Crane Country Day School’s Flexible Approach

Crane Country Day School's Flexible Approach, originally published in Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020.

Crane Country Day School’s Flexible Approach, originally published in Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020.

Montecito Campus Embraces Its Outdoor Superpowers

Being a school administrator has always required balancing the needs of families, staff, and students. But in 2020, it’s more like being a tightrope walker. Very early on in the pandemic, Crane Country Day School’s head of school and chief plate spinner, Joel Weiss,
decided that a dual approach (online and on-campus) would make the most sense for his families — if, of course, there was any way of pulling it off.

“For us, it was trying to be honest but also respectful to the situations that every family really is unique,” said Weiss. “There are new rules every two weeks, and it’s just constantly changing. So having that two-pronged approach, though it’s exhausting to implement, at the same time it’s a really flexible approach.”

Crane’s back-to-school plan organized each grade into smaller groups for less exposure. For example, the 3rd grade has 22 students: 18 on-campus students are split into two cohorts of nine, each with their own teacher and dedicated indoor and outdoor spaces. The other four online students also have their own teacher, who is physically with one of the two cohorts, making sure that they still have a social connection with their
classmates, and doing much of the same work.

That ability to use the outdoor classes is what Weiss described as “Crane’s superpower
that we wanted to maximize. That’s our strong suit.” Crane has always been an indoor/outdoor school, and Weiss worked closely over the summer with Director of Development Debbie Williams, who took the lead on designating and constructing 23
unique outdoor learning spaces. With names like Pythagorean Patio, Morning Meadow, and Laureates’ Landing, they are distributed across Crane’s 12-acre campus.

“Part of it was training ourselves to see teaching spaces where maybe prior you saw utility spaces and nature spaces,” said Weiss. Each grade now has at least two indoor spaces and outdoor spaces with fun layouts designed to deliver the education program in a physically distanced, safe manner. It even lets the kids relax a little.

“We have just dumped eight buckets of rules on these kids,” said Weiss. “Kids used to be kids. They were given freedom to be wacky, and now it’s like, ‘Don’t walk here; walk there; don’t touch your face; put the mask on; stay six feet away,’ and on and on and on. So much effort is going into maintaining systems for safety that the outdoors is a little bit of a chill time. We’re trying to introduce a fun factor to all of this that feels kid-centered and lighthearted.”

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020. To read the section as it appeared in print, please click here.

 

Big Learning on the Littlest Little Farm

Big Learning on the Littlest Little Farm, originally published in Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020.

Big Learning on the Littlest Little Farm, originally published in Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020.

O’Connor Family and AHA! Engage Students on a Hope Ranch Annex Property

Organic farming utilizes the interconnectedness of nature, but an even more bountiful example of community connectedness has sprung to life on the Littlest Little Farm.

Tucked away in the Hope Ranch Annex neighborhood, this dynamic collaboration brings together teens from AHA! to work alongside two facilitators/farming educators to create, maintain, and grow a biodynamic farm. And it all takes place at the home of Laurel and Matt O’Connor, who host the farm in what is literally their backyard, working alongside the team to turn a little less than half an acre of “hard pan dirt” into an impressive urban farm.

Along with revitalizing the land, the Littlest Little Farm has also sparked something special in the teens. “At the beginning of the program, I’ll admit I was reluctant to join because I’m normally not someone who enjoys the outdoors,” said Owen Hubbell, a senior at San Marcos High. “But the amazing facilitators and environment allowed me to enjoy the outdoors more than I ever have before. I was able to learn about the value of nature and the value of taking care of it. Not only that, but I also learned the science of farming, which was very eye-opening to me, because I was never aware of the amount of work that goes
into farming. The feeling of watching something grow and develop, and to do it with a community of people I trust, is a gift I will never forget.”

The Littlest Little Farm, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, was indeed inspired by the documentary The Biggest Little Farm. Both Laurel (a clinical therapist) and her friend Jennifer Freed (the cofounder of AHA!’s nonprofit social-emotional education
program) were fans of the film.

“I was having my dream of wanting a farm, and she was trying to figure out how to bring a farming program to the teens,” said Laurel. “It happened really fast. Jennifer is a visionary; she’s amazing. That was in the summer a year ago, and (with support from the Manitou Foundation and other generous donors) we had kids with boots on the ground in early
November.”

