The future of machine learning in journalism

Photo (cc) by luckey_sun.

“You either look for data and you don’t know what to do with it; or you have an idea about what you want to do, [but] the data that you need to get isn’t available easily,” said Kevin Wall, a visual journalist at The Boston Globe.

Wall is just beginning to delve into machine learning on his own and assessing its potential use for The Boston Globe. “We need a lot of data for machine learning and deep learning, so it can be tough because you will need teams of people to get [that] amount of data,” he said.

Like Wall, the journalism industry is still scratching the surface of these cutting-edge data science tools. There are only a handful of projects out there – such as the search of hidden spy planes by BuzzFeed News, the analysis of the misclassification of serious assaults by the Los Angeles Times, and image recognition of members of Congress by The New York Times.

“For now, journalists and the media industry as a whole are recognizing that AI[artificial intelligence] and ML[machine learning] can benefit them, but it also represents this drastic shift from what otherwise has been a very stable industry for the last couple hundred years,” said Alex Siegman, an AI technical program manager at Dow Jones, a worldwide news and information powerhouse for business news and data. “This is something that’s still very new, and a lot of newsrooms are exploring what it means for them and how they can derive benefits from it.”

What is machine learning

Simply put, machine learning is when a computer model is trained by a “teaching set” of data, which can then identify patterns substantially faster and more effectively than a human being. An example of this is introducing a model to a large set of cat and dog images as the “teaching set,” which allows the model to distinguish between pictures of cats and dogs at a high accuracy.

To summarize, machine learning is “finding patterns in large amounts of data and making predictions based on historical data,” said Siegman.

There are two aspects to using machine learning in journalism: as part of investigative reporting, or as a day-to-day tool to make journalists’ lives easier.

 Machine learning as part of investigative reporting

“There are probably relatively few circumstances under which reporters are going to need for one to acquire machine learning – it’s really where you’ve got a classification task,” said Peter Aldhous, a reporter on the science desk at BuzzFeed News.

Aldhous is the author of Hidden Spy Planes, where he used machine learning to identify further covert spy planes. The project won the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships award for innovation in 2018 Data Journalism Awards by the Global Editors Network, an international association with the mission of fostering digital innovation in newsrooms all over the world.

Aldhous said his plane project was a rare case where machine learning was actually a good fit, because there was a large enough dataset to train the model. “I had very good data on these aircrafts, and a lot of it,” he said.

Aldhous successfully acquired four months of flight data from more than 100 known government aircrafts. From that, he was able to build a model which could flag planes that might have been surveillance aircrafts.

But he warns that there is danger of data reporters getting too excited about this shining new tool. He said Rachel Shorey, a software engineer in the interactive news department of The New York Times, summarized this sentiment well at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference in March: sometimes simple things like a simple keyword alert or standard statistical sampling techniques might just do as good of a job in an even shorter amount of time.

“We need to use the right tool for the right job,” said Aldhous. “[For much of what we do] we don’t need machine learning; we need good data reporting.”

Although the need of machine learning in the newsroom is relatively rare, Shorey pointed out what actually happens when journalists implement this technology in their reporting. The process is “much more haphazard than is desirable,” Shorey wrote in an email. First, reporters find a good library in their favorite programming language; second, they read the documentation; third, they confirm that the methods are a good approach and they understand the inputs and outputs (even if not all the underlying math); fourth, they spend days to weeks cleaning data; and last, they write about 10 lines of code to execute the machine learning process.

 Machine learning as a day-to-day tool

“There’s a lot to what journalists have to do,” said Siegman, an AI technical program manager at Dow Jones. “If you can use technology or machine learning to automate or even semi-automate any part of that, that is a great benefit to journalists.”

Machine learning can help journalists with their day-to-day tasks, such as finding stories, doing photography and videography work, or editing and publishing their work on social media, he said. This can be done through little things such as automatically transcribing recording, using image recognition to identify someone in a photo, and captioning videos; or through a larger task such as finding specific information that’s beneficial from a huge influx of content from sources such as social media.

Siegman thinks machine learning or artificial intelligence is nothing more than just a tool. Ten or 20 years from now, he said, people will think about machine learning just like how we think about Microsoft Excel today. “It’s [just] a tool that we are using to perform certain job functions,” he said.

The ethics

“I would not be happy, in journalism, using blackbox machine learning methods that I don’t know what they are doing,” said Aldhous.

Aldhous said transparency is crucial in journalism – reporters should be able to explain what they did. And at the same time, readers should be able to repeat what reporters did.

Algorithmic accountability is also vital. “One of the most important things journalists need to be doing is actually doing watchdog reporting on how machine learning algorithms are being used by companies and by government,” said Aldhous.

Aldhous thinks watchdog reporting around those issues is even more important than journalists using the algorithms themselves. He said there is a “potential for bias in any algorithmic decision.”

This can happen when a training set includes societal bias that machine learning picks up on, said Carlos Scheidegger, a computer scientist from the University of Arizona. “There’s very little you can do to validate your results if there’s a problem with the way that a classifier you are using worked,” he said.

Both Siegman and Aldhous mentioned an example of how Amazon used an algorithm that was biased against women as their recruitment tool. The system was trained on data over a 10-year period submitted by mostly male applicants. It then started penalizing resumes that included the word “women.”

