Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Workouts and Wellness in the Workplace

by Alyssa Guarino
Jr. Project Manager

New Englanders can agree: this most recent winter was a tough one, requiring constant vigilance of our properties as well as our physicality. With record snowfall in Massachusetts, we’ve had to deal with the many unpleasant aspects of the season: excessive time spent indoors, constant snow removal and the threat of roof collapses—all of which create mental and physical strain. But at the Museum of Science, Boston, employees who didn’t have a chance to make it to their local gyms had help staying healthy last winter.

According to a 2013 study by Rand Health, there is an upward trend of American employers offering some form of a wellness program. The lifestyle management programs offered by approximately half of all American companies often provided screening to determine disease risk factors as well as support for issues with nutrition and weight, smoking, fitness, alcoholism and other substance use disorders, and stress; about a third of the programs also provided general health education. And while on a national level, only about 20 percent of employees participated, half of the Museum’s employees participated in its 2013 program.

The Museum is now in the fifth year of its wellness program, which offers stress relief and weight-loss regimens. The reasons for its popularity and success stem from the Museum’s goal to help its employees find a healthy lifestyle fun while incentivizing with competition. This year, the Museum has nearly 120 employees participating in the annual Active for Life physical activity challenge, a corporate fitness competition sponsored by the American Cancer Society. The challenge fosters a sense of community and wellness as employees work in teams to earn points by running, climbing stairs and swimming laps.

Since 2012, the Museum has also seen benefits from its use of the iDiet, a weight-loss program developed by Susan B. Roberts, PhD, professor of nutrition and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University. The program focuses on encouraging healthy nutritional instincts and developing better food habits, and the Museum’s participants have collectively lost over 915 pounds.

If the hard data of participation rates and weight-loss statistics aren’t enough to indicate success, the Museum has continually received positive feedback from its system of surveys and individual conversations with employees. The Museum credits the success of the wellness program in part to its dedication to communication. With its desire to create a “museum culture that promotes healthy lifestyle choices through initiatives that spark and spread interest and passion . . . to staff . . . family, friends and the communities [they] serve,” the program thrives on listening to its employees’ suggestions for improvements, some of which have included adding hula-hooping and mindfulness courses. Some staff members have even lent their expertise to offer classes like tai chi and salsa. So perhaps the success of the program is derived from the Museum being a tightknit and caring community, devoted to its members.

Did You Know?

As part of its wellness program, the Museum hosts monthly sessions of “quiet time” for its employees intended to alleviate stress. Participating staff gather in the Museum’s Charles Hayden Planetarium to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the regular workday and are presented with visual tours of outer space and peaceful music. These half-hour shows allow Museum employees the chance to relax, regroup and return to their tasks feeling rejuvenated.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In Pursuit of the Trivial

by Ken Scherpelz
VP Sales & Business Development

Can you recall Wally Cleaver’s high school homeroom number from Leave It to Beaver? Do you know the name of the mountain range between France and Spain? What about the name of the only basketball coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship?

If you know the answers (which, by the way, are 221, the Pyrenees, and Larry Brown with the Kansas Jayhawks in 1988 and the Detroit Pistons in 2004), then you’re my kind of person. I love trivia, those obscure facts that float around in our heads taking up space that should otherwise be used for more important things like computer passwords, garage door opener keypad codes and wedding anniversaries.

For the past five years, I’ve been a part of a weekly trivia competition that pits teams of ten players against each other. Sponsored by the National Trivia Association and using a written format, the quiz includes seven rounds of ten questions under the headings of General Knowledge, Picture Round, Sports, Music, Geography & History, Entertainment and a final round of General Knowledge that includes a 100-point, ten-part bonus question. The Picture Round, which involves a page of ten photographs that the team must identify, is a toss-up, as the photos make up a set of celebrities connected by a theme. Recent rounds included female celebrities without makeup (you’d be surprised how difficult that was), actors who played US presidents (e.g., James Cromwell and Billy Bob Thornton), and celebrities with alcoholic drinks in their names (e.g., Amy Winehouse and Brandy).

We have a diverse team is made up of fellow church members; I’m one of the older members, which helps with questions about Vietnam, Watergate and old TV shows. Thankfully, one woman on the team knows all of the state capitals and the order of all the US presidents—knowledge that is critical if we hope to finish in the money. My strongest categories are General Knowledge, Geography & History and Entertainment; my weakest category by far is Music. I love music, but most of the short clips played by the DJ/MC during that round tend to be from the pop, rap and country genres—not exactly in my wheelhouse. Now—if they included more Lutheran hymns or 1960s rock ’n’ roll classics, I’d be all over that.

