Taking the MFA to the Next Level

A young, female college student painting in a studio.

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Art school isn’t just about traditional visual art anymore. Increasingly, MFA programs and the resulting art pieces include multidisciplinary fields of study, whether it’s combining different artistic mediums into one piece or taking student design out into the community to make a difference.

Several prime examples come from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), whose students recently exhibited their work on a three-part show divided into visual studies, print media, and collaborative design. In fact, most of the pieces featured mixed media. Angélica Maria Millán Lazon’s Engendradxs is made up of portraits of the artist’s aunt and grandmother, as well as smartphones mounted on the wall playing videos. Meanwhile, Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between features triptychs, textiles, and movement through the physical space of the exhibit.

On the other side of the country, the School of Visual Arts in New York is ground zero for innovative productions like Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s 121212. The piece uses video, performance, and installation to tell the story of a day in the life of Lynnese Page, focusing on her daily rituals.

But it’s not just a matter of mixed media. MFA programs themselves are expanding to include the broader study of how art impacts the community around it. PNCA’s MFA in Collaborative Design focuses on getting students out into the world to collaborate with businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations looking for design solutions.

Back at SVA, students can choose from both a traditional MFA in Fine Arts and an MFA in Art Practice, which its chairman, David Ross, describes as being for “artists working in more hybrid areas, incorporating a number of different media or selecting the particular medium based on what they are trying to accomplish at a given time.”

Even MIT, traditionally known more for tech than for art, is jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to this kind of innovation. Its Master of Science in Visual Studies program focuses on “the development of artistic practices that challenge traditional genres as well as the limits of the gallery/museum context.”

Other schools with offerings focusing on art and design in the community include the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art.

While studio art will always have its place, MFA programs are increasingly going beyond tradition to offer programs that contextualize art within the communities that need it. From mixed media productions to programs focusing on community engagement, it’s a brave new world when it comes to arts education.

Afghan Girls Robotics Team Denied Entry into U.S.

A red stamp of the word "denied."

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The FIRST Global Challenge is a landmark event for budding young engineers worldwide. Held in Washington D.C., this new international robotics challenge invites teams from more than 150 nations to compete. All of the high-school-aged competitors will get the chance to bounce ideas off their peers from around the globe, building bridges in science that will strengthen their future careers. The competition encourages students to explore robotic applications for medicine, environmental stewardship, and energy efficiency.

At least, that’s the intention of FIRST Global, the nonprofit STEM charity organizing the competition. But there’s red tape in the way that some competitors struggle with.

An Afghan girls team aiming for the competition thought they’d accomplished the hard part when they raised nearly $200 each for their visa applications, and thousands more for their travel and stay expenses. But when they traveled to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the entire team was turned down for their travel visas. They weren’t given a reason.

Neither was a Gambian team that was also denied a few days later. Both teams were offered the chance to participate via Skype, but that could hardly hold a candle to the benefits of going in person.

Neither Afghanistan or Gambia are on the U.S. President’s contested travel ban, for the record. Visas were granted to teams from at least three nations which are: Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

With only days to go before the competition, the Gambian team was awarded last-minute visas after press coverage of their denial went viral on Twitter and Facebook. But their faculty adviser, science ministry director Mucktarr Darboe, will not be allowed to attend. He says he was denied because the U.S. is not currently granting visas to Gambian government officials. No such policy has been confirmed by a U.S. embassy.

The FIRST Global Challenge will take place from July 16-18. The Afghan girls team will still have to attend remotely.

Spaceport America Cup

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.
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The 2017 Spaceport America Cup is the first of its name, picking up the grail after the end of ESRA’s International Rocket Engineering Competition. But its sponsor and namesake, the New Mexico launch site for private space companies, hope to see it grow a reputation of its own for nurturing a new generation of aeronautical innovators.

The competitors in this competition are all students from colleges across the country, 110 teams in all. The winners overall were a team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their rocket, which used a liquid rocket propulsion system, traveled over 9km above the Earth’s surface.

Another rocket, built by a team of student interns at United Launch Alliance, fired off the largest sport rocket on record, 16m tall and over 1,000 pounds. This one served another purpose: carrying 16 packets of mementos and cards from students K-12, it was meant to inspire those students into STEM paths of their own.

The turnout this year was a massive increase over the attendance at the last ESRA event, which garnered 40 teams in 2016, and had outgrown its venue. The much larger facilities of Spaceport America will allow the new competition to continue growing, giving more and more engineering students the impetus to look to the stars.

Participants in the ESRA competition have gone on to employment in Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, and NASA, proving that the competition moves lives forward. It’s certain that technology made by some of these past students is in space today, either on the ISS or in orbit in some other way.

21 different awards went out for various achievements in all kinds of flight and design, backed by many of those same companies and also Virgin Galactic, which owns a controlling interest in Spaceport America. It was held over the weekend of June 24th, 2017.

81-Year-Old Man Working Towards Earning His High School Diploma

A photo of a high school diploma with a graduation cap laying on top of it.

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Abdel-Qader Abu Ajameyah is 81-years-old, a Palestinian retiree with fourteen children and thirty-six grandchildren. At an age when most men begin to rest on their laurels, he is hard at work—at a school desk.

For five hours a day, Abu Ajameyah works towards earning his high school diploma, wearing a suit and tie to his studies every day.

In 1948, he was a student in a village near Ramla, which was at that time in Palestine. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out with the creation of Israel in that year, his family fled to become refugees in the West Bank, and  Abu Ajameyah soon went to work to help his family. For the next fifty years, he sold food and made a good life for his kin.

