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A B-School Prof’s Bike Ride Across The Country

Al Mink, who teaches an online course at American University's Kogod School of Business, is on a cross-country bicycle ride to raise money for the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's STEM and other educational programs. Courtesy photo

Al Mink, who teaches an online course at American University’s Kogod School of Business, is on a cross-country bicycle ride to raise money for science and technology education in the Washington, D.C. area. Courtesy photo

Folks in rural areas know that sometimes it can be difficult to get a signal on your cell phone. Checking email, posting a Facebook picture, even making a call can be a challenge. Now imagine being in those circumstances and trying to remotely teach a business school class to MBA students on the other side of the country.

Al Mink. Courtesy photo

Al Mink. Courtesy photo

That was the dilemma Allan Mink faced recently in the small town of Mitchell, in north-central Oregon, near the Painted Hills — and far from any cell towers. Mink, adjunct lecturer in the Department of Information Technology at American University’s Kogod School of Business, is on a bicycle ride across the country to raise awareness for science education — and he’s not taking any time off from his job, which means he always needs to be able to check in, no matter how remote his location.

“We were in the middle of nowhere, near the Painted Hills, and there was really no Internet,” says Mink, who teaches the course Management, Information, and Systems in Kogod’s Business@American online MBA program. He teaches through the phone system, synchronized through video in the classroom, which he says provides better audio than Skype.

But on this day, the Internet “was worse than dial-up and inconsistent and there was no cell phone coverage in the town. I had a Verizon hotspot that I could use for wifi as a backup, so I finally made friends with someone at the one local café in town and she let me use the landline, and they had Internet from the house behind the cafe, so I was able to use that and taught the class basically from the back of the café.”

TALKING STEM TO ANYONE WHO IS INTERESTED

What Al Mink's weekly online class looks like. Courtesy image

What Al Mink’s weekly online class looks like. Courtesy image

That was the most challenging day so far, Mink, 59, tells Poets&Quants — and that’s saying something considering he is about halfway through a 2,449-mile, 84-day bicycle trip across the United States.

Mink’s ride is raising awareness and money for the Children’s Science Center, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit dedicated to STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — education. With two cycling companions and his wife Sue in an SUV, Mink rides in the morning to ensure he’s available for class at night, and he also holds regular office hours, just as he would on campus.

The team is traveling from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia on the Bicentennial Trail, a route that winds along the Oregon Trail through Yellowstone National Park, across the Midwest and eventually all the way to the East Coast. Along the way they’re stopping in towns to talk to folks at fairs, rodeos, and schools, impromptu conversations that inevitably draw big crowds when passersby discover the riders’ itinerary.

“We talk STEM wherever we go, to principals, students, parents,” says Mink, whose odyssey began Aug. 1 after 18 months of planning. “We try to get into community events informally. You’ll find fairs going on, rodeos, so you’re talking and a group forms around you, particularly when they find out what you’re doing because it’s pretty interesting. Those are the main conversations we’re having as opposed to trying to pre-schedule specific schools along the route, which can be pretty difficult because if we get delayed a day or ahead a day, it’s tough.”

ON THE ROAD … AND IN THE CLASSROOM

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

It has been gratifying to Mink to see so much interest in not only his journey but the purpose behind it. The retired Air Force colonel has a passion for technology, going back to his undergraduate computer science studies at MIT and extending through his years as a combat pilot and national security expert to his Ph.D. in cloud information technology from George Mason University. And now that passion continues not only in the class he teaches for Kogod but in the conversations he has with people on his epic trek, too.

“More and more you see how important tech is, particularly STEM, in the future of our children, for jobs, but even more importantly for our nation,” Mink says.

Poets&Quants caught up with Mink in Cañon City, Colorado, after a 100-mile day in the mountains around Breckinridge that involved heights of 11,500 feet and thin oxygen. “It’s hard work on the legs, and on the posterior, too,” Mink says. “On the other hand, the wind wasn’t in our face, and it didn’t get above 90 degrees until the last hour, so those are all good things. And it didn’t rain on us!”

Just as his Kogod course is about helping students better understand emerging technology and analyzing it to learn how it can be used in an enterprise, so Mink’s ride is designed to educate people about the importance of science and technology in their lives. There is no weariness in his voice as he talks about the success he’s already had, and the importance of the cause. “The Children’s Science Center is a mobile van and it goes to visit Title I schools, and you wouldn’t think in the Washington area, particularly Northern Virginia, there’d be Title I schools but there are,” Mink says of schools with high percentages of children from low-income families. “So we’re picking up support for the Children’s Science Center and we do this under the auspices of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, in particular the (Northern Virginia) chapter, which is the largest one.

“Without the support of the department at Kogod, I wouldn’t be doing this. I feel really fortunate to have been invited to teach this class because of the passion I have, and be able to make a difference, and be able to do it while I’m on a bike ride like this and have the support of the department at Kogod.”

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