Curiosity

From the JP Gazette: Students Complete Grant-Funded Biotechnology Lab at Meridian Academy

By Division 3 student Izzy

Originally published in the JP Gazette.

On a Tuesday morning in January, the father of one of my classmates sat us all down in our science lab to ask us questions that most of us could not answer. We didn’t know at the time that this was the beginning of an engrossing week of experimentation about biotechnology.

Biotechnology is one of the most helpful and impressive advances in science, in which genes can be cloned and proteins expressed for specific purposes. For example, the protein-digesting power of household laundry detergent often comes from proteins called proteases, and patients with diabetes are commonly treated with insulin, both of which are commonly produced through biotechnology.  In our class, we were going to clone the gene found in jellyfish that make them glow green (green fluorescent protein) and the gene found in coral that makes them blue (midorishi cyan fluorescent protein).

I should mention here that I’m in 10th grade. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to clone jellyfish and coral genes as a teenager, but that kind of work isn’t really uncommon at Meridian Academy, where I go to school. Our learning is often based in the surrounding community, and our teachers love including new technologies and resources in their classrooms.

On the first day of the lab, we divided into teams of two, snapped on our safety gloves, and started the long and meticulous process that would last all week. The lab required many complex techniques. We started with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which is a process of denaturing a double-strand of DNA by heating it up, adding a gene-specific primer, and then lowering the temperature to create multiple copies of the DNA sequence. On day two, it was time to test whether our efforts from the previous day had worked. Using a technique called agarose gel electrophoresis, we were able to tell if our DNA sequences had made successful copies. If so, we then moved on to the process of cloning the DNA into a construct known as a plasmid that would express the gene we copied. The next day, we all came in ready for the last day of experimentation, in which we transformed the plasmid into an E. coli bacteria, plated the results and then left them overnight. In the morning, we placed the bacteria under a black light and saw the bright green glow of the protein.

It was a true privilege to be a part of this five-day lab. Thanks to a grant from the Program on Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, we were provided with technology and resources that most teenagers never get a chance to even learn about. Students were able to see their hard work glowing brightly under a blue light at the end of the week, and it felt incredibly rewarding to know that all of the painfully specific pipetting and attention to detail had paid off. I came away with a new appreciation of both what biotechnology makes possible in the world, and how this complex field of science works. I hope that more students get to have this kind of classroom experience in the future.

The Mathematics of Activism

By Division 4 students Clary and Miles

Last trimester, the Division 4 Mathematics, Science, & Technology class, Mathematical Modeling, took on the creation of our very own ranking functions. A ranking function takes numerical inputs—like test scores or student:faculty ratios to rank colleges—and weights and combines them into a single output. Many ranking functions, instead of actually ranking multiple possible outputs, are designed with a threshold for making a decision, like whether or not you should call in sick to work. Working together, the two of us chose a politically relevant topic to model with our function: should you attend a protest?

Almost everyone has been frustrated about the political climate at some point, and it’s hard to know what to do with that anger besides push it down. However, sometimes it reaches a point when we need our voices heard, and we need a group of people who will yell with us. Once we’ve reached that point, and we hear about a gathering of that sort, we need to make a decision: do we go to the protest, or do we save our energy?

We brainstormed 20 variables that might be included in such a decision. Some were about safety: your race, your citizenship status, and the size of the group with whom you’d be going. Others dealt with convenience, like the weather and the location of the protest. We also considered how important the protest was. This last category we strived to measure quantitatively and objectively, so in the end we included the number of days until or since a relevant political event, along with a subjective measure of personal importance. We chose distance in minutes of travel and mode of transportation to address convenience. Personal safety is a different question for everyone, as we all have different factors that might make us safer or endanger us in an action of civil disobedience. Immigrants and refugees might be more concerned about potential arrest and people of color are likely to be concerned about potential police brutality. Everyone thinks about who they’ll be with at the time – after all, there’s safety in numbers. We decided on two variables: a measure of police brutality based on race, using statistics from the FBI, and group size to deal with safety. Of course there were many other variables that were worth considering, but these were the ones we started working with. With graph paper notebook pages covered in sketches of our functions, we designed and revised ways to weight these variables and the relationships between them.

One question that kept reappearing was how this score could really be effective for potential protesters, since in reality the biggest question is often the expenditure of personal time. Other work can be just as effective in bettering the world than these actions of raising our voices, which can often feel fruitless. Seeking the right combination of activism and anger is a true challenge. We weren’t able to touch on that, so this function is really just part of a larger question.

We created this function largely because it is of great personal importance to us. Both of us are politically active, but we frequently feel as though we aren’t doing quite enough. This function allows self-declared activists the space to step back from this kind of vocal work. We also specified in the paper that in no way should this function be treated as infallible or always correct. But, we think it’s a good place to start, and deliberating over our function gave us a deeper understanding of this all-too-common decision in these troubling times.