“The bias precipitated through the algorithm, and into the real world,” said Siegman.

Siegman thinks privacy concerns are also alarming. “To use any machine learning, you need lots and lots of data,” he said. “And there are privacy concerns around how you are collecting that data from users.”

The future of machine learning in journalism

Aldhous thinks there is a future in machine learning, but more on the publishing side – such as how to organize, distribute, share and display content to attract more readers. “But as time goes on, we will get a better idea of when it’s the right tool for the job, and when it just overkills or is not necessary,” he said.

Siegman agrees. “Don’t think about where we can use AI,” he said. “Think about what problems you are facing on a day-to-day [basis], and then evaluate whether or not AI might be a possible solution to that.”


Boston’s sea levels will probably rise by 9 inches as soon as 2030, and here’s what residents and experts say

Photo (cc) by Chris Wolcott.

BOSTON – Dom Lange did his research before he bought his house at East Broadway – it’s 20 feet above sea level. But this number might not be so assuring anymore.

Lange has lived in South Boston since 2003. He is raising two kids here, and his business is also here. He is not yet worried about flooding, he said, but he will be if sea level rises too much.

“I live right here, and the ocean is right there,” Lange said, pointing at the sea about 1,500 feet away.

Neighborhoods in South Boston face the greatest or near-greatest exposure to coastal flooding of the Greater Boston area, according to a report by Climate Ready Boston, an initiative to develop resilient solutions to prepare Boston for climate change. The report further points out that if global carbon emissions continue at their current pace, Boston’s sea levels will probably rise by 9 inches – about half of a desk’s height – from 2013 levels as soon as 2030; 21 inches as soon as 2050; and 36 inches – about one-third of a basement’s height – as soon as 2070.

“[South Boston] is one of the neighborhoods that’s going to pose the most challenges [in terms of sea level rise],” said Jill Valdes Horwood, director of waterfront policy of Boston Harbor Now, a non-profit organization working to re-establish Boston as one of the world’s truly great coastal cities. “As opposed to East Boston or Charlestown – where you see that there are specific entry points for floodable areas – in South Boston it’s really just going to come up from everywhere.”

Flooding, however, is no longer a futuristic term to Boston. According to Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists – a non-profit science advocacy organization based in the United States, repeated flooding events already took place in parts of Boston when the blizzard nor’easter hit in January.

“Between now and 2030, we can imagine the same coastal storms that would have hit today would be able to reach even further inland, and the storm surge from it will be even higher because [of] sea level rise 20 years from now,” said Dahl.

Boston is one of the few cities that are very far along in climate resilient planning without having experienced a catastrophic event like Hurricane Sandy, said Horwood. But, she said, people do need to realize that “it can happen at any moment, and we need to start going from creating plans to actually implementing those plans.”

The impact sea level rise could have in a few decades is significant. As sea level goes up, each tide is a little higher than it used to be, said Dahl. So, high-tide flooding events can happen more often and reach further inland even when there is no storm. According to Dahl’s research, areas of South Boston that were affected by the nor’easter in January could be flooded on average every other week by 2060.

“This is frustrating,” said Gretchen Patrick, a resident and homeowner in South Boston. To stop sea level rise, there is not a whole lot to do at a personal level, she said. Instead, she thinks the whole community should unite and solve the problem. “This issue needs collective response from organizations such as the government,” she said.

Patrick has made her home a “greenhouse” – that means, everything is energy efficient. “We are doing our part,” she said.

Fortunately, Horwood said as a city, everyone in Boston – including people in both public and private sectors – is on track in terms of creating neighborhood-specific plans for a resilient waterfront, and beyond that, a plan that protects us from a rising sea. Horwood said these actions are all reflected in “Resilient Boston Harbor,” the latest plan the city released. “It’s really a wonderful and exciting vision of what the waterfront could look like in a way that does not just protect the city from flooding, but also invites people down to the waterfront and increases public access through green solutions,” she said.

But the next question is how the plan is going to be financed. “The really interesting thing at this particular moment is figuring out creative efficient ways to finance what’s going to be a very expensive infrastructure project for cities pretty much all over the world,” said Horwood.

How soon do those actions need to happen? Dahl thinks the answer is now. First, she thinks new developments that might be risky to people and businesses in coastal areas should be stopped; second, policies should be made stronger and more flexible; and last, there should be proactive new ways to tackle this issue. One important thing is to have in mind, she said, is to not forget about those communities of color who traditionally have a more difficult time bouncing back from disasters.

To stay in a particular place that’s vulnerable to flooding, Horwood said, residents have to adapt to sea level rise, and also mitigate climate change at the same time. Adaptations can mean putting utilities on the roof; raising the entire house by a few feet; building a flood-proof basement; and avoiding basements and underground parking. Mitigations can mean driving cars less often; becoming a vegetarian; using less energy; and using solar and wind energy instead of traditional sources.

“Both types of strategies are going to be really important in ensuring they can stay in their homes, but in a way that makes sense [and] contributes to the overall resilience of the entire neighborhood,” she concluded.