Some might liken trivia contests to academic competitions, but I think that’s taking the contest a little beyond its purpose. We’re not solving quadratic equations here. We’re merely trying to recall in some orderly (and quick!) fashion what’s been implanted in our gray matter over the years. I’m not a scholar by any means, but I read a lot, I’m curious and I love to discover obscure facts. My teammates are of like mind, and during the week between contests we share any UBIs (useless bits of information) that we discover. It’s not like we actually prepare by studying ahead of time—although we all agreed after a particularly poor Geography & History round that we need to bone up on South American and African geography.

We play every week—not for the prizes or the glory, but because we enjoy the friendly competition, the discovery of some previously unknown tidbit of knowledge (Who knew that Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman?), and the pleasant evening out. It’s just plain fun—and that’s not a trivial thing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sitting Down with the SAT

by Abby Murphy
Rising Freshman at the College of the Holy Cross

In 2016, an academic revolution will take place with the College Board’s implementation of a reformed SAT. The College Board asserts that the changed test puts a “continued emphasis on reasoning alongside a clearer, stronger focus on the knowledge, skills and understandings most important for college and career readiness and success.” Students, teachers and parents alike are wondering what these new changes will entail and how they will affect scores.

Since 2005, the test has contained ten multiple-choice sections of reading comprehension and mathematics, along with one essay. Coming as a surprise to some, this will no longer be the case. The new test will be divided into an ELA section consisting of reading and writing, and vocabulary will focus on assessing context rather than difficulty. The new mathematics section will be divided into a section that allows a calculator to be used and a section that doesn’t. The essay will be optional, and an elongated time period will be given to write it. Another major difference between the new exam and the previous one is that there will be no penalty for a wrong answer, giving unsure students the freedom to guess.

Around this time last year, I was filled with angst about my first SAT experience, wondering how I would do on this infamous test. Ten weeks prior to taking the test, I signed up for a one-on-one SAT tutoring program that was held once a week. During these ten hour-and-a-half sessions, I was given a practice exam for homework every week. Needless to say, it was rigorous—but worth it. Due to this intensive preparation, a quick review session the night before I took the SAT was enough for me to feel ready. (This is what worked for me; other people may study less or more depending on their learning styles or stress levels.)

This test is no joke. Many students have high anxiety levels leading up to testing day; this included myself. Halfway through taking the test, however, a great deal of the stress I’d had beforehand had dissolved. My main focus was finishing each section within the time limit, and I could not let nerves about my overall score distract me.

In the end, I did well, but, ironically, despite all of the practice sessions and individual studying, I chose to attend College of the Holy Cross, which does not require SAT scores. Even so, I sent the scores in with my application and feel they may have had an impact on my acceptance. Arguably, it served as a standout quality to my application compared to other potential students who did not send scores.

The new SAT will suit some students’ strengths, and others may still struggle. Nevertheless, with each modification that the College Board makes, the hope is that students’ abilities are more accurately assessed. We will see if this holds true in 2016.

Did You Know?
The optional essay on the revised SAT will revert the overall highest score back to a 1600, which has not been the case since 2005. This change may benefit international students taking the SAT. A Panamanian friend of mine who attends Bentley University expressed frustration regarding the essay portion of the current SAT; she felt she was at a disadvantage because English is not her first language.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Up in Flames: The Magic Behind Movie Explosions

by Dakota Damschroder
Spring 2015 Intern

Why do we go see action movies? Is it for excellent story lines that just so happen to be supplemented by spectacular explosions? Given that the American Chemical Society (ACS), in a video from their online Reactions series, calls explosions “Hollywood’s go-to distraction from a bad plot,” the answer is probably no. Critics like to poke fun at producer Michael Bay for his reliance on pyrotechnics in his films, but his Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth movie in the live-action franchise, earned over $100 million dollars on its opening weekend. That doesn’t even factor in its international success.

Big explosions have often meant big money, which makes a pyrotechnician very important to an action filmmaker. When it comes to the science, making an explosion is pretty simple: It’s the result of a thermal decomposition reaction that produces high temperatures, large amounts of gas and pressure—the combination of which releases an explosion. All you really need is some fuel and an oxidizer, and you’ve got your explosion.