Click here and check out another paper on considering one’s role in solving climate change.

Secchi Discs and Plankton Tows: Division II Goes to Woods Hole

By 8th grade student Anna

On October 19, students in Division 2 got into a van and drove to Woods Hole in southern Massachusetts. Our teacher Tasha told the class we had to arrive at school at 7:45am in order to get to Woods Hole on time to accomplish everything we wanted. It was an early – and chilly – morning for all of us!

The first thing we did when we got there was go to the Zephyr Education Foundation, which was housed in a little building on the water, near the docks of Vineyard Sound. There, we met the host who would lead us around, and he told us about rules and expectations for our time at Woods Hole.

Then we stepped onto a large fishing boat, where we met the captain and the first mate before heading off. After going at full speed for about 10 minutes, we slowed down and cast off our first experiment. One of the first things that was deployed off the side of the boat was a machine with a camera that would be dragged along the sea bottom. The point of this was to see what the ocean floor looked like in that area and to examine different ecosystems. There was a TV inside the boat where we could see what the camera was seeing. First we saw lots and lots of seaweed, and then all of a sudden the camera went dark. The first mate and our host pulled up the camera, and it was completely covered in seaweed! They pulled it all off, and we went a little further. After going for a little more time, we hit huge waves (3 - 4 feet tall!), we slowed down and put the camera machine back in. We dragged it on the ocean floor a little longer but this time we could see that there were muscles and clams littering the entire floor.  

After we discussed the difference between two ecosystems, we decided to put a new device in the water: a net that would collect sea creatures. Some of the sea creatures we caught were huge sea stars and sea urchins. After being able to touch and look at the creatures, we threw them back into the water.

A little while later, we put in another device called a Secchi Disc. It looks like a black and white cookie, but split into 4 triangles, 2 black and 2 white. Connected to this was a long rope. The object of this is to figure out how far we could see into the ocean. We would uncoil the rope and drop the Secchi Disc into the ocean, slowly letting it fall until we couldn’t see it anymore. On the rope there were markings with numbers, and the numbers measured how far you could see down. My group’s Secchi Disc went all the way down until the tape showed the number 8 ft. This meant that light from the sun reaches 16 ft down into the water.

The last thing we deployed off the side of the boat was called a Plankton Tow. It was a long net, and at the bottom there was a tall cup. The plankton would go through the net into the cup and were caught there. We caught zooplankton, phytoplankton, and even some Comb Jellies!

After examining the plankton, we put them back into the ocean and made our way back to the dock. After leaving the boat, we went to a building with a lot of ocean touch tanks that held lots of different types of animals, including sea urchins, lobsters, horseshoe crabs, sea stars and moon snails. Then we went to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Exhibit Center where we got to see several exhibits, including one about the Titanic and how the scientists from Woods Hole were the ones to find it.

When we were done at the museum, we made our way back to the Zephyr Education Foundation building to have lunch. The Foundation had 3D augmented reality sandboxes. We got to experiment with the sand boxes for a little while and make all sorts of shapes and land features.

When we were done with that, it was time to go. We said goodbye and thank you to our host, got back into the van, and drove back to Meridian. All in all, even on a chilly day, this field trip was fun and adventurous!

Living with Uncertainty: Graduation 2018 Keynote Address

By Nathan Sokol-Margolis

You may know the name - Wislawa Szymborska, she’s a poet, - and when she accepted the Nobel Prize (in ’96) - she said "'I don’t know’ flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. "

I want to repeat a critical phrase here: "'I don’t know' flies on mighty wings." Szymborksa was born in Poland in 1923, survived World War II, as a railroad laborer, and lived through the socialist People’s Republic of Poland.  She recently died – 2012. Writing throughout her life, in all of these varied environments, she recognized that not knowing was a subversive act. Not knowing was an act that contradicted or reversed the values and principles of a system. Not knowing could transform an established social order. This makes ‘Knowing’ the realm of dictators, fanatics, and demagogues; they present themselves  - as holders of knowledge. For Szymborksa, power and its corruptions rested on one side having the corner on truth and denying anything that questioned it. 

Making the idea of “I don’t know” a core part of one’s life is challenging. Not knowing does not satisfy our egos. It feels good to have the answers. In fact, through much of my life, not having an answer to a question didn’t seem like an option. Regardless of my state of knowledge, I frequently had an opinion and thought that you should be interested in knowing it. In high school, my friends even dubbed it “Nathan-ing.” verb: to offer an opinion confidently, sounding as if you know what you’re talking about, despite the fact that might not. They joked and we laughed, but this phenomenon plagued me for much of my life and can still occur. I find myself doing it at the dinner table with my family, when my brothers and I argue over real estate renovations. I still do it with my friends, when we discuss filmmaking and whether or not a director is making the right choices. More dangerously, it can rear its head in the classroom. A student might ask, “How does Kant’s categorical imperative apply to euthanasia?” and I answer the question but how much do any of us really understand the implications of Kant’s categorical imperative?