Overall, Horwood is optimistic about this issue. “It’s really an exciting time to be thinking about solutions [presented in ‘Resilient Boston Harbor’], and that’s the kind of work we are really pumped out to be a part of,” she said.

Q&A: Suzanne Matson on “Ultraviolet,” American womanhood and her family history

Suzanne Matson reading “Ultraviolet.” Credit: Floris Wu.

The complexities of marriage, motherhood, aging and the end of life, spanning three generations of women, are depicted in Suzanne Matson’s novel, “Ultraviolet,” published in September 2018.

Inspired by her own family history, Matson’s fourth novel takes readers on a journey from India to the United States through the eyes of three women. Originally from Portland, Oregon, and now a professor of English at Boston College, Matson is the author of four novels and two books of poems. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 1998.

“I want to tell stories that feel close to life and are important to people,” Matson said.

Floris Wu, a journalism student from Northeastern University, sat down with Matson to talk about her writing inspiration and process for “Ultraviolet.”

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Wu: How did you first become interested in writing this book?

Matson: It’s actually drawn from my own family history. The middle generation is based on my mother. It follows that character, Kathryn, from childhood to the end of life.

Wu: How did your family history inspire the book?

Matson: The material on both my mother’s and my father’s side always fascinated me, but this is the first novel I’ve written that has to do with family history. I needed to get to a place in my life where the characters I was thinking about were really historical – that is, they were no longer living. I was fictionalizing, so before I tried to write about them, I needed to allow imagination to take over and fill in the gaps.

Wu: Can you talk a bit more about your father’s side of family history?

Matson: My father’s side of the family were Finnish immigrants. The family were coal miners, and he was raised in Montana. He and all his brothers, who were in the building trades, were part of labor politics and socialist movements.

Wu: So, how did your father’s experience go into the making of this female story? Was it because of his marriage with your mother? If yes, can you expand on that?

Matson: The marriage had its very explicit tensions – he was much older than she was; and their backgrounds were very different. I was fascinated by this coming together of two different worlds through them.

Wu: What do you mean by “two different worlds”?

Matson: She was born and raised in India. Her parents were Mennonite missionaries – a very conservative Protestant religion. When they moved back to their hometown in Illinois, she felt that she had landed in a way of life that was very different than the first 12 years of her life – even though she was American and a native English speaker. When she went west, that’s when she met my father.

Wu: Is that why you began the story in India?

Matson: My mother grew up in India during a very important time for that country, as the nation was preparing for its independence. Indians were increasingly chafing against the British rule. The Mennonites received their land leases and permissions to build schools and churches from the British, so they tried to remain politically neutral. I consulted my grandfather’s missionary memoirs and papers, and also interviewed my uncle about his memories of the political atmosphere. I was fascinated by the delicate balance the missionaries had to tread.

Wu: How did your mother’s geographic trajectory from India to the United States have an impact on the story?

Matson: Just as history was an agent and a shaping influence, so was geography. When my mother moved back with her family to Illinois, she was still living in the heart of a Mennonite community. When she struck off on her own at the age of 20 for Oregon, that’s when she was also shedding the Mennonite strictures and church membership.

Wu: I know the three generations of women – Elsie, Kathryn and Samantha – each gets more independent than the last. In what ways did your book reflect that?

Matson: Elsie was the least able to be independent because of the poverty that led her to the Mennonite mission in the first place, and her marriage to an authoritarian husband. Kathryn moved west and separated herself from the Mennonite church and, in essence, tried to reinvent herself – she probably wouldn’t have done that if her mother hadn’t died when she was 19, a big blow that allowed her to separate herself from the Mennonites. And then the third generation, the character representing me, had many more freedoms than my mother had because of cultural change.

Wu: In what ways did Samantha, the figure of you, have more freedom?

Matson: Opportunities for education, mobility and choices relating to family life.

Wu: Did you have a clear intention of exploring American womanhood, including the complexities of marriage, motherhood, aging and the end of life before you began the novel, or did it just emerge as the writing went on?

Matson: It was more that it emerged as I was circling around this material. I began by thinking about Elsie as the first female in the chain of generations.

Wu: You had rich materials from your family history when you started the book. How did you get your parents to talk about their pasts?

Matson: I was a teenager when my father was declining with Alzheimer’s disease. I have hand-written notes from these lunches I had with my dad, asking him about his growing-up-years. And same with my mother – as she aged, I really wanted to get at her stories in deeper ways than she had told them to me already. As people get older, they tend to tell the stories in the same ways; they become versions selected through time and memory.  My task as a novelist was to begin with these oral histories, but then push them beyond their boundaries and imagine them more fully.

Wu: Did you do research for the book? How was that?

Matson: I did a lot of research—in archives, on the internet, and through oral histories.  I read through Red Lodge, Montana’s whole newspaper run to learn about where my father grew up, and to research the labor strife he witnessed there. I traveled to India, where my mother attended boarding school in Mussoorie. And I visited Goshen College, where my grandfather’s papers are archived – his sermons, his memoirs, his diaries and his letters.

Wu: What lessons can we learn from the characters in the book in the 21stcentury? Why is it important for readers to know about those generations’ stories in today’s world?

