Taking a Closer Look at Higher Education

Monday, September 2, 2013
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Two Mass. High School Students Named Intel Finalists

By Kara Miller   |   Monday, March 12, 2012
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March 13, 2012


Intel competition finalists Xiaoyu He of Acton-Boxboro Regional High School and David Ding of Phillips Academy Andover.

UPDATE March 13, 2012: Congratulations to David Ding for his 4th Place win in the finalists competition this week in Washington D.C. The honor comes with a $40,000 cash prize.

Innovation Hub's Kara Miller talked with both finalists.

BOSTON — It's easy to overlook the incredible learning that takes place in our high schools when so much of what we talk about is budgets, testing, and "no child left behind."

Thanks to competitions like the Intel Science Talent Search, we can turn our focus to a couple of Massachusetts high school students and the innovations in Mathematics that led both of them to America's oldest and most prestigious, pre-college science competition. The Intel STS began awarding cash prizes to the country's top teenage researchers seventy years ago, and the list of alumni includes people who have gone on to earn more than 100 of the world’s most distinguished honors, including seven Nobel Prizes and four National Medals of Science.

All forty finalists are awarded cash prizes, ranging from $7,500 to the $100,000 grand prize. To enter the competition, students submit written reports of scientific research they have conducted during the school year. It's an extensive application, demonstrating creativity and interest in science, and requires supporting documents from schools, advisors and mentors.

Both He and Ding expressed surprise at becoming finalists, but they told Kara they have enjoyed their time in Washington D.C. with the other 38 students from across the U.S. Both young men entered the competition with research in Mathematics. He did his project at MIT. Using computer programming, He proved that certain types of rules are universal, in the sense that they can model all other rules, and in the process he gained insight into the symmetries and structure of rotor-routers. Ding has improved our understanding of representation theory of infinitesimal Cherednik algebras. Representation theory is a topic in algebra concerning symmetries of vector spaces.

While in Washington, D.C., the finalists meet leading scientists, visit historic places and meet with distinguished national leaders. Students display their research at the National Geographic Society where they describe their work to visitors. The video below, from the Society for Scientists, shows interviews with last year's finalists and will give you an idea of what Xiaoyu and David's week as STS finalists was like:

President Obama Pledges Debt Relief For College Students

By Jaclyn Cashman   |   Thursday, October 27, 2011
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Oct. 27, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 26 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — Cash strapped college graduates might have some extra money in the bank thanks to an announcement made by President Obama this week.

President Obama held a student loan relief event in Colorado on Wednesday highlighting two measures to help college graduates manage student loan debt.

President Obama said, "And when a big chunk of every paycheck goes towards student loans instead of being spent on other things, that's not just tough for middle-class families, it's painful for the economy."

For starters the President will accelerate a plan to cap student loan payments at 10 percent of their income starting next year, two years ahead of schedule.

"We are going to put them into effect not in two years, but next year because our economy needs it right now," President Obama said.

The second initiative is designed to encourage graduates with two or more kinds of federal loans to consolidate them.

"We are going to make it easier with one interest rate a month, with a better interest rate," Obama said.

American Student Assistance is a nonprofit organization that guides students through the murky waters of college debt. Mike Ryan of ASA says this is not an overhaul of student loans, but a tweak to the system.

"It is a modification to the current program, but we see this is as good because it gives us a chance to let people know about it. The program has been available for quite some time but borrowers are not aware of that," Ryan said.

The plan will help some 1.6 million college students to lower their monthly payments by a few hundred dollars.

Milan Goswami, a Boston University student said, "I will have money in my pocket and can get an apartment and make my life after graduation a little easier for me."

Other college students prefer to focus on the course load and not what the post-graduate balance sheet will look like.

Courtney Carroll, another BU student said, "I am sure I will be worried about it, but I am not dying of fright about it."

Student loan debt has been a major protest platform in the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, most of the college graduates demonstrating won't benefit from Obama's plan, because it only helps borrowers taking out loans next year.

Harvard University's 'Kindness Pledge'

By Toni Waterman   |   Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Oct. 5, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 3 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There's a new and controversial philosophy at Harvard University this year. All incoming students have been asked to take what has been dubbed "The Kindness Pledge." It reads:

"As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to make the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment."

It sounds innocent enough, but the pledge is sparking debate. For one thing, says former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis, the school has a 375-year-old tradition of rejecting pledges.

"If you go back and read about Harvard in the 17th century, it talks about how, unlike Oxford and Cambridge where the founders had been educated, Harvard didn't have any religious oaths and that's kind of persisted over the years," said Lewis.

