Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Days Are Long But the Years Are Short

My son will be starting his high school classes in a few days, and I think we are both experiencing the same mixed feelings one typically has in any new endeavor:  excitement about the possibilities and trepidation about whether we will be able to handle the new challenges.  And I think we both, but me more so than him, are also experiencing some grieving over leaving what has been behind.  Our earlier years together seem easier, less complex, filled with the notion that we had plenty of time to get around to studying all the things we wanted to cover.....eventually.

But in high school, it feels like the clock starts ticking.  Now we only have a few more precious years to cover not only the school subjects required for college admission, but all the life skills necessary for him to live his life on his own.  And now we must face the reality of test scores and grades and deadlines that had been a lot less important in his earlier years of schooling.

Plus, the high school years provide me with the added challenge of beginning the process of letting him go.  Each year I must step back more and more so that when it comes time for him to leave the nest, he is ready to fly.  Which, of course, is what we all want for our children.  But it is not always easy to prepare for the day when the ones you love so much and have made the center of your life are not there any more.

But I was thinking, it is easy for us to see how much our children have changed over their years with us, but much harder for us to recognize how much we have changed as well.  I'm not the same person who started this parenting journey, and I'll be a different person once my son has left home.  So when that happens, I hope I'll be able to let go of my image from my past as a parent and embrace the new person I'll be with my son on his own in the world.

I just happened upon these videos this morning, and they gave me some encouragement about stepping up to my new future.  The first is of the queen of reinvention herself, Madonna.  It is a video of her performing the song "Vogue" over a span of 22 years.  Some years she is wearing virtually nothing, one year she is dressed in full 18th-century regalia, and many other phases in between.  But she is an inspiration about how she can keep singing the same song, but keep it fresh, year after year.  Check it out on YouTube at:

Then there is a similar video of Elton John, singing one of my very favorites of his songs.  His performance is quieter, but perhaps more profound.  But it was wonderful to see that the song remains equally powerful as Sir Elton has transitioned from long hair to white hair:

So where ever you are in the journey of teaching your high schooler....whether you are just beginning and worried about getting it right, or exhausted by it all and can't wait to get it done.... I hope you find these videos as comforting as I did.

Good luck for the coming year!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Failed Experiment at San Jose State Shows the Down Side of MOOCs

One of the hottest new topics in higher education these days is the MOOC--that is, a Massive Open Online Course.  Tens of thousands of people have signed up in EACH of the hundreds of MOOCs being offered for free by such top-tier universities as Stanford, Harvard, Duke, and the like.  It is such a trendy thing among American colleges that the recent debacle at the University of Virginia, where the Board first fired, and then was forced to reinstate popular President Teresa Sullivan, was largely due to the Board Chair's perception that Sullivan wasn't moving aggressively enough into the online arena.  (For more information, see my blog post Doing The Right Thing at the University of Virginia.)

As I stated in that blog post, while I understand the exciting potential of MOOCS (and am participating in three different MOOCs myself this summer), its place in undergraduate education is far from clear.  Having ten thousand or more people like me--people who have already completed their college education and are doing MOOCs for self-enrichment, professional development, or just pursuing a personal interest--are entirely different creatures from students trying to graduate from an accredited college program and start their professional careers.

A recent news event gives some proof to the cautions I mentioned in that earlier blog post.  On July 18, 2013, officials at San Jose State University suspended a highly-vaunted experiment with MOOC provider Udacity to lower the cost of a college education by placing their students in MOOC course, which were less expensive than the SJSU standard classes ($150 per online course compared to $620 for the traditional ones).  The problem?  Their local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, reported that the SJSU students were failing the MOOC classes at alarming rates--from a 56% failure rate at the best, down to a 76% failure rate at the worst.  I couldn't find any exactly comparable rates for their traditional classes on campus, but in 2011, SJSU had a first-year retention rate among freshman students of 82.9%, so it clearly can't be anywhere close to those failure rates.

But am I surprised by those rates?  No.  In my opinion, SJSU picked the wrong population with which to begin to experiment with MOOCs.  The five courses in the experiment were all considered to be remedial classes--basic math, elementary statistics, college algebra, introductory computer programming, and psychology.  Remedial classes, by definition, are supposed to supply students with information and abilities that they are already expected to have, but are deficient in.  In most cases, this means that they have already been exposed to the material, but failed to comprehend it.  But if you have students who have demonstrated a problem in a particular curricular area, why would you enroll them in a type of course in which they get LESS support when obviously they need MORE support?  Plus, these students did not get to choose to participate in the MOOC; they were simply assigned to it.  Successful online learning requires a special kind of learner.  To my mind, people taking remedial classes are the least likely to benefit from MOOCs, at least as I have experienced them.