Matson: I never approach writing fiction with the idea that there are “lessons” to be learned from it, though I would like to expose readers to places and times they might not otherwise know about. My goal is to create experiences in fiction that are authentic enough to feel meaningful to others. If I do that well enough, the relevance to their lives and the contemporary moment will follow.

A European perspective: Oxford professor Gideon Henderson on ways to mitigate climate change

A climate protest. Photo (cc) by Takver.

CAMBRIDGE – While the battle between environmentalists and climate skeptics is still on, scientists are already stressing the urgency of greenhouse gas removal.

Gideon Henderson, an expert on climate change, gave a speech titled “Greenhouse Gas Removal: a European Perspective, and Thoughts on Weathering and Oceanic Options” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Nov. 6, in a meeting room to a group of about 30. Other topics in his speech included global efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and natural processes that take in carbon dioxide.

Henderson is a professor of earth sciences at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. As a geochemist researching climate change and the carbon cycle, he develops and refines geochemical proxies to understand the history of the past environment and assesses the modern cycling of elements in the ocean.

To limit climate warming to less than 2 degrees by the end of the century, Henderson said, steep emission cuts are needed as soon as possible. And more critically, he said, at some point in the second half of the century, carbon dioxide will have to be withdrawn from the atmosphere.

“In something like 10 years, this graph would suggest we need to know how to do greenhouse gas removal,” said Henderson, pointing at a diagram of future greenhouse gas emissions and removals from a report issued in September by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in the U.K.

Henderson presented actions taken by the U.K. in order to reach this goal. Since the implementation of the U.K. Climate Change Act in 2008, the government has been legally bound to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80 percent by 2050. This means they need to reduce emissions to 160 million tons of carbon dioxide or less per year by 2050. This can be done through processes such as aviation and shipping. A committee on climate change – an independent expert group – is constantly tracking progress and providing advice to the government, he said.

According to the same report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, greenhouse gas needs to be taken out of the atmosphere and stored somewhere, said Henderson.

“The biggest thing to say here is that we were absolutely convinced there is no one technology that solves the problem,” he said. In the U.K., different methods are required to reach their goal by 2050, including those already ready for deployment: forestation, habitat restoration, soil carbon sequestration, building with biomass and low-carbon concrete; the ones not yet demonstrated at scale: biochar and enhanced terrestrial weathering; and the ones requiring carbon capture and storage (CCS): bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS).

Henderson said land-use planning is vital. “We had to do that because quite a few of these technologies do rely on land use,” he said. Available land, which stands for land that’s not taken by cities, national parks, farmlands or mountains, comes to about 3.7 million acres. These areas are divided for the use of forest, biomass for BECCS, enhanced weathering and soil carbon sequestration. Arable land, which comes to about 15 million acres, is used for biomass for BECCS, biomass for biochar, soil carbon sequestration, biochar and enhanced weathering.

All these methods have their limitations, and those limitations depend on where one is in the world.  “You might run out of water; you might run out of nutrients,” said Henderson. “In the U.K., the thing that runs out is the land.”

As a geochemist, Henderson also spoke about natural reactions that decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This can happen in four ways: uptake into surface ocean and increased biomass production; mixing into the deep-ocean; carbonate compensation; and silicate weathering.

In an interview after the speech, John Hixson, an MIT alumnus who graduated in 1974, said he came to the event because of his passion for mitigating climate change. He was a transportation planner who worked on the Red Line extension from Harvard to Alewife, and he moved into an affordable housing development until his semi-retirement in 2016. His wife and he have a solar-heated house in North Cambridge, he said, and they have lived without a car since his retirement.

When asked whether or not he’s optimistic about the future of carbon capture, Hixson said, “not today, [but] maybe tomorrow – if the [midterm] election results start to turn us back to the direction of sanity.”

When asked the same question in an interview, Henderson expressed similar concerns with politics. After the Paris Agreement – an agreement within the United Nation Framework Convention on climate change – he was optimistic about the political will toward climate change, he said. But at the moment, people are distracted by political events such as Brexit.

Henderson also commented on the U.S. approach of tackling climate change. “I really would like to see the USA move toward a low-emission future and identify ways that it can get to net zero in the future.”

Ears to the Pavement: What Bostonians Are Saying About the 2018 Midterm Elections

Student Journalists Si (Floris) Wu and Daniel Hentz, known as “Dog-On-It’,” explore what the 2018 Midterm Elections might mean to voters in Boston. Listen in on the opinions of a Museum of Fine Arts employee (top left in the thumbnail), a retired couple and an independent journalist from Inman Square and the greater Cambridge area. See why this particular election is stirring up angst and uncertainty like never before.

(For more from Daniel’s personal portfolio go to

‘They said I should go home.’ A Chinese student’s daunting school experience and what we can do about it












Students from a school. Photo (cc) by Mark Warner.

Newcastle, United Kingdom


It has been almost two years, but I still clearly remember a student of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Jing. Jing was Chinese and one of the few EAL (English as an Additional Language) students I taught during my science teaching practice. She would always enter the classroom quietly. Alone. She would try to listen during the lessons but would never interrupt or ask questions. Often, she would get distracted by her own thoughts and zone out. Those moments were when you could catch her smile. Seldom did Jing make the effort to interact with the rest of the class (99 percent of whom were white), and the others reciprocated.