Under the guidance of two AHA! alums — Julian Castillo, a clinical therapist, and Stevie
O’Connor, a facilitator (and Laurel and Matt’s daughter) — teens learn about soil nutrition, composting, row planting, amending soil, irrigation installation, worm composting, and noninvasive and chemical-free pest and weed management at the same they’re building social and emotional skills and self-awareness.

“I work with a lot of adolescent boys, and it’s definitely way better to meet outdoors and explore something than just sit there,” said Castillo. “The bigger picture that I like to tell them is that this is a little part of changing the world. The soil can actually sequester carbon. A lot of them have taken home not only plants and produce, but they’re starting
their own little home gardens. So we really think it’s a lot bigger deal, and I think they’re getting that it’s a much bigger thing than just putting stuff in the ground.”

“It’s exciting to see teens get excited about their impact on the planet,” said Stevie. “Also, we’ve harvested a ton in the last couple of months, so the teens are able to take some home and then we donate the extra produce to the Unity Shoppe. It’s great to be able to give that fresh produce back, because we want this to be appreciated.”

“Once we get more volume going, then we can expand to give to other nonprofits,” said Laurel. “So many people are always like, ‘Thank you so much for this,’ and I always feel like I’m the one who should be saying, ‘Thank you.’ I feel so lucky. It’s just a win-win situation. And especially given this time. Things are hard, and this is just such a positive
experience out here every time. It’s just a feel-good place for all of us. And we all come together in a safe way and get in touch with ourselves, with each other, with the soil, just all of it. It’s really amazing.”

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020. To read the section as it appeared in print, please click here.

 

Laguna Blanca’s New Center for Science and Innovation

Schools of Thought introduction, originally published in the November 19, 2020 issue of Santa Barbara Independent.

Schools of Thought introduction, originally published in the November 19, 2020 issue of Santa Barbara Independent.

Hope Ranch Campus Provides Proper Home for Project-Based Learning

Sometimes it’s all in the timing. Take Laguna Blanca’s new Center for Science and Innovation, the school’s first major facility addition in at least 20 years.

“We decided to go forward with construction on March 11 of this year, and two days later we were closing school because of the pandemic,” said Head of School Rob Hereford.

Plans for the 5,500 square feet of modern, dedicated space have been in the works since 2014, a drought year where the first big rains damaged the chemistry lab. They did a short-term fix, but Hereford knew it was past time to do some real improvements.

“When I give tours to people who were here back in the ’50s and ’60s, and they say, ‘Oh, it looks just like when I was here as a student,’” said Hereford. “That is comforting on one level, but a little disturbing if you’re trying to teach chemistry in the 21st century.”

Working with the school’s buildings and grounds committee, KBZ Architects, and the science department, the team settled on renovating two older existing locker rooms that had morphed into what Hereford called “the campus junk drawer, where anything we didn’t know what to do with we would just throw it into that space.” But the size was right, and there was already plumbing, which would be needed for lab space. One of the “odd advantages” of having closed the campus for so many months is that the project — which
includes biology and chemistry labs, a STEM Research and Innovation Lab, outdoor research areas, a physics lab, and a teacher innovation lab, which gives teachers from different grades and disciplines a space for collaboration — is now on schedule to open sometime in January 2021.

“We had an outstanding science program, and we were doing it in spite of our mediocre facilities,” said Hereford. “This allows us to have really up-to-date facilities that we can grow into. There is space for teachers to be able to do more and expand the programs in ways that are really going to be terrific. When I think of what we’ve been able to pull off in these substandard facilities, it’s exciting to think about what our teachers will be able to do in these brand-new spaces.”

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

SB Independent Cover, Schools of Thought, November 19, 2020.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 19, 2020. To read the section as it appeared in print, please click here.

 

TMP: Practical Education for an Evolving World

Students in UCSB’s Technology Management Program listen to a recent presentation on Nectir, a new system for connecting classrooms. | Credit: Courtesy

Students in UCSB’s Technology Management Program listen to a recent presentation on Nectir, a new system for connecting classrooms. | Credit: Courtesy

Preparation meets opportunity in UCSB’s Technology Management Program (TMP), which trained 2,400 undergraduate students last year alone.

The certificate program covers subjects such as business strategy, entrepreneurship, marketing, management, finance, and startup business models as well as current issues in technology, business, and society.

