Taste of the Titanic: the last meal, champagne and more

Combine the idea of a last meal with the most famous maritime disaster in history and you’ve got the makings of a fascinating dinner. During the pre-dawn hours of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. It was day four of her maiden voyage. First-class dinner service had only just ended when the ship struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Satiated passengers—many of the world’s wealthiest—were likely still lingering over brandies and cigars in the smoking room.

More than 100 years later, the story of the Titanic still holds drama and allure. She was glorious and billed as unsinkable, yet the ship that carried 2,200 passengers and crew, 130,000 pounds of meat and fish, and 1,750 pounds of ice cream was equipped with only 20 lifeboats, many of which were lowered half empty. What irony.

I hope none of the passengers skipped dessert.

On April 15, 2016, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Executive Chef Robert Hall, a native Arkansan whose impressive resume includes stints at The Excelsior Hotel (Little Rock, Arkansas) and Sundance Resort (Provo, Utah), will replicate the final first-class meal served aboard the Titanic as part of his Chef’s Tasting Dinner series.               

“I’ve extensively researched cooking methods and recipes of the Edwardian era and believe I can closely replicate what was actually served to the first-class passengers,” Hall said.

The original 10-course meal is well-documented as a few copies of the Titanic menu were salvaged from the ship’s wreckage. And those desserts? They included Waldorf pudding, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla éclairs, and French ice cream.

Hall will stretch his Taste of the Titanic menu to 15 courses, and while Chef’s Tasting Dinners typically include specific wine pairings, the Titanic dinner will feature champagne pairings instead. According to Hall’s research, the ship’s cargo manifest suggests more champagne and liquor was on board than wine.

Taste of the Titanic will be a unique experience including more than scrumptious food and champagne. Upon check-in, each attendee will receive a replica 1912 first-class boarding pass along with a brief biography of the first-class passenger they will “become” for the evening. Prior to dinner, guests will have the opportunity to stroll through a special “museum” featuring several White Star Line, Titanic and period artifacts, including dishware, clothing and a scale model of the ship. 

In keeping with original Titanic tradition, a bugle call will signal the start of dinner (around 5:30 p.m.) and participants will be ushered into the dining room. Dinner will last approximately three-and-one-half hours and will include a discussion of meal service aboard the Titanic. Afterward, guests may retire to a different area for after-dinner coffee, brandy, period cocktails and poker (using replicas of period-specific playing cards and fake money). The evening will end around midnight, although guests may return to their rooms earlier.

Dinner is priced at $235 per person, which includes the meal, drink pairings, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Participants must sign up in pairs. In keeping with first-class ambiance, Taste of the Titanic is a formal event—coat and tie preferred; black-tie optional.

For information on other culinary events happening at the Institute, see the listings for upcoming Classes & Events.

Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.


Arkansas Artist Spotlight: Schmidt and House

Don House and Sabine Schmidt are both photographers based out of northwest Arkansas. While they each work on their own separate projects, they also come together on unique projects that combine their two contrasting styles. Both artists came to the state in different ways, but both have come to call Arkansas home. We had the chance to learn more about them in their own words, hear what makes Arkansas special to them and see what they would like for the future of arts in Arkansas.

Every person becomes an artist in a different way. How did you first become involved in the arts? How did you both come to collaborate on things like the Wichita Mountains Book Project?

Don House: My interest in photography dates to childhood, but the decision to pursue it seriously as a career came with my move to Arkansas some 30 years ago. I met Sabine Schmidt at the Fayetteville Underground studio/gallery complex four years ago when she regularly showed work at that venue. She is a photographer, but her biography does not read like those of many of my contemporaries (getting a Brownie camera as a child, setting up a darkroom in the bathroom and so on). She is a writer and translator who fell in love with Arkansas and picked up a camera late in the game as another tool to express what she was seeing, and that gives a perspective, a freshness, that is attractive and effective.