Jing was medium-height, had long, dark hair and a cute smile. I knew she was curious and wanted to interact with others, but only because she would shyly approach me asking — exclusively in Chinese — about my teaching experience and the content of the lesson.

Jing’s case is not unusual in classrooms in both the United Kingdom, and on a global scale. Many public schools nowadays have a diverse student body. Theoretically, this is a great opportunity for children to interact with peers of different cultures. Realistically, this can be a daunting experience for students of color, who sometimes endure feelings of isolation and even discrimination.

Bullying and isolation against minority groups in a school (this means — most of the time — students of color) can hinder their development and indirectly affect their academic performance. Take Hispanic students, for example – while the number of Hispanic students is increasing in the United States, the high school dropout rate has remained the highest of all racial groups. A 2011 study found that higher levels of discrimination towards Latino students were correlated with poorer perception of school climate at the end of 10th grade, which was used to predict students’ grade point averages and total absences.

The forms of discrimination minorities endure vary from group to group. Asians are often stereotyped as “nerdy,” while black and Latino students are often labelled “lazy” or “thugs.” Opportunities can be limited because of this discrimination. Harvard is limiting the number of Asians being accepted even though they make up a large proportion of the best candidates; meanwhile, black and Latino job applicants are respectively 36 percent and 24 percent less likely to receive callbacks than equally qualified white applicants.

“They may become very withdrawn, and very introverted, fearful, anxious about being in the school environment. Other children will respond in different ways — they may become very externalizing, they may lash out, they may be very angry,” said Mona Abo-Zena, an assistant professor from College of Education and Human Development at University of Massachusetts, Boston. In her opinion, the feeling of being excluded or attacked has negative impacts on one’s own estimation of self-worth and how they relate to their peers.

“I feel like when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a normal girl,” said Suki Wong, a graduate student at Columbia University. “I see a Chinese girl.”

Wong grew up in a rural village in the United Kingdom. As the only non-white student in her nursery school, Wong experienced isolation as early as the age of 4, when none of the other girls would include her in groups because of her yellow skin. The bullying got worse at the age of 6, when her classmates physically and verbally abused her because she was Chinese. When I asked Wong why she didn’t report the incidents to teachers, she said, “I guess I was already isolated, I already felt like I was different to every white person in the school … I didn’t form that trust or connection with teachers because of the isolation … The only place I felt like home was being at home with my family.”

Wong believes childhood bullying has long-term effects on people that could cause them trouble later in life. In her opinion, young, developing brains are highly sensitive to interactions with others. And she is absolutely right; when young children learn to communicate, they are curious and eager to learn more about their surroundings. Once over this age, it’s hard to go back and re-learn. If one experiences isolation or discrimination during this vital stage of development, it could potentially plant the seeds for all kinds of long-term mental health issues. Studies have shown that victims of bullying were four times as likely to develop an anxiety disorder at adulthood, as well as a higher possibility of depression, panic attacks and agoraphobia.

Wong admitted that she constantly felt self-conscious during high school. “I just never felt motivated to do anything that would affect anyone, because I felt like it wasn’t my place to do something valuable.”

There were a few cases which solidified Wong’s feeling of isolation. The most extreme instance took place when she confessed her feelings to a high school crush. He responded with a verbal diatribe, which included several racial slurs. Wong later realized that the major trigger of his behavior was a fear of being judged by his friends as a person who would date a Chinese girl.

Isolation and bullying can hinder children’s social, cognitive and language development. “The social development is hindered because at all stages of human development, to be isolated is a very hurtful thing. It’s especially hurtful when you are an adolescent because adolescents thrive off of social relationships that connect them to their peers,” said Stephanie Curenton, an associate professor from the School of Education at Boston University. She concluded that the feeling of being excluded is damaging to one’s self-esteem and mental health.

Cognitively, she believes that isolation impacts school work because students often spend too much time worrying that they’re not connected to their peers.

Curenton suggested that isolation can hinder one’s language development because students will have “fewer language partners, so you have fewer opportunities to engage in language interactions. That’s especially important for student who are dual language learners.”

On the other hand, Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst from the Heritage Foundation — an influential U.S. conservative think tank — thinks differently: “If a child is attending a school where all of the teachers and all of the students are of the same color or the same race, but they’re all doing very well, they are all doing extremely successful, well I don’t want to do anything to break that up, right?” He argued that the same rule should also apply to a racially diverse school. He believed that the ultimate goal of education is students’ long-term success, and there is a risk if we just solely pursue diversity.

But in my opinion, it’s essential to implement not only a diverse, but also inclusive environment in schools. This is not only a pressing issue because of the negative long-term effects due to racial discrimination, but also because different cultures are no longer separated. With the advent of social media and universality of travel, we have seen an increasing trend in communication and integration across races. The trend toward a highly-interconnected world is here. With this comes the need to educate young minds about different cultures so that they understand and respect their global peers.

As Colin Rose, the assistant superintendent of Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps at Boston Public Schools said, “Culture becomes almost the software to your brain,” implying that people filter the world through their deep culture — the core ways people are as beings, not their surface culture such as the way they dress. “The more that we can incorporate students’ deep culture into our practices and pedagogy, the better we are going to do with them … it can affirm them in an authentic way that they are important, and that they see their voice in schools.”