Today, with grandchildren reaching adulthood and great-grandchildren on the way, he says his goal is to be “on par” with those descendants.

“I want to set an example to generations—never stop learning,” says Abu Ajameyah.

A room has been set aside for him in a local schoolhouse, and an aid helps him by taking dictation, since a recent stroke has made writing difficult for the octogenarian. He took Israel’s national test for the first time last year, but failed to pass. He’s determined this year. There’s a family party on the line. The next exam will be in July.

He has hearty family support. His sons and wife are all working to make sure he can devote himself to his studies.

“We all encourage him and we are all very proud of him,” said Zakaria, one of Abu Ajameyah’s sons.

Abu Ajameyah also has community support—it’s a matter of pride. The illiteracy rate among Palestinian adults is less than 4%, one of the lowest rates in any Arab nation. Stats for Palestinians living in Israeli territory are less clear-cut.

Grad Student Partners With Pixar to Tell Science Stories

A photo of a sign that reads, "Pixar Animation Studios."

Photo credit: Jacob Davies at Flickr Creative Commons.

“So what are you doing at work?”

For a lot of people in STEM fields, that’s not an easy question to answer. That seems insignificant, but it creates distance between people in science and the rest of us—a distance that lowers the ambient scientific awareness of the population at large.

Sara ElShafie, a grad student at UC Berkeley, knew that trouble. Trying to explain her studies in integrative biology to her family was always difficult, and she recognized that she wasn’t able to express the importance she found in her work. Since her goal in life is to become the director of a major science museum, she yearned to be able to communicate better.

That’s what led her, in 2015, to contact the outreach department of Pixar Animation Studios and ask if they could work with her to teach students how to adapt film-making ideas for science communicators.

“I just thought, ‘Why not?’” said ElShafie in an interview with Berkeley News. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills. Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

Her efforts snared her two volunteers from the studio, and together, they worked up a pilot seminar, and began presenting workshops in March of 2016. Participants in the workshops follow a template that illustrates the links between film-making and science, and emerge with a story outlined about their own research.

Since the first informal workshop, the audience has grown to nearly 200 people per seminar. ElShafie hopes to continue holding it yearly at Berkeley, and has presented it by invitation at UC Santa Barbara and the Western Society of Naturalists.

“It has never been more critical for scientists to be able to explain science to the public effectively, and the backbone of all communication is a story,” said ElShafie, adding that humanizing the tellers of these stories can combat misconceptions about the “agenda” of scientists.

California Introduces Later Start Times for All Public High Schools

An clock that reads 8:30.

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For generations now, school for adolescents has begun between 7–8 a.m., early enough that the buses can finish with the older students before coming back for the younger ones. But science today is telling us that we’ve got it backwards.

Teenagers need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night, but their bodies aren’t wired to feel tired until late in the evening, even when they make an effort to get enough sleep. This leads to chronic sleep loss in teenagers who can’t sleep until after 11 p.m. but have to be in class eight hours later, which puts them at risk of all kinds of disorders and injuries.

Several states and school districts have listened to the research, adopting later start times for junior high and high school, and soon, California will join them.

On Tuesday, May 30th, a bill was approved in the California state senate to impose an 8:30 a.m. start time on all public high schools. The bill won’t go into effect until the 2020 school year, and will allow rural school districts to waive it if the schedule changes are too inconvenient. But for most of California’s 1.8 million high school students, a more rested education is on the way.

Opponents of the bill had mostly economic concerns–the cost and inconvenience of rescheduling, of dealing with the various unions that serve public education. Some had more petty concerns, dismissing teenager’s needs as just “staying up too late” and assuming their future careers would need them trained to wake at dawn. But proponents had science on their side, including studies into student results by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association. Another study by the University of Minnesota showed a reduction in teenage auto accidents with later start times.

As more and more states adopt these later start times, they each have seen improved test scores, behavioral outcomes, and higher graduation rates. Hopefully, when California’s numbers begin to join those statistics, we’ll reach a national tipping point and make these new hours standard.

How Schools Can Cash in on Social Capital

A brainstorm illustration with the word "social capital" in the middle.

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As a society, we talk a lot about how important our children’s futures are, but we still seem to struggle when it comes to making sure that all kids have access to a good education.

One of the biggest problems that the education system faces right now is inequality. Poorer communities don’t have access to the same resources that wealthier communities do.  As a result, children from low-income families end up with a lower quality education.

Fixing this problem has proven to be a lot more difficult than it seems. But according to a new study, there is at least one resource that even the poorest schools should be able to tap into: social capital.

Jeff Grabmeier, senior director of research and innovation communications at Ohio State University, defines social capital as, “The network of relationships between school officials, teachers, parents, and the community that builds trust and norms that promote academic achievement.” In other words, it’s who you know. And while wealthier schools tend to have a lot more social capital, Grabmeier points out that this isn’t always the case.

“That’s not to say there’s no relationship between community wealth and social capital,” Grabmeier writes. “However, the majority of the difference in levels of social capital between schools could not be explained by their socioeconomic status, the study found.”

The authors of the study argue that the key to obtaining more social capital is to get schools to reach out to the community, to interact with parents and others, and to get them actively involved in supporting the school and its students. Open houses, conferences, and other ways to reach out and build connections are key, and those are generally the kinds of things that school administrators need to take the lead on.

It’s like the old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”