen was that it was really gray (sorry, grey). Scottish weather seems to oscillate between clear + sunny, and damp + drizzly. And it always feels just slightly damp here, so it seems like winters here are very wet. Aberdeen in general is surprisingly several degrees C warmer than Boston, despite being 15 degrees north. The architecture in Aberdeen has grown on me! It’s quite pretty – even though the gray Aberdeen granite is a bit lacking in color (see pics below)

Union Street – the main shopping street in central Aberdeen. Belmont Street on the right has pubs, a movie theatre (saw Mary Queen of Scots there), and restaurants. At the end of Belmont Street is my school!
Looking down Belmont towards my school

Random fact: HTML <center> tags throw off British people because here, it’s spelt <centre>. My host teacher has actually converted to defaulting to the American spelling because he uses these so often. Same goes for stuff like color vs colour. Hmm I wonder how universally US/English-centric programming languages syntax is. I wonder if there are any examples of non-English/non American-English syntax programming languages. If you’re bored check out the wikipedia page on esoteric programming languages: And I just realized I should have done a lesson in one of these. But Lolcode tho:


And regarding food – according to my host teacher – Scottish food is very “stodgy” (read: unhealthy but filling). Stuff like butteries – which are like really lard-y/salty croissants, haggis, meat pies, sausage rolls, etc. I’ll write more about food later! I’ll leave you with some food pictures from my first week.

Unfortunately I did not get a chance to try this 😦 – I did try a blackcurrent juice drink and blackcurrant jam! It was very… berrylike. Kinda a generic berry-y flavor somewhere between blackberry, blueberry, and grape jelly? I think all jams taste kinda similar, so probably didn’t get the best sense of blackcurrent.
Found haggis in the convenience store down the block from our apartment! :O – did not end up buying
Sasuage roll (pork sausage wrapped in puff pastry) + british crisps bought from the store right outside school gates for less than £2!

A Very Late Travel Post

(lol so I started this like 3 weeks ago but got hosed, so here is it is).

I’ve been shamed into finishing this – so I’m just going to try to push this out while I’m eating dinner. For reference this is my dinner: a steak pie from Morrison’s – the cheapish local supermarket, tomatoes and sugar, leftover stir-fried pork belly, and a pita (8 for 50 pence!). One thing that struck me is how almost all of the meat and produce is locally sourced from the UK – surprising because it’s still quite cheap.

=== back to the original post ===

It’s 20:39 GMT in Scotland right now, and I’m typing this from my hotel room in Aberdeen.

Today was our first day at our school placement, but not the first day for the students. Their semester starts tomorrow, and so today was a professional development day for the teachers and staff. So we got to meet a lot of people! For this post, I’m just aiming for a semi-organized photo dump and travel log of how we got there – since I gotta go and work on a presentation we have scheduled tomorrow.

On to travel!

Transit modes in order: car, subway, train, moving walkway, jet plane, single decker bus, double decker bus, single decker bus, turboprop plane, taxi.

That’s 8 unique modes of transit!


Boston on the car ride in from home!

At MIT, I met up with my GTL placement partner and we took the Red Line to South Station.

If you squint, you can see our train to TF Green Airport (to Wickford Junction, 3rd row from top).

We arrived at TF Greene, rode some moving walkways, and got on our flight to Dublin. I slept maybe like 4 hours.

Waiting to push back from PVD. Overall, pretty small airport.

Landed in Dublin for 24-hour layover.
Our ticket into the city!
Fried tomatoes, beans, sausage, fried eggs, black pudding, white pudding, fried potato…
Outside the Dublin Pub
Ireland to Scotland
Day 2 in Aberdeen – a look at a fairly typical street. On the left is probably the most common Aberdonian building – local gray granite.

Okay, this was rushed – but at least I’ve got one post out. Hoping my next one will be more reflective and have more narrative in it.

Deep Dizzying Difficult Determined Discussions

Imagine 5 people whose opinions/advice you value/respect. They can be past teachers, past mentors, various important people or famous people you’ve met. (This works better if you actually take some time to do it so here’s a picture for you while you think.)

Me with a bag, somewhere in SF, under heavy attack from the wind.

Alright, now that you have your 5 people, imagine convening them for 1 hour. The purpose of the hour is to talk about your life — updating them on what you’ve been up to and figuring out what you should do next. How would you plan the discussion?