Rose’s words are resonant with Wong’s past experience. “I’ve been seeing a therapist,” she said, “just to be able to talk about stuff like this. I realize that if I had been able to talk about this stuff during high school, maybe I’d be more aware … I am learning to understand that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about being Chinese.”


Boston, United States


Ruth Batson is a Boston civil-rights activist who has devoted her whole life to the rights of African-Americans. Thanks to her and many others, there has been major reform in the Boston school system over the past four decades. “Today we have a school choice model in which students have kind of a bucket list of schools that they can choose — some within the neighborhood, some outside the neighborhood,” said Colin Rose.

“[T]hen we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that’s where the care went. That’s where the books went. That’s where the money went,” Batson recalled how black students were shortchanged in the 1950s and 1960s to The Atlantic.

While it may appear that Batson has accomplished her mission, the proportion of minorities still differs dramatically between schools. Eighty percent of the student body in Boston public schools is either black or Latino, according to Rose. In most exam schools, however, the racial composition sways in the opposite direction — the majority of students are white or Asian.

It seems to me that the source of this problem is the racial wealth gap. An economically advantaged family can provide more to their children than a poor one, in terms of a more stable learning environment, larger funds for tutoring and a more flexible school choice. Racial inequality is significant and growing — studies have estimated that it would take 84 years for the average Latino family to reach the same level of wealth as their white counterparts. For black families, the number is as large as 228 years. In other words, we can never fully achieve desegregation in schools until we reduce this huge racial wealth divide.

Rose said that whatever the minority is in schools, when there is not a critical mass, that’s when accidents of bullying could happen. That is to say: we must create both a diverse and inclusive environment in schools.

Stephanie Curenton offered several suggestions to build a more inclusive environment of different races in schools. First, we should find more opportunities for teachers of color. According to Curenton, even though most public schools now have a diverse student body, teachers are still predominantly white women. During my teaching practice at Newcastle, I was the only teacher of color in the whole science department. It made sense that I connected with Jing since she was the only other Asian person in the whole school. Research suggests that when students have teachers of the same race, they can serve as role models, mentors, advocates or cultural translators. Black students in North Carolina were found to have decreased rates of exclusionary discipline when they were exposed to same-race teachers.

Second, Curenton recommended that during teaching practices, teachers should be better prepared to teach in culturally diverse classrooms. During my interview with Mona Abo-Zena, she commented on the licensure exams for teachers: “They don’t necessarily focus on how to work with particular children who might have, you know, diverse language backgrounds, or other diverse experiences.” This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. When I was a trainee teacher in the United Kingdom, schools prepared me with approaches that met the basic language needs of students like Jing, but nothing was done from a cultural perspective. Something as small as teaching about the contributions from other races in science could provide the necessary inspiration to motivate students of color.

Third, Curenton said that there is a need of post-service training – school districts need to bring in trainers and scholars to talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion to school teachers and leadership teams.

Last, Curenton indicated the need to educate students more about diversity, inclusion and cultural understanding so they are equipped to interact with their peers in a more loving, caring and nurturing manner. Intercultural events or activities are needed in schools as a way of communicating across racial lines.

“They should give it a platform for people to be able to communicate across racial lines [in schools],” said Suki Wong, who endured years of isolation in schools as the only Chinese student.

It took a long time for Wong to understand that. Fortunately, she is not alone. People like Curenton, Abo-Zena and Rose work tirelessly to promote the importance of a racially inclusive environment in schools. We must expand this team in this increasingly interconnected world, so that less and less students will have to experience the same isolation as Jing and Wong.

“What they should do in high schools is to talk about diversity, even if they are not trying to solve anything,” Wong said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.”

Renewable energy has its flaws, but it’s our best step forward

Wind turbines. Photo (cc) by Lawrence Murray

We often hear how important green technology is for our future, but we don’t seem to take it very seriously. Renewable energy contributes only 12.2 percent to the total energy consumption in the United States, a proportion that has barely shifted since the turn of the century. If renewables are the way of the future, why haven’t we seen bigger growth over the past two decades?

The transition to renewables itself is a dramatic change, and it comes with a huge economic challenge. Xinyu Chen, a research associate at Harvard University, recently published a paper regarding this challenge.

“This paper is really addressing the challenges of the power market structure, and correspondingly the revenue sufficiency for the renewables at their penetrations,” Chen said in an interview. “This market works well for the traditional fossil fuel dominant structure, and then things start to change when the penetrations of renewables start to increase.”

Chen observed that, in the United States, the more we invest in wind and solar energy, the less payback we will get from the wholesale market. He believes that this is alarming for energy policy makers, renewable energy investors and system operators alike.

While environmentalists and climate skeptics are still debating over the reality of climate change, Earth is not so patient. The planet is fighting back with powerful, high-frequency storms, wildfires and droughts. Because the burning of “dirty” energy – fossil fuels – is the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change, the transition to a clean energy system is now more necessary than ever.

Chen’s paper is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of this energy transition.

