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The UnCollege Blog

Can You Hack an Education in AI & Nanotechnology?

By Jean Fan

If so, how?

This is the question that I’m answering for myself at the moment. Although I deliberately hacked my education in high school, there was never really an end in mind. I simply pursued interesting opportunities and let them take me where they may. They brought great things: a surprisingly nice letter from Stanford, my current position at UnCollege, and greatly improved social skills.

What I did not learn in the process, however, was how to set and achieve deliberate goals. Constantly swept away by the newest opportunity, I was always able to put off making time to work on a sustained and major project of my own.

Now I’m ready to get started. As I approach the 6-month mark of my first gap year, I am beginning to hack my education in a more deliberate way: towards the goal of contributing to the overlap between artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

Why does this appeal to me? I am highly mission-driven, and through working at UnCollege I’ve discovered my interest in bringing profound (not incremental) change. With AI being the “future of the information world” and nanotechnology being the ‘future of the material world,” pursuing the overlap between the two highly technical fields would bring me the emotional satisfaction of making an impact, and the intellectual stimulation that I now know I crave.

Here’s where I’m at right now: I’ve read about both fields, their implications, and the previously mentioned overlap, and I’m really excited by what others are doing. But in terms of technical skills, I’m starting at the very beginning.

Below are 7 ways I’m currently approaching my education in AI and nanotechnology:

1. Creating things.

After an insightful conversation with a friend, I realized that to truly accelerate your scientific education, you have to start creating things right away. “Learn how to fail, and fail fast,” he said, “Then pick yourself up and keep creating.”

All I’ve created so far is is a wall-length mind map that visualizes my knowledge of the two fields. With the priority of “always be creating” in mind, however, I’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to create more as this journey progresses.

2. Finding unpaid internships.

This is something that’s worked out really well for me in the past. Not only is an internship a platform to meet interesting people, it’s also a great way to get real-world knowledge: gaining a better understanding of what needs to be created, and how to do so.

A few of the organizations I’ve looked into seem open to something like this. I plan on leveraging my skills in writing and marketing so I can contribute to the organizations as I learn.

3. Doing research on the overlap.

There are plenty of resources on AI. There are also plenty of resources on nanotechnology. There are very few resources on the intersection between the two.

Since that’s the overlap I’m interested in, I’m actively setting aside time to do research on what has already been done and what the future could look like.

4. Doing classroom-esque learning.

About 6 months into working at UnCollege, I forced myself to come to terms with this fact: that I actually really enjoy sitting in a classroom, reading textbooks, and listening to lectures! As someone who thinks by writing, I suppose it makes sense.

Because of this, I am taking Sebastian Thrun’s renowned Intro to Artificial Intelligence course and reading Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation.

5. Reading journals I don’t understand.

Another friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook a few weeks ago: “How to Learn About Everything,” again by Eric Drexler. The gist of it is that by regularly reading journals that you don’t understand, you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and fill in pieces of the puzzle as you progress. It’s a great way to cultivate understanding of a subject.

I bought myself an online a subscription to Nature Nanotechnology and have been actively reading a scientific journals as a result.

6. Developing a technical background.

I never got around to learning how to program, never beyond the basics, anyways. I think it’s because I didn’t try to figure out how to learn in a way that makes sense to me, and instead just opted for a coding platform that everyone else was using.

I’ve been reading Think Python lately, and it’s been doing a great job of helping me understand the core concepts and goals behind programming. As someone who’s highly mission-driven, I desperately need to contextualize what I am learning in order to keep myself motivated.

7. Having conversations with people.

People have so much wisdom to share if you ask for it. Through conversations with peers and mentors, I’ve gotten rid of unfeasible project ideas, found invaluable resources, and been guided back onto the right path.

Seeking out people who will hear my ideas and tell me that they’re dumb (and why) is really difficult. It’s also incredibly rewarding.


I’m sharing this story on the UnCollege blog because I want hackademics to remember that when it comes to hacking our education, we are all still learning. It’s a continuous process of self-reflection and personal development, and feelings of being lost or stumbling your way through are completely normal. At least, I hope -- since that’s what I’m feeling right now.

Suggestions on how I can better hack my education? Email me at



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