Of course, making an explosion and controlling it are two very different things, which is why all pyrotechnicians need to comply with safety standards set by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA); licensure is usually also required, with qualifications varying from state to state. It’s also why the best pyrotechnicians can make over $100,000 a year, even if they have to carry at least $1 million in liability insurance. Money isn’t always so important, though, when every day at work is so exciting.

Marty Bresin, a pyrotechnician from Encino, California, has more than 30 years of experience in the special effects industry and recounts with glee his favorite jobs. He’s made bombs for films using material potent enough to melt pavement. He’s made fireballs by dropping charges into steel caldrons and pouring gas on top. He remembers the thrill of a successful stunt, such as when an exploded car crashed six feet from actor Spike Jonze in the 1999 movie Three Kings, demonstrating the necessity of actors to stay on their marks—a few feet off and Jonze would have been in trouble. Bresin also knows some insider tricks to certain effects. Need to film an exploding building? Just blow up the windows to create the illusion of an explosion.

Movies aren’t the only place to find spectacular pyrotechnics, as anyone who has seen the Super Bowl halftime show can attest to. Alan Grant, a pyrotechnician with special effects company Strictly FX, was one of the men responsible for Katy Perry’s special effects during Super Bowl XLIX’s halftime. Grant has plenty of experience working with musicians to make sure their concerts run smoothly, whether that means checking for flammability in hair gel or making sure no one strays into dangerous areas.

The job of a pyrotechnician is a particular one, because so many little things can go into one seemingly simple effect. But when it all goes perfectly, the results can be dazzling.

Did You Know?
Thanks to the efforts of graphic designer Jeffery Frankenhauser, we now know that producer Michael Bay’s first nine films have a total of 992 explosions. The first three Transformers movies account for nearly 63 percent of them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Coming Out of Our Ears: OED’s Words of 2015

by Shalen Lowell
Spring 2015 Intern

When I say dictionary, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the stuffy, outdated tomes pushed into the back corners of a bookshelf in the local library. But did you know that dictionaries are constantly changing, adapting, and adding new words and phrases to their vast word lists? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one such publication.

The OED makes regular quarterly updates to its dictionaries, and the latest additions were just published in the online version in March of 2015. Approximately 500 new entries were added this quarter. Check out some of the most peculiar new words: ear opening (n.), hadda (v.), havey-cavey (adj.), laters (int.) and lookbook (n.). The phrase Earl Grey tea is also among the new subentries included in this round. Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor at OED, published release notes offering additional discussion on the different meanings of many well-known words that have also been added this go-around—detailing how some of the new dictionary additions fit in to the existing verb branch structures of have and look.

Jonathan Dent, assistant editor of the OED, goes into further detail about the additions this quarter. In his review of the additions, Dent covers many of the new entries, such as coming out of our ears, white stuff, white water, and elaborates on the new variations of the verb have as well. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of white stuff (a.k.a. snow), which feels very appropriate for me, a New Englander, after such a snowy winter! The March update also includes more than 30 English names given to plants and animals that include the word white.

The history of the dictionary reaches far back. Just as contemporary dictionaries are compiled and reworked to accommodate new words, expressions, idioms and the like, so too ancient dictionary makers were tasked with reworking old editions. One of the first known word lists was of Akkadian origin in central Mesopotamia in the seventh century BCE. Traditional dictionary making as we know it today began with the Greeks, when—as their language started changing—explanations and commentaries were required to keep up the entries.

One of the oldest items in the update is the word arrish-hen, an Old English name for a common quail bird that has not been used since the Norman Conquest. Several idiomatic phrases that stem from the verb look have also been added as subentries, including the following: look the other way, be always looking over their shoulder and lookalike. As you can see, there are a plethora of new entries, some following similar verb or expression trends. The next OED update comes out June of this year. Don’t forget to check back and see what has been added; I know I look forward to it!

Did You Know?

Widely regarded as the first single-language English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—subtitled for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk—was published in 1604. It defined 2,543 words, and its focus was on “hard” words—the ones not known to the general public. This dictionary precedes Samuel Johnson’s publication, which was seen as the first attempt at an inclusive dictionary.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Celebrity Authors Making Children “Happy”

by Annemarie Tompsen
Spring 2015 Intern

“It may seem crazy what I’m about to say,” but Pharrell Williams will be releasing a children’s book in September. Williams is working with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Group USA, to create a series of four books. The first is inspired by his platinum hit song “Happy.” The book will feature photos of children all around the world and what they feel it means to express happiness. The book is planned to have an initial print run of 250,000, and Williams is hoping to share his creativity and inspiration with young readers all over the globe. He says in a public statement, “My collaboration with Penguin allows me to continue a dialogue with these children in a fresh, new way. We’re both committed to feeding the curiosity of young minds with imagination.”