“Because UCSB doesn’t have a business school, students aren’t really exposed to the basics about what it’s like to work in an organization,” explained Kyle Lewis, TMP’s chair. “So we have courses that the students would otherwise not get.”

TMP is technically part of the College of Engineering, but it’s open to all students, and 80 percent who enroll are not engineers. “Often, these are very motivated students, and they’re taking our courses because they believe it will help them get jobs, and in fact it does,” she explained. “So we have a lot of students who have gone through the certificate who have been very, very successful on the job market with majors that could have made it more challenging for them to get good jobs.”

Lewis said that a primary goal is to keep students of all backgrounds aware of how technology is changing our world. “What we’re able to bring to the classroom is research that we’ve been doing for a long time that’s now very, very relevant,” she said. “How does tech influence human behavior and decision making? And how do humans affect technology?”

The COVID pandemic is making this sort of training all the more relevant. “Change equals opportunities in this type of environment,” said Dave Adornetto, the executive director of TMP’s entrepreneurship program. “So there’s just going to be all sorts of new problems to solve with technology.” He sees that revolutions are particularly underway for healthcare and education.

“The challenges, of course, are around engagement,” he explained, “how to keep people engaged when they are remote.”

Michael Curtis, who completed his Masters of Technology Management degree in June, is seeing these changes firsthand in his new job as an associate project manager at Apeel Sciences, which itself was launched after winning TMP’s New Venture Competition in 2012. He was hired in April, right as everyone went into full lockdown. “We had a virtual online orientation, and it went a lot better than I was anticipating,” Curtis said.

“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how much of a relationship I’ve been able to build with a lot of my coworkers. I thought that being online would be a little weird, but I do feel like I’ve been absorbed into the community and culture of Apeel.”

This kind of training and connection is becoming the new social norm. “With so much change happening in the world right now,” said Adornetto, “I’m excited to see what’s going to come out in terms of student creativity and ideas, because I think natural applications will emerge from their experiences with these technologies.”

Though TMP has long been associated with startups, that’s not the program’s only application. “A lot of the students are thinking about joining established firms, and they’re joining in positions where innovation is required,” said Lewis. “The skills and the learning are absolutely portable to all kinds of organizations where innovation has to occur constantly, and they are learning how to do that.”    tmp.ucsb.edu

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

 

Tech Talk Special Issue for the Santa Barbara Independent, originally published on October 1, 2020.

To read the issue as it appeared in print, please click here, Tech Talk 768_10_01_20

 

A Great Place For Entrepreneurs

John Greathouse, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

John Greathouse, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

From the Santa Barbara tech boom’s earliest successes (Computer Motion, Expertcity, GotoMeeting) to some of the area’s most promising businesses (Invoca, HG Insights) and early investment funds (Entrada Ventures, Rincon Venture Partners) — not to mention teaching at UCSB’s Technology Management Program and writing regularly about entrepreneurs for Forbes — John Greathouse is a veteran of the region’s tech sector, serving as an executive, board member, and investor since the early 1990s.

He recalls a time when there was a belief that building a tech career in Santa Barbara meant compromising on some level. “I never bought that argument, but people made it,” said Greathouse, who recruited many people over the years, some of whom would wonder what would happen if it didn’t work out. “I wouldn’t want to hire the person who is worried about that, though it’s a reasonable concern,” he laughed.

“But there are plenty of places in town, and once you get a great reputation in Santa Barbara, it’s actually easier. You don’t even have to put your résumé out there — people are going to hear about you.”

The concerns evolved into finding spouses jobs, but that stopped about six years ago. “I would hear the opposite,” he said, “‘I can’t believe how much is here.’”

He sees a lot of similarities between people who choose to work in Kauai. “For the most part, they are there because they want to be there, and they’re making it work,” he explained. “It’s a concerted initiative to live in that place. What comes with that is a certain joy. In Hawai‘i, there’s a real aloha, where people are just happy that they’re here and are able to make it work. To some extent, we have that in Santa Barbara.”

That aloha sensibility doesn’t appeal to everyone. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all mentality, and that’s fine,” he admitted. “But I think for the folks it does work with, it feeds off itself, and we’ve been able to create this very collegiate, very congenial community that’s really willing to help each other and is much less sharp elbowed and worried about somebody taking something from them.”