“The fossil fuel industry, specifically, is the most profitable industry in the history of mankind,” said Alex Lawton, an analyst with BlueWave Solar, in an interview. When it comes to the transition to a clean energy system, he concluded that “it’s going to be the most disruptive and kind of largest transition I think that the economy will ever experience.”

BlueWave Solar, based in Boston, is one of the many renewable energy corporations in the United States, and it – along with the solar and wind power industries in general – has an important issue to solve: climate variability. The sun is not shining all the time, and the wind is not blowing all the time. These limited weather conditions mean that wind and solar can only be reliable if we can harness the power to generate a stable output of electricity.

Battery storage, Lawton said, is one of the key solutions for the misalignment between the supply and demand curves for solar energy. But when it comes to its scalability, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

“Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps going to be the most important when it comes to transportation and electric vehicles,” Lawton said. “But in terms of larger utility-scale storage, I don’t think there is a really effective solution to that at this moment in time.”

Lawton also suggested that having a diverse portfolio of renewable technology powering the electricity grid would be a more balanced approach to match the demand curve. On the other hand, Benjamin Zycher, a resident scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, said in a phone interview that because solar power can’t be scheduled, “they have to be backed up with conventional power plants, usually gas, in order to avoid blackouts.” He said that the backup plants aren’t run efficiently because they have to cycle up and down, therefore they produce more pollution. He concluded that the statement of renewable energy is “clean” is just simply wrong.

In an article in National Review, Zycher wrote, “There are noise and flicker effects of wind turbines” and “there is wildlife destruction caused by the production of renewable power.” While these are minor problems relative to the tremendous damage fossil fuels can cause in the long run, they are, nevertheless, issues. Fortunately, people are already building wind turbines that are far away from residential areas and finding out ways to protect birds from them.

A dramatic shift in the energy system would face enormous challenges coming from all sides – economic, political and technological. Huge amount of resources such as materials, workforce and funding are also required. So why are people still trying to make the transition happen?

Because in the long run, the benefits would outweigh the costs. From the environmental side alone, there is more than enough merit to transition towards a renewable energy system.

It’s no secret that the emission of carbon dioxide causes climate change. But the extent to which this takes place may come as a surprise; we have the potential to melt the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet if we burn all the remaining fossil fuels under the ground. This could potentially result in sea level rising by 200 feet, which is enough to drown most major cities in the world.

Unfortunately, the consequences of our pollution extend even further. The link between anthropogenic climate change and an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is well-established. While we cannot directly attribute Hurricanes Harvey and Sandy to climate change, they certainly show how destructive these threats can be.

“We have two storms this year that made sea level rise here… the basement of this building was flooded,” recalled Alistair Pim, vice president of Northeast Clean Energy Council, sitting in his office in Boston. He believes that having energy resources that are more sustainable and emit less greenhouse gases is critical. In other words, our current energy system is simply unsustainable long-term.

From an economic perspective, the shift to a clean energy economy could be a huge business opportunity. Studies have found that the clean energy transition could lower the U.S. fossil fuel bill by nearly $700 billion per year in the 2040s. It could also create roughly 1 million extra jobs in the coming decades.

When asked about the long-term benefits of a clean energy economy, Lawton messaged me, saying that “renewables have less externalities associated with them, meaning the price of fossil fuels are artificially low because they displace costs associated their production and consumption on to society.” He also figured such an economy would allow us for stable, sustainable growth, unlike the current energy system.

The challenge is there, but we should be optimistic about our prospects. Pim noted during his interview that “technology has a habit of going up these S curves,” referring to the rapid growth that clean technology is expected to undergo after a slow initial period.

Renewable energy certainly has its limitations. What it carries, however, are the extremely beneficial long-term values that will hopefully be realized when it takes over fossil fuels. The current energy system, on the other hand, prioritizes short-term economic revenues over all else. It really is time to realize that the path forward from both an economic and environmental perspective is through green technology.

How ‘Love Actually’ breaks the generic rom-com tradition

Emma Thompson. Photo (cc) 2014 by Garry Knight

I used to adore romantic comedies. I was enamored of the “When Harry Met Sally”-style meet-cutes and the thrilling romantic gestures to win the partner back that we see in classics like “Notting Hill.” The more rom-coms I watch, however, the more I find that they’re all the same.

Gareth Howie of WhatCulture says it best: “What has killed the modern mainstream romantic comedy is the fact that Hollywood won’t step away from the template it has bizarrely forced itself adhere to.” The article argues that 98 percent of romantic comedies can be described with 10 plot-points. Meg Ryan’s near-psychopathic obsession with Tom Hanks’ character in “Sleepless in Seattle” was cute the first time, but to see these same traits rehashed by protagonists over and over in films like “Wedding Crashers” and “Hitch” is not only tediously repetitive, but also dangerously misrepresentative of healthy romantic behavior.

There are, of course, different aspects to and types of love. In standard rom-coms, romantic love is the one that is typically addressed by screenwriters. “Love Actually” is the quintessential example of a film that breaks the mold. Composed of nine love stories, the Richard Curtis-directed film aims to address these many aspects through the interweaving subplots.