While I seek out people for my subjects, Sabine avoids them and concentrates on what they left behind, what they abandoned, so we can look at the same place at the same time and produce dramatically different images. We see the world in different ways, and because of that, when we work together, the finished images tell a more complete story than either of ours would alone.

The Visit, #4, silver gelatin print.

The Visit, #4, silver gelatin print

Sabine Schmidt: Although I’m now a photographer, I was originally a writer and translator. I still do translations for the German edition of National Geographic. I have a MFA (Master of Fine Arts), but it’s in literary translation, not in the visual arts. In fact, all of my adult life I’ve been moving back and forth between writing and art. My path to fine-art photography started with academic research into definitions of space and place, the role of walking in literature and psychogeography. I realized that I needed photography to express the insights I gained from my research.

Much of my work is the result of walking and hiking. To me, those are the best ways to experience places shaped by human actions, which is what I’m mainly interested in, whether it’s in a city or out in the Ozarks.

The Wichita project is different—it is built out of many road trips and lots of conversations about how Don House and I see landscape and people. We wanted to explore how two photographers with different styles interpret the same experience.

Sleeping In, Henryetta, Oklahoma (archival pigment print, 12x18

Sleeping In, Henryetta, Oklahoma (archival pigment print, 12 x 18")
“This image was in the 2015 Delta Exhibition. Its geometrical composition and use of color are meant to bring out the particular melancholy of a small-town weekday morning.” – Sabine Schmidt

What are some of your biggest influences/inspirations/muses?

DH: There were photographers that amazed me­­—Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Yousuf Karsh, Eugene Smith—but they came later, after I had learned the basics of technique, and they helped refine my approach. What informed my desire to photograph in the first place, determined at what I would first point my lens were writers—(John) Steinbeck, (J.D.) Salinger, E.E. cummings, (Kurt) Vonnegut. It is a love of people really. It determined that much of my work would be portraiture, and even in the most remote of wilderness settings—places that I seek out—it is the human trace that makes me set up my tripod and unpack my camera—rock walls, foundation traces, chimney falls and, perhaps most significant, cemeteries.

SS: Being from Germany and having lived in the South for most of my 20 years in the U.S., I am influenced by two different aesthetics that I am trying to blend in my own work. Within the late 20th-century/early 21st-century German approach to geometrical, almost abstract interpretations of space, photographers, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Demand, have been important influences. The work of southern photographers William Eggleston and William Christenberry continues to shape how I look at my adopted home state. I spend a lot of time looking at other photographers’ work, both out of admiration and to learn from what I see. A few weeks ago, I happened to see an exhibition of work by several female Japanese photographers, including Ishiuchi Miyako. I was unfamiliar with all but one of them, but Ishiuchi’s black-and-white images in particular resonated with me.

Books and music are constant companions, but I share Paul Auster’s (a favorite author) appreciation of chance and its effects on one’s life. My paper house series was inspired by a YouTube link a friend posted. It went to a short stop-motion film of a Russian fairy tale and the set design made me think about miniatures. I was stuck at home for a few days because of snow, which gave me time to develop the idea.

Beulah Church (archival pigment print, 18 x 12

Beulah Church (archival pigment print, 18x12”)
“From the paper houses series. I discovered the empty yellow suitcase in a tiny Ozarks church and filled it with all the miniature houses I had made up to that point.” – Sabine Schmidt

What brought you to, or keeps you in, Arkansas? What makes Arkansas unique or different for artists?

DH: I've been here for 30 years, longer than I've lived in any one place, and it is perhaps the first that I would call home without any modifier attached, like for the time being or currently or for now. It is home, period. What I noticed immediately was the opportunity to live frugally, to be able to reduce expenses and concentrate on what I wanted to do as an artist. It was easier to make that happen here than elsewhere. And so many of the people I first met had made choices in their lives, had given up careers and vocations to pursue their loves, trading money for a lifestyle. There is a wonderful energy in Arkansas, from its people, its towns, its rivers that nourishes the arts and the lives of artists. The whole state acts as a muse to me, but the mountainous areas in particular. For a traditional black-and-white photographer, the textures and tonalities of the Ozarks are compelling—sandstone, limestone, lichen, moss, tree bark—and I often include the human figure as a kind of textural scale.

