Monday, December 8, 2014

With New College Board Partnership, Strive for College Looks to Scale Up

From The White House to local school districts, many recent educational efforts have focused on improving low-income student's college attendance rates. Often overlooked in this push, however, are rural communities, where rapidly declining populations and school consolidation is shrinking the educational choice set and support rural students traditionally received.  Strive for College is changing that—and with a recent partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the College Board, the organization is hopeful that it will be able to reach the widest swath of at-risk students yet, both rural and urban.

“Through virtual mentoring…we can help solve the entire problem of scale,” Founder and CEO Michael Carter, a 2012 BHSI Fellow, said, noting Strive for College’s roots as a program that supported more traditional, in-person mentorships.  “Never before has there been this wide of an approach using such rich data.”
Michael Carter shared Strive for College's impact and
"the gift for opportunity" on the CIW 2012 stage.

Strive for College focuses on the high-achieving, academically-inclined high-school student who, simply put, stops achieving academically post-graduation.  These are the students whose SAT and ACT scores put them on track for attending a range of colleges, but who often don’t even fill out a single college application.   So, how does Strive for College reach these students, who may live everywhere from, say, Chicago to rural Idaho?

Enter uStrive, Strive for College’s technological platform. Like “eHarmony for college admissions,” uStrive matches students to colleges along a wide range of attributes—not just, Carter stresses, by whether or not a student is likely to be accepted, but also by the college’s price tag, four-year college graduation rates and other criteria.  Crucially, uStrive also connects students to virtual mentors, capitalizing on the fact that low-income students across all geographic regions have “consistent access to technology in ways they never have before.”  Once matched, mentors follow a curriculum that takes students through the college and financial aid application process.

With access to the rich data the College Board has on offer, Carter believes the organization is ready to rapidly scale up.  As a result, it is focused on increasing its manpower, with current efforts centered on recruiting mentors.

“In our model, it’s mostly one mentor to one kid,” Carter described.  “So, [this gets] to our big challenge: We need more mentors.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Future Project Transforms Detroit Public Schools into Playground for Students' Dreams

2013 BHSI Fellow Andrew Mangino’s The Future Project, co-founded in 2011 with fellow Yale alum Kanya Balakrishna, continues to expand its mission to help urban school students reimagine their schools, communities—and their own futures.  With a recent $1 million matching grant from Rock Ventures Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert—whom Mangino first met at Chicago Ideas Week 2013—The Future Project has put down roots in a new city: Detroit.

2013 BHSI Fellow Andrew Mangino shared his vision
for The Future Project from the CIW 2013 stage.
Similar to its work in cities like Newark, New Haven, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the organization will bring its trademark Dream Directors to the Detroit public school system, where they’ll collaborate with schools’ faculty, administration and students to foster and support students’ passions. Set to be its most expansive city to date, Dream Directors have already started working in five schools, with plans to have Directors in all Detroit public high schools in 2015.

Let’s start back at Chicago Ideas Week 2013.  What did you and Dan Gilbert discuss when you met?  How did this all come about?
That meeting underscores how much is possible, even in brief encounters, at Chicago Ideas Week.  I had hoped to meet Dan because he’s working to revitalize downtown Detroit, and The Future Project has always been really interested in the possibility of moving into Detroit.  Right before he was about to speak, we spoke for, I would say, 15 seconds, but in those 15 seconds, we discussed the need for young people to become entrepreneurs, which is what The Future Project does. We agreed that that is what the future of Detroit needed most right now.

And now, it’s just a year later, and The Future Project is in Detroit!  What has the reaction been so far?
It’s the perfect city for us to be in, and there’s a great hunger from students, but also teachers and principals, to really focus on how they can play a leadership role in building the future of Detroit. 

We don’t think of The Future Project as education reform.  We think of it as an initiative to empower people to be leaders and revitalize their city and their country, and for young people to leverage their passions, their purpose and their dreams to do that.  Detroit is a city where people have already come together around the idea that it’s going to take their energy and their vision to create the change that everyone agrees is necessary.  There’s a real sense of urgency.

It does seem like Detroit is a city uniquely positioned for initiatives like The Future Project. Has that been borne out as you place Dream Directors in schools?
I think there’s clarity about the need to act now in Detroit.  With the bankruptcy, with the blight—there are just so many factors that are causing people to say, “It’s now or never.”  There is so much reason to believe, and so many amazing people doing amazing things.  Young people are the perfect leaders of that transformation because they have all the vision and imagination in the world.  Young people in Detroit don’t have any bias that leads them to believe Detroit won’t be in the future what it was in the past.  That youthful energy is critical.