Do you know who has been doing an exemplary job in online education, not just since Time Magazine dubbed 2012 as "The Year of the MOOC," but for decades?  It's not Stanford, whose first MOOCs enrolled over 100,000 students apiece and whose faculty started the MOOC companies of Udacity and Coursera.  It's not MIT, with along with Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, and a few other universities of that ilk, launched edX.  No, the higher education institutions that have been doing this well for years and years and years colleges.  Community colleges, with their commitment to universal access and serving all populations of learners, have been doing online learning for years, and doing it well.  But if you talk to community colleges, they will tell you that online learning is not cheaper than their traditional classes on campus.  Sure, maybe you can reach more students with one lecturer projected to a broad population, which might be cheaper.  But community colleges have made their online courses successful because they invest significantly in student services that support the distant learners in keeping up with and completing their courses.  

So while I understand the motivation behind the SJSU effort, I think it was a foolish decision.  For MOOCs to have high completion rates, colleges need to spend a lot more time, attention, and money in student support, which has been completely neglected in all of our love fest with MOOCs.  After all, spending $620 for a class that you complete and get credit for is a better deal than spending $150 for a class that only gets you an F on your college transcript.

And I can tell you from my MOOC experience that they are not that easy to follow.  Of the three that I am taking, in only one of them am I completely clear about what I am supposed to do, when I am supposed to do it, and what I am supposed to do with my assignments once I complete them (and that one is only a mini-MOOC with fewer students and a greater amount of personal interaction with the MOOC leaders).  A second one I'm pretty sure I'm keeping up, but not 100%.  And with the third one, I was lost a lot of the time.  The thing was, I didn't really care.  I was getting some good information, I felt I was contributing to my fellow MOOC learners, but I'm not fully invested in any of these classes (although pretty invested in the first one).  They all offer certificates of completion, but I don't care about earning those; they have no particular value to me.  So I do the best I can with the time I have available, and feel what I've learned (and hopefully what I have contributed) is enough for me without necessarily completing the course.

But if I were depending on these for a foundation part of my college education?  I would be way more stressed out about even figuring out whether or not I am doing what I am supposed to be doing (except for the first MOOC).  And I am someone who has completed both undergraduate and graduate school and successfully completed a couple of community college online classes!  Can you imagine what it is like for a less experienced learner trying to navigate this online environment with thousands of other confused students?

So I don't mean to trash MOOCs.  I've really enjoyed and have learned a lot from the ones I've been doing this summer.  But I do believe educators and the public need to think through more carefully the application of this new educational possibility to accredited programs.

After all, just listening to a talking head from Harvard, accompanied by all the technological bells and whistles they can design, is one thing.  Getting an education--that is another.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

New Book Explores How College Got So Expensive

I assume that most of you who are looking at the price of current US college tuitions, especially among top-tier schools, have a reaction similiar to mine, which is--This is insane!  How in the world did colleges get to be so expensive?

There is a new book out that tries to answer that question, written by an author associated with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the premier newspaper covering American colleges and universities.  It was reviewed recently by the economic columnist for the Washington Post, Michelle Singletary.  I have excerpted part of her article below.

So while I haven't read the book, it sounds like it does a good job of analyzing how things got to be so ridiculously expensive.  It also may be a good vehicle for helping your family and your potential college applicants to sift through what college benefits are worth the price tag, and which ones you might want to reconsider, no matter how attractive they may seem on the surface.  Jeffrey Selingo, the author, also has some predictions about what we can expect in the future--which, thankfully, is NOT that prices will keep rising at such a step rate.  However, future college configurations may look very different to the ones we had when we were undergraduates....

Why college has become so costly (excerpts)
By Michelle Singletary
The Washington Post
July 12, 2013

(Jeffrey J. Selingo) - Book cover \"College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students.
Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a compelling book that looks at the state of higher education: “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students” (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $26)....
Part of the reason higher education is in trouble can be traced to the “Lost Decade,” as Selingo calls it. He defines it as the period from 1999 to 2009 when colleges were “chasing high-achieving students, showering them with scholarships to snatch them from competitors, and going deep into debt to build lavish residence halls, recreational facilities, and other amenities that contribute nothing to the actual learning of students.”
But the decade of more has come to an end, leaving many people in debt. In 2003, according to Selingo, only two colleges charged more than $40,000 annually for tuition, fees, room and board. By 2009, 224 had crossed the mark, and another 58 had passed the $50,000 plateau.....
Selingo’s historical tour of higher education is important in order to understand how to resolve the problems in the scholastic industry. You come away with a keener understanding of why college costs so much and how schools have been able to get families to ignore prices. His research is peppered with real-life examples of high-school students sold on colleges they couldn’t afford....
Moving forward to the future, Selingo talks about the forces that are and will continue to change higher education. Schools are in debt, state funds to colleges have been cut, and fewer families are willing to pay skyrocketing prices. Such developments will force schools to deliver their product in increasingly different ways, such as providing more online courses. He profiles a program that allows students, especially older adults returning to college, to demonstrate the mastery of a subject through a series of assessment tests, thereby reducing the time and money they need to spend to get a degree. He sees an unbundling of the traditional structured college experience.
Click here to read the original review in its entirety.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby and CGI

