Meeting with Ben Nelson, Founder of Minerva Project

Photo with Ben Nelson

FutureEdu Tokyo team had a pleasure to meet with Ben Nelson, CEO and Founder of Minerva Project, together with Hideki Yamamoto, the Japan Ambassador of Minerva Project, and Or Segal, Sophomore student at Minerva Schools at KGI.

Ben is a successful tech entrepreneur, who previously served as a CEO of Snapfhish, an online photo service, which was later acquired by HP. And since 2012, Ben has followed his passion to reinvent higher education and started Minerva project, which operates Minerva Schools at KGI, a residency based 4 year traveling university with very diverse mix of student body.  78 % students come from outside of the US, which is quite the opposite of the elite universities in the US.

Minerva School Demographic Mix

Source:  Minerva Schools at KGI

For example, Harvard University only has 11% of its students from overseas.

Harvard Admitted Student Profile

source:  Harvard University website

There are so many unique things about how Minerva Schools, and I became a huge fan of Ben’s vision that we can reinvigorate Roman ideals of what university is truly about by starting from scratch (without legacy) with a group of super smart people and harnessing the power of technology.

Besides his big vision and diversity of the student population, other things I was immensely impressed were:

  • Nurture global leaders by seeing the world and studying with students from diverse nationalities and background:  Even though many top universities boast diverse student body, as seen on Harvard’s example above, Ben claims that the international students were added to the mix for the majority (i.e. American students), rather than the school positioned as a place for global talents.  One thing people notice quickly when traveling to the US is that the majority of Americans are domestic focused, rather than internationally minded.  Given ever more global nature of our world with more interconnected issues, their models of having smart, truly diverse mix of students studying in various countries can be one answer to more peaceful world.
  • Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts to rewire kids in the first year:  The Dean and Chief Academic Officer of the school, Stephen Kosslyn, is a 30+year veteran at Harvard university and once was the Dean of Social Science at Harvard Unvierstiy.  He and the team have identified over 100 traits that are important to master in order to to the succeed and become leaders is 21st century.  In the first academic year, all the students are required to take 4 cornerstone courses to get their skill sets to equal footing.  It is a very structured curriculum, not Chinese menu!

4 Corner Stone Courses are:

Empirical Analyses focuses on thinking creatively. You acquire the ability to use the scientific method to frame problems, test hypotheses and engage in informed conjecture.

Formal Analyses focuses on thinking critically. You get deep training in advanced logic, rational thought, statistics, computational thinking, and formal systems.

Multimodal Communications focuses on communicating effectively. You learn effective reading and writing at a very high level, visual communication, public speaking, roles of art and music in communication.

source:  Minerva Schools at KGI website

  • Real Online Project Based Learning, not MOOCs:  Ben stressed the importance of Minerva’s online courses being very different from MOOCs, which tend to have very low completion rate of around 10%.  The key differences between them in my my understanding are: 1) Minerva has its own proprietary software which empowers professors to promote student participation and give real-time feedback vs their performance criteria.  The software creates heatmap, so that there is no dominant speakers, and everyone gets heard, 2) it caps students under 20 per project room, which helps everyone to participate (vs. 100+ students in normal university seminars), and 3) you learn online, but as a resident program, you work with peers offline.  With these 3 combined, students can benefit from more improved learning style with technology, while retaining the value of working closely with others offline.

We do not yet have an English translation, but for Japanese speakers, please have a look at the interview blog to see what we have learned from the conversation with Ben.