Summer Philosophy Program Encourages Area High School Students to ‘Question Everything’

Summer Philosophy Program Encourages Area High School Students to ‘Question Everything’

At once a program name and life motto, Question Everything, a new residential summer program launching June 26 from the UMass Amherst Department of Philosophy, aims to make philosophical concepts and college more accessible to high school students from Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Ned Markosian and Julia Jorati
Ned Markosian and Julia Jorati

Co-led by Julia Jorati, associate professor of philosophy, and Ned Markosian, professor of philosophy, the academic program will help make college feel like a possibility by providing high school students with a chance to experience university life while also improving their critical thinking and reasoning skills and encouraging curiosity.

“High school is an age where students are questioning everything. They’re trying to figure out who they are, their place in their world. They’re thinking about big notions like social justice, and big, philosophical questions,” explains Jorati. “In school, they don’t get as many opportunities to explore these concepts, so it’s nice to give them a chance to think about these questions with like-minded peers.”

Question Everything was created for rising sophomores, juniors and seniors from lower-income families, as well as students from marginalized groups underrepresented in higher education. It will provide a full scholarship to each participant to cover everything from room and board to transportation.

Though the program was originally set to begin in 2020, it was delayed due to the pandemic. This summer, the inaugural class will spend its two-week residency on the UMass Amherst campus studying identity and diversity and exploring questions such as: What makes you who you are? If you lost your memories, would you still be the same person? What are race and gender?

“Julia and I see this partly as an opportunity to do community outreach in Springfield and Holyoke, partly as an opportunity to promote philosophy, and mostly as a chance to do philosophy with high school students, who always have lots of interesting ideas,” Markosian says.

In all, this first cohort for Question Everything will include between 10 and 20 participants depending on the results of its ongoing fundraising efforts through the UMass Amherst Minutefund, which closes March 10.

Question Everything mirrors a similar program currently led by Markosian called Philosophy in Public Schools (PiPS), which brings philosophy students from UMass and the other Five Colleges into K-12 classrooms throughout western Massachusetts. In past semesters, students worked with second graders.

“When we’re discussing philosophy with these second graders, we’re getting them to consider, for example, the difference between right and wrong,” says Markosian. Although the elementary-aged students are not using terms such as utilitarianism, “they tend to come up with all of the leading theories in philosophy. It’s actually really fun!”

Both PiPS and Question Everything were inspired by the belief that children and teens are natural philosophers, a concept studied and advanced by the late Gareth Matthews, who taught at UMass Amherst from 1969-2005.

“When kids are young, they are asking philosophical questions. They’re asking, ‘Why everything?’ But their parents and teachers tend to try to drive that out of them,” Markosian explains.

Because philosophy will be new to all participants, Jorati says the curriculum “levels the playing field” for its students.

“They can feel free to just get creative without the pressure of grades and without it feeling as much like school,” she says. “[Question Everything] won’t just have lectures; we’ll have interactive activities, discussions, roleplay, debates, projects. We try to make it super fun and engaging.”

During the day, students will debate, research and explore philosophical concepts with their peers and instructors; by night, they’ll have the chance to access campus facilities and connect through social activities, such as movie nights and live performances.

“One of the big goals of this program is to give participants a taste of college. They’ll be trying out what it might be like to be a college student. That can be extremely transformative and powerful, to picture themselves as potential students,” Jorati says.

As for those who may wonder why it’s important to bring philosophy to children and teens, Markosian explains their programs help to foster empathy and understanding, allowing individuals to better process opposing perspectives.

“We emphasize listening to other people, their views and their reasons,” Markosian says. “If that practice was more of a national thing, I think that could be a very good thing for society.”

Jorati calls philosophy and its emphasis on examining the human condition “intrinsically valuable.”

In addition to offering strong career options, she says, “Philosophy helps people think more critically and thoughtfully about everything. It’s important for democracy as well, to reflect on big questions about justice and equality.”

In addition to community donations, Question Everything will be partly funded by a grant from Mass Humanities.

To learn more, visit Question Everything’s website, or donate to the Minutefund.

Art Exhibit, ‘In the Wake,’ Offers Poetic Interpretation of Science

Art Exhibit, ‘In the Wake,’ Offers Poetic Interpretation of Science

On the first floor of the John W. Olver Design Building, just beside the café, there’s a cozy gallery where art meets science. Along the windows, propped on wooden blocks, are curvy, white, 3D-printed sculptures that resemble coral; black and white architectural renderings hang, framed, along the soot-colored wall; at the back of the gallery, three, teal, LED-lit renderings morph as they depict movement; and in the center of the room, tall, crystal beams reach for the ceiling and glitter in the light. When the sun sets, pieces in the room illuminate. 

Taken together, these elements create a striking art exhibit called “In the Wake: Drawing Dynamics of Vortical Structures,” a collaboration among UMass Amherst faculty and student mechanical engineers, architects, and computer scientists, on view through March 10.  

Led by Assistant Professor of Architecture Pari Riahi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi and Information and Computer Science Research Assistant Professor Ali Sarvghad, the display visualizes a natural phenomenon in fluid dynamics called vortex-induced vibrations in what Riahi calls a “poetic interpretation of the science.”

“Think about a river,” explains Modarres-Sadeghi. “You put a stick in it and the water has to go around it. Then, once the water, the flow, goes around the stick, it has to come back at some point, and it does this beautiful swirl toward the stick.”  

The swirl is created by movement from the object in the water, resulting in a circular, sweeping motion. It’s a fundamental problem in studies of fluid mechanics plus dynamics, which can be applied to research as miniscule as cancer cells and as grand as wind turbines.  

Though this natural phenomenon has typically been depicted with videos, Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi wondered: Is it possible to transform this complex concept into something more accessible—and, perhaps, even beautiful—to the general public? 

Illustrating Fluid Dynamics for the Naked Eye 

Working with a cohort of students—architecture major Fey Thurber; graduate architecture students Erica DeWitt and Cami Quinteros; and PhD mechanical engineering candidates Pieter Boersma and Adrian Carleton—Riahi, Modarres-Sadeghi and Sarvghad—set to find out. 

Using the research from Modarres-Sadeghi’s lab as the backbone, the architects began to make tabulations in Excel and input the information into software and digital platforms, creating visualizations of the phenomena Modarres-Sadegh describes.

“We were able to illustrate for the naked eye what [Modarres-Sadeghi’s team] knew we should see,” Riahi explains.  

Integrating the three disciplines, the group made use of a UMass Interdisciplinary Research grant from the Provost’s Office that prioritized cross-collaboration and left the project open-ended, which allowed the team to come together to figure out the best way to display the findings. In the end, they created what Riahi calls “a method of [research] that’s neither ours nor theirs”—at once art and science.

Learning to Speak the Same Language 

For Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