After my article on The Lone Ranger, I thought I would add this post that also relates to movie-making.  A few months ago, I went to see The Great Gatsby movie after re-reading the book (which I have always loved) with my book club.  I thought it was a visually-entrancing and interesting interpretation that did justice to the book.  I loved Toby Maguire, found Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby to be a credible version, and found my doubts upon hearing that Carey Mulligan was playing Daisy to be confirmed (however, that may be the hardest role in the book--certainly, the previous attempts I've seen to capture Daisy have been similarly unsuccessful).

Of course, viewing all the Baz Luhrmann excesses of the roaring Twenties would not have been possible without CGI.   But I didn't realize how much that was true until I saw this video by Chris Godfrey, who was the Visual Effects Supervisor for the film.  This video displays some of the scenes as  before and after shots--before CGI, that is.  It is really amazing!  I knew some, even lots, of this stuff was computer generated, but there were other elements that I never imagined weren't there in real life.

Watch it for yourself below:

The Great Gatsby VFX from Chris Godfrey on Vimeo.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Postmodern Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's Empowered Tonto

We kicked off our 4th of July weekend by seeing the latest Johnny Depp movie, The Lone Ranger.  While the reviews haven't been stellar, I found the move to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking.  But I guess the problem is that I've ended up thinking more about why the movie makers included some of the things that they did, so that I'm focused on the process or message of the move rather than the movie itself.

In some ways, while the movie reunited some of the main players who produced The Pirates of the Caribbean (which I really loved, despite my initial skepticism about what sounded like the most ridiculous premise for a movie ever--an amusement park ride?), this is almost kind of an anti-Pirates movie.  Why I mean is that Bruckheimer and company just went whole hog with that movie, making it an outrageous and  rollicking tale that reinterprets pirates as not thieves and murderers, but as incarnations of the American spirit of freedom and non-conformity against the British formal restrictions  against individuality and independence.  What's not to love?

I think that the issue with The Lone Ranger is that the point, at least the one expressed by Johnny Depp in the interviews I've read, was to reinterpret Tonto not just as a faithful sidekick, but an equal partner who incorporates Native American perspectives with our typical Caucasian hero fare.  But to do justice to the Native American experience, the movie can't simply be a fantasy Wild West story that whitewashes the mass slaughter of people who inconveniently were already occupying land that we wanted to claim for our own purpose.

Hence, the dilemma.  Buddy tale, or political statement?  Summer action blockbuster with a conscience?  Not an easy thing to pull off, and we'll have to see how it all fares.  But I think it was a more interesting attempt to use a star vehicle for something more than just making boatloads of money.  And so I would recommend it.

I found an interesting review of the movie by Richard Brody in The New Yorkers, and I've reproduced it below.  It contains spoilers, so go see the movie first, then read his views about how this movie is more of a reflection of our times than of our Western history.

July 3, 2013

“The Lone Ranger” Rides Again

Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” is the Western for this age of meta-cinema, a time when viewers see beyond movies to their making and their marketing. In effect, “The Lone Ranger,” like other recent tentpole movies, is a work of conceptual art. The high concept, delivered at the imagined pitch meeting, becomes part of the story, and, as a result, the script dominates the experience as surely as if it were pasted onto the screen, page by page. (The budget is also displayed, in the form of the images and the so-called production values that they convey.) “The Lone Ranger” says little about the American West but a great deal about the virtues and failings of our time and of contemporary big-scale Hollywood filmmaking.

The first shot of the movie, depicting the Golden Gate Bridge in a state of ruin, is a shocker. It seems to be taken from a postapocalyptic political disaster movie, but a superimposed title setting the action in San Francisco in 1933 reveals that, instead, the bridge is under construction. The association is clear enough, though—it puts the modern West under the sign of the Wild West. The shot continues, in a sinuous crane, to a boy (Mason Elston Cook) who gazes into a life-size diorama featuring a statue-like rendering of “The Noble Savage,” a Native American who turns out to be not a mannequin but, rather, a living man standing stock-still on display—none other than Tonto. Well past eighty, he tells the boy a story, set in a Texas outpost in 1869, that turns out to be the bulk of the film, in flashback.

