Everyone remembers their favorite teacher, right? I sure remember mine - Mr. Murphy. Actually, all of you have had Mr. Murphy, or Ms. Murphy if you prefer, as a teacher at some point in your life. You remember his immutable law: whatever can go wrong, will.
As part of our Education Retreat, we offer two field exercises: the Leadership Reaction Course and the National Security Course. The latter is really a combination Surveillance Mission/National Security Lesson/Writing Exercise/Critical Thinking Test.
I know, strange combination. But here’s how it works. It starts at the hotel where we hold the Retreat. The FBI field office sends down agents to teach an hour-long surveillance class to the kids. The purpose of this is to “put their heads on a swivel,” i.e. – teach them situational awareness. They learn how to mark their targets, perform routine surveillance like leapfrogging and parallel tracking, establish a communications plan, etc. Just keeping all these moving parts together is an excellent test of organizational skills.
Next, we present them with a national security scenario; usually whatever is dominating news headlines that week. The first time we did this, Russian interference in the 2016 election was all anybody could talk about. So the classroom instruction before this exercise provided background on Russia-U.S. relations and why they are so strained. We took them all the way back to the Cold War and the standoff between the Communist and non-Communist world. This was all news to them. So was Communism; what it meant in theory and practice and why America spent the better part of 50 years opposing it.
Finally, it was time to go into the field. Our instructors helped the kids to prepare a mission plan, which included getting familiar with the layout of downtown Denver and the street names, rally points in case anybody got lost, a communications plan, and coordinating the flow of information between the surveillance team and the cryptography team back at the hotel, which was responsible for breaking the Russian code and deciphering their messages. We had a drone too, which could pick up the targets and follow them in case the surveillance team got burned.
Once briefed, the kids were off to the light rail station. They took the train downtown and got into position. I let my actors, who were posing as Russian intelligence officers, know that we were ready to go “Oscar Mike”.
Murphy struck his first blow within minutes. The surveillance team immediately got made and the “Russian IOs” dropped them like third period French. This was to be expected. Teenagers running around downtown Denver on a school day are an uncommon sight among the hundreds of adults heading to lunch from work. Nonetheless, we had a back-up plan – the drone.
Murphy struck again. Being the clever Russians they were, our actors dropped this coverage too by dodging into a parking garage and coming out the other side. So much for Plan B.
Plan C? Our wily cryptographers, who had broken the code back at the “Opcenter”, were able to pass along part of the Russian plan. They had found out where these intel officers were going: to 1600 Broadway to meet with their American contact.
This is the address of the Wells Fargo Building. Ordinarily this would be an outstanding piece of intel. But when it was passed by text to one of the team leaders, he put it into Google Maps, which told him 1600 Broadway was…the Brown Palace Hotel across the street.
And this is where Murphy really had fun, because all the kids descended on this hotel – named after Molly Brown, Titanic survivor – looking for our two Russians. A student had noticed that one of them was bald and wearing a black suit, so the kids spent the next hour following every bald guy in a dark suit who left the Brown Palace.
Meanwhile, the actors had finished their role-playing by taking the elevator to the second floor of the Wells Fargo Building. Once there, I told them to stand down. They went to the Starbucks in the lobby and were sipping coffee while the surveillance teams chased their tails across the street.
Finally, I called an ENDEX (End of Exercise). Everybody went back to the hotel to begin the second part of the assignment: putting everything they had learned into a written report for the FBI Director. They had to sift through the intelligence reports, the decoded messages, and the surveillance mission debrief, separate fact from fiction, and come to a conclusion. What, in the end, did they think the Russians were up to?
And here Murphy once more reared his ugly head, because the whole point of sending the actors to 1600 Broadway was that the second floor of this building contains the offices of the Colorado Secretary of State. Since none of the surveillance teams made it that far, it was a moot point, but even if they had, I asked all sixteen students – bright, intelligent, accomplished kids – why this might be significant. Russian agents meeting with a contact in the Secretary of State’s office – didn’t that ring any bells with them?
It did not. None of them knew that the Secretary of State was the office responsible for carrying out and monitoring elections. No one had done any research into the building’s tenants to see why it was the Russians’ final destination.