Randy, silver gelatin print, from the collaboration with Sabine Schmidt

Randy, silver gelatin print, from the collaboration with Sabine Schmidt - We’re Not Telling You Everything.

SS: I originally came to Arkansas from Hamburg, Germany, to attend the MFA program in creative writing and translation in Fayetteville, returned to Germany, lived in Memphis for a while and finally came back.

I’ve found Arkansas, and Fayetteville in particular, to be a friendly and encouraging place for an artist trying to start and maintain her career. People are interested in what I do, they answer my questions, review my work, are happy to collaborate, etc. Professionalization has been comparatively easy here because it’s a small community whose members often are quite approachable. The Arkansas Arts Council has been a tremendously useful resource and there are other organizations, such as the Arkansas State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that have been helpful in building my career as an artist. We deal with the same problems artists in other states face, but overall Arkansas has a remarkable balance of very good art (and excellent galleries and museums where it can be seen) and a supportive community.


What do you hope to see in the future for the arts in Arkansas and our region?

DH: The Arkansas Arts Council has done amazing work in the 30 years I have been associated with them—the artist registry, small works on paper exhibitions, workshops, seminars, one-on-one counseling. Because they are a department of state government, there are restrictions on some activities (like lobbying), I have great hope for another organization that is just coming on the scene—Arkansans for the Arts—that will focus on bringing arts into the discussion at every level of state government and into economic development discussions. Every artist wishes for more venues to show art, more patrons of the arts, a greater chance of making a living and being able to follow the passion, and I think those two organizations will help increase the chances of success.

The Visit, #1, silver gelatin print

The Visit, #1, silver gelatin print

SS: The arts are a major force in the state’s economy, but artists seldom reap the rewards of their role at the center of this force. A radical idea: Pay artists a small monthly wage or grant that allows them to work on their art full-time, the way it’s done in some European countries. And cities, counties and the state can support artists by offering studio space, commissioning and buying their works, creating gallery spaces and organizing art festivals.

Put the arts in the schools. Make art an important part of children’s education for its own sake, not just as an add-on.

Let’s talk about the arts in more meaningful ways. The Oklahoma Arts Council has a program for training arts writers. I wish there were a similar opportunity for talented writers in Arkansas. We need more informed reviews and essays on the arts, plus outlets to publish them.

I’m a fan of places that bring first-rate art to towns and regions where one may not expect to find it, places that successfully involve their communities and become true centers of art. The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff, and the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale are just a few examples.

Signal Tree House (archival pigment print, 12 x 18

Signal Tree House (archival pigment print, 12x18”)
“From the paper houses series. I used this house a lot. I made it from watercolor rag paper, which has a soft texture that catches light in interesting ways. For this image, I took advantage of the afternoon sun shining on the roots of a big cedar. It gave the scene a fairy-tale quality. The cedar is an old signal tree on War Eagle Creek.” – Sabine Schmidt

We want to thank Schmidt and House for taking the time out to answer our questions and share their thoughts and work with us. Be sure to look for their work in galleries and tours around the state, particularly in Northwest Arkansas. You can also check their respective websites (Don House and Sabine Schmidt) for more examples of their work and to keep track of their exhibitions.


This post is the first in a monthly series highlighting artists that call Arkansas home and make the arts community here one of the best in the South. Read on for a closer look at the people creating great art all across the Natural State.


