Monday, December 29, 2014

Going Against the Grain: The Workshop School’s Unconventional Hands-On Education

by Mallory Abreu
Intern, Fall 2014

Within the vast public school system in Philadelphia, an alternative kind of education rears its tiny head. This atypical school rebuilds the educational framework—literally. At the Workshop School, students are self-driven, becoming their own inspiration to achieve their goals through their own innovation. Taking on projects ranging from electric car design to soundproof recording studios; the Workshop School allows students to delve into the hands-on mechanics behind their interests.
The idea all started with an extracurricular initiative run by Simon Hauger, who is an electrical engineer turned math teacher. Hauger, who was a teacher at one of Philly’s most downtrodden schools, West Philadelphia High School, gathered a team of students to form Philly Hybrid X (EVX Team). Over a span of 13 years, they went on to win multiple national competitions through their innovative design of electric and hybrid vehicles. The program reached its height in 2008, when the team entered the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize, a global competition that awarded $10 million to three teams who could build a low-emissions vehicle capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon equivalent and amenable to mass production. Each team had three-and-a-half years (2007–2010) to build its prototype. Although Hybrid X didn’t win, they did end up rivaling projects with major funding, qualifying amongst large corporations and universities. The team was even recognized by President Obama and honored at the White House in 2010. After this achievement, Hauger and his coworkers’ innovative teaching methods began to be considered more seriously as an educational alternative, and the Workshop School began.
At the Workshop School, students’ afternoons are allotted to traditional math and English instruction, but their mornings are divided into two 90-minute project blocks. Students are able to learn and exercise multiple skills during these periods. More recent projects include turning a classroom closet into a recording studio, wiring solar panels, and designing and building hybrid cars in the school’s three large automotive shops. These projects are designed to be beneficial to students’ communities as well as the world at large.
The way students learn is not the only thing different about the Workshop School. The very concept of progressive learning centers around a one-word acknowledgement of education’s humility: failure. Hauger recalls the time when, during the Hybrid X team’s XPrize work, NASA technologist Bobby Braun came to visit. It was then that Braun spoke a truth often unacknowledged by traditional educators. “He said, ‘When I was a younger member of NASA back in the day, I was a part of the Rover mission,’” Hauger recalls. “He said, ‘We ran into failure every day.’ And he looks up, and looks around, and he says, ‘I imagine you guys are, too.’ And we were like, Are we allowed to acknowledge that?”
Now a co-founder and teacher at the Workshop School, Hauger thrives on this mentality. “What do you learn by following a recipe?” he asks. “The lowest level of any intellectual endeavor, right?” Echoing Hauger’s thoughts, co-founder Matt Riggan says, “Schools, and school culture, are extraordinarily averse to failure of any kind. We treat it as this terrible thing that everyone should avoid. And that has a lot of impact on how students deal with adversity.”
Running the Workshop School remains a challenge due to funding, school capacity and the need for increased local support. Nevertheless, it is not a challenge any of the co-founders plan on surrendering to. Another co-founder, Michael Clapper, knows why he’s engaged and ready to fight for the long-term implications of this kind of school and for education in general: “No one goes into teaching to argue about whether you can go the bathroom or to argue about whether you’ve effectively identified which things are in bold in the textbook. You go into teaching because you believe in kids, and you believe in their possibilities.” The best part is that the Workshop School gives these kids a school in which they themselves can now believe.
Did You Know?
Each XPrize is a high-incentive competition, open to all but requiring extreme ingenuity and innovation. The XPrizes challenge competitors to inspire breakthroughs in fields concerning energy and the environment, exploration, global development, learning and life sciences. Current challenges are the Global Learning XPrize, the Google Lunar XPrize, the Nokia Sensing XChallenge, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize. Future concepts for XPrizes are also listed on the XPrize website. These challenges offer multimillion-dollar prizes, capable of projecting winning innovators further into their research with proper funding. Talk about incentive for change!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Diagramming Sentences: Pictures Worth a Thousand Words?

by Alison Oehmen

In 1877, two professors at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, published a book entitled, Higher Lessons in English, wherein they offered an altogether new way of teaching students how to structure sentences. Termed sentence diagramming, this technique used a particular graphic layout to demonstrate the relationships between the various parts of speech. By configuring the individual parts of sentences in this visual array, Reed and Kellogg anticipated that students would better learn how to write sentences correctly.