One of the main love stories, for example, focuses on the bond between the world-renowned singer-partier Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher). Joe has supported Billy during the making of his new Christmas single and throughout his entire tumultuous career. This is the type of everlasting support you would expect from a friend, not a manager. After his song reached the top of the Christmas charts, Billy opts to celebrate with Joe instead of attending a likely entertaining Elton John party.

It is inspiring for a film to focus on fraternal love like this. The character arcs for Billy and Joe may be anticlimactic, but it is certainly more representative of friendships in real life than traditional rom-coms.

A somber, yet equally realistic storyline in “Love Actually” is the relationship between Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman). As a stay-at-home wife, Karen values her husband and children more than anything. Halfway through the film, she realizes that Harry may be engaged in an extramarital affair. Watching her bursting into tears alone in the bedroom is a truly heart-wrenching experience. Thompson’s brilliant acting compels the viewer to empathize entirely with Karen in her feelings of betrayal.

Unfortunately, it feels as though this storyline is left unfinished by the end of the film; we don’t know if Harry and Karen stay together. Twelve years later, however, the script editor, Emma Freud, explained that “they stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was.” This is a far more mature character decision than you would expect out of a romantic comedy.

That’s where I think the true implication of “Love Actually” lies. When we over-fantasize about the dreamy plots of traditional romantic comedies, we often forget about how little they reflect the real life. We are satisfied with the happy endings, but we never ask: Do the characters truly love each other? Are they made to live together for the rest of their lives? Will they be strong enough to face the difficulties in life together?

But with these two storylines, “Love Actually” manages to reflect this perfectly. Why do Karen and Harry choose to stay together? Certainly the audience is rooting for Karen to leave Harry, but that is often an impractical decision for the parents of young children.

Perhaps that’s what makes “Love Actually” truly shine. Love is much more than just romance. Friendships and families are other important facets of love that are often ignored by typical romantic comedies. “Love Actually” is one of the few to address this side of things, and it is unquestionably a refreshing change of pace.

How my miserable teaching experience reflects fundamental issues in the British teacher training system

Photo (cc) 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education.

Last year was meant to be the year I finally started my dream job. Little did I know it would actually be the lowest point of my life.

I arrived in the United Kingdom when I was 16. A few years later I was successfully accepted into Imperial College London to study physics. My experience working as a physics teaching assistant during my junior year was what first got me interested in pursuing a teaching career.

In September 2016, I enrolled as a science trainee in a teacher training program at Durham University in the U.K. At the time, I was excited at the prospects of molding the minds of young students. Before the experience began, however, my tutor warned me that this could be one of the most stressful years of my life. Instead of thinking better of what she said, I eagerly entered my first placement school in blissful ignorance.

It was a year full of sweat and tears. I spent countless sleepless nights marking homework, preparing lesson plans, and evaluating the past lessons and the more than 30 teacher standards that every trainee teacher had to meet. Beyond that, the stress I endured through handling distracted and, at times, aggressive children was devastating. I soon found that everyone else was in the same boat, or even worse. People started dropping out only two months into their placements. By the end of the academic year, only half of my classmates finished the program.

One major reason for this high dropout rate is the increasingly complex task of teaching itself. As The Guardian writer Tricia Bracher stated, “With the notion of ‘personalized learning’, there is no reason why a teacher today should not have to design 30 different lesson plans.” Such high-level differentiation of lesson materials is difficult, and this in conjunction with the non-stop assessment from mentors makes teaching a near-impossible job for the new trainees. Bracher referred to this as, “a new form of emotional stress,” for not only trainee teachers, but also some of the most experienced teachers.

The consequence of this is the lack of teachers in the U.K., especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. According to figures published by the British government in July 2017, more than 23 percent of the teachers who have qualified for teaching since 2011 have left the field. The lack of STEM teachers is something I’ve experienced myself after I entered the U.K. At my high school, an old physics teacher was asked to keep teaching after her retirement date; at various job fairs I attended during my teaching year, most employers were eager for a physics teacher like me; our tutors at Durham explained to us several times how desirable we were in this job market. As the Scotland’s education secretary, John Swinney, told BBC Scotland: “There is a particular challenge in the STEM subjects which is why I focused the recruitment campaign last year on exactly those subjects.”

Britain is in dire need of repairing the current situation. Perhaps the first thing to do at the moment is to decrease the workload on the teachers: classroom teachers work 54.4 hours a week on average, based on the latest Department for Education workload survey. But this, along with the increase of the teacher salary, could just be a band-aid solution to a much bigger issue. It is important to remind teachers what first brought them to the profession, and a system that inspires them on that prospect could be a long-term solution for the current crisis. Solidarity means strength, progress and success, and having a supportive team within the department would be invaluable. Lastly, effective continuing professional development can recover teacher retention rates, which could potentially improve the poor teacher-student ratio. As Cat Scutt stated in The Guardian, “Teachers need to be given time, autonomy and professional development and collaboration opportunities that will help them to keep making a difference.”

It’s two a.m., and I am still struggling to think of some end-of-class activities to fit in the last five minutes of the next day’s lessons. “Floris, you need to wake up in four hours,” my conscience warns. Looking back into that year of my life, all I can remember are those endless nights of working, isolated weekends away from family and friends, and overall misery. It really is time for Britain to step in before more teaching dreams get killed, just like mine.