As good luck would have it: Shakespeare’s First Folio coming to Arkansas

Sometimes chasing down the origins of a word or phrase can be a wild goose chase (“Romeo and Juliet”), taking forever and a day (“As You Like It”) to reach an end that’s as dead as a door nail (“Henry VI Part II”), which is why such research isn’t for the faint-hearted (“Henry VI Part I”) who don’t want to work the live long day (“Julius Caesar”) to avoid becoming a laughing stock (“The Merry Wives of Windsor”).

Luckily, many words and phrases we use today were either coined or first recorded by William Shakespeare in his plays, making them very easy for historians to pinpoint. While the actual number of words Shakespeare invented from whole cloth is a matter of scholarly debate, there’s no doubt that the Bard is one of the most important figures in all English literature and culture.

As much debate as there is around the words Shakespeare invented, scholars could be debating something even loftier—which versions of the plays are correct. After he passed away in 1616, there were several incorrect versions of Shakespeare’s plays being sold. Many of these took the form of “bad quartos,” small pamphlets containing what amounted to pirated versions of the Bard’s plays copied down from the audience or put together from actors’ recollections of the lines. These bad versions of the plays would likely still be mixed with the correct versions had it not been for what is known as the First Folio.

The First Folio, or “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies”, is a collection of 36 Shakespeare plays carefully collected and compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623. Heminges and Condell were actors with The King’s Men, the acting troupe for which Shakespeare wrote. The duo set about producing the First Folio as a direct response to the bad quartos and to establish a definitive edition of Shakespeare’s plays. They worked not only from official quartos published while Shakespeare was alive, but also from Shakespeare’s personal writings and copies.

Of the estimated 750 copies printed, there are only 233 known copies that have survived. Of those, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, has 82 in their collection. Beyond preserving as many copies as possible, the different Folios each have unique typographical errors as they were edited and printed at the same time. This allows scholars to track the changes with each book and increase their understanding of the collected works.

In honor of the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, the Folger has created a traveling exhibit for the First Folio that will tour all 50 states, Washington and Puerto Rico. The hosts for the Arkansas leg of the tour are the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) and the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST). The exhibit will be hosted from June 7–July 12, 2016, in the Baum Gallery on the UCA campus, which coincides perfectly with the start of AST’s 10th anniversary season. That means you’ll get the opportunity to see a piece of history up close and personal and then watch the work come to life on stage. This is a once-in-a-lifetime series of events that we can’t encourage you enough to take part in. That’s a foregone conclusion (“Othello”).


To explain this a little better ...

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson launched the Healthy Active Arkansas plan from the State Capitol on Oct. 14, I was in the back of the room. Behind all of the media. As various reporters asked their questions about the plan, which was designed to promote healthier lifestyles among all Arkansans, I tried to put myself in their shoes.

The Institute - along with other groups like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health - has been actively involved in the creation and dissemination of the plan for several years now, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the development of each focus area, each recommendation, each statistic. But if I was being introduced to the plan with no prior context, how would I digest all of the information it holds?

The truth is, it’d be difficult to wrap my mind around it just by sitting and reading through the plan. The Arkansas Department of Health understands that. And they’re doing something about it.

From 10 a.m. to noon on Thursday, Feb. 4, ADH is hosting an orientation meeting designed to give fuller explanations of each of Healthy Active Arkansas’ nine focus areas. Those focus areas are:

  • Physical and built environment
  • Nutritional standards in government, institutions and the private sector
  • Nutritional standards in schools – early child care through college
  • Physical education and activity in schools – early child care through college
  • Healthy worksites
  • Access to healthy foods
  • Sugar-sweetened beverage reduction
  • Breastfeeding
  • Marketing program

The orientation meeting is open to all who are interested in learning more about the plan, especially those who are looking for ways to get involved in helping meet the plan’s two-, five- and 10-year goals.

To reserve a seat (it’s free), email Marisha DiCarlo, director of the Office of Health Communications for ADH, at The meeting will take place in the Health Department’s auditorium, located at their headquarters at 4815 W. Markham St. in Little Rock.