Following its invention, sentence diagramming became an instant educational sensation. It experienced a kind of Golden Age within American classrooms and remained an instructional fixture therein for the next half-century. During the mid-1900s, however, the heyday of sentence diagramming was fading, and the once-commonplace approach began to garner criticism. Though some continue to teach it, sentence diagramming has now largely fallen out of favor in academic circles.

Theoretically speaking, sentence diagramming is a means for students to learn how to self-edit and become good writers. As Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, puts it: “When you’re learning to write well, it helps to understand what the sentence is doing and why it’s doing it and how you can improve it.” Once students understand how words and phrases relate to each other, they can more easily recognize and generate grammatically sound sentences. With this foundational knowledge in place, students would then hopefully be able to employ varied sentence structures throughout their writing. All told, these skills serve as the building blocks for more coherent and appealing writing.

However, when it comes to real-world application, the actual efficacy of this method has proven inconsistent. Much of the criticism leveled at sentence diagramming over the years has related to its polarizing effect in classrooms. For instance, for students who tend to be visual learners, it can be highly effective. And yet, because it is such a visual methodology, non-visual learners can find the process utterly mystifying. For these individuals, sentence diagramming is simply a confusing and overly complicated way of looking at a sentence.

So perhaps it’s for the best that this hit-or-miss technique goes into retirement. In my own experience, a comprehensive working knowledge of the different parts of speech—how to identify and use them properly—wasn’t reinforced during my schooling. My teachers never attempted to teach me sentence diagramming, so I can’t speak to whether it would have helped or not. The relative effectiveness of sentence diagramming in particular aside, its general goals do seem worthwhile. Even in today’s internet and text message world, where people are writing more than ever before, correct sentence structure can still be used. After all, LOLs are just interjections and totes is still an adverb, abbreviated or not. Who knows? Maybe diagramming tweets or blog posts will make us all better writers.

Did You Know?

Take a look, grammar and English-language enthusiasts. Can you figure out this sentence? A grammarian constructed it in the nineteenth century to explore how far one could go in assembling a grammatically correct, logical sentence using words that end in the ever-versatile –ing suffix.

This exceeding trifling witling, considering ranting criticizing concerning adopting fitting wording being exhibiting transcending learning, was displaying, notwithstanding ridiculing, surpassing boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing, and touching detecting deceiving arguing during debating.

For anyone who is up for an extra challenge, try creating a sentence diagram for this beauty. You may need to use paper larger than your standard 8.5-by-11 size . . .