The action of the story that Tonto tells gets under way with a prisoner’s escape from the train that’s bringing John Reid (Armie Hammer), ultimately the Lone Ranger, home to a Texas town to serve as prosecutor after his stint out East in law school. Tonto’s tale has the authority of the first-person account as well as the exaggerations of an avuncular performer and the distortions of time. This accounts for its overtly political elements and its occasional forays into goofball comedy, as well as for its wildly impossible set pieces, which are designed to amuse rather than inform his young audience of one.

The plot (spoiler alert) involves a railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson) who hires a bloodthirsty criminal (William Fichtner) to stir up trouble with the peaceful Comanches in order to get the U.S. Army to dispose of them and free up land for the rail line’s westward passage. This story replaces the triumphalist legend of the westward expansion with a troubled and guilt-ridden tale that reflects its guilt forward, into the present day. But the politics of that plot are subordinated to its main purpose: to set up the two backstories of how Reid became the Masked Man and how Tonto became his partner (not his sidekick).

Backstory is an essentially democratic mode of storytelling; it defines people by their personal particulars rather than by their social station or other outward identifiers, and it explains action not in terms of situations but in terms of individuals’ needs, conflicts, desires, dreams, and troubles. Popular Hollywood movies are the avant-garde of this liberal idea (“Man of Steel,” for example, is nothing but backstory), which converts the present into destiny and the future into a vision of redemption, whether making good on a past error or sin (that’s Tonto’s story) or seeking some sort of vengeance.

With Westerns, backstory makes sense: history is to society as backstory is to character, and the country is as tethered to its past as are its citizens to their personal stories. The simple didacticism of “The Lone Ranger” is to grant Native Americans their rightful place in the national narrative, and to find a way to make good on the injustices on which the nation developed. The Western is an inherently political genre because it renders as physical action the functions of government that, in modernity, are often bureaucratic and abstract. But that’s exactly where the highly constructed conceptualism of “The Lone Ranger” disappoints: it renders the physical abstract. Despite the elaborate and often clever gag-like action stunts (or C.G.I. contrivances) and the occasionally grotesque violence, the movie seems not to be there at all, replaced throughout by the idea of the movie.

In fact, “The Lone Ranger”—which features many of the elements of classic Westerns, including an all too brief view of the majestic landscape—is not a Western but a collection of signifiers of Westerns that are assembled in such a way as to attract audiences that would never be attracted to a Western. It’s almost beside the point whether its elements are “good.” Johnny Depp brings a sonorous voice and a dry humor to the role of Tonto, and Armie Hammer, who specializes in the soul of the Wasp (and should have played Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”), offers just the right genteel naïveté to suffer the disillusionment that counteracts the popular Western myths of 1933 and their vestiges today. Verbinski takes pains to meticulously recreate crusty details and directs the action sequences with a graphic academicism, a bland eye-catching cleverness that communicates action without embodying it—which is exactly the point. For those who love Westerns (and I do), “The Lone Ranger” winks at them consistently enough to elicit warm reminiscence of the moods, the gestures, the styles, and the themes, even as it averts the sense of time and place to convey a sturdy and generic substructure of modern storytelling akin to that of other superhero blockbusters.

Read more:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Holst's Planets Suite Beneath the Stars

I believe I'm mentioned before that one of our favorite summer traditions is the Summerfest concert series.  Summerfest is an annual concert series by the North Carolina Symphony held at Koko Booth Amphitheater, which is a mostly outdoors/uncovered performance space.  We go with another family that we've been friends with since our boys were in a playgroup together over 10 years ago.  We bring lawn chairs and a picnic (including wine, which is allowed for this series), and usually hang out for a couple of hours before the concert starts at 7:30.  It is a perfect place for children to begin their classical music education, because it is affordable (kids under 12 are free!) and they can eat and run around and such in addition to listening to the music.  Plus, the concert themes are often geared to family interests--for example, a couple of years ago they did a whole concert on pirates music!

This past Saturday, the keystone of the concert was The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst.  However, in addition to hearing the entire suite played live by the Symphony (with some unusual additions, like the celestra, the instrument most famous for the opening tones of the Harry Potter theme song, but which means "heavenly" in French and thus is perfect for this music), they were projecting high-resolution images from NASA of the planets in the music.  And, of course, we were under the open heavens ourselves, on a beautiful warm North Carolina night (that part of the concert didn't start until 9:00 PM).

I have to say, it was one of the most powerful concerts I have ever attended.  The transporting music, the compelling images, and the wonderful atmosphere all came together to make it really a magical experience.

So while I can't reproduce the sensations for you, below I have included some videos of the London Symphony, who apparently recorded the Planets Suite using the same images we saw.  Even without being in the night sky, they are still pretty powerful.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Richness of Education

The following is a graduation speech given by Richard Cohen, a columnist with the Washington Post.  I appreciated what he had to say about the value of a college education, and so have posted his address here:

President Jones, members of the faculty, assorted notables, proud parents and financially indebted graduates. I come before you on this auspicious day to say something about the degree you have just been awarded. You have been told it is not worth the papyrus it is printed on. I am here to tell you it is worth a fortune.