But, I’m just a teacher and an administrator at a small school here in JP, however, this widespread phenomenon poses a grave danger when it’s employed by those who have real authority and power in our broadest culture.  

Nicholas Carr, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist text The Shallows, has written about how in our culture of instant media, as issues arise personalities are forced to pass judgement and voice conclusions with little time to collect evidence or express the nuance that subjects deserve. There’s no time for a politician to say “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” In this climate, positions are reduced to talking points that lack intellectual rigor and partnered with our egos, this phenomenon creates a dangerously polarized political and social climate.

Luckily, you all are Meridianites.

As graduates today, you’ve struggled with many moments of “I don’t know” when it comes to completing projects. “What medium should I work in for this creative expression project?” “How can I say what I want to say in this other language?” “How am I supposed to write a paper about math?!” And in not being able to answer a question, you’ve learned the lesson that in the quest, and sometimes, in failure, answers are often found. This willingness to admit I don’t know, to explore the unknown, this comfort with the temporary state of “I don’t know” is key to life as a Meridian student. I’ve observed that many of you even find your greatest fulfillment and joy when you acknowledge you don’t know something, and dare to explore the myriad of answers available, building and deepening your understanding of yourself and your place in this world.

I’m grateful for your attitudes - because the world today is an uncertain place and needs people who are comfortable with the realm of “I don’t know.” In the past seven years, you’ve seen the economy rocked by wealth inequalities, which challenge our devotion to finance and capitalism. You’ve seen the rise of Black Lives Matter, which drew back the veil of racism that many of us wrap ourselves in. You’ve watched the #metoo movement come forward and force us all to confront the trade-offs we have so willingly made to be entertained. And perhaps most similarly to our Polish poet, Szymborska, you’ve seen a wave of nationalism sweep politics and the rise of leaders across the world who not only deny scientific facts such as climate change, but also refuse moral truths, such as basic human principles of equity.

These struggles can make it difficult to get out of bed, let alone, take action.

But we can look to another poet, Rebecca Solnit, for advice. In her 2003 book Hope in the Dark, she writes: “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world...It is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.” 

When we’re presented with today’s headlines, the dismal certainty of an upcoming apocalypse, is the easier path to travel. We all claim to “know” where our problems are going to lead us. We mumble that our actions don’t matter since the sheer quantity of problems seems to be insurmountable.  

However, this is not the route of resistance, or a subversive act, perhaps more important to recognize: this dismal certainty is not the path of history. History has proven that it does not move in a predictable pattern, but edges unevenly across landscapes of pain and joy. To explore these landscapes with curiosity – to seek to understand - is the critical subversive act. 

When you leave here, and find yourselves not knowing the answers to all of the questions you encounter - bask in this unknown - allow yourselves to admit that you don't know. Ask questions that you don’t have answers to and discuss your questions with those around you. Danielle Allen, in her 2014 book Our Declaration, gives us the grandest vision of why our questions, and the conversations they inspire, matter. She writes that: "this country was born in talk."

So, when you’re looking for a way to survive, when you’re searching for a better world, when you want to consider yourself a member of the resistance - sit down with another person, ask a question that you don’t have the answer to and live in the curiosity that it inspires. Discuss and then talk some more: it is here that innovation, change, and revelation exist.

 

From JRPS to Josephine Baker: A Meridian Senior Reflects on a Self-Designed Interdisciplinary Class