Kicking It Old-School: Micro-Schools Bring Back One-Room Schoolhouses

by Alison Oehmen
Much of the rhetoric concerning the present state of America’s education system revolves around the need to create new assessments, new standards and new methodologies. But what if progress lies somewhere in our past? An interesting model of personalized learning—reminiscent of the old-time one-room schoolhouses—is just now emerging and beginning to gain some traction.
Dubbed the “micro-school,” this divergent educational format breaks with the modern trends that have shaped our notion of schools for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Over the last hundred years or so, with cost reduction primarily in mind, schools have generally become big, impersonal and inflexible. The institutional focus on efficiency through standardization began to overshadow the bare-bones objective to educate unique, individual students. Thus, the micro-school initiative, for one, attempts to redress this oversight by revitalizing the personal side of learning.
As far as micro-schools themselves are concerned, the major unifying characteristic is their purposefully small enrollment figures. Each micro-school caters to a student body numbering from a handful to a few dozen children. Not only does this allow the teachers and staff to properly attend to each learner’s needs, it also encourages greater experimentation from both the instructor and the pupil. After all, by nature, the small scale of these schools allows each student to discover how they learn best and each teacher to tailor their instruction specifically to meet these needs.
Contemporary strides in software, internet and other technology capabilities have greatly enabled micro-schools to get off the ground. Micro-school teachers rely upon technology to diligently yet easily monitor student progress and track which forms of instruction suit each pupil. Technology is likewise integrated into the classroom setting as a vehicle for instruction. As many of today’s students are comfortable and well-versed in the latest and greatest technological innovations, micro-schools encourage their students to use technology as a way to acquire and process new knowledge.
This is not to say, however, that micro-schools dole out information strictly via technology. On the contrary, micro-schools utilize a wide range of teaching styles, depending on the needs and preferences of the individuals enrolled. From the traditional lecture format to the more private, one-on-one setups like tutoring and homeschooling, micro-schools try to offer up as much opportunity for specialization as possible.
Some micro-schools, like San Francisco’s Brightworks and New York’s Brooklyn Apple Academy, have a project-based learning approach, whereas Austin’s Acton Academy uses the Montessori and Socratic methods to structure student learning. More important than these schools’ specific pedagogic approaches, though, is their overriding dedication to making the educational experience open and fluid. Students who attend a micro-school experience a considerable amount of agency in determining their own daily routines and schedules. The reasoning behind such a collaborative teacher–student dynamic is that it helps not only to inspire deep interest in subject matter but also to instill vital traits like self-sufficiency, self-control and initiative.
Although this endeavor to scale back in class size, re-prioritize modern education and make the individual student the main focus sounds like a grand and noble one, the micro-school model is still in its infancy. It has yet to be seen whether it will produce favorable results that are long-term and widespread. Who knows? Perhaps the idea behind a one-room schoolhouse can, in fact, address some of the problems we’re hoping to repair in our education system.
Did You Know?
In 1635, the Town of Boston founded the Boston Latin School, the first school in America, and allocated public funds toward supporting the school. Philemon Pormont acted as the first schoolmaster and held classes in his home, teaching the humanities along with Latin and Greek. More than a few notable historical figures have attended the Boston Latin School, including five of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts; Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania; and William Hooper of North Carolina. The Boston Latin School remains open and running to this day.
A final point of interest about Boston Latin that deserves some attention is that Ben Franklin is one of the school’s most famous dropouts. As with many young people from poor families during that time, Franklin’s help in his father’s soap and candle shop was considered by his father to be more important than his education. Franklin was removed from the Boston Latin School age 10 and, from that point on, was self-taught through reading and writing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Intern Spotlight: Meet Mallory

by Mallory Abreu
My actuarial dad and scientist mom knew they had a budding writer on their hands when, at two-and-a-half years old and tottering from the weight of my jumbo-sized, sixty-page Lion King book, I came into their room in the middle of the night. I climbed into bed with them, sitting down to reverse the role of parent and child. I wanted to read them a bedtime story.
I opened the cover and broke in immediately, speaking with fluency, flipping through page after page. My parents were amazed—could I already read? As it turned out, I had done something almost as incredible in my opinion—I had memorized every single page in that sixty-page book. Now an adult who is completely incapable of memorizing so much as a street address, I’m baffled at my toddler-self’s skills. I knew when to turn the pages, when to pause between sentences and, most importantly, when to use different character voices. Every time I messed up, I’d start the whole book over. It took a little under three hours for me to “read” my parents The Lion King that night. Obviously, they loved every minute of it.
A lot of kids don’t really know their direction in life before age three, but I’d wager that I knew pretty early on what I was going to do with my life. Although what type of writer I want to be has changed as I’ve grown, I’ve always been self-assured and deeply passionate, and expressed my thoughts through whatever type of writing complemented them best. A lover of epic fantasy novels and environmental journalism alike, I’ve invested a large portion of my life with my nose in pages of words. Now a student at Tufts University, I study both English and architecture, allowing me to explore my interests in both the power of the written word as well as the geography and sustainability of our world.
My interests are boundless, but if I had to describe them in one word, it would be construction. The construction of sentences and eco-buildings alike fascinate me. When I’m not bent over the pages of a book, I’m bent over design plans or standing with my neck craned up, ready to spot unsteady timber in the frame of an in-progress roof. I love how construction of all kinds informs the way each of us perceives life and ourselves. Construction is organic and fluid, forever changing as buildings and words are re-contextualized and adapted to our malleable world.
Interning at PSG has allowed me to construct many things. I’ve written articles for the PSG blog, learned to organize data efficiently, built relationships with co-workers and developed a sense of myself as a team member in the publishing industry. Working in educational publishing has allowed me to extend my love for knowledge and writing alike into one cohesive field. Looking forward as a prospective environmental journalist, I recognize that this form of journalism is in a lot of ways a type of educational writing. What I’ve learned through my time in the educational publishing industry will be indispensible, and I’m more sure than ever now that I will devote my life to writing—myself learning as I teach others about the people and places of our world.