He said Harvard isn't a particularly unkind place to begin with, so he was surprised when he heard about the pledge. Apparently, the pledge is the result of a few unhappy incidents between students and staff last year.

Still, Lewis finds ‘kindness' an odd value to pick, considering the schools history.

"We actually value nonconformity. And nonconformity, you know, can sometimes seem to be unkind if the person you are disagreeing with finds you disagreeable," he said, adding, "So I began to worry a little bit about the sort of thought control tendency."

Lewis said asking freshman on their very first day of school to sign a pledge to control their thoughts undermines the school's stated objective — and Roman model — Veritas, the goddess of truth. Lewis thinks there's perhaps been some confusion between civility and kindness.

"They're not the same thing. I actually do think that it's reasonable to ask people to be civil," Lewis said. "But kindness means going beyond the call of duty, you know, to do something extra."

As for the students on campus, reaction has been mixed, one senior said that all the students are prescreened before they arrive, so the school already knows what its getting. "In my class, I feel most of the kids are very kind. So I don't think it's necessary," he said as he hurried off to class.

A sophomore added, "They shouldn't have to sign a pledge to do that. They should already want to be like that, or be like that in general."

But some Harvard students think the pledge is a good thing.

"I think it's a good thing to reinforce moral values in people and remind them that Harvard is a place that expects you to act and to be a person of character," said one senior. Another one added, "If it starts a discussion, I think sometimes, you know, it's a good place to start making change."

Lewis doesn't say that change is a bad thing, but says "The Kindness Pledge," like most moral postures, is a bit hypocritical.

"It seemed odd to expect freshmen to pledge to do something which not everyone among that professorial and deans and presidents always show. We did after all have a notable former Harvard President who referred to some students during the summer using a seven-letter word, which began with "A" said Lewis.

Lewis is, of course, referring to the July incident in which President Larry Summers called the infamous Winklevoss twins a disparaging word.

"And was there any statements from the deans and the presidents and the faculty about how the former president, the university professor, should be kinder to students? No," said Lewis. "They expect the most powerless, sort of the bottom people on the totem pole to pledge to something that is neither exhibited nor pledged to by the people who have greater power in the University."

Making iPads Mandatory In The Classroom

By Jared Bowen   |   Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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Sept. 21, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Sept. 20 on 'GBH's Greater Boston.

WORCESTER, Mass. — For an increasing number of schools across the country, the ubiquitous iPad isn't just a fad, it's a way of life. In a Level Two French class at the private Bancroft School in Worcester, iPads have been woven into the curriculum. They're used interactively in the classroom and for reinforcement at home," said Nicolina Puccio, a teacher at Bancroft. "I just had [the students] download an application to practice genders which are very difficult because we just don't have that in English," she says. "They can touch the word and hear the speaker. It's really great. That's just one app of thousands."

It's a new policy this year. Students at this K-12 school are strongly encouraged to attend classes with an iPad. Next year, they'll be mandatory says Headmaster Scott Reisinger who doubles as a history teacher. "For me to be able to design lessons that use primary source documents that are available... by just touching these things is novel," Reisinger said.

A student at the Bancroft School in Worcester uses an Apple iPad in the classroom. (via Greater Boston)

At Bancroft, with the exception of students heavily dependent on financial aid, students must purchase their own iPads. Already more than 50 percent of high school students have them, and 93 percent of the middle school students do.

"The one thing that's really good is there's a camera on here so you can take a picture of the board like in Math class so you can see the steps," said seventh grade student Gina El Nesr.

Eighth grade student Jack Kates is equally enamored. "The teacher asks a question and the question gets popped up on our iPad so everyone answers the questions," he explained. "It just shows your score so you don't have to grade anything, so it's much faster for the teacher," Kates said.

Students like Kates and El Nesr have textbooks, flashcards and assignments stored on their iPads. They use them to complete homework and quizzes sent directly to and from their teachers.

Having long dreamed of these advances in technology, Headmaster Reisinger said it's now imperative to keep students at pace with a techno-centric world while also avoiding its pitfalls, like keeping students in the classroom and off less savory sites. "There's no replacement for the teacher that knows students and creates a classroom environment that is not only interesting, but worthwhile — in which students are engaged," Reisinger said. But he acknowledged that, "teachers will have to walk around a little more."

This is not an inexpensive endeavor with iPads costing roughly $500-$800 dollars per device. But Bancroft officials said there's an inherent savings with the iPad that can also be applied to public schools. "We've noticed even this year that more and more of our textbooks are available in this format and these textbooks are running 50-to-75 percent of the actual cost," Reisinger said. And with area school districts like Burlington already making the private model public, iPads could soon be as standard as notebook and pen.