Yesterday morning, this is roughly the question we asked ourselves with a board meeting looming in the afternoon. We ended up deciding to spend the first half of the meeting n introductions and an overview of our recent work. The second half was dedicated to a couple discussion questions:

  • What are our blind spots?
  • What are exciting/new ideas we could bring to Demo Day?*

Just like you would for any ESP discussion, we started asking ourselves questions like what’s the value of convening all these great minds? how should we structure the discussion to get the most out of it? what actionable decisions do we want to be able to make coming out of the discussion?

Our prep mostly surrounded what question topics would be the most useful to ask about and would there be enough time for 2? 3? 4? questions? Coming out of the discussion, we realized this prep wasn’t enough. The discussion was very low energy — board members didn’t feel too comfortable opening up and giving honest feedback. The questions were much too vague (as I’m sure many of you can tell). Most of the blind spots weren’t actually blindspots. Some of them weren’t even weaknesses? So clearly people didn’t even understand the point of the question. Finally, the energy never seemed to hit a peak (you know like 1.5 hours into the morning retreat discussion when you’ve gone too far) — at the end of the meeting, it felt like peoples’ minds were still warming up.

Today, we got to have even more discussions! (For those that don’t know me, I love discussions!) We talked to two strategic advisors with experience in their own non-profits and advising many other non-profits basically for the entire day. The discussion was kinda loosely organized — we mostly just talked about anything with a little bit of structure in between.

We started with meditation and relationship building. I think more than ever, I saw how important intentional relationship building can be to the success of a discussion. If people are not willing to be honest and vulnerable, it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion (particularly if the topics are very personal / emotional ones).

Next, we gave program updates. The two advisors (omitting names for privacy) asked lots and lots of questions. Whenever we’d explain some part of Project Invent, they’d ask questions until they understood exactly why we were doing some thing, how successful our actions were toward that goal, and what assumptions we were making in our answers. Maybe surprisingly, I think they had very different life opinions/assumptions than us, leading to lots of identified potential assumption mistakes (or maybe they’re just really great at identifying assumptions outside of their own views on life). Asking these questions really did two things. First, it meant that for all future conversation, we’d be on the same page. Second, and maybe more useful, asking the hard questions really poked at all the soft spots we’ve been ignoring or avoiding.

After this, we moved into a SWOC analysis. I think it’s unclear to me how thinking about this mentally translates into actionable decisions, but at the very least, this did generate lots of ideas and talking points — from improving at fundraising to defining goals for teams after one year in Project Invent.

By the end of the day, we were both exhausted but somewhat energized by all the ideas. Next, we’ll have to synthesize all the thoughts and reflect on the points made that we truly believe are important and worth working on / thinking about.

I think after these two days of strategy discussions, here are some of my realizations about discussions:

Discussions are how real decisions are made. I feel like this is something I’ve always vaguely known / been aware of. Maybe it’s one of those things where if someone else told me this I’d be like “yeah, ok. sounds reasonable. so what?” I guess my three takeaways from these last two days are really

  1. I wish I could be in on these types of discussions. It seems like a really important way to make an impact. Discussion / negotiation / persuasion skill directly translates to decisions (if done well)
  2. If I were ever to have my own board to make decisions, it’s really important that I surround myself with people I trust to have a good, productive discussions — and I think it’s really hard to find people like this.
  3. These discussions sound like so much fun!

Problems with discussion productivity seem to continue existing outside of ESP discussions. Though the two strategic advisors had extremely interesting ideas, sometimes we struggled with keeping the discussion oriented. So, even if these peoples’ jobs are to have these discussions effectively, this doesn’t mean they necessarily think in an organized way. This then means it’s really important to keep discussions in check and that good facilitators are very valuable people.

I’ll end this post here. Here are a few more fun pictures from the last few days:

Ramen Nagi. I waited for over an hour with Jerry and Aofei (!!!) for this ramen. Was worth the wait.

3 super cheap pastries/bread things I got for $2.50 at a Mexican bakery. Lasted 2 meals.

Tasty Hot Pot in Santa Clara. Personal hot pot bowl — very fancy and pretty good.




Whew I haven’t posted yet mostly because of laziness and indecision on what to write about, but I figured hey I might as well just dump some of the things floating in my brain into writing. There’s just been so much happening these past two weeks, and I can’t believe my time in Italy is already halfway over. I’ve been trying to soak in as much as I can since I don’t know when I’ll be back (though I definitely plan on returning some point in the future), and I’ve finally had a little bit of time to decompress and organize my thoughts.