Since we launched the plan back in October, project leads have been identified for each of the nine focus areas. At the orientation meeting, these individuals (including me, talking about the marketing program) will each speak briefly about their specific area, their immediate goals and how others can get involved.

There’s a lot at stake here. It’s no secret that Arkansas ranks near the bottom when the states are assessed for health care outcomes. In 2014, we had the highest rate of adult obesity, and we don’t fare too well on things like diabetes and hypertension, either.

Healthy Active Arkansas is a blueprint for how we can start changing those trends. That means saving lives. It means adding quality of life to people who currently have no hope. It means kids performing better in schools and employees performing better at work (healthy people = better students and more productive workforce). It means making our state a better place to live, which in turn will attract more business here, creating more and better opportunities for Arkansans.

So I invite you to join me on Feb. 4 at the Health Department. I’d encourage you to brush up on the Healthy Active Arkansas plan before you come. You can download a free copy at


Lessons from a Nobel Laureate

Sir Harold Kroto, who received the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, delivered the keynote address and a Q&A with students at the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference in December 2015. Great insights from a great man of science.


Sir Harold Kroto Keynote 12-2-15


Sir Harold Kroto Q&A at Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference


A day in the life: Station archeologist Dr. Emily Beahm

When I was asked to write an article about Dr. Emily Beahm, who became the station archeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s WRI research station in September 2015, I became more than a little excited. I’m serious when I say I’ve always had a fascination with archeology and geology and things going on beneath the Earth’s crust. I credit this interest to my Arkansas Delta upbringing.

In my corner of Northeast Arkansas, earthquake tremors are commonplace and arrowheads lay hidden just beneath cotton-field furrows. Plus, the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in Wilson is only a few miles away from our family farm. It houses an impressive exhibit of nationally renowned artifacts from the nearby 15-acre Nodena site. This collection of Late Mississippian Period Native American artifacts (dated A.D. 1400–1650) provided many a school-day field trip for my classmates and me.

Even with my interest in all things prehistoric, until I visited with Beahm, I was a bit clueless as to the day-to-day activities of an archeologist. You may be surprised to learn the archeological goings on not only at Petit Jean Mountain but also all around Arkansas.

Q:  Are you a native Arkansan?

A:  No, but I grew up not too far away in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I attended graduate school at the University of Georgia and did my dissertation research in Middle Tennessee ("Mississippian Polities in the Middle Cumberland Region of Tennessee"). 

Q:  How did you become interested in archeology?

A:  It seems like a lot of archeologists have cool stories about why they decided to go into the field, but I really don't. I like history and science, and I guess archeology is a way to both pursue scientific inquiry with data and learn about the past.  

Q:  So how did you end up in Arkansas and, more specifically, at WRI? 

A:  Originally, I moved to Russellville because my (then future) husband got a job at Arkansas Tech. He’s an anthropology professor. I joined the survey as an assistant at the WRI research station in September 2013. A few months ago when Dr. Stewart-Abernathy retired, I became station archeologist.

Q:  Congratulations on your new position. You couldn’t work in a more beautiful setting than Petit Jean Mountain. I suppose I’ve always romanticized archeology and imagined massive digs in exotic locales. I’m sure there’s more to it, regular “duties”. What’s a typical day like for you

A:  There’s a fair amount of variety in what I do from day to day. The Arkansas Archeological Survey's mission is to research, preserve, protect and educate the public about Arkansas' archeological resources. I often work on records management at the office—filing archeological site information and organizing our artifact collections. 

Q:  I did a bit of research on the Arkansas Archeological Survey website. I’m fascinated by the projects going on across the state, particularly the Plum Bayou Gardens at Toltec Mounds and Historic Cane Hill. What research do you have planned specific to the WRI station and surrounding area?