For him, success is all about the people. “Great people can turn a marginal opportunity into a fantastic one,” he explained. “It’s all about making sure you start out with a great core team, and then you’ll deal with the vagaries of the market. If you have the right team, they’ll be the winners.” Concluded Greathouse, “I feel really bullish about Santa Barbara long-term.”  johngreathouse.com

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

 

Tech Talk Special Issue for the Santa Barbara Independent, originally published on October 1, 2020.

To read the issue as it appeared in print, please click here, Tech Talk 768_10_01_20

 

Sprigeo Says Yes to School Safety

Joe Bruzzese of Sprigeo, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

Joe Bruzzese of Sprigeo, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

When Joe Bruzzese founded Sprigeo in 2010, he wanted to help schools prevent bullying and provide a safe, anonymous method for students to report things that made them feel unsafe. The service has since evolved into a full-fledged school safety tip line reporting system, with a 24/7 call center accessible by phone, email, text, an app, or the website.

“Everything goes through the call center,” explained Bruzzese. “They triage those tips based on pre-set criteria to determine how serious of a threat the tip is. Some are very serious—‘There’s a planned school attack,’ or ‘I’m planning to take my own life and I’m calling or reporting to get help’—to something that’s far less serious, like, ‘I don’t like what they’re serving in the school cafeteria.’ We get the gamut of reportable tips, not all of which qualify obviously as a school safety threat.”

A virtual company from the get-go, Sprigeo now serves more than 4,000 schools across 28 states as well as administering the statewide tip lines for Oregon and Idaho. They recently signed on to provide the tip line for the state of Illinois, their largest customer so far.

That provides a lot of data to digest. One trend that Bruzzese sees is an uptick in middle-school students “really struggling with cutting and depression and other forms of self-harm.” Vaping is also on the rise, not just in high school but in middle school. Prior to the pandemic, Sprigeo was working on a series of videos featuring high schoolers telling middle schoolers how “uncool” and unhealthy vaping really is.

Unfortunately, that project is on hold at the moment, but one thing the company has been able to move forward on is an online educational conference that will launch on September 14.

“The culture around meetings and professional development really has changed, and people are now very comfortable with sitting in front of a screen and attending a Zoom meeting or a training session,” explained Bruzzese. “Districts still have the same professional development requirements by law, [so this is] helping them in a way that makes sense, which has been great. Everyone is really looking for opportunities for quality online training.”   sprigeo.com

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

 

Tech Talk Special Issue for the Santa Barbara Independent, originally published on October 1, 2020.

To read the issue as it appeared in print, please click here, Tech Talk 768_10_01_20

 

ParentSquare Makes the Grade

Anupama Vaid of ParentSquare, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

Anupama Vaid of ParentSquare, photo by Daniel Dreifuss for Santa Barbara Independent.

Entrepreneurs follow all kinds of inspirational paths. For Anupama Vaid, it was the halls of Santa Barbara’s Peabody Charter School that inspired her to start ParentSquare, a communication platform connecting parents to teachers and school administrators that is now used by 4,500 K-12 schools across the country.

A former computer engineer for Citrix, Vaid came up with the idea in 2011, when she took a sabbatical to be home with her young children and realized how much more school information was available to stay-at-home parents.

The platform’s development by Vaid and her husband, Sohit Wadhwa, emphasized a simple format that could be accessed via phones, laptops, tablets, and desktops for parents, teachers, and office staff. But making a solid product was only step one.

“Even if you build a good product, there is hindrance in adoption primarily because the education tech industry is a government industry and there are regulations and lots of things to learn,” explained Vaid, who spent almost four years learning the ins and outs of ed tech. “Education really teaches us about technology, but they are not the first ones to adopt technology. Whenever they are buying something, it has to be a collective decision. Plus, it has to be priced correctly because they are buying it with state funds.”

Upon cracking that nut, ParentSquare grew rapidly, but COVID-19 is presenting new challenges. The schools pay a fixed amount per student, but with online education becoming the norm in the spring, their normal usage patterns have gone up tremendously. “But we’re happy to be able to serve the schools during this time,” said Vaid. “It’s very satisfying to be able to do that.”

In addition to consistently delivering helpful tips for better online communication, ParentSquare also added Health Screening Forms to the platform to help schools prevent the spread of COVID.

