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.”

Tennessee to Offer Free Community College in 2018

Young, happy college grads throwing their caps in the air.

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Bill Haslam, the governor of Tennessee, has a campaign to enrich his state. He wants 55% or more of Tennesseans to have a college degree or other certificate of secondary education by 2025.

“In Tennessee, we’ve determined that the best jobs plan is an education plan,” Haslam stated. Currently, the percentage of degree-holders hovers around 34%. Tennessee is 42nd in the nation for adults with secondary education, and 40th for the trappings of an “innovative and globalized” economy.

On May 9, 2017, Tennessee lawmakers led by State Representative David Hawk approved a measure to provide free community college to all residents without a degree. It’s a massive leap forward to those goals. The bill includes recent high school graduates, adults who have never attended college, and adults who have been out of school for several years. They would be eligible for up to five years of tuition grants, eligible at any of the state-run community colleges, so long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Tennessee is the first state to make this a state-wide campaign. Earlier this year, San Francisco announced a similar movement for all residents of the city, though that was simply open, not grant-based.

The new program will go into effect in 2018. Until then, students still have access to the existing incentives: the Community College Reconnect Grant, which helps low-income students complete their educations, and the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which fills gaps in costs not covered by other financial aid.

The new grant, with an estimated budget of about $9 million dollars, will be funded by the interest off a state lottery fund begun in 2003.

“As businesses and industries look to locate or expand… they’re looking for citizens that have some type of post-secondary degree,” said State Rep. Hawk. “This is going to allow us to incentivize our working adults who may not have that higher education degree to go back to school to make themselves more attractive to new business and industry.” All of which makes this a solid investment in the state’s future.

High School Students Can Now Receive Scholarship Money in Exchange for Good Grades

A happy high school boy holding up a paper with an "A+" on it.

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Pay-for-As is not unfamiliar to many American students; it’s been a mid-level resort of parents hoping to inspire their kids as long as grades have been a measuring stick. But now there’s a company getting in on the scheme. is a startup, founded by Preston Silverman, that uses small tuition grants from colleges to incentivize good grades in high school students. Under certain conditions, students can earn up to $80,000 towards their own college education via the platform.

So far, 225 institutions have partnered with the website, and over 700,000 students have used it, nearly half of them either low-income or first-generation college-goers.

Students between 9th and 12th grade can use the site for free (its profit comes from the partner institutions). They can apply to earn micro-grants, sometimes referred to as scholarships, from as many schools as will have them, but will only actually receive their funds from whichever college they choose to attend in the end.

For instance, as a freshman, a student could join in the programs of schools A, B, and C, and their grades would earn them potential scholarships from each. But when they graduate high school, apply to A and B, and accept an offer at B, only the funds they earned from B will be applied to their tuition. The other funds will be absorbed back into the general pool for other students.

Each partner institution will have their own rubric for awarding funds. Some will award $1,000 for each A, some only $50. Some will include rewards for leadership positions in clubs, student government, and sports. Some have maximums on earnings via, others do not.

With this site, a great deal of power is put into the hands of the student to make their schoolwork work for them. It’s still up to them to get into these schools, or they risk losing any of these scholarships, but having them available tilts the odds in their favor.

House Representative Wants to Make K-12 Education Optional

An empty classroom.

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Paul Mosley is a newcomer to the Arizona House of Representatives. He’s a Republican from Lake Havasu City, and he’s ready to leave his mark on the state.

A dark and ugly mark.

While Mosley claims to support all walks of school from public to elite, he also thinks that school should be entirely optional. Optional.

“Education used to be a privilege,” he said in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times. “People used to believe getting an education was something you had to be privileged to get, that you had to work hard to get. Now we basically force it down everybody’s throats.

“The number one thing I would like to repeal is the law on compulsory education… I believe education is still a privilege, and the kids who don’t want to be there are a larger distraction to the kids who do want to be there.”

While he criticizes schools for taking over the “personal responsibility” of parents, he does so in the same breath as he acknowledges that schools feed poor children and give them protection for half their waking hours. But he believes that all that is overstepping the responsibilities of the state.

Compulsory education in the United States is nearly four hundred years old. It began with a 1642 law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring parents to raise their children with basic literacy. Two hundred years later, that had evolved to a law requiring every town to have a common school and all children to attend. In 1918, Mississippi was the last state to adopt compulsory education.

Education has never been more important. There are fewer and fewer blue collar jobs every year. The current projection is that by 2020, when this year’s freshmen graduate, 65 percent of all American jobs will require training or school beyond high school.

While Mosley has not yet introduced legislation to make school purely optional, he plans to do so. Arizona is already among the worst educational environments in America. His preferences would send it straight to the dark ages.

‘The Slingshot Project’ is Prepping Students for Success By Teaching Them the Qualities of Grit

A boy holding a slingshot.

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As parents and as educators, we would give anything to see our children thrive. That’s why we spend years upon years trying to put our children on the best path to success.

Traditionally speaking, success has often been regarded as something that is predetermined; we tend to associate it with those who are exceptionally talented and highly intelligent. But a new program called The Slingshot Project is challenging that mode of thinking.

Ken Mehlman, founder of The Slingshot Project, believes it is grit, not just talent or intelligence, which ultimately determines success. For those unfamiliar with the term, grit refers to the ability to triumph in the face of adversity. A good synonym would be “perseverance.”

The good news about grit is that it is a character trait, not an innate ability. In other words, it can be taught.

And that’s the whole idea behind The Slingshot Project. The program will study the coping mechanisms that underprivileged students use to overcome misfortune. Those coping mechanisms will then be taught to other students, who can use the strategies to overcome their own challenges.

Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD, has been studying the subject for years. Her research findings lend academic credence to Mehlman’s belief that grit is a better indicator of success than talent or IQ.

“Grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment,” Duckworth stated. “If it’s important for you to become one of the best people in your field, you are going to have to stick with it when it’s hard.”

The Slingshot Project is revolutionary in the sense that never before has anyone tried to teach these skills to students. If successful, we could very well have a new generation of children who are better equipped to handle the obstacles and challenges that life throws their way.

“I don’t think anyone’s figured out how to make people smarter, but these other qualities of grit may be teachable,” Duckworth concluded.

To learn more about The Slingshot Project, click here.