A:  There are several. One project that I’m working on is putting together a comparative collection at the WRI station—of artifacts ranging from historic pottery to prehistoric projectile points and chert types. I anticipate this will be a useful tool not only for those of us here at the station, but also for other local archeologists. Non-professional visitors to the station should also find this interesting. Also, I’ve begun researching the Mississippian (late prehistoric) occupation in the Arkansas River Valley. The first step in this has been to look closely at some artifacts we currently have in our collections that have not yet been analyzed. Another project that I’m excited about is the Native American garden I’m planning next to the station at WRI. It will have native cultigens—domesticated and cultivated plants used by Native Americans in the area prior to the introduction of corn. And I’m involved in the Project Dig program. This outreach program involves working with several local elementary schools.

Q:  I love that the WRI research station is working with schoolchildren. I think that’s so important.

A:  I agree. I love teaching children about the elements of culture and basic archeological methods. It’s a lot of fun and rewarding at the same time.

Q:  Do you need volunteers to help with your projects?

A:  I would be happy to have volunteers. We usually have volunteer days the third Saturday of the month. Volunteers would be especially useful this spring when I start working on the garden. If someone is interested in devoting a few hours, email me at

Thank you, Dr. Beahm! Don’t be surprised if I show up one Saturday to volunteer.

The station located at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is one of 10 Arkansas Archeological Survey research stations located throughout the state. To learn more about sites and ongoing research, visit

Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.       


Arkansas Grown: Connecting Arkansas consumers with Arkansas producers

The holidays are upon us and as we look at the winter season ahead, we may be missing the fun colors and activities of fall. You may have picked your own pumpkin, then your own Christmas tree. You probably enjoyed a hayride and some hot chocolate at a nearby farm. Most people seem to be able to find these types of adventures during the fall season. But what if you want to buy local produce all year, or you are interested in activities that may be available at a local farm during the winter and spring months? The Arkansas Agriculture Department has developed a great website and program called Arkansas Grown ( to connect Arkansas consumers like you with Arkansas producers and their business information.

The Arkansas Grown website allows any producer in the state to list their marketing information at no charge. Consumers are then able to search those producers by location, type of produce or homemade product and point-of-sale options. So if you live in Conway County and want to know what type of pick-your-own operations are nearby, you can apply those filters on the Arkansas Grown website and find the farm nearest you with a description of their operation from the producer. I had a great time searching through the hundreds of farms listed on the website, and I now have several weekends booked with plans to visit the nearby farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms in my area.

In addition to the website, Arkansas Grown has a branding program that promotes Arkansas agricultural products. The “Arkansas Grown” mark is a registered trademark of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, so if you see that logo in stores, you can be assured that you are buying a product that was grown locally. The program also has trademarks for “Arkansas Made” and “Homegrown by Heroes” to help potential buyers locate products produced by Arkansans or produce grown by Arkansas veterans. With the recent push to buy local, this program helps consumers easily spot the produce and products in stores.

So if the cold, rainy weather of winter has you missing the fun of fall, just remember to check the Arkansas Grown website to plan ahead for your next visit to a local farm or farmers’ market!


Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp: Looking back and looking forward

In July of this year we had a great training weekend for aspiring social entrepreneurs here on the mountain with the first Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp. Together with our partners, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Office of Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas, we brought 12 teams of entrepreneurs to Petit Jean and paired them with instructors and mentors for an intense weekend of business development and training. Participants learned firsthand from experts like Permjot Valia, business mentor, angel investor and founder of Mentorcamp; Trish Flanagan, founder of Picasolar and Show Me Solar Power  and co-founder of Noble Impact; and Phyl and Jeff Amerine of Startup Junkie Consulting.

From the very first day participants were given learning opportunities through a keynote interview with notable Arkansas entrepreneur Steve Clark, founder of Propak Logistics and co-founder of Rockfish and Noble Impact, hosted by Talk Business and Politics’ Roby Brock. The next day saw workshops and one-on-one instruction from the mentors. Topics included everything from daily operations with a representative from Westrock Coffee to benefit corporations and certified B Corps with John Montgomery, author of "Great from the Start".