 In preparing for this commencement speech, I assembled a file of newspaper stories about the cost of college, the burden of student debt and how much you can expect to earn in your first year after graduation — assuming, of course, that you can even find a job. The numbers are daunting. Unless you are graduating from one of those name-brand elite institutions — Harvard, Yale, etc. — you’re probably not going to make much your first year out. In fact, we now have many examples of community college graduates earning more than those with bachelor’s degrees. In Virginia, the difference can be $20,000 a year.

 What’s more, people often come out of school burdened with debt — about $24,810 on average, but an astounding $41,230 in Washington, D.C., where many residents have advanced degrees. This is hardly small change, of course, but aside from Washington, we are talking the price of a new car — without the premium package. This is a debt your average young person gladly takes on without whining to Congress. I add that just to provide some perspective and get you riled up.

The figures concerning salaries and debt are not to be dismissed. But they, too, need some perspective. College, after all, is not solely about earning power — although you are forgiven for not knowing this. College, believe it or not, is about education — and that, boys and girls, is not something you can put a number on. Let me give you a word: anthropology.

This is a word I’m not sure I ever heard in high school. But when I got to college, I had to take a year of it to satisfy a science requirement. I did one semester of physical anthropology and one of cultural — and about 40 years of both ever since. I became enthralled with the study of evolution, with paleontology, with my pal Australopithecus africanus and with the “sexing” and “racing” of skulls. Give me a good skull and to this day I can give you the sex and the race of the dearly deceased. I was CSI Cohen before there was CSI anything.

 I still keep up with anthropology. I try to stay somewhat current in sociology and psychology, my major and minor before I lost my way and took up journalism — and I do these things not for credit but for fun. College taught me how to have fun with knowledge. It enriched my life in ways that cannot be quantified. I came out of college with a debt, but my real debt was to my professors.

When I wanted to become a writer, I found teachers who showed me how. One of them, John Tebbel, a former newspaperman turned author, took me aside. He praised. He criticized. This is how it’s done, kid. The man changed my life.

See, this is the part of college no one talks about anymore. It’s all about numbers — what it costs and what you can earn. It’s all about a financial investment — how much in and how much out, as if value is always about money. But there’s value in the discovery of fine art or cinema or literature or . . . anthropology. And — very important — you will get an overview of the world, not just your little area but all the rest. This will make you a better citizen, which is nice, and will give you greater control of your life, which is also nice.

About a month ago, a hostess at a dinner party asked the table what college had done for them. Absolutely nothing, one person instantly responded. I braced for a cascade of negativity, but to my surprise it never came. Guest after guest praised their education and how it had made them a richer, happier person. I was gratified.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s fine for you to say, Cohen. You’ve got yours. You’re not poor and scratching for a job. True enough. But you will find truth in the cliche that money cannot buy happiness. This has been the case for thousands of years — or, as I like to put it, since Australopithecus africanus.

You can Google that.

Link to the original Washington Post column

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thoughts on Creativity and Educational Reform from Sir Ken Robinson

When I wrote last week's post on Sir Ken Robinson's latest TED talk on why current US educational policy is doomed to failure, I was shocked to discover I hadn't included some of his earlier videos in my blog.  So, better late than are two of my favorites.

If I wanted to encapsulate this thinking into one presentation, I would choose the RSA Animate video entitled Changing Educational Paradigms:

But if you would like more detail on his theories about education and creativity, which is his particular expertise, I think the best source is his first TED talk, which has been seen by over 20 million people and has been translated into 58 languages:

They are insightful, funny, but most important, important videos to watch if you are concerned about the state of education....and, really, who isn't these days?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Latest TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson Urges Returning School Control to Local Educators

Sir Ken Robinson, the educational reformer whose talks are on the top of the TED most popular video list, has just come out with another wonderful presentation entitled "How to Escape Education's Death Valley." In it, he explains why current educational "reforms," such as No Child Left Behind, run counter to fundamental human nature and thus are doomed to fail. He contrasts the current American system, which is increasingly narrow, centralized, and standardized, with systems that rank at the top of international achievement, such as Finland, which are broad in scope, controlled by local educators, and individualized to particular students. He is pithy and persuasive, and delivers his talk with his typical dry humor. (My favorite humorous line from this talk was when, in discussing the growing diagnosis of American students with ADHD, he said "Children are not, for the most point, suffering from a psychological condition...they are suffering from childhood.")