The Facade of Liceo Govone in Alba
Although the school was founded in 1887, my host family mentioned that the building itself is much much older and used to be part of a monastery complex

If I had to summarize my experience so far in one word, it would be adaptation. I’ve had to adapt to a lot of things (most of them related to my teaching), and as a biologist, I especially appreciate how this adaptation is driving my evolution as a teacher (sorry no more nerdy jokes from here onwards). The school I’m teaching at, Liceo Classico Govone, is a classical lyceym, meaning that the students hear typically focus on classical studies such as Greek, Latin, Italian, Literature, and History. Unsurprisingly, most of them don’t have as strong of a background in STEM nor do they want to ultimately pursue a STEM career in the future. As a result, I’ve had to teach from the ground up and make use of a very sparse and old lab. It’s been fun so far, and I know some of the students are at least interested in what I have to say given how diligently they take notes on my lectures 🙂

Some delicious gelato I got to enjoy while catching up with Abhijit in Milan (featuring 3 flavors: stracciatella, fondente, and pistacchio)

The rest of my time has been spent adapting to the laid back Italian lifestyle, which I honestly could get used to. I love how there are so many snack breaks and a post-lunch naptime, making the late meals much more bearable. I also think I’ve drank more coffee and sparkling water in Italy than I ever have in the rest of my life. I’m also just eating so much gelato, cheese, and bread (especially focaccia omg) – which has been fantastic for my mood but terrible for my waistline. Also, I’m a huge art history nerd, so getting to see all the works I’ve read about in person is a dream come true. There have been some negative aspects though, such as being stranded at the Turin train station for over three hours in the freezing cold late at night because of a train strike that cancelled the last train back to Alba. Overall, I’ve had a fantastic time though, and if you want to see pics of my travels you should follow me on insta @siddarthvader97 (shameless plug hehe).

Michelangelo’s most famous work in the flesh (well actually marble)
Pro tip: If you go to the Academia in Florence at opening time, there’s basically no one there so you get to enjoy all the art (including the David) all to yourself 🙂

To conclude this post, here are some random observations that I thought were kinda interesting: 1) The most common English songs I hear on the radio are Happier – Marshmello ft. Bastille and Nothing Breaks like a Heart – Mark Ronson ft. Miley Cyrus 2) Italian coffee is basically just a shot of espresso. Also, you can get a cappuccino and really good pastry for under 3 dollars (compared to Flour where the same thing would cost you more than double) 3) A LOT of people here have dogs and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I’ve seen just about every breed, and I am blessed that both my host families have had cute dogs for me to play with 4) The most commonly used Italian word is allora, which roughly translates to “so then” – it’s a really commonly used transition and it seems to be versatile in its usage as well 5) Italians use bread as a sponge to clean up all the leftover sauce and other stuff on their plates, which kinda similar to what I do at home except with naan and curry

Luna – my first host family’s doggo and a big borker despite her smol size

Until next time,



Note: I was hoping to post this on Sunday…but it’s Thursday now and I’ve spent maybe 2 hours writing this. Also since I’m a terrible person, I didn’t take pictures of anything I did or saw. Please accept these nice pictures of food and cats instead.

According to the book Forces for Good, non-profits are about starting movements. The story of Teach For America’s growth (via One Day, All Children… by Wendy Kopp) is a great example of this. Wendy, against all sense and reason, willed this concept, the idea of bright individuals helping the neediest schools, into people’s minds across the country.

Rather than testing her program — proving her solution is effective and logical, Wendy’s push was to win people’s minds through emotion. She worked up the severity of educational inequity and on the aspirations of recent college grads to change the world. Every mind she claimed would be another domino to fall in the teacher corps movement. To her, the impact and outcomes she hoped for would necessarily follow. This is Conjecture #1 about movements, an idea Connie has told me since day one: movements are not logical. Movements aren’t made of ideas people can reach with logical reasoning. They play off emotions — the ones people feel deeply passionate about. They get people out of complacency and into action. They can’t be designed, engineered, and executed with high fidelity. In fact, the entire process around creating them is pretty contrary to most engineering mindsets. Movements transcend the implementation details. They’re about the why, not the what.


Tacos from a place known on Google Maps as simply “Tacos”

Conjecture #2: Movements are about reframing the world in a way that makes sense. At the heart of every movement are ideas — shifts in an individual mindset that resonates with many many others. Logic can’t create these shifts because it doesn’t grab peoples’ hearts. Instead, I think these shifts look like reframings of the world that align strongly with emotions, morals, or frustrations shared by many, and often these frustrations go unvoiced. By saying that idea that everyone’s been thinking for a long time, people are convinced to join. For TFA, this meant connecting the problem of educational inequity to the excitement of college grads to make a difference. Where before educational inequity went relatively unchecked and college grads became consultants because they couldn’t see how else to change the world, TFA’s pitch bridged this gap. It created a world where this important problem could and needed to be solved — one that just made sense.