Some of the most intense work was done on the teams’ lean canvas business models (a one-page model that breaks down larger business concepts into nine concise segments) and three-minute elevator pitches. Those two tools helped the teams and mentors work through and refine each business’s goals, purpose and social benefit. All of the teams made amazing progress, with all going home with new goals and work to pursue and some even going on to open brick-and-mortar stores after finding investors.

We look forward to following up with our participants in the coming months and sharing some of their successes. More than that, however, we look forward to carrying on the energy and hard work from this year with a new batch of teams for the second Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp in July 2016. Keep an eye out for updates on our website. We’ll be sharing the application instructions after the New Year and will begin accepting lean canvas drafts and elevator pitch videos in February to start the selection process for the next group of aspiring social entrepreneurs.       


Top educators share success stories at Uncommon Communities session

“In America your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.” — Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Education was the focus of the second mountaintop session of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative designed by the Institute in partnership with Dr. Vaughn and Sandy Grisham of the University of Mississippi and Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and Dr. Roby Robertson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Government. This might have seemed like a dramatic shift in topics to the participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties, who during the first session learned about the power of good leadership and how simple improvement projects—a new coat of paint here, a few trees planted there—can lead to a town’s renaissance.

If the first session, held at the end of August, was about inspiration and motivation, this session was about getting down to some serious work. And where better to start than with education—after all, every town’s future depends on today’s children. Two keynote speakers on Saturday, Nov. 7, shared their approaches to the specific challenges of rural education in two very different rural environments: northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas Delta.

When Daisy Dyer Duerr took over as principal of the failing 199-student St. Paul elementary and high schools in 2011, she had two basic goals: to strengthen relationships and to use technology to provide a global education for a tiny town where dirt roads and generational poverty are the norm and graduating from high school, much less going to college, isn’t. After showing a (sometimes alarming) video that detailed the ways in which Generation Z—learners between the ages of 2 and 20 now—is growing up “technology complete,” she outlined how she became a “digital principal” and used that technology to rocket test scores and, ultimately, land the tiny St. Paul High School a Bronze rating from U.S. News and World Report, along with national acclaim.

It started with a $6,000 grant, which Duerr used to buy digital readers. She explained that the “cool factor” alone helped increase the number of male readers by more than 50 percent. When it turned out that Duerr had been the only Arkansas applicant for Title 1 grant money, that $6,000 turned into $50,000, and Duerr outfitted teachers and classrooms with iPads, sending the teachers home with them over the summer with a strict mandate that they immerse themselves in the technology and come back in the fall armed with innovative ways to employ them in their teaching.

Then Duerr did something really controversial: She told students to bring their smartphones to school. In a time when most schools have a no-tolerance policy regarding cell phones, Duerr saw an opportunity to increase her students’ access to information and electronic educational tools. In 2012, St. Paul Elementary was named one of 25 “Model Schools” by the International Center for Leadership in Education; St. Paul High School followed in 2014.

Following Ms. Duerr was Scott Shirey, the founder and executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, who was named one of the world’s seven most powerful educators by Forbes Magazine in 2011. The KIPP Delta Schools—KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program”—are a collection of six public preparatory schools in Arkansas: three in Helena-West Helena, two in Blytheville and one in Forrest City. Despite the fact that they are in some of the most resource-deprived counties in the state (the overwhelming majority of KIPP Delta students, at all grade levels, qualify for free and reduced lunches), these schools consistently outperform other public schools in the area.

The KIPP schools originated in Houston, Texas, where two Teach for America teachers were trying to find a way to keep students more involved in school and steer them away from any path leading to drugs, crime and prison. They invited 50 students to participate in an intensive program that included nightly homework assignments and Saturday school. Not surprisingly, test scores began to go up for these students.