 Watch the video below to learn more about why our current educational policy ends up with the US spending immense sums of money but achieving unacceptable results in terms of drop-outs and other human factors:

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Teen Summer Camp Opportunity: The Science of Climate Change

Rising North Carolina high school juniors and seniors are eligible to apply for a FREE four-day program on the science of climate change sponsored by the RTP branch of the EPA.  It will take place the week of June 10-13, 2013, and will emphasize case studies and what people can do to mitigate their contribution to the problem.  The deadline for application is Friday, May 3, so your students had better apply soon if they are interested!

For more information, see the official announcement below:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Research Triangle Park, NC is offering a FREE weeklong Summer Enrichment Program to educate NC high school students about the science of climate change. Students will learn what climate change is, how it can affect their health and lifestyle, how they can take action to reduce the impact of climate change and ways in which to adapt to minimize the impacts. Program sessions are led by scientists, engineers, and policy makers from here at EPA, as well as by other experts. Hands-on experiences and interactive case studies are emphasized.

Interested students who are rising 11th and 12th graders in NC are eligible and encouraged to apply. Participation is limited to 25 students. The Program will be held June 10-13, 2013, from 9 am to 4 pm EST Monday-Thursday. The Program will be hosted at the EPA-RTP Campus. Participants must commit to attending the entire Program and provide their own transportation.

Application materials are at Applications will be accepted on a space-available basis through May 3.

Contact: Kelly Witter Leovic
Director of STEM Outreach Sharing Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) in our Community U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Exposure Research Laboratory
Phone: 919-541-7717, 
Fax: 919-541-3615 
Office Location: Room D320B EPA-RTP Main Campus 
Mailing Address: MD 305-01, U.S. EPA, RTP, NC 27711

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Physics and Heavy Metal

After yesterday's post exploring the connection between Shakespeare and Hip-Hop music, it only seem right to follow up with new research linking physics to heavy metal music--specifically, the physics underlying the contact between people in "mosh pits" at heavy metal concerts. If you are not familiar with mosh pits, they are places in punk or heavy metal concerts where people dance together in a way that largely consists of smashing into each other (for more information, see this WikiHow article on the rules and steps of moshing).

 But where most of us would see chaos, the Complex Matter Physics Group at Cornell University sees physics. One of their research projects is on human "flocking"--the collective movement of large numbers, or flocks, of people moving in an atypical situation (that is, not a normal or controlled situation, such as walking down a sidewalk). The point of their study is to better understanding human "herding" behavior in uncontrolled events in order to design buildings and public spaces to prevent stampedes and other injuries during emergencies or panicked evacuations.

 After recording and breaking down numerous videos of interactions in heavy metal mosh pits, the physicists found that there were underlying physical principles that seemed to control people's movements and collisions. In fact, they were surprised to find that a simulation of the typical interactions among mosh pit dancers resembled the classic movements of gas in a 2D space. (For more on their research, visit their website.)

 But you don't have to take my word for it. Below is the simulation they created of interactions in a typical mosh pit. To me, it does look like gas particles bumping into each other.

 If you want to play with the setting, go to the simulation website. There you can adjust sound levels, number of participant, or levels of "flocking" and see how it changes the motion of and between moshers.

 So....maybe if we keep looking, we can find ways to connect all our high school subjects to rhythms that appeal to our music-obsessed teenagers!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shakespeare and Hip-Hop

April is such a great month for us bibliophiles.  First, we're celebrating the entire month as National Poetry Month, and then April 23 is generally accepted as the birthday of the most-acknowledged writer of the English language--William Shakespeare.

So in honor of Mr. Shakespeare birth on or around this date in 1564, here is a wonderful resource I found recently.  It seems that in England there is an organization that is exploring the connections between Shakespeare's works and....hip-hop.  Not necessarily the first connection that would leap to my mind, at least, but The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company founder Akala makes a good case for it.

For example, check out this video of his presentation before one of the TED gatherings.  First, he challenges the audience to guess which lines are quotes from Shakespeare, and which are quotes from rapper songs (and believe me, it's not as easy to tell as you might think).  Then, he gives two renditions of one of Shakespeare's most famous poems, Sonnet #18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").  Both fall into hip-hop rhythms perfectly, showing that Shakespeare's "outdated" iambic pentameter is actually current in today's music.

Anyway, don't take my word for it....check it out yourself in this TED video:

It is, after all, the sign of a masterpiece that it can be re-interpreted and re-imagined over the ages.  The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company seems to be doing a great job of reaching at-risk youth and having them tap into the genius and wonder of the works of William Shakespeare.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day 2013! (And a Great Poetry Resource as Well!)

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, one of the events for National Poetry Month, a month-long celebration of poetry held in April each year by the Academy of American Poets.  On April 18--Poem in Your Pocket Day--people are urged to carry a piece of poetry in their pockets and to share it with other people during the day.  It is a fun activity to get poetry out of the hallowed halls of academia and into everyday life.