A more persistent challenge is hiring developers, as ParentSquare uses the same Ruby on Rails web-application framework that’s also used by some of the biggest companies in town, such as AppFolio and Procore. “Obviously, their pockets are much deeper,” she said. But ParentSquare offers a unique advantage. “This is such a soulful company,” she said. “It’s a feel-good experience, and every one of the education industry people is so nice to work with because you know you’re all in it together for the common good. Unlike other industries I’ve been in, this is tech for a social cause, and it’s a different feeling being a part of such a company.”

parentsquare.com

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

 

Tech Talk Special Issue for the Santa Barbara Independent, originally published on October 1, 2020.

To read the issue as it appeared in print, please click here, Tech Talk 768_10_01_20

 

UCSB’s Technology and Research Startups: A List of More Than 40 Companies That Began on the Santa Barbara Campus

Courtesy photo.

Courtesy photo.

Here’s a select list of startups that have been formed around technology and research developed at UCSB. Unless otherwise specified, these companies are all located on the Central Coast.

Acatechol (underwater adhesive, priming, and coating technologies): acatechol.com

Acelot (a development-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and central nervous system disorders): acelot.com

Active Life Scientific (bone-density measurement without radiation): activelifescientific.com

Aerius Photonics, LLC (photonic components), acquired by FLIR: flir.com

Agility (tunable lasers), acquired by JDS Uniphase, now Viavi Solutions: San Jose, CA; viavisolutions.com/en-us

Alveo Technologies (cloud-based diagnostics): Alameda, CA; alveotechnologies.com

Amicrobe (anti-microbials to prevent and treat infections): Carlsbad, CA; amicrobe.com

AppScale (open-source cloud computing platform): appscale.com

Aptitude (medical diagnostics — aptamers): aptitudemedical.com

Asylum Research (atomic force microscopes), acquired by Oxford Instruments: afm.oxinst.com

Aurrion (silicon photonic integrated circuits), acquired by Juniper Networks: juniper.net/us/en

Caugnate (augmented reality), acquired by Parametric Technology: ptc.com

Cayuga Biotech (therapeutics): cayugabiotech.com

Convoy Therapeutics (peptide platform technology), acquired by CTX Technology Inc.

Cue (self-tracking health devices), formerly known as Ruubix: San Diego, CA; cuehealth.com

CytomX Therapeutics (therapeutics): San Francisco, CA; cytomx.com

Diagnostic Biochips (biosensors): Glen Burnie, MD; diagnosticbiochips.com

Digital Instruments (atomic force microscopes), acquired by Veeco: veeco.com

Diopter Corp. (contact lenses that deliver drugs to treat ocular diseases)

Dragonfly Technologies (reagents)

Eccrine Systems, Inc. (medication monitoring): Cincinnati, OH; eccrinesystems.com

Ecorithm (analytics platform): ecorithm.com

Eucalyptus (cloud computing), acquired by HP: www8.hp.com

Fluency Lighting Technologies (laser diode lighting): fluencylighting.com

Groundswell Technologies (software for natural resource management): groundswelltech.com

iFluidics (micro-plate assay): ifluidics.com

InfoCoding Labs (wireless headphone technology): infocodinglabs.com

Innobright (3-D rendering computer graphics): Albuquerque, NM; innobright.com

Lastline (malware detection/protection), acquired by VMware: lastline.com

Laxmi Therapeutic Devices (medical devices): cnsi.ucsb.edu/resources/incubator

LungLife AI, formerly known as Cynvenio Biosystems (cancer-cell sorting): Thousand Oaks, CA; lunglifeai.com

Mentium Technologies (analog computation): mentium.tech

NEXT (organic photovoltaics): nextenergytech.com

Reaction35 (methane conversion): reaction35.com

Regenerative Patch Technologies (regenerative medicine products): Portola Valley, CA; regenerativepatch.com

SBA Materials (“technology to lessen the garbage”): sbamaterials.com

Sebacia (acne treatment): sebacia.com

Serimmune (therapeutics for autoimmune diseases, including applying its platform to the development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics): serimmune.com

ShadowMaps (mobile geolocation), acquired by Uber: uber.com

Sirigen (diagnostics and highly florescent polymers), acquired by Becton Dickinson: bd.com/en-us

SixPoint Materials (semi-conductor/LED materials): spmaterials.com

Skincential Sciences (skincare treatment): San Francisco, CA; clearista.com

SLD Laser (laser lights): sldlaser.com

Soraa (LED lighting): Fremont, CA; soraa.com

Spectradyne (nanoparticle analysis): Torrance, CA; nanoparticleanalyzer.com

Timems (engineering services): buzzfile.com/business/Timems-323-206-1506

Transphorm (hydrogen power generation): transphormusa.com

Twister Biotech (gene therapies for rare cancers and autoimmune diseases): Houston, TX; twisterbiotech.com

Uniax (polymer products), acquired by DuPont Displays: dupont.com

WorldViz (virtual reality): worldviz.com

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

Tech Talk Special Issue for Santa Barbara Independent, published October 1, 2020.