What initiatives do you foresee coming out of that “youthful energy”?
There will be thousands of future projects that are born, projects that leverage the vision of students and turn that into tangible actions.  It will be organizations, campaigns, movements, businesses and transformations of existing businesses.  There will be new social ventures and new products.  It will be the birth of a generation of new entrepreneurs.

That definitely seems like a goal in keeping with Dan Gilbert’s ongoing entrepreneurial efforts in Detroit.
I think Dan and The Future Project agree that if we really want to prepare young people for the future, we need to train young people as entrepreneurs, not just as test takers.  There’s no better laboratory for that to happen than Detroit.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

CIW Q&A: Shakey Graves

With his latest album And the War Came, the Austin-based Shakey Graves, née Alejandro Rose-Garcia, wanted to do nothing more than “make a big, shiny, studio-feeling album.”  “The last frontier,” after all, “was making an album that sounds like it could be played on the radio.”

To achieve that, Rose-Garcia brought on singer-songwriter Esmé Patterson and co-producer Chris Boosahda, opting for a collaborative sound over the one-man-band verve of his debut album Roll the Bones.  But while the higher production levels created a cleaner, crisper sound, And the War Came has retained the inherent—and there’s no real other way to put this—weirdness of Rose-Garcia’s original sound.  It’s a unique blend of folk, indie rock and Americana, all dripping with a heavy dose of Texas mysticism.  You can hear this sound tonight, December 3, at Lincoln Hall.

When you started out as a musician, it was just you, a guitar and a foot-operated drum. How does collaborating compare to being a one-man band?
It’s super satisfying.  It’s really enjoyable, but at the same time, it’s challenging and frustrating.  I’ve always done this on my own and the benefit to that is I don’t have to clear anything with anybody.  Now I depend on other people to get my music off the ground.

Esmé and I wrote [three songs on the album] together.  Writing a song and writing lyrics with another person is great because you have someone to argue with outside of your head.  We found deeper flavors in songs that might have just been single-layered songs if I tried to write them myself.

A lot of those lyrics are—well, to put it bluntly—pretty morbid.  What’s the fascination there?
I’ve always been drawn to that sort of thing.  My mother is a playwright, and she grew up in South Texas.  There’s a morbid sense of humor in that culture. My mother grew up in a small town where you’d get a job in the funeral home and have to pick up dead, naked bodies out of houses.  There is a very visceral understanding with that [background].  Spirits and ghosts and the devil—those are very real characters in South Texas. 

Are there topics you can explore through these more mystical themes that may otherwise be inaccessible?
Yes, I feel by talking about that stuff you start that conversation in other places.  I’ll come across people where that stuff helps them out of a dark spot.  I think it can be therapeutic to look at that aspect of life in a realistic way.

It’s hard to put a finger on just what genre your music falls into.  Even Amazon seems overwhelmed—they categorize your album under both “Indie Rock” and “Traditional Folk.”  I’ve also seen it described as Americana, country, you name it.  That being said, what types of fans do your concerts attract?
They are all over the court.  I’ve got a solid hillbilly folk crowd.  We share an audience with the Devil Makes Three and the Americana world.  There’s also the more indie, classic Modest Mouse fans and a lot of younger singer-songwriter dudes who are super supportive. Then, there are a lot of confused girls and some badass older folks.  It’s all across the board.

Sort of seems like going to my family reunion.
It kind of feels like going to my family reunion, too.  But it’s very positive, in general.  It's really, really supportive.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

CIW Q&A: You Are Beautiful's Matthew Hoffman

Simple, sleek and silver—that’s the formula behind the You Are Beautiful stickers that, since 2002, Chicagoans have spied everywhere from the CTA seat in front of them to a college students’ book bags to the 11-by-15 foot wooden “sticker” off the Oakwood exit ramp at Lake Shore Drive.  With the 2-millionth sticker hot off the presses, creator Matthew Hoffman has no plans to slow down.  He’s introducing a line of stickers translated into 81 languages, is working with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to bring You Are Beautiful to 44 billboards in Buffalo, New York, and recently held a CIW Lab.
The You Are Beautiful installation at Oakwood greets Lake Shore
Drive's daily commuters and has contributed to a sense of "community,"
according to Hoffman.
Your recent CIW Lab started at the Lake Shore Drive installation and took people around the city’s South Side.  What was the idea behind the scavenger hunt–inspired Lab?
The idea was to feel what it’s like to do your own project, so there were different ways to interact with the project and interact with the environment.