By 12th grader Celine

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A lot can be done in a school year, especially in a class of one. When I found out I was going to have an entire French class to myself, I was excited to work with our teacher Sonja to create a curriculum.
At Meridian, seniors are allowed to choose whether or not they would like to pursue a personalized interdisciplinary course or continue taking a language class. For me, I was in the position where I could combine the two options.
My main goal for the interdisciplinary course was to work on my Junior Research Project Seminar (JRPS) from last year, in which I interviewed about 15 organizations relating to prison reentry and created a website called the PROMIS Project, where I displayed my findings. This year, I was able to interview five more organizations, with each interview lasting about one hour. Each week, Sonja gave me some time in class to transcribe these recordings so that I could update my website. I have also been working on a page where I can post recent articles, podcasts, or videos that I come across on my own or with the help of teachers. (If you find anything interesting pertaining to prison reentry or the criminal justice system, please send them my way at thepromisproject@gmail.com.)
During classes when I am not working on the PROMIS Project, I continued taking a language class by diving into the social aspects of French history and learning about the racial, religious, and cultural ties that led France to be what it has become today. Since these topics were rather broad, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to do thorough research, my trimesters were split into three parts: Francophone outreach, racial identity in France, and the life of Josephine Baker. Some of these subunits intertwined with each other throughout the year, so whenever Exhibitions rolled around, explaining the overall unit of French D became a bit challenging. But, here is what I would generally say:
We started the first semester watching the documentary Trop Noire d’être Francais, directed by Isabelle Bon-Claverie, in which Bon-Claverie described her upbringing as a black middle-class French woman. What she gradually noticed as she got older was the daily oppression black people faced due to the power structures implemented since the African slave trade. The lack of concern she sees in the French government regarding race and religion was demonstrated through the insensitive jokes made by higher officials, the lack of acknowledgment that racism continues in France, and the absence of conversation even when protests were in session.
After watching the documentary, I wanted to see whether contemporary students in France were thinking about the racial inequalities that Bon-Claverie faced at a young age. Were these conversations taking place more or less frequently than in the U.S.? In an attempt to answer these questions, Sonja and I decided to create two surveys – one in French and another in English – asking French students about their high school experience. We emailed four to five schools in France and distributed the email to as many people as we could.
Unfortunately, the results were not as diverse as I would have hoped. Many of those who answered the survey were majority white from an older generation where religion, gender, sexuality, and race was not generally spoken or thought about in school.
In the second trimester, Sonja and I watched and analyzed two movies, La Noire de…, directed by Ousmane Sembene, and La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
La Noire de…  takes place in 1966 and follows a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who is flown to France from Dakar after being hired as a caretaker by a French white bourgeois family. What sadly follows thereafter is the progression of Diouana’s depression as she becomes a domestic slave more than anything else. La Noire de… in English is “Black Girl.” The “de” in the title is lost in translation because it can indicate that she is owned by someone or something (so a more accurate translation would be “The Black Girl of...” instead of “Black Girl”). This speaks to the question of not only determining the power dynamics and racial identity in a postcolonial society, but what it means to be objectified as a form of ownership. After watching the film, I wrote a reflection and analyzed symbolic scenes with Sonja. Surprisingly, she later told me that the points we brought up during discussion was similar to a conversation a class at Brown University had after watching the same film.
La Haine was also an amazing film. With directed shots similar to that of Spike Lee, Kassovitz tells the story of three friends, Vinz (Jewish), Said (Arab Maghrebi), and Hubert (Afro-French), who live in a suburban housing project in France. Their mutual friend, Abdel Ichaha, is killed by police during a riot, thus ingraining hatred towards the police in Vinz early on in the film. The three young men live aimlessly around the neighborhood, almost in a state of limbo, until Vinz comes across a lost gun from a police officer in the prior riot.
Suddenly, an adventure progresses revolving around the gun. The prolonged scenes that took place in the beginning of the film became quick paced and intense after the friends’ lives are on the line. There was a lot to analyze in the film, but my main takeaway was the role that youth play in society. If the younger generation is treated as though there is no future for them – that they are given a place to survive, but not to prosper – then this cycle of hatred will persist.
In the third trimester, Sonja and I finished reading a 500-page comic book on the life of Josephine Baker. Baker, who lived from 1906 to 1975, was the first African-American woman to become an international dancer, the first American woman to receive the Croix de Guerre (she was recruited a spy as a part of the French Resistance during World War II), and the only female speaker in the March on Washington. Baker also adopted 12 children from different countries and ethnicities – including Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, and Venezuela – whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” Near the end of the year, I was able to watch the movie she starred in called Zou Zou.
We read Josephine Baker throughout the whole school year, and Sonja and I took turns reading aloud. Sometimes, I would be assigned to read pages on my own for homework and explain the chapter to Sonja during the beginning of the next class. I found this type of exercise not only fun – because I was learning about the life of Josephine Baker – but also effective, because I was able to tackle areas of French that I had found especially challenging. Subsequently, I am now able to digest French words more quickly, speak with a more understandable accent, and write more proficiently than before.
This combination of my continued JRPS work and an in-depth study of French culture made for an eventful year. Sonja structured my classes so that I could pursue the PROMIS Project, reach out to people I might’ve not spoken to before, and learn about the different perspectives and ideologies in France about which I had been completely unfamiliar. Thank you, Sonja!