Little-Known Facts about Mallory
Besides the written word, Mallory loves nothing more than music of all kinds. Her favorites cover everything from Led Zeppelin to Jewel to Billy Joel to traditional Irish folk music. At the same time, one of her favorite things to do is go to the symphony. If Mallory could have any job in the world—other than a writer, of course—she would be a conductor. Although a skilled pianist and music teacher, Mallory learns best playing music by ear—she would find great difficulty in sight-reading entire orchestral scores! Still, she hopes to one day establish herself as a music teacher once she’s gotten some of the adventure out of her system and has settled down.

Does Private Life Exist in an “Always-On” Culture?

by Mallory Abreu
Lounging by the poolside last summer vacation, I thought nothing could disturb the tranquil ambience of lapping water and the steady heat of the sun. With Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams in my hands and cabana music wafting over from the beachside snack shack down the road, life felt paradisiacal. Then it came: the dissonant sound of my father’s smartphone, buzzing on the chaise nearby. Not again . . . I thought, moaning as I got up to retrieve for him what turned out to be ten new emails from coworkers, filling my dad in on the latest work happenings as if he were still on the clock. Footloose and carefree, I needed a few minutes for my summer-slump mind to realize the obvious—that with technology at our fingertips virtually anywhere, we’re always on the clock.
I might have been offended by the interjection of my dad’s coworkers into our family vacation, but in reality this is a development that has become quite normal with the rise of internet accessibility. Many workers appreciate the constant updates, which give them time to do preliminary work before their clocked time and keep them updated in case clients spontaneously ask to be filled in on progress. But this new caliber of work responsibility begs the question: Are people actually more invested in their work in the digital age, willing to put in extra personal hours to generate the best end product possible? Or is this always-on work ethic fueled by an anxiety to relinquish control and fear of consequences?
Perhaps it’s a mix of both. According to Karen Riley-Grant, a marketing director who has worked with various global brands, her choice to be always available stems not from employer pressure but from both a passion for her job and a fear of losing it. “I love my job,” she says. “The decision to plug in or unplug is a personal one. My job is fast-paced and demanding. If I’m not paying attention during the off-hours, things could go south.” With high-stakes jobs like Riley-Grant’s, it’s hard for workers to disconnect from email and phone calls when trying to achieve the best final outcome.
This inescapability of work in the digital age is especially difficult for those with families. The demand from work and private responsibilities around the clock frequently requires that the two mix. For certain IT employees, this work demand is often strict. Robert Sample, a former senior technical analyst for Cox Media Group, has seen rapid change in the immediacy of work communication. “When I started in the 1998-to-1999 time frame, a person would be on call for a week, and typically you might get one or two contacts during off-hours,” says Sample. “Over the last few years, the change has been toward immediate responsiveness and more active involvement.” By the end of his time with Cox Media, Sample was issued a Blackberry that pinged him with an email alert when a trouble ticket was started. “Our SLA [service-level agreement] specified a response within four hours no matter what,” he says. “That goal didn’t even consider whether it was [during] work hours.”
As employees grow more aware of their own place within the always-on culture, many have developed ways to cope with work expectations while also reserving time for private life. Sample has found time to get off the grid by simply not giving himself the option of plugging in. “I’ve started taking a cruise every year,” he says. “You get a few miles offshore, and cellphones don’t work. That way, you can take a vacation and not have to worry about problems until you get back.”
Although for some jobs, being always on is necessary to keep up with high demands and global communication, for others, it might not be worth the sacrifices in one’s personal life. Maintaining a sense of balance and control over the areas in life to which we devote our time is integral to both a healthy work and private life. Although some of us like the adrenaline rush of constantly available data and communication, taking the time to connect with our present place in time is just as rewarding.