 

Tech Talk Special Issue for the Santa Barbara Independent, originally published on October 1, 2020.

To read the issue as it appeared in print, please click here, Tech Talk 768_10_01_20

 

Surviving the Era of Unlimited Distraction

A team of scientists is helping teenagers learn to calm and focus their minds

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 – 16:15
Santa Barbara, CA

Stress, distraction, unhealthy use of technology and rising rates of mental illness — life is increasingly tough for teenagers today, and educating them is a challenge at best. But researchers at UC Santa Barbara have found success in a new program to address those four themes, which stand out as struggles for the majority of high school students in the United States.

A new, evidence-based, online course that provides students with personalized attention training is being developed at the Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential (CMHP), part of the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The course teaches students to focus their minds and manage their emotions so they can succeed academically.

Practicing mindfulness are (L-R) UCSB's Alissa Mrazek, Jonathan Schooler and Michael Mrazek. Photo by Matt Perko, UC Santa Barbara.

Practicing mindfulness are (L-R) UCSB’s Alissa Mrazek, Jonathan Schooler and Michael Mrazek. Photo by Matt Perko, UC Santa Barbara.

Twenty-five high schools around the country are currently using the course.

“We are quite encouraged by the enthusiasm that our program has received from both students and teachers. We are also heartened by preliminary findings of benefits for students who participate in the program,” said Jonathan Schooler, CMHP director and a professor of psychology.

In one study, published in the journal Education Sciences, the researchers surveyed 190 high school students before and after they completed the 22-day course. They found that students improved their ability to manage stress and regulate emotions. The study also revealed that students came to view their ability to focus as a trainable skill, and they felt more motivated and confident to train this ability. “We found that among the 82% of students who initially reported paying attention in class less than they felt they should, classroom focus significantly improved following our intervention,” Schooler said.

UCSB Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential (CMHP) app.

“Teachers everywhere are reporting that it’s increasingly hard to get students to actually pay attention,” noted Michael Mrazek, CMHP research director. “We’ve interviewed more than 200 high school teachers and principals over the last two years to understand their biggest challenges as well as their perspective about current challenges for teens. There’s a palpable sense of concern around increasing distraction, stress and mental illness. Individually, those are each distinct and important problems. Yet a lot of research has shown that mindfulness-based attention training is an elegant solution that can help address each of those issues. That’s why we’re so excited about finding the most effective way to bring this training into high school settings.”

Michael Mrazek, CMHP research director. Courtesy photo.

The project is primarily funded by a development and innovation grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The goal of the grant is to use empirical research to iteratively refine a digital course that can ultimately scale to provide evidence-based training to millions of high school students in the United States. The online course includes not only four 12-minute lessons and daily 4-minute exercises for students, but also a teacher interface that makes it easy for teachers to enroll students and monitor their progress.

“We deliberately designed this resource so that teachers don’t need to become topic experts to be able to share attention training with their students,” Mrazek said. “When a teacher creates an account, they get access to facilitator training as well as their own personalized 22-day course. Time is a precious resource for teachers, so the course is largely plug-and-play.”

Alissa Mrazek, senior postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, photo by Matt Perko, UC Santa Barbara.

Music plays an important role in most of the daily exercises. As Alissa Mrazek, a senior postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, explained, the researchers have partnered with dozens of famous musicians to create training exercises for students. Students learn to focus their attention by listening deeply to music that is personalized to their preferred genre. “We ask students to try to keep their attention focused on the sounds they hear,” she explained. “Then when distractions arise, as they inevitably do, it’s an opportunity to practice letting go of that distraction and coming back to the music.”

Music plays an important role in most of the daily exercises.

Keeping the students engaged in the lessons is critical but also challenging, noted Michael Mrazek. “We’re constantly striving to use all of the best practices from educational psychology that optimize learning, and to implement them in fast-paced videos that resonate with a teenage audience,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance, and it’s forced us to develop a unique style that can both captivate and educate.”