It was a reverse scavenger hunt: You were given stickers and magnets and assignments.  So, one of those was to draw “You Are Beautiful” big in the sand, and everyone worked together to make a huge piece in the sand.  [Participants also] thought through different ways to hand out a sticker.  The idea was to put one in a very, very public place where everyone might see it, and put one in a very, very hidden spot where almost no one would see it, [except] for when it would be really unexpected for the person to find it.

What did people get out of this “reverse scavenger hunt”?
I think they looked at their environment differently.  Any time you’re able to stop and walk around the city, you get to re-explore it.  Even if it’s the same block you’ve lived on for years, you’re always going to find new things.  When you interact with it, you are inadvertently creating a community.

And what was your experience re-exploring the city?
It actually—it didn’t feel like work or a Lab or anything.  It felt just like an incredible Sunday morning hanging out with people.

You’ll be debuting stickers translated into 81 languages within the next few weeks.  What was the inspiration for the project?
[The idea is that] no matter how you say it, you are beautiful.  It will be interesting to see the reaction because…even though we worked really hard to get the best translation, there are always disagreements with dialect and also with the meaning of beauty.

What was that translation process like?
We started with the original translations we did in 2006 [for a smaller pack] that were all through individual people.  We also pulled things we couldn’t find readily available using Google translate.  Then, we created a survey where you could vote on best translation and offer others.

As many people as we could find who spoke the native language—for instance, the Irish and the Dutch translations, we talked to two people overseas and they both corrected what they were given. As many were fact checked as possible.  Since we’re always printing lots of stickers, if one is off, we can easily change that for the next reprint.

Reflecting on the past 12 years, what do you view as the reason for You Are Beautiful’s almost viral success?
It’s really about the community and the openness of the message and the approach of it.  It’s meant to be something very simple, delivered in a very clean way, so that you can take it any way you want.  That’s been the success of the message, [the reason for] its growth.

CIW Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CIW Q&A: Nerd Nite Chicago's Jason St. John

Nerd Nite Chicago provides “evidence-based entertainment”—the type of entertainment that pairs, for example, an exploration of the life of bees with the use of “the beloved and timeless characters of Sex in the City as our guide,” all while attendees enjoy beers.  An offshoot of a network of over 75 organizations worldwide, Nerd Nite Chicago regularly hosts free evening events, each featuring a handful of speakers discussing their pet academic topics.  We talked to Nerd Nite Chicago’s Founder and emcee Jason St. John—a physicist who is an expert presenter himself—in advance of tomorrow’s 7 p.m. event at the Bottom Lounge.

With Nerd Nite Chicago, Jason St. John curates "evidence-based entertainment."
OK, start at the very beginning.  How would you describe the typical Nerd Nite presentation to someone who’s never been before?
It’s not just someone up there giving their opinion.  It’s not a platform for that.  Nerd Nite is for people to bring things that they have found out in the world to other people.  The formula a friend of mine uses is: When there is something where you corner people at a party the moment they ask you about some topic and deliver some rush of information at them, and then they enjoy it—that is a Nerd Nite.

What types of topics have people covered on the Nerd Nite stage?
I try to keep it diverse.  The temptation would be to have an all-science program the whole time because that’s all evidence-based stuff.  But we’re not exclusively science by any means.  We’ve had great presentations from linguists.  One guy very memorably got very drunk and talked about swear words and inclusions from foreign languages in ancient Coptics. 

We’ve also had historians—there was a great one on people who would use hermits as decorative devices on their lawns.  They’d have [the hermits] go and live for seven years without speaking to anyone in exchange for food and shelter.  [Ed. note: This presentation was titled The Life of Times of Ornamental Hermits, and St. John is not kidding about its focus—or this bizarre and sad historical reality.]

So, it sounds like an academic’s brown bag lunch presentation, only considerably less stilted, with more of a sense of humor and more interesting powerpoints.
That’s right—and you can swear and drink, and it’s actually encouraged.  It makes everybody else and just as involved.

What types of Nerd Nite talks have you given?
Every now and then I’ll have something that I should just present.  I’ve given some on my own work, although I encourage people not to give them on their own work.  They tend to take it seriously, and then when they are heckled, their feelings are hurt—

Wait—there’s heckling at Nerd Nite?
Yeah, by their friends, they tend to get heckled.  Like, are those error bars or did buses park on your plots?

What is the typical make up of the crowd?
We end up with quite a cross-section.  When I first went [in Boston, where Nerd Nite started], it was only students.  And I thought that that’s what would happen in Chicago, too.  We do have a lot of students, but we have a lot of young professionals.  It tends to be anyone who is looking for something fun to do in a bar with their friends, and who enjoys learning something while they’re at it.