But Pharrell Williams isn’t the only celebrity working to inspire children through the written word. Other celebrity children’s book authors include Whoopi Goldberg (the Sugar Plum Ballerinas series); Barack Obama (Of Thee I Sing); Charles, Prince of Wales (The Old Man of Lochnagar); and Jimmy Buffet (The Jolly Mon and Trouble Dolls).

A trend of celebrities taking an interest in authoring children’s books has encouraged children and parents to become increasingly involved in the reading process. Parents are buying books by celebrities because of the recognized authors’ names, and kids are enjoying the fun and inspirational messages the books promote.

One celebrity who has long been juggling her creative talents is Julie Andrews (Edwards). Best known for her roles in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, Andrews has been writing children’s books for about 35 years. Her first two novels were Mandy and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, but her most famous books include The Very Fairy Princess, The Little Bo and Dumpy the Dump Truck. Andrews has also released a best-selling audio book called Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies.

The newest edition in her collection is her book The Great American Mousical, a story about a theatrical troupe of mice, which Andrews co-authored with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton and which was illustrated by her former husband, Tony Walton. The book introduces children to the art of theater, but Andrews is bringing something even greater to the world: It was also adapted into a musical that Andrews directed herself.

Celebrities like Andrews and Williams have been able to use their fame to encourage reading. What could make us more “Happy” than that?

Did You Know?

Alongside his 14 albums and 4 Grammys, “Weird Al” Yankovic also adds children’s book author to his list of accomplishments. His work includes the books My New Teacher and Me! and When I Grow Up, both illustrated by Wes Hargis.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

There's an App for That: ESL Edition

by Maria DiPasquale
Spring 2015 Intern

Globally, nonnative English speakers now outnumber native English speakers 3 to 1. English has become a global language, leading to more nonnative speakers learning English as a second language (ESL). Teachers are turning to apps, both mobile and on the web, to engage this new generation of English language learners (ELLs).

Apps can satisfy all kinds of learning needs, sometimes in ways that a classroom ESL course cannot. Many ESL teachers consider them an effective supplement to a typical course; mobile apps and online resources allow students to create programs personalized to their individual needs. According to Oxford University Press’s English Language Teaching Global Blog, different activities benefit each type of learner: “Active learners can use chat rooms, games or competitive tools. Reflective learners can use informative lessons, concentration games and vocabulary tools. As for visual and verbal learners, charts, diagrams, YouTube lessons, listen and speak apps, pictures, and reading exercises satisfy both types of learning styles.” These activities can also be fun and engaging, motivating students to practice on a regular basis.

One such app that is aiding English language learning is FluentU. It started as a web application but will be expanding to iOS and Android so users can practice on their smartphones. The app uses timely and fun video content to immerse users in the English language. Users can choose authentic English videos that match their interests, from music videos to business tutorials to movie trailers, so learners are never bored. Each video has English subtitles, and users pause the video to click on specific unfamiliar words to review. This allows learners to hear the pronunciations of words and learn their definitions in context. The app also includes quizzes and other drills to reinforce the vocabulary learned from video scenes. FluentU, like many other emerging ESL apps, makes the learning experience personal and memorable.

In addition to catering to individual learning needs, apps are cost-effective and convenient. For students who cannot afford the cost of course programs, a combination of online resources and mobile apps can be a more affordable way for such learners to master the language. Many of the online resources are free and can be accessed from public library computers if students don’t own a home computer. Mobile apps can also be used on the go and can flexibly fit into a busy schedule; they are convenient for learners juggling jobs, parenting or other education programs in addition to learning English.

Whether students use a combination of mobile and online apps for their education or to supplement a classroom course, there is no doubting how valuable these resources are. They provide a fun, engaging and effective way for tech-savvy students to learn the English language on a platform they already understand.

Did You Know?

We truly are a multilingual nation! According to the 2010 US Census, 60.6 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. Check out this interactive map to find out which languages are spoken throughout the country.