My selection for this year's pocket poem is Mark Doty's "A Display of Mackerel":

A Display of Mackerel 
They lie in parallel rows, 
on ice, head to tail, 
each a foot of luminosity 

barred with black bands, 
which divide the scales' 
radiant sections 

like seams of lead 
in a Tiffany window. 
Iridescent, watery 

prismatics: think abalone, 
the wildly rainbowed 
mirror of a soapbubble sphere, 

think sun on gasoline. 
Splendor, and splendor, 
and not a one in any way 

distinguished from the other 
--nothing about them 
of individuality. Instead 

they're all exact expressions 
of one soul, 
each a perfect fulfillment 

of heaven's template, 
mackerel essence. As if, 
after a lifetime arriving 

at this enameling, the jeweler's 
made uncountable examples, 
each as intricate 

in its oily fabulation 
as the one before. 
Suppose we could iridesce, 

like these, and lose ourselves 
entirely in the universe 
of shimmer--would you want 

to be yourself only, 
unduplicatable, doomed 
to be lost? They'd prefer, 
plainly, to be flashing participants, 
multitudinous. Even now 
they seem to be bolting 

forward, heedless of stasis. 
They don't care they're dead 
and nearly frozen, 

just as, presumably, 
they didn't care that they were living: 
all, all for all, 

the rainbowed school 
and its acres of brilliant classrooms, 
in which no verb is singular, 

or every one is. How happy they seem, 
even on ice, to be together, selfless, 
which is the price of gleaming. 

Copied from, the website of the Academy of American Poets

I chose this poem for several reasons.  First, last year we were involved in a year-long Oceans Coop that culminated in an unforgettable trip to study the coral reefs in the Virgin Islands.  So the nominal subject matter-fish--is close to my heart.  Secondly, several lines in there really reminded me of a wonderful art exhibit called "Carbon Load" that my son's very talented art teacher, Jenny Eggleston of Egg in Nest Art Studio, had at ArtSpace in 2011.

Mostly, however, I think I picked this poem because I read a wonderful essay by Doty on his thought process as he was composing this poem.  It is a wonderful explanation of how poetry can proceed from a simple, everyday image--like a row of fish on ice--to a grander statement on the nature of life, death, and everything in between.  Entitled "Souls on Ice," it is a great resource for students and teachers trying to better comprehend the magic and magnificence that is poetry.  I recommend you read it on the website.

And don't forget to share your favorite poem with other people today!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Discover the History of Words through Mysteries of Venacular

Expanding your vocabulary is a great goal in itself, but it tends to take up more importance as students prepare to face such tests at End of Grade (EOG) exams and SAT/ACT, etc.  But here is a resource that can make your vocabulary-building more fun.

The website, Mysteries of Venacular, is developing a series of fun videos on the twists and turns that English words have taken from their Greek, Latin, Old English, or other roots to their modern meanings and spellings.  Mysteries of Venacular tend to focus on simple words, like clue or hearse, but which came from unique or memorable origins (Greek mythology for the former and a word for "wolf" for the latter).  Once you've seen one of these videos, you'll never forget where the word came from.

For example, watch this video on the derivation of the word "noise":

Plus, some of the words have some additional content on the TED-Ed Lesson Plan site. The lesson plan for the word "noise" has some additional questions to make you think about the etymology, a place to discuss your thoughts about this word with other people, and other resources, such as the top five sounds scientists have discovered are the worst for the human ear.  And just imagine--nails on a blackboard is only #5!  To listen to the sound of the single worst assault on human hearing, check out the lesson plan.

Right now, there are only a few words, but new videos are being added periodically.  So while it isn't a mainstay for vocabulary building, it is an intriguing resource for families like ours who are continually amazed at some of the way that English came to be as it is today.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Teen Summer Camp Opportunity: Teen Writers' Workshop at NCSU

The hits just keep coming at NC State, which also has a summer program for burgeoning creative writers.  The Teen Writers' Workshop, sponsored by the NC State College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Department of English, is a two-week, nonresidential summer camp with daily afternoon activities to help students in high school to develop their creative writing abilities.

The students spend two and a half hours on campus each afternoon with lessons on four different tracks:  fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and drama (each students lists their preferences, and are placed in two different areas).  Established professional writers, most of whom also teach at area colleges or high schools, give lectures, assign writing activities, put students into small groups to discuss or create something together, or work with students one-on-one on their writing.

The students-to-teacher is kept low (a maximum of 12 students per instructor) to assure that all writers get individual attention.  The teen writers get instruction in such creative writing components as plot, character development, conflict, action, and more.  On the final day, students invite friends and families to celebrate the creativity of the group through a public reading of the work they have produced; they also get to take home a journal of work created by themselves and their peers.