The two teachers sensed that they were onto something, and the first two official KIPP middle schools were opened the following year, in Houston and New York City. By the end of the decade, the stellar performance of these schools had attracted the attention of 60 Minutes and of Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher. While the founders worked on creating a replicable blueprint for new KIPP schools to be founded elsewhere, the Fishers created the Fisher Fellowship, a one-year program that prepares founders to establish and lead KIPP Schools.

This is where Shirey comes in—with the founding of the first KIPP Delta middle school in 2002. When Shirey arrived in Helena, the word “preparatory” was misspelled on local school buses. Sixty-five fifth-graders entered the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School with collective math and literature test scores below the 20th percentile; by the end of the year, they were at the 49th percentile. In four years, by the time those fifth-graders were in ninth grade, their average had risen to the 91st percentile. The first KIPP Delta school had busted a long-held myth when it comes to low-achieving students by proving that “it’s not the kids.”

By 2009, the KIPP Delta schools had more African-American students passing AP calculus and English than any other school in Arkansas, and they had the second-highest 11th-grade literacy scores (second to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts, admission to which is dependent upon grades and test scores, unlike at KIPP). KIPP students have earned to date $6 million in college scholarships, and those students will graduate from college in numbers many times over the national average for students from low-income families. It’s worth noting here that the six Arkansas KIPP Delta schools are the only KIPP schools out of 183 nationwide that serve primarily rural students.

What the KIPP Delta and St. Paul schools demonstrate is that it doesn’t take big-city resources to achieve big-time educational success—just hard work by smart and dedicated people who firmly believe that Arne Duncan’s words above are, or at least should be, true.


Visions of nanoparticles dancing in my head

Nanoparticles dancing with cells in the brain. That was my scientific takeaway from the Fifth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, held in April 2014.

As we gear up this week to host the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, I’m reminded of that image, planted in my memory by Dr. Elena Batrakova, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was during a reception last April that Batrakova was telling me and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, about the nature of her research.

“So tell me, Dr. Batrakova, what’s the end goal of your research,” Loyd said.

Batrakova answered matter-of-factly in her rich Russian accent, “We hope to find better ways to treat and even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

So her research could change the world.

My mind was blown. Hers was at ease as she went on to describe the challenges in treating illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, those that affect the brain.

According to an article on Batrakova’s work by David Etchison, “Getting drugs into the brain is extremely difficult in general because it is protected and isolated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier, which is extremely selective about what is allowed to pass through.”

The approach of Batrakova’s research, as Etchison describes it, is to load nanoparticles into macrophages—a type of white blood cell—which are able to bypass the blood-brain barrier. Another delivery method is to load the nanoparticles into exosomes—tiny bubbles of protein and fat produced naturally by cells, as Etchison describes them—that have been isolated from macrophages and deliver those through the blood-brain barrier. Batrakova’s description of the bypass was delightful.

“It’s like the macrophages and the cells of the blood-brain barrier are dancing,” she said, beaming.

Her use of visuals made it easy for us laymen to understand the nature of her work. In essence, the cells she injects with medicine to treat Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s function as sort of a Trojan horse. This has revolutionary implications for the medical field. And the gravity of the work is not lost on Batrakova.

“Every time we (she and her team) publish our next research paper, I receive hundreds of emails and calls from patients, from their relatives,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s so encouraging because they just ask ‘when, how?’

“I feel how important this research is.”

Batrakova presented on her research at the last Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference. Since then, she has collaborated with several scientists she met during her brief visit to Petit Jean Mountain. We take a lot of pride in identifying and convening leaders in science, policy, business and other fields, and we love hearing that the connections they make here have lasting effects in their work.

This year, we have an equally impressive lineup of speakers, including Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of fullerenes.

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the science discussed at our conference is well beyond my capacity for understanding. But that image of cells doing a two-step with nanoparticles brings it home for me. What research will I learn about this week that could someday change the world? I can’t wait to find out.