Did You Know?
Next time you’re quick to grab your mobile device during a dinner date or when visiting a friend, think again! Persistent texts and emails may drive an impulse to check your phone frequently, which can detract from whatever present moment you’re currently engaged in. As Mark Glaser writes for PBS’s MediaShift, “The unspoken subtext of checking text messages in front of friends is: ‘Somewhere else there is someone who I care about more than you. I want to know what they have to say more than what you have to say to me now.’ . . . We devalue our current situation, the friends and family around us, our surroundings and setting, for something going on somewhere else.”
Here are some more tips on smartphone etiquette to help successfully coexist in the digital age.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Masterpieces at the MFA: Timeless Treasures or Cash Cows?

by Eileen Neary

A museum is traditionally thought of as a meditative setting, an island of hush in a cacophonous world of ceaseless tumult. When I think about the last time I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—or the MFA, as it is commonly called—I can remember the ambiance of the dimly lit blue exhibit room as clearly as I can remember the art itself. But what goes on behind the scenes at museums like the MFA is far from quiet and calm. In fact, it’s been messy, and it’s getting even messier.
The MFA’s policy regarding loans of masterpieces to other museums goes far beyond the usual lending practices. For example, the museum’s most famous Renoir, Dance at Bougival, is a work that many out-of-towners and tourists aim to see. But in the last few years, it has been frequently absent, touring from Japan to Italy and back to Japan. A period of 17 months of absence from the MFA, consisting of transportation to and from more than seven cities, is not exactly what art historians might call sensible or safe. A contributor to the Berkshire Fine Arts (BFA) website refers to the process as the MFA “pimp[ing] its masterpieces.”
The MFA’s Monet paintings have also been racking up the frequent flyer miles. Of the 37 works, 10 were loaned for more than three solid years between 2006 and 2013. Most of the other 27 have been globe-trotting, too. The Boston Globe claims it has “been unable to find another major American museum renting out so many of its most prestigious works of art so frequently.”
Margaret Koerner is an art historian and former trustee who chose to depart the MFA’s board of trustees. She notes: “Our primary responsibility as trustees is to safeguard the art. If these works are placed at risk too often and without sufficient justification, then we are not fulfilling that obligation.”
So when do the risks outweigh the benefits? And by risks, I mean possible elbows through masterpieces, insects and termites, warping due to humidity and so on.
James Cuno, president and CEO of the James Paul Getty Trust located in Los Angeles, agrees with Koerner: “There are always risks to the integrity of a work of art when it is taken down, crated, shipped, uncrated and installed. And those risks should never be minimized. They should only be undertaken for extraordinary reasons.”
On the flip side of the coin, some argue that loaning and shipping fragile art to generate revenue is more common than ever—despite the risk of off-putting potential art donors—and is not limited to the MFA. They also argue that the risks of transportation are just not great enough to prevent important art from being shared around the world.
Eli Broad, a philanthropist and art collector, spoke of his disappointment regarding non-displayed treasures. “If 90 percent of your work is in storage, you need to begin lending it to other institutions.” He continued by urging museums to “get art out of the basement.” This generated some response, as it is not quite as easy as he makes it sound. Museum curators do need to get revenue for their installations, so, naturally, the blockbuster pieces are the ones chosen to make the journeys in order to earn the greatest revenue. And for pieces that don’t draw as many visitors, it is certainly easier and safer to keep them “in the basement.”
But not all museums are willing to loan out their most salient works. Director of Communications Margaret Doyle at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, and Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), also in New York, both confirmed they have key works they do not send out—for any price. Campbell states, “Lending exhibitions for fees is categorically not part of our business model.”
ArtWatch International, Inc. discusses art as “big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit; that is, except the artworks.”
The controversy continues as curators, historians, philanthropists, collectors, admirers and many others join the discourse. What are the side effects of treating our masterpieces like cash cows? Is it worth the transportation risk? What are the ethical repercussions of “pimping out” masterpieces? Is it more about generating revenue or sharing the enrichment bestowed upon the human race by timeless treasures?

Did You Know?
One of the oldest museums ever discovered was located in the ancient city of Ur. Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, was known to collect antiques. His daughter, a priestess, ran a school that also contained a small museum kept for educational purposes. The site has been dated back to 530 BCE.