The Teen Writers' Workshop costs $250, and is open to rising 9th through 12th graders as well as students entering college next fall.  They are now accepting applications, which require teens to express what they hope to achieve through their participation as well as to submit up to two pages of their current creative writing.  The deadline for applying is Monday, June 3.

For more information, check out their website or contact the program director, Laura Giovanelli, at

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Teen Summer Camp Opportunity: Polymer Day Camp at NCSU

If horticulture isn't your thing, how about chemistry?  Here is the information on a hands-on chemistry and engineering workshop about polymers and fibers, offered by the College of Textiles at NC State:

Polymer Day Camp

The Chemistry and Engineering of Polymers and Fibers Workshop

July 25 - 26, 2013
Apply Online!
This workshop is designed for high-school students interested in physical sciences and engineering, and attending NC State University.
Attendees will:
  • Engage in hands-on laboratories and interactive sessions
  • Learn about degree programs in Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science
  • Learn about scholarships in College of Textiles
  • Learn about admissions process for NC State University
  • Be provided with lunch and snacks
  • Print their own NC State t-shirt following the first day of camp and attend dinner (parents and siblings welcome!)
  • Must be a rising senior, junior or sophomore and
  • Not enrolled in S.T.E.P. for Summer 2013 and
  • Be able to provide your own transportation and accommodation to and from NC State. (Out-of-town attendees should contact us for housing suggestions.)
Cost: $40 administrative fee payable upon acceptance (financial assistance may be available).
Location: The program will be held in the College of Textiles' world renowned facilities, located on NC State's Centennial Campus. (1000 Main Campus Drive, Raleigh, NC 27606)
Interested in attending? Apply Online!
Acceptance is based on available space and qualifications of those applying. Applications will be reviewed beginning June 2013.
Questions? Please email Amanda Holbrook from the Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science Department if you have any questions.
Dress Code: You'll be in the lab (!!) so please wear long pants, closed toed shoes and hair ties for long hair. (Clickhere for TECS' Commitment to Safety.)
More Information: Click here for maps, 2012's camp schedule and release forms required to attend camp.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Teen Summer Camp Opportunity: Horticulture at NC State University

There are lots of great high school camp opportunities in the Triangle NC area, many associated with local universities or institutions.  So this is the first in a series of posts about these outstanding summer learning opportunities for teens.  Here is the information about the Horticulture program offered by NC State University:

Horticultural Science Summer Institute
July 7th-12th, 2013

High school-aged youth (rising sophomores, juniors and seniors) are invited to apply to a weeklong, residential horticultural experience on the campus of NC State University. Youth will have hands-on opportunities to explore a broad range of horticultural possibilities from breeding better fruits and vegetables, growing a diverse selection of woody ornamentals, lengthening the life of cut flowers, learning sustainable production practices, climbing trees, designing landscapes and delving into tools that enhance our understanding of plant growth. Participants will visit a variety of horticultural businesses, eat delicious local food, explore campus, watch garden films, and arrange flowers.  Youth will also be introduced to career possibilities, college-making decisions and leadership development.

The cost of the institute will be $500 with a $150 deposit due upon application acceptance. Many meals (but not all) included. Please fill out the online application and have a non-family member submit one letter of recommendation to or Liz Driscoll, 218 Kilgore Hall, Campus Box 7609, Raleigh, NC 27695

Click here to submit an application! Applications due by May 22, 2013 at 5:00PM. 

Draft Schedule (Please see attached last year's schedule)
Sunday, July 7th
Afternoon Registration (Tentatively Bragaw Hall), Cookout and Keynote opening                               

Monday, July 8th
Ornamental Plants (visit to JC Raulston, plant identification, plant propagation, cut flowers, nursery) Evening activities: team-building, campus exploration 

Tuesday, July 9th
Vegetables (vegetable production, breeding, food safety, farm tour) Evening: garden movie screening

Wednesday, July 10th
Veggies and local foods (fruit production, tasting, grafting, food systems, farmer’s market) Evening: Floral design 

Thursday, July 11th
Landscape Design and Consumer Horticulture (landscape design, treen-climbing, rain gardens) Evening: Cookout, games, presentation editing 

Friday, July 13th
Career reflections, college decisions, Parent luncheon

For more information visit:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wake County Teen Poetry Contest Now Open

It's time for the annual Teen Poetry Contest that is organized each year by the Wake County Public Library (NC) system.  Teens living in Wake County, NC and in grades 6-12 can submit up to three original poems to the contest.  Winners are chosen for 6th, 7th-8th, 9th-10th, and 11th-12th grades and are honored with a trophy, reading their work at a reception, and having their work published on the WCPL website.

Submit your poems online before the deadline of April 30 on the Poetry Contest website:

Good luck to all your teen poets!