Using a bit of imagination and bringing facts to their logical conclusion is the essence of critical thinking. You can’t do this in a classroom. There must be some confusion – “friction” we used to call it in the military – which the kids must overcome. Much like real life, no?
Oh, and Murphy’s last laugh? We crashed our drone into the Wells Fargo Building. Totaled it.
Every year our Board of Directors chooses a focus of effort for our fundraising and education activities. Last year it was rural districts in Colorado that have switched to a four-day school week due to lack of funding. This year we are very excited to announce that Mile High Education Services will be expanding its program nationally. Each board member got to choose a state or city in need and we settled on three: Detroit, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and rural Mississippi. I chose Detroit.
For a Colorado native who has never been to Detroit, this may seem an odd choice. But here’s why I made it. First, and most obviously – the city is struggling. On July 18, 2013, it submitted the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history. It left bankruptcy protection on December 11, 2014, but most of the financing it received or renegotiated in the intervening period went to fund pensions for its municipal employees.
That’s fine if you’re a municipal employee, but what about the rest of Detroit’s citizens? How will they be able to manage a comeback when their kids attend a district that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, routinely ranks last in academic achievement?
As luck would have it, making big gains with at-risk youth in a short period of time is our specialty. We are planning to bring 16 Detroit high school students to Denver for our weeklong Education Retreat, probably during their spring break. Three of these days will be spent in the classroom with intensive small-group literacy instruction. The other two will be in the field working on critical thinking exercises. You hear about critical thinking all the time, but what does it actually mean?
For us, it means learning to improvise and solve practical problems. We do these in the field because you really can’t learn them in the classroom. To that end, we take our students to the Air Force Academy’s Leadership Reaction Course. This is a walled outdoor compound consisting of ten obstacles that students must negotiate in teams of four. Most have a tactical military objective; i.e. – you are trapped behind enemy lines and must make your way across this blown-out bridge using these two planks and this rope. Go! Then the kids are on their own to find a way across. This is the best part of my job. I love watching them in action and seeing the wheels turn inside their minds as they figure things out.
Which brings me back to Detroit. How can the city get back on its feet? The goal of our retreats is ultimately to give students enough confidence in their abilities and judgment so they can solve their own problems.
These days STEM and Common Core are all the rage, but these strike me as fads. Take the trend (practically an obsession) to teach kids coding. As any tech entrepreneur will tell you, one of the first things they do if they have any serious coding work is farm it out to developers in India or Ukraine who can do the job for less money. This is the problem with too much of the curriculum in public education: it is often designed by people who have no experience in the competitive marketplace. They see headline-grabbing companies like Amazon and Tesla and assume that the future lays in online commerce and electric cars – hence the emphasis on coding and robotics.
Yet most businesses are built on much more prosaic innovations. Many of those were discovered in Detroit, such as E-Coating. Ever heard of it? It was a brilliant idea developed by some technicians at Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. Ford had been receiving complaints from its dealerships about cars rusting out too quickly. The problem was in the assembly line. The frames were sprayed by hand and the paint wasn’t getting in to all the nooks and crannies. As these cars endured punishing Michigan winters, the salt and sand put down on the roads would work into these untreated surfaces and they would rust. Cars just a few years old would look like junked-out antiques.
The solution? Some Ford technicians came up with the idea of E-Coating. They took a car frame, attached a positive battery cable to it, and dipped it into a vat of paint that had a negative charge to it. The negatively-charged paint electrons were instantly attracted to the positively-charged steel electrons. The paint covered every millimeter of the car’s surface and better protected it from rust. The customers were happy and so were the dealerships.
The name of these innovators is lost to history. Chances are they had no more than a high school education. They might have had a STEM class, but my hunch is that the idea came to one of them on a bleak winter day when his car wouldn’t start. He called his neighbor over to give him a jump, fastened the cables to his dead battery, and – Eureka!
This is what our field exercises are designed to do: give the future innovators of Detroit as many Eureka moments as they can handle. Help us put this plan into action by donating through our website at https://www.milehighed.org/donate.html.