So, returning to Project Invent, what does our world look like? To me, this is really the million-dollar question. Connie and I both have the program experience to make and scale impactful programs, but we don’t know how to convince teachers, parents, students, funders, that they should buy in. (Seriously, if anyone’s interested in talking to me about this, I’d appreciated the help.) One way this question manifests itself is in choice of language.

The tagline on the front page of our website says: Project Invent empowers high school students to invent technologies that improve their communities. To me, this isn’t quite the message we want to send. As a reader, I think this feels like a jumble of buzzwords. Every night, we spend at least one hour (basically until we fall asleep or words no longer have meanings in our brains) talking about our message, about tweaks we could make to get people moving.

If we look at TFA’s website, their tagline is: “Teach For America is looking for promising leaders to take on educational inequity.” I don’t think this is the best pitch I’ve ever seen, but I think it’s pretty powerful.

  • “Teach For America is looking”: I think this immediately makes readers ask themselves Is this me? Maybe some readers even want this to to be them because they feel wanted / valued. The of the read then becomes introspective — What do I care about? What matters to me?
  • “promising leaders”: I’m not sure people resonate a ton with “promising” but I think with “leaders” they really target people who see themselves as changemakers, people who can and want to make some impact.
  • “to take on”: The first time I read this, I think this phrase is what blew me away the most (though I also find it the hardest to explain). There are so many other words that could go here (that also probably come to mind more readily) like “combat”, “fight”, “tackle”, “solve.” I think “to take on” is near-perfect though because it matches this David-Goliath dynamic. Even though the problem is large and scary, we’ll take a stab at it. It isn’t about the problem and fighting the problem or solving the problem, it’s about us, as individuals, banding together to take on this injustice.
  • “educational inequity”: This is a problem that many experience first-hand. It’s one that lends itself easily to emotional anecdotes. It can take on its own meaning from person to person, but it’s an entire set of problems, injustices, wrongs in the word concisely wrapped into two words.

Though we realize the exact language we use isn’t the end-all be-all of of Project Invent, (Conjecture #3:) we both believe finding clarity in our words will help us understand how to better interact with different stakeholders we talk to.


Malaysian curry

Thus far, through our nightly discussions (though we also talk about it at other times) we’ve tried several different approaches to finding some answer. We’ve posed several different phrasings, we’ve tried several different problem breakdowns, and we ask almost everyone we talk to for ideas. We do feel like we’re making progress, but it’s really hard to tell when we’re always scared we’re spending too much time with the same words.

So, we’ve still got a ways to go to start a movement. Language seems to just be the first barrier. Even after hardening that down, we would need to do lots of legwork. One of the best places to do this legwork seems like conferences.

Last Saturday, I went to my first conference. Saturday morning, we flew down to LA for CUELA. We brought pamphlets(!), postcards (on paper much nicer than ESP postcards), and a fresh powerpoint, full of vague language, completed on the plane flight over. After lots of preparation, internalization, and putting 6.UAT to good use, I gave my first conference talk…to the two people that showed up. We told them about Project Invent and asked them to spread the word to anyone they knew who might be interested. They both seemed pretty nice and we got lots of good feedback on what worked from our presentation and what didn’t.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet too many people at the conference. I’m not really sure why this method was so low yield. Maybe it wasn’t really low yield and it just felt like low yield? Maybe digital avenues are lower yield but reach a higher audience. To some extent I felt like the people I met weren’t particularly great or interesting, though maybe this is more a function of the specificity and small size of this conference. As far as legwork goes, I’m not sure if this means we should put more effort towards attending these kinds of conferences or if we should redouble our efforts in social media.

Anyways, after the conference, we went to get ramen.


Soul Ramen from Tatsu Ramen.

The final point I’d like to make about movements is an assumption that’s underlied this entire discussion (though tbh I’ve probably made a bunch of other assumptions and logic gaps at this point): non-profits are about movements. Is is necessarily better to focus on getting the idea out rather than focusing on program success? If a program just really works well, shouldn’t that be most of the work to successful spread? I’m not too sure which side to believe, but I do think non-profit message reliance on emotion may tip the scales in favor of movements. If this is the case, though, that non-profits are about movements, then this really changes, in my mind, the focus of my work (and other non-profits’ work). Instead of just spreading the word to serve the spread of the program, it seems like the goal should be to spread the word and the spread of the program is more of a nice corollary.

Hopefully this post hasn’t gotten too illegible. Maybe someday I’ll come back and edit. Hopefully in the next few days I won’t sit on this much content before posting.