Employee Spotlight: Meet Kate

by Kate Carroll

I came to PSG in the summer of 2012 as an intern. I was a rising senior at Emerson College, where I was part of the Writing, Literature & Publishing program and minoring in business studies. There, I had firsthand experience in publishing and all that it entailed, from learning InDesign and HTML to familiarizing myself further with copyediting to understanding the general structure and organization of business.
Beyond the skills it provided for my résumé, Emerson also presented me with the greatest opportunity I’ve had yet: the chance to study abroad. For three blissful months I stayed at Emerson’s campus in the Netherlands, Kasteel Well, a fourteenth-century castle nestled into a small Dutch village two hours outside of Amsterdam. During my time abroad, I visited twelve cities in nine different countries, had a view of two moats outside my bedroom window, celebrated Emerson’s twenty-fifth anniversary of owning the castle, and contributed to a parody video with my 85 fellow castle dwellers.
The experience inspired a project for one of my design classes. I designed a small booklet of memoirs that was a combination of everything I had loved and learned: Europe, typography, famous quotes, photographs and even a few Harry Potter references (I titled the book All Was Well, a play on the series’ final words.) I had never thought that I would be able to combine my passions and my academic career into a single mixture. But I found that same ideal combination when I came to PSG, where a grammar enthusiast who also loves math could find her place.
Every opportunity I was given during my internship at PSG contributed to my thirst for knowledge; I was learning each workday, part of a fantastic and energetic staff and proud of everything I was doing. So when I was offered an opportunity to stay on when summer ended, my answer was a resounding yes! During my senior year, I remained on the staff part-time, assisting in editorial duties as well as sales and marketing efforts. Each week provided new experiences, and I witnessed dozens of projects going in and out of the office so quickly that, before I knew it, I had graduated and was part of the full-time staff.
During my time here, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of tasks, from fact checking to proofing to creating marketing materials to editing artwork, though most often I’m copyediting. Each project brings the chance to look at something new, whether it’s internal material, math assessment items, content management systems (CMSes), science assessment items, or literary and nonfiction passages. I enjoy work that keeps me on my toes, and the knowledge that I’ve gained doesn’t hurt my Jeopardy! aptitude, either.
When I’m not watching the game show at home, you can find me reading, playing tennis or at Fenway Park—if I’m lucky enough to get tickets. I was born and raised five minutes outside Boston, and cheering for the Red Sox is as ingrained in me as rearranging a misplaced modifier.

Little-Known Facts About Kate
One of her favorite excursions while studying abroad was traveling to London. A self-described Anglophile, Kate loves all thing British—particularly their accents, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, anything by Jane Austen, and Downton Abbey.
Kate is known around the office for her varied taste in music, having claimed two of her favorites as AC/DC and the-boy-band-who-shall-not-be-named. This has earned her both relentless teasing and the nickname KC/DC.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hydroponics: A Growing Field

by Andy Trossello
How do you offset the growing epidemic of overly available, poor quality, cheap food in highly urbanized communities? By providing affordable, nutritious and locally grown hydroponic foods produced by minority youth who will become empowered with the tools they’ll need to pursue STEM careers!
When people think of hydroponics, what often comes to mind is either the exhibit at Disney World’s Epcot Center or some ideas about a futuristic approach to growing food. That pretty much sums up what I thought about it until a little more than three years ago, when I walked into Professor Mike Barnett’s lab at Boston College. The glowing purple aura of LED lights wasn’t nearly as eye-catching as the seedlings of basil, lettuce and tomatoes growing in white plastic trays inside the classroom. Amongst a barrage of questions, I learned that hydroponics is a way of growing plants using nutrient-enriched water. Little did I know how much of an impact this discovery would have on my teaching career and personal life.
During the past three years, students in College Bound, an extracurricular program at Boston College, have been learning how to design, build, grow and experiment with hydroponic as well as aquaponic systems, which are systems that use fish to provide nutrients for plants. As a STEM instructor in the program, I lead students in an ongoing, authentic science experiment on how to use hydroponics as a way to provide fresh, locally grown produce to inner-city communities having limited access to this product. This opportunity allows students to learn and utilize concepts from chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and environmental science. Additionally, students are exposed to concepts in social justice (by providing affordable fresh vegetables to food deserts in Boston) and in business (such as performing an analysis of growing expenses verses income). The latest project initiative charges our students with the task of growing plants in a more environmentally friendly manner by powering the systems with alternative energy sources.
Beyond my work with College Bound, I, in addition to many other local teachers, have brought a hydroponic system into my classroom. I use it to engage my students in a variety of topics. In environmental science, we explore how this method of growing food could alleviate concerns over feeding a growing human population. In chemistry, we see how light, pH and nutrient concentration are important to plant growth. My work with the program also offered me the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles this past summer to introduce hydroponics and share some best practices with a group of Californian teachers in a professional development program. Seeing students (and teachers!) become invested in how plants grow and design experiments to answer their own questions has been tremendously rewarding for me professionally and personally.
Hydroponics is a rapidly expanding field due to a shift in the consumer market toward local production of food. Compared to traditional farming, hydroponics is faster, requires less water and nutrients, and can be done indoors in climate-controlled environments. The implication is that a farmer can grow crops year-round in less hospitable locations such as cold or dry climates. The consumer market for personal growing has also expanded recently. Hydroponics supply shops are popping up in many locations as a result of the decreasing cost associated with starting your own system and increasing public interest in growing your own food. Perhaps you might consider investigating growing your own basil, tomatoes or kale using hydroponics!