What’s the most surprising or fascinating or all-around-nerdy fact you’ve learned at Nerd Nite Chicago?
If you buy fresh squid, you should clean it. There was this woman who bit into the spermatophore of the squid, and it was inseminated her tongue, which is very painful.  So, just, clean your squid.

Check out Nerd Nite Chicago tomorrow Wednesday, November 19 at 7 p.m. at the Bottom Lounge.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chicago's CHIRP Radio Aims to Go from Online to On-Air

In Chicago, there are just 25 licensed FM stations, from 88.1 all the way up the dial to 107.5.  CHIRP Radio is lobbying to be the 26th.

Finding a spot on the radio dial has been a long road for CHIRP, which will celebrate its fifth year on online “airwaves” in January.  The FCC hasn’t opened applications for low-power FM broadcast license, the license type CHIRP is after, since 2000.  To request access to applications, CIW Co-op Member and CHIRP Founder Shawn Campbell, alongside other independent radio activists, traveled to D.C. to persuade the FCC to open applications in 2013—a request that required not just FCC approval, but a new law. The bureaucratic hoops exist in part because, as Campbell notes, unlike the web, the radio dial is “finite.” 
CHIRP Founder Shawn Campbell brings local, genre-diverse
music to Chicago radio.
Ultimately, obtaining a license is a step that Campbell sees as integral to what is, after all, the Chicago Independent Radio Project—with emphasis on independent.

“If you control the license, you control the state of the station,” Campbell explained, drawing on 20 years of commercial and independent radio experience.  “The only way to have a truly independent station is [to have a license].”

In the meantime, CHIRP’s team of over 200 volunteers continues to program unique, often Chicago-centric music of all genres via their website.  (And CHIRP’s music selection is truly genre-diverse—in one sentence, Campbell mentions punk, country and hip-hop).  Online, CHIRP curates unique music lists (“Top Five East German Bands”), mines Chicago for upcoming shows (and sponsors many shows, to boot) and offers interviews with Chicago’s people of interest.

Through these programming efforts, CHIRP aims to restore listeners’ trust in radio—a trust Campbell believes many lost when radio veered farther toward the commercial over the past 20 years.

“A lot of people say, ‘I completely stopped listening to radio until I found you guys,’” Campbell said.  If granted an FM radio license, Campbell is certain that the number of people who find, and appreciate, CHIRP will only grow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

DesignHouse Takes CIW-Inspired Piece to Kickstarter

A CIW–designed piece hits Kickstarter today, thanks to an October 14 Lab hosted by DesignHouse.  The design and innovation firm teamed with Skol Manufacturinga local family-run manufacturing companyand CIW attendees to bring “Reveal,” a sleek, metal picture frame, to the market.  

DesignHouse's first Kickstarter product, Reveal has 50 backers thus far and is the result of DesignHouse’s “crazy, one week sprint” to build a product from a concept developed at its CIW Lab.  Over 20 CIW attendees participated in the “design jam,” a product development process that founding partner Pam Daniels stresses is “different than a typical brainstorm” because of its tangible, hands-on focus.  In other words, “you get to start making stuff right away.” 
CIW Lab attendees worked with DesignHouse experts
to design a simple, market-ready product.

Among the designs that arose from the brainstorm—which included a belt buckle and light fixtures, among others—Reveal was distinct in its simplicity, ease of use and wide potential market.  Unlike a typical store-bought frame, Reveal has no glass panel to protect photos that can easily be reprinted.

“The photo has changed radically…and no one’s really rethought the frame,” Daniels said.  “We got really excited for the opportunity for the artifact that displays the photo to keep pace with the way photo-taking has changed.”

The product also fits neatly into DesignHouse’s broader mission to connect designers directly to manufacturers.  Comparing its methods to the farm-to-table movement, DesignHouse urges designers to design based on available, locally-sourced materials and manufacturing methods.  At the CIW Lab, for instance, Skol Manufacturing owner and President Ray Skol was on hand to answer questions and brainstorm solutions.
The Reveal frame has a streamlined design for ease of use.
“Computer-aided design has become so ubiquitous, and the computer will let you do anything.  It will not tell you: Metal does not bend like that. You cannot do that,” Daniels said.  “It’s helpful and useful to start from what it really takes to fabricate a physical thing.”

Daniels hopes that these methods will not only result in products whose designs are based in a strong manufacturing foundation, but also lead to a more general return to the U.S.’s manufacturing roots.

“Design is a key part missing in the equation about how to revitalize U.S. manufacturing,” Daniels stressed.