Jonathan Schooler, CMHP director and a professor of psychology, photo by Matt Perko, UC Santa Barbara.

“I was skeptical initially, just because I thought that pairing a digital format with mindfulness is kind of antithetical, that digital programs are really one of the largest distractions for our teens,” said Gabriel Villegas, a teacher at Central Coast New Tech High School in Nipomo, which uses the course. The program soon won him over. “I tried it with some of our students, and they loved the music options that were chosen and they loved the lessons.”

In Santa Barbara, San Marcos High School teacher Jeffrey Bailey is also a fan. “The feedback that I got from the students was that they felt, especially when they had a stressful day, the program helped them to recalibrate and refocus, as well as to be able to notice their emotions a little bit more without judging themselves.”

Each exercise is designed to help students achieve a mental state of calm and focus. “What we’ve heard from students and seen in some of our data is that these 4-minute exercises give students an immediate way to relax,” Alissa Mrazek said. “We’ve also had teachers say that when they start class with an exercise, students are suddenly more present and receptive to learning because they’ve let go of some of the anxiety that they had before class.

“The exercises help you relax in the moment,” she continued, “but they also train underlying skills that can be used to regulate your focus anytime you start getting worked up about something.”

The program is designed to be a “tier-one universal intervention that can teach preventative techniques to every single student in a high school,” Alissa Mrazek said. “All students experience stress and emotional challenges, and they all need access to evidence-based tools that help them understand and care for their own minds.”

Noted Villegas, “I think there is a movement in schools to be teaching the whole child, kind of a more holistic style instead of just academics. We’re realizing that hasn’t worked very well with all of the anxiety, depression and suicide rates.”

But how would training your focus improve your mental health? “Most people think about attention in terms of how long you can concentrate, but it’s much more than that,” Michael Mrazek explained. “Attention is a fundamental cognitive capacity that works like a spotlight, influencing what you actually experience in any given moment. If you train that fundamental skill, it not only allows you to focus better on a test but also gives you much more influence over how you relate to your entire inner world.

“I’m so excited about this project,” he continued. ‘What we’re trying to accomplish is very challenging, but all of my life I wanted to do something that really makes a difference in the world. When we were awarded this grant it was the first time I felt like we had a genuine opportunity to do it.”

Originally published in The Current (UCSB) on January 28, 2020.

2019 Schools of Thought: The State of Education in Santa Barbara

In taking a look at the latest news and trends related to education in Santa Barbara County, it’s clear that there is an impressive breadth and depth of learning opportunities here in town. From the readers and writers workshop model to incorporating mindfulness practices, social-emotional learning, Latin studies, highly experiential learning, and meshing digital design with fine art traditions, educators are working hard to develop strategies that work for the ways individual students learn best. 

This special section was developed by asking the issue’s sponsors to suggest story ideas based on people, projects, or trends that they’re excited about in their schools and organizations. From that list, we selected stories that represent a wide variety of learning experiences in Santa Barbara and produced the editorial content independently. 

We hope you enjoy it and learn something new about learning! 

African Adventures for Laguna Blanca’s Zack Moore

AHA!’s Peace Builders Put Social-Emotional Education First

Bodhi Path Offers Enlightened View of Technology

Fielding Grad Mallory Price Leads for Literacy

Providence Launches Innovative Design Program 

Raising S.B.’s Next Generation of Teachers 

Saint Therese Academy Provides a Latin Advantage 

SBCC Auto Tech Gears Up For The Future

SBCC Brings the World to the Kitchen

S.B. Middle School Brings Its Best to the Table

The Joy of Experiential Learning at Crane School

The Montessori Method’s Many Success Stories

Unplugged Yet Connected at Midland School 

Leslie Dinaberg is currently the editor in chief of Touring & Tasting magazine. She spent the last 11 years as managing editor of Santa Barbara Seasons, has also edited national business and college student magazines, and writes regularly for a number of publications. Leslie has also authored three nonfiction children’s books and is the coauthor of Hometown Santa Barbara: The Central Coast Book, an insider’s guide to her hometown. See lesliedinaberg.com or follow her on Instagram (@LeslieSDinaberg) and Twitter (@lesliedinaberg). 

Click here to read this story as it originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 7, 2019. SB Independent Schools of Thought Insert 11.7.19