At Dorchester School, Inclusion Through Art

By Andrea Smardon   |   Tuesday, April 26, 2011
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Students at the Henderson School practice the "Earth Dance" during a movement class. In the background, teacher Cynthia Archibald looks on. (WGBH)

BOSTON — A public elementary school is Dorchester is getting international attention this week. Policy makers and educators from 17 countries are coming to Boston as part of a conference focused on using the arts to improve the education of students with disabilities. 
As part of the event, the conference is highlighting the work of the William Henderson Inclusion Elementary School for its pioneering work incorporating the arts into its classrooms. 

A classroom at the Henderson School, a full-inclusion Dorchester elementary school that emphasizes the arts as a learning tool. (WGBH)

Tim Archibald is a professional musician, but he looks more like a gym teacher in his warm up pants. And he seems poised to jump into action at any moment.

In his office, which doubles as a supply closet for student drama productions, he seems pretty confident about today’s big project for the second graders, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony arranged for xylophones.

“Last week we did Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, today we’re really upping it and we’re moving to Beethoven’s 9th,” Archibald said. “The idea of being able to move from a traditional simple lullaby to something you might learn in Symphony Hall is ah… we’ll see how we do, right?”
In class, a couple dozen students are eager to work on the piece. In one corner, a student drops his head onto the desk. A teacher’s aid works to get him on task. The aid himself has cystic fibrosis -- as well as perfect pitch.
Overall, about one third have special needs ranging from severe disabilities to minor learning impairments, but in some cases, it’s hard to tell which ones.
“Often times people from the outside come in and they say which are the students with the disabilities because they’re all learning together in the same classroom, that’s the whole idea,” Archibald said.
“In our world, people have all sorts of different success rates at being able to do different tasks and being able to learn different things. I think the Henderson Inclusion School kind of reflects the way of the world.”
Before approaching the xylophones, the students worked on keyboards with technology that allows each to work at their own pace. A second-grader demonstrates how the keyboard calls out numbers to get her back on track if she misses a note. The correct keys light up as she plays.  
Archibald says the keyboard can provide as much or as little support as you need. This, he says, is the essence of how teachers at the Henderson design all of their curriculum. And it’s how students at different levels with different learning styles are able to learn in a classroom together. It’s a method called Universal Design for Learning.

Students at the Henderson school play outside during their recess period. (WGBH)

“This type of universal design, here it is in an electronic instrument, but it can be built into the thought process of how you develop curriculum for students to learn,” Archibald explained.
William Henderson was the first principal at the school, and the man for whom the school is named. He himself is blind, and says working with disabled students requires creativity.
“When you have kids who do not read regular print, whether it be because of blindness, learning disabilities, or cognitive delays, or because they have difficulty holding a book because of physical disabilities, you find other ways of accessing information.” 
The school was originally founded 22 years ago in partnership with VSA Massachusetts, a state chapter of a national organization on arts and disability. Henderson says the artists hired and trained by VSA have been helping the school find new approaches to learning.
“We found that the arts engage children, it embellished the curriculum, brought life to social studies. So that children talking about the Boston Tea Party, in addition to writing and reading about it, they’re doing role plays, they’re making murals, they’re doing poetry,” Henderson said.
Henderson said that makes the learning experience richer. “It’s something that the children remember a lot more, and both teaching and learning are more fun and a lot more meaningful.”
As it turns out, Henderson says, this approach to learning benefits all students, not just those with special needs. In the school auditorium, visual artist Mary Dechico is working on a backdrop for the school production of “Singing in the Rain.” She’s a parent with two students at the Henderson school.  
“I’m going to cry the day my older son leaves here. He loves it. He’s usually above the curve in his learning, but he just adores this place,” Dechico said. “He loves all the different kids, he’s grown up with these children, in the same classroom, doing the same things. It’s part of life, I feel likes it’s just so nice to see him approach the world that way.”

Students are seen in movement class. (WGBH)

Back in music class, the students are making progress on Beethoven’s 9th.  Within a half hour, they’ve learned to play the first two lines as a group.  Eight-year-old Grace Kiwaunaka says she takes piano lessons at home so it’s easy for her, but she thinks the class is doing a fine job.
“Everyone does it really well, and everyone has a different way of doing it, but they all do it really well even though it’s different,” Kiwaunaka said.

About the Authors
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

Podcast: iTunes | XML

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Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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