Je me souviens...notre séjour à Québec

By 10th grade student Ally and class of 2017 alumnus Twyla

Ally:

When I woke up the morning of the Québec trip, I had very little time for anything except a snack and saying goodbye to my dog. I was half-asleep until I got to Meridian, which is when I saw some other students outside, piling stuff into the surprisingly small trunk of the eight person van I would spend far too much time in. Of course, Leisa, one of the teachers coming with us on the trip, gets the passenger seat next to Sonja, our French teacher, leaving the back seat and the “basically it’s the trunk” seats to the students. After a relatively short and tired debate, Theo and I are seated in the far back, with Luke and Clary in front of us.

The trip was long, but enjoyable. Starting off with discussions about what will happen in Québec, dumb coloring games on my phone, and a word game called “Contact,” we left the area and made our way to our first stop: a coffee shop. Sonja, as we all realized on this trip, cannot survive more than three hours without it.

Things were smooth until we get to border patrol, where a man horribly mispronounces as many names as he can while eyeing the six half-asleep students in the back of the van. Unlike other trips, though, we got through without any trouble.

This led us to our next stop, a Tim Hortons, where we would speak the first French to fluent French speakers of the trip. It was simple -- order food -- but apparently everyone forgot we were in Canada, and no one got their Canadian money from their bag. A good start.

Now, other than the GPS telling us to drive into a couple of rivers, we made it to the Airbnb we would call home. It was much smaller than advertised, and does not comfortably fit the amount of people it claimed. In fact, there were six beds, and seven people. We made the best out of the situation by creating a pillow bed in a small hallway, which I ended up staying in.

Once we’d recuperated from the eight-hour journey, we drove to Old Québec and enjoyed an amazing meal at a crêpe place that I now crave every day. After, we stopped by a supermarket to grab things for our breakfast. This, of course, did not go so well, considering the recipe required ingredients we’ve never heard of in English, let alone French (thanks, Clary).

In the morning we attempted to cook quiche with the ingredients from the night before, but the severe lack of ventilation was a bit of a setback. In the end it turned out well, and we left the house with full stomachs.

Sonja was very insistent we check out the train station, as it apparently had beautiful architecture and history, so we went along with it. Arriving there ready to see the beauty it held, we were surprised by something -- someone -- else. Twyla, alumnus, class 0f 2017, and a previous French student, was waiting for us to get there.

Twyla:

Surprising the group of Meridianites was amazing! It had been incredibly fortunate that the Quebec trip had coincided with my reading week, because it allowed me to share in some really great experiences with the group. After a lunch of pastries and coffee, we got to visit one of my favorite museums of all time: La musée de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization)! No two trips there have been the same for me, as the museum rotates their exhibits impressively frequently, and what was a gallery of mythology-themed ancient Egyptian artifacts two years ago was now a crazy, funky collection of bizarre objects representing humanity’s progress through time -- or at least, that was my takeaway. The exhibit on brains and cerebral function and development was also quite engaging; the whole group spent a lot of time on an interactive piece that showed how touching a plate of alternating warm and cool bars could trick your brain into thinking it was being burned.

Later that afternoon, we visited the classic sightseeing stop: the Funicular! The rides on the old, cable supported elevator overlooking the river (fleuve!) were breathtaking for some and scary for others. The next classic we visited was the Chateau Frontenac, which was as stunning as always. Every time I see it, it refreshes my goal of staying in a room there one day. And that evening: the Remparts game! I’m generally not one for watching sports games, but live hockey is always a blast. Especially in Canada. Between the front row seats, the Timbits half-time game (in which numerous very small children held a very exciting demo match of their own), and the fantastic last names (one player’s jersey boasted the French term for ‘the raspberry’), it was an awesome night.

The next day, we packed everything up, got breakfast, and then visited the oldest market in North America, Épicerie J.A. Moisan. There, we bought cool gifts and souvenirs for people back home (and snacks for ourselves, of course). And at that point, I had to leave to catch a flight home, so I said my goodbyes, entrusted a jar of jam I had just purchased to Sonja to drive across the border, and got into my Uber.

Ally:

After Twyla left, the next stop was a restaurant that students are taken to every Québec trip: Frites Alors. This small restaurant was packed full of the most amazing fries I’ve ever had. Along with this, they made burgers, grilled cheese, and sandwiches, but the main events were the fries and their homemade dipping sauces. These sauces came in many different flavors, and all of us loved them. By the end, Luke and I were basically asleep because of the food, and, according to him, he will never feel full again unless he eats at Frites Alors.

Once we arrived back at the van, we made our way home, saying goodbye to Québec. The trip was less energized but still amusing. I spent the whole ride playing Plants vs Zombies and occasionally chiming in to conversations. We arrived home around eleven, thus ending the journey.

Should Politicians Be Able to Gerrymander Their Way to Success?

9th grade students Nadia and Tali reflect on a recent project that combined Humanities with Math, Science, and Technology.