Did You Know?
Andy Trossello graduated from Boston College with a master of science in teaching chemistry and is in his tenth year of teaching. He currently teaches chemistry and physics at Waltham High School in Massachusetts in addition to being an instructor at College Bound. Andy also happens to be married to PSG’s own Annette Cinelli Trossello. With Annette’s editorial expertise and Andy’s science mastery, their two children, Gabe and Amara, are destined for bright futures, most likely including some very well-written lab reports.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Time to Rhyme: Teens Find Artistic Outlet Through WordSpeak Poetry Program

by Alison Oehmen
Let’s face it. The typical high-school poetry experience is usually not the most inspiring or transformative. Toiling over iambic pentameter, archaic vocabulary and the subtlest of metaphors can strike many students as somewhat pointless and irrelevant beyond their obligatory English courses. In Florida, however, a poetry program run by Tigertail Productions called WordSpeak is offering an alternative poetic experience for 1,000 South Floridian teenagers.
Each year, a group of students is selected as the WordSpeak team in order to compete in various poetry slams and competitions. Rather than focus solely on the works of others, the participants—six in number for this year’s team—generate spoken-word poems of their own, which they then perform at various venues and competitions throughout the year. In addition to booking more low-key gigs and local performances in and around Miami, this year the group performed at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and participated in the Brave New Voices (BNV) national poetry competition.
Guided by Teo Castellanos, who has served as the WordSpeak coach for eight of the program’s nine years, the WordSpeak teens learn about the logistics of language, rhythm and stage presence while also discovering the power of their own unique points of view. After all, beyond the straightforward elocutionary and literary knowledge that Castellanos doles out to the teen poets, the ultimate goal of WordSpeak is to provide a constructive and creative outlet for them. As Mary Luft, the director of Tigertail, remarks, “We see it as a transformative project. . . . [The students] start thinking differently about their place in the greater world and what else is out there.” With this philosophy in place, WordSpeak strives to instill a sense of confidence and empowerment in young individuals who might have otherwise not had a voice.
In order to achieve these broader aims, WordSpeak fosters an atmosphere of collaboration, an effort that begins with the program’s coach. Castellanos interacts with his students as an instructive yet relatable presence, providing useful tutelage in an engaging and relevant way. The WordSpeak teens also participate in collective brainstorming sessions, wherein they discuss and exchange new ideas for poems. Although the group participates in competitions, it is nonetheless a tight-knit and supportive unit.
Moreover, Castellanos encourages the members of WordSpeak to draw inspiration not only from personal experiences but from farther-reaching current events issues as well. Whereas many teenagers grow up paying little attention to social problems and concerns, members of WordSpeak are challenged to cultivate a broader awareness and perspective that reaches beyond the self. This outward focus not only specifically strengthens the teens’ writing by giving their pieces wider audience appeal, but also bolsters their sensibility and self-confidence—characteristics that place them in good stead far beyond their stint as WordSpeak poets.
Even the more competitive events in which WordSpeak partakes have a concentrated emphasis on edification. The BNV, for example, though widely recognized as the Olympic equivalent of spoken-word competitions, offers a range of activities beyond the competition itself. Each year for the impressive crowd of entrants, which includes over 500 youth poets from 50 different teams, the BNV hosts a number of workshops and readings with established poets and performers, as well as open mike nights. Previous years’ events were even aired on HBO.
On a personal note, as a poetry fan myself, I think WordSpeak, the BNV, and similar poetry groups and coalitions sound fantastic. It’s nice to see poetry is alive and well nowadays, and functioning as a healthy, dynamic outlet of expression for many students across the country. I only wish I had that kind of opportunity when I was in high school!