Aspects of Kazakhstan (and Britain)

The schools I am teaching at, Haileybury Almaty and Astana, are offshoots of Haileybury in England, which is one of those fancy British schools. Just relate everything I say to what you know from Harry Potter. Haileybury Almaty has 650 students ages 5–18, with only about 40 students in the sixth form (last two years of high school) because most families send their children to the UK or US for those last two years of high school. The school then has to recruit more students and get some scholarship students as well for the sixth form. Those students are doing their N.E.W.T.s A-levels.

The students are divided into four houses (and the colors are red, yellow, green, and blue, of course). They all wear uniforms – the upper school boys are in suits and the girls in suits with skirts. The girls complain about not being able to wear trousers. Currently, there is no boarding option, but the school is building dorms for future years. The school has a headmistress, and almost all of the teachers here are from the UK.

On Tuesday, the upper school had a morning assembly. The headmistress, upper school head, and we MIT students formally walked up to the front in some kind of procession. (It works a lot better to imagine that this is happening in some English cathedral instead of a modern-looking school atrium.) The headmistress and upper school head congratulated the Year 13 students who got into Oxford and Cambridge (ooh) and gave the rest of the students a reminder of the merit of hard work and personal growth. Then, Alex and I each talked about our journeys to MIT and gave some general advice. Alex talked about the differences between high school and college. I encouraged the students to pursue interests outside of classes.

There was a parent session after school on Wednesday, and we spoke again at that assembly. The parents were there to help their rising Year 10 students pick IGCSE subjects for next year. Afterwards, several parents remained to pick our brains about the admissions procession and what their children should currently be doing. I don’t mind talking about this stuff, but I am starting to grow weary of it. I am also not used to talking about myself, and having to give monologues about me and my past was quite the instructional experience.

We arrived in Kazakhstan last Friday, and we visited the school on that day to get settled. We went through a “safeguarding” training, which is pretty much Haileybury’s version of ESP’s minors policy. (Don’t be alone with the students, don’t act inappropriately, etc.) All the classrooms and offices have windows for hallway-facing walls, so you could see everything that is going on. The school is very serious about safeguarding; they even flew in a safeguarding consultant this past month. Interestingly, we are also not allowed to take pictures of the students, because some of their parents have not consented for that. However, the school photographer (yes, there’s a school photographer) knows which students to take pictures of.

Essentially, parents send their children to this school to give them a good chance of getting into universities abroad. I am frequently told that the universities in Kazakhstan are terrible and that there is no much opportunity here due to governmental corruption and a failing economy. If someone wants to do something that matters, they need to go to the US or Europe. To that end, the school focuses on high-level instruction and also tries to emphasize the idea of a holistic education. (One thing they do is force all students to participate in an after-school activity, which is met with some disgruntlement.)

This week has been a whirlwind of prepping, teaching, eating, and meeting people. I am exhausted every night, but I wake up early (around 6 am) to do more prep for the day. It’s been great, and I will have more thoughts to share about teaching later.

Some fun tidbits / incidences:

🏠 My co-teacher and I are both staying with the same family. They have a nice big house with a glass elevator. The two older sisters currently study computer science (!) at the University of San Francisco, and the father has his own finance-technology company. The three daughters have all taken their father’s first name as their last name. This is in an effort to dissociate from the –ov, –ova naming convention that is a remnant of the Soviet era.

🐕 The family has a husky named Java with complete brown / blue heterochromia.

🚗 Before the days of Uber and Yandex (Russian Uber), you would hail a ride by sticking out your arm at the side of the road. A car stops, and you determine if your destination is somewhat on the driver’s route. If so, you and the driver agree on a fare, and you hop into the car. Apparently this was a very common practice and a nice way to make a quick buck.

🏰 “I am pretty sure there is not a Disneyland in Uzbekistan…”

🧭 The city of Almaty has hills and higher elevation in the south. Instead of telling someone to go south or north, you would tell them to go up or down the street. An Almaty native currently studying in Boston tells me he also tends to do this in Boston, where it doesn’t make as much sense… This up / down thing also causes some maps to be printed “up-side-down,” where south is at the top.

🍣 Sushi is apparently popular in the world’s largest landlocked country.

🍵 However, boba is nowhere to be found, much to the sorrow of David (the counselor who has been in charge of our stay), who is from California. The Kazakh people drink tons of tea though, often with milk. I am offered tea several times a day.

🇬🇪 Alex, my co-teacher, and I both grew up in Georgia. David took us out for Georgian food our first night here, which he thought was hilarious. The food was pretty good.

🐎 Horse meat is traditional here. Our host family made beshbarmak for us!

Until next time,