Throughout American history, we have seen minority groups fight for their right to vote. Voting has long been considered a symbol of American freedom, and it is a right that our nation has always valued. However, what happens when someone’s vote no longer has an impact? If some voters have more power than others, does this violate the Constitution?

This April, Division Three explored the ways in which gerrymandering affects state representative elections, and considered ways that gerrymandering can be measured and prevented. Using statistics, geometry, and social science, the class learned about how gerrymandering impacts voters, and how we might determine whether or not a district is unfairly gerrymandered. This unit culminated in a simulation of the oral argument of Gill v. Whitford, a case about gerrymandering in the state of Wisconsin, which is currently being decided by the Supreme Court. The Court is expected to release its decision in June.

Gerrymandering is a strategy that is used by politicians when redrawing the district lines to create less competition within a district. By creating districts of their choice, politicians can essentially choose their voters and ensure victory. Michael Mitchell, a law student at Harvard Law School, states that gerrymandering “prevents voters from voting out people they don’t like and voting in people they do,” a fundamental aspect of our democracy. Some gerrymandering, however, may be unavoidable. Mitchell will be doing an internship at Protect Democracy, an organization which prevents changes in elections which put a group at a disadvantage.

Gerrymandering works by squeezing voters of the opposing party into a district, a practice known as “packing,” or distributing their votes across many districts, which is called “cracking.” By doing so, politicians can weaken the strength of the opposing side, rendering those votes useless. Sometimes, one party can receive less than the majority of the vote, yet receive the majority of seats. In these cases, many voters believe that their right to vote has been stripped away by gerrymandering. Gerrymandering can be seen as a violation of the Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Lily Hu is a Harvard graduate student in applied mathematics at Harvard University.  She uses math to figure out if a district has been gerrymandered, and explores ways that math can help create fair district lines. Hu describes three ways one can detect if a district has been gerrymandered. These three ways are: the ratio of perimeter to area, minimum convex, and district curvature. These metrics can help us determine how compact a district is: for example, if a district has many curves, this may mean that it has been gerrymandered.

It is worth noting, Hu points out, that gerrymandering is not the only practice that takes away voters’ rights. Current voter ID laws and mass incarceration restricts minorities, specifically African-Americans, from voting. For example, 59 percent of people who are in jail are either Hispanic or black.  Americans in prison are not allowed to vote, meaning that a lot of African-Americans and Hispanics are not allowed to participate in the voting process.

In Gill v. Whitford, Whitford and other Wisconsin voters accused Gill and other Republican map-drawers of unconstitutionally gerrymandering Wisconsin. In 2012, Republicans won a disproportionate amount of assembly seats in comparison to their statewide vote. Republicans had 48.6% of the statewide vote, but received 60 out of the 99 alloted seats in the state assembly. Furthermore, in 2014, they received 52% of the statewide vote and received 63 assembly seats. Wisconsin Democrats claimed that this huge win was due to gerrymandering. In Gill v. Whitford, the plaintiffs argue that what Wisconsin Republicans have done is unconstitutional, and violates their freedom of association and their right to vote. When the case was heard before the district court, the panel decided that the map discriminated against Democratic voters. The defendants appealed and the case went to the Supreme Court (Mangat and Wagner).

The defendants in this case argue that gerrymandering is nonjusticiable. They claim that there is no objective way to measure if a district has been gerrymandered. The defendants also cite the Supreme Court’s precedent, as the Court has rejected partisan gerrymandering claims for the past three decades. The plaintiffs’ case relies on a three-prong test to prove the existence of partisan gerrymandering: discriminatory intent, discriminatory effect, and lack of justification. Two of these have also been rejected in previous gerrymandering cases. Gill refers to the metrics that the plaintiffs have provided as “social science hodgepodge.” There have been a variety of statistical tests to try to make prosecuting against gerrymandering justiciable. One of these is the efficiency gap, which measures the difference in wasted votes between two parties in an election. Gill claims that the efficiency gap test does not work, as it is biased in favor of Democrats, since Democrats tend to live in cities, meaning that they live closer together and are thus naturally “gerrymandered.” Gill also claims that Wisconsin follows traditional redistricting laws. This means that partisan gerrymandering is legal (Mangat and Wagner). The defendants also argue that the tests such as the efficiency gap operate under a dangerous assumption: that voters never deviate from their party, and will always vote for their party (Mangat and Wagner).     

In contrast, voters in Wisconsin claim that Republican map-drawers have taken away their rights. In particular, the map in question, also called Act 43, violates the First Amendment, which gives the citizens freedom of association. Whitford claims that this right is stripped away from the voters; because they favor the Democratic party, they have been placed in a certain district in which their votes have no value. This is called vote dilution. Voters claim that their freedom of association has been violated, because the gerrymandered districts has severely devalued their votes (Mangat and Wagner). This also ties in with the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants all citizens the equal protection of the laws.