Did You Know?
The Brave New Voices competition was the first poetry slam competition of its kind in the world that was dedicated exclusively to youth poets. Since its creation by Youth Speaks Inc. in 1998, the BNV has become the largest ongoing spoken-word event worldwide.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Can a “Math Person” Learn to Love Shakespeare?

by Mallory Abreu
“The difference between arts and sciences is not analytical versus intuitive, right?” That’s what Mae Jemison, the first female African American to travel in space, questioned during her 2009 TED talk. Both a NASA astronaut and a dancer, Dr. Jemison has lived her life in the crossroads between art and science. The fact that she didn’t view career choice as an either-or situation between the two disciplines is precisely what allowed Dr. Jemison success in her field. By understanding the intimate relationship between artistic and scientific thinking, Jemison and other such scholars demonstrate the vital interconnectivity between analysis and intuition. Jemison remarks that Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Turns out, the mysterious is not the only similarity between the two.
According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications, about half the genes that influence a child’s math ability also influence their reading ability. In the study, 2,794 twelve-year-olds, each a member of a twin pair, were analyzed through standardized testing. Researchers compared the correlation between genetic properties and test results by studying numeracy and literacy abilities of both twins, whose genetic makeup is the same or similar, and unrelated participants, whose genetic makeup is different. Researchers also analyzed the participants’ DNA with the intent of honing in on a particular set of genes that could be attributed to math or reading capability. However, no particular gene set emerged. Robert Plomin, professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London and one of the authors of the study, speculates that this could be because thousands of genes may be involved in helping to shape these abilities.
Plomin feels further research will help us understand how we can shape our educational system to recognize and work with different genetic propensities. “Heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone,” he says. “It just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”
Indeed, if education is to be cohesive and beneficial to students of all learning levels and areas of interest, the arts and sciences should go hand-in-hand in learning, just as they do genetically. The divide is often treated as a strict choice: Either you play piano and write poetry, or you solve algorithms and write lab reports. This sentiment is reinforced through the idea that every student must find their one “area of expertise” upon which to focus.
With an actuary for a dad and a scientist for a mom, I oft felt a little unwise in my pursuit of English. Because my parents’ occupations and my studies appeared so disparate, I struggled to settle on my own niche. I refused to pursue anything mathematical because I felt I was following in my parents’ footsteps. As I continued my English endeavors, the choice became less of a decision and more so a bounded literary track. I began to feel restricted, and although I felt that I’d found my personal niche, I regretted that math was becoming obsolete to my studies. I realized that math was something I truly enjoyed (although I can probably never say this to my dad, lest he force me into the actuarial sciences.)
The point is this: Although I came to realize that I wanted to pursue English in some form, I also understand that math, science and even engineering fascinate me in ways that are both entirely different than my passion for language—and yet very much the same. No, I don’t want to be an actuary. But that certainly does not mean I need to hate math!
Now that I’m pursuing both English and architectural studies majors, I realize that my mathematical and literary interests are actually not that different. Both explore information and sensations the world gives us and attempt to rationalize, analyze or perhaps just revel in the puzzle. Like Dr. Jemison, I truly feel that each of my areas of study benefits from the acknowledgment of an alternative perspective. When I think of the beauty created from an engineered building or the precise calculations behind a dancer’s routine, I understand that the arts and sciences are inextricably combined. So . . . is there really such a large difference between a linguistic and a mathematical expression? As the phrase goes, “2B or not 2B?” Maybe Shakespeare was a mathematician in disguise after all.

Did You Know?
Besides being an astronaut, Dr. Jemison is also a physician, a Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher, and a founder and president of two technology companies. Currently, she takes an active role in education. In 1994, Dr. Jemison founded The Earth We Share (TEWS), which promotes science literacy for students and teachers worldwide. The program is a four-week residential camp that brings students from around the world together with teachers and college interns to solve real-world problems.