Gerrymandering is not a recent issue; the United States has been struggling to figure out how to deal with gerrymandering in a responsible way for over two centuries.

The first politician who was accused of gerrymandering was Elbridge Gerry in 1812. The term gerrymandering comes from Gerry, a political cartoon showed how the gerrymandered district resembled a salamander. The portmanteau “gerrymander” resulted, In 1842, the Apportionment Act was passed, stating that congressional districts shall be compact and contiguous. This prevented districts from having holes in them, or having a lot of curves. Additionally, prior to 1842, congressional representative elections were at large. This means that a voter would vote for a party, and a state was ultimately represented by all-Republican or all-Democratic representatives. This meant that voters could look at candidates instead of always voting for their party. It also creates more competition and diversity of thought throughout a state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 encouraged politicians to create majority minority districts, which is also known as affirmative gerrymandering. This was because previously, some conservative states gerrymandered so that minorities would not get a Democratic representative. They would do this by diluting minorities into districts which were conservative, creating a landslide victory. The Voting Rights Act served as a check for states that discriminated against minority voters (Barasch).

For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has decided that partisan gerrymandering is a political, and not a legal, issue. However, if the Court upholds the district court’s decision, it will mean the system could potentially change. On one hand, it may mean that politicians who draw districts will no longer be able to get away with gerrymandering. On the other hand, this decision may also grant federal courts an incredible amount of power. In future gerrymandering cases, the courts may have to decide what districts are “too gerrymandered” or “not gerrymandered enough,” which may determine the political outcomes of elections. Mitchell believes that there is a lot at stake in Gill v Whitford; if the court rules in favor of Whitford, he believes it could have serious implications for what the Supreme Court is or is not allowed to do. He believes that the court should rule in favor of the plaintiff, because this affirms that our votes matter in our democracy. Since the case violates the First Amendment, it is the court’s job to decide on our standard for gerrymandering.

During Division Three’s oral argument, the atmosphere in the “courtroom” was very tense. The justices, composed of both students and adults, sat in a row, facing the appellees and appellants. When it was each side’s turn to talk, the student-lawyer would go to the middle of the room and stand by a podium. After delivering their speech, the justices asked questions. During the argument, the students fidgeted in their seats, and the tone of their voices were sometimes sharp. The justices asked clarifying and probing questions that put the student-lawyers on the spot. The appellants and appellees were forced to defend their arguments to surprising questions that, at times, caught them off guard.  In the end, the justices voted 5-4 to affirm the district court's opinion.

After finishing the mock trial, we observed that the outcome was similar to the outcome of the district court: A 5 to 4 decision. The debate brought up many unresolved questions for the justices. One stood out: Is it the court’s job or the legislature’s job to create a standard for gerrymandering? During the simulation, some justices argued that “I’ll know it when I see it” was a good enough standard. They believed that Act 43 was definitely gerrymandered, so a standard wasn’t needed. Other justices argued that a standard was necessary before gerrymandering was justiciable. Some argued that it was the legislature's job to create a standard. Others countered this, saying that the legislators had been gerrymandered into office, so it should be the job of the justices. The justices never came to a unanimous conclusion, thus proving that these decisions are more complicated than we first believed.

Works Cited
Barasch, Emily. “The Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics.” The Atlantic.      9/19/2012. Web. 3/25/2018.

Bazelon, Emily,”The New Front in Gerrymandering Wars: Democracy vs Math” Aug. 29. 2018.

Mangat, Leonardo and Wagner, D.E. “Beverly R. Gill, et al. v. William Whitford, et al.” Cornell Law School. N.d. Web. 3/27/2018.


 

Sharks, Seals, and M&Ms: Division II MST Explores Woods Hole

By MST teacher Tasha Greenwood

On Friday Oct 20th, students from Division 2 Math, Science, and Technology class took a field trip to Woods Hole on Cape Cod. This tiny town in Falmouth is most famous for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), one of the premiere marine research organizations in the world. We spent the day with an organization called Zephyr Marine Education, which focuses on bringing the experience of marine research and exploration to students from around the state.

We began the day with a two-hour “research cruise” with Zephyr staff, deploying instruments and collecting data in the same fashion as a professional marine science expedition. We deployed a mooring with a data logger to look at depth versus temperature and pressure. The mooring was eventually recovered via an acoustic signal, much like the types of sonar we have been studying in class. We towed a camera to check out the eel grass and sargassum habitats, and a dredge to collect creatures. The highlights from the dredge included a horseshoe crab, sea stars, hermit crabs, spider crabs,  and multitudes of purple urchins. We also towed a plankton net, and examined light attenuation through the water column with a fun experiment featuring M&Ms! Perhaps the most exciting wildlife encounter, though, was the group of seals hanging out on the rocks at low tide.

We ate lunch in the town of Woods Hole, and then made our way back to Zephyr to play with augmented reality sandboxes, upon which is a projection of topography that shifts based on your movement of the sand. You can add rainwater to fill lakes and oceans and create waves.

Our day ended with a tour of the WHOI Exhibit Center. One of the most exciting parts of the museum is an AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle), which was designated to record video of sharks in their natural habitat. However, the sharks ended up biting the AUV and there is footage of the entire encounter! Visitors can touch the actual AUV which is on display. There was also a replica of the deep-sea submersible research unit Alvin. We tried to fit all of Div 2 into Alvin but – even though we’re a small group – there wasn’t quite enough space in the tiny unit.

Back in the classroom, we analyzed data from various deployments and connected this information to what we have been studying in oceanography. As our learning progresses, these applications of marine research will be put to use in other projects, and culminate in the building of Sea Perches at the end of the year.

Using History to Define Us

By Humanities teacher Nathan Sokol-Margolis

In 1707, Reverend John Williams, the minister of Deerfield, MA published his narrative The Redeemed Captive. This text, which relates the story of Williams’s and his family’s capture by Mohawks and the French during the Deerfield Raid of 1704, became a classic of early American literature and was key in perpetuating a two-dimensional perception of the conflict between Indian and English, between “savage” and “civilized.” For our Division II Humanities class, Constitution Nation, this moment in history is a case study for how individuals use stories to help them organize and coalesce into groups.

This past week, after studying 17th century Deerfield (previously know as Pocumtuck), students traveled there and spent the night in the “Old Indian House,” a replica of John Sheldon’s house, which was one of the few homes to survive the raid of 1704.

Starting off at the summit of Wequamps, renamed by the English to Sugarbush, students looked out over the Connecticut River Valley and discussed why the land was contested by so many groups. They listened to the ancient story of the Amiskwôlowôkoiak (the People of the Beaver-tail Hill) and heard of a people that settled the land at least 10,000 years ago. From there, they met with David Brule, a local who helped the Nolumbeka Project gain protection for Wissatinnewag, an Indian village. Wissatinnewag is the Algonquin word for “shining hill.” It is a holy site that had been inhabited for thousands of years, and it is the site where, in the aftermath of King Philip’s War in 1676, hundreds of non-combatants were killed by colonial militia led by William Turned. This event is one of the key moments that led to the Native population raiding Deerfield in 1704.

After speaking with Brule, students went to the “Old Indian House,” changed into colonial garb, and lived a colonial life for 16 hours. Working together, the students did chores such as shelling beans and carding cotton. They cooked dinner in a walk-in fireplace, and they told stories about the raid late into the night. The next morning, students made breakfast together and played traditional colonial games. They also got to experience multiple first-person narratives from the perspective of raid survivors. After breakfast and clean-up, students changed back into their 21st century garb and went to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Museum, where they saw the original Sheldon Door that the raiders hacked at to get at the English colonists. They examined the language used then to talk about that moment in history (the Deerfield Massacre), versus the language used now (the Deerfield Raid), and discussed the power of perspective in giving meaning to a group of people.

Now that students are back in the classroom, they are doing primary source research on the many groups in New England during the 18th century. Once this research is finished, students will craft narratives to share with others in an effort to explore how we take the past and manipulate it to explain our present. Stay tuned for updates on the project!

Skulls, Whales, and Darwin: Division II Explores Harvard's Natural History Museum

By Division I Media & Journalism reporter Phoebe

As part of their learning about evolution and biology this trimester, Division II took a field trip to The Harvard Natural History Museum in Cambridge. As science teacher Stephanie explained, the trip enriched the students’ learning throughout the year, which is focused on marine science. This covers both algebra and a variety of scientific subjects, ranging from ecology to conservation biology. They read Sean B. Carroll’s Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution and learned about how other scientists contributed to Darwin’s famous theory, as well as many examples of adaptations in different environments.  

During their field trip, students were granted special access to an area not open to the public, called the stacks. There, they looked at examples of evolution and how species and animals adapted to survive.

Students were also invited to see the collection held by the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Mammalogy department. They were greeted by curatorial assistant Mark Omura, who walked them through how scientists utilize the specimens for their research.  

They went to other exhibits also, including one on skulls. As students Emi and Juanzi described, “When you looked up, there was a giant whale skeleton above your head.” They said the trip was “exhilarating” and “fascinating.” By the end of the trip, students’ minds were expanded with all that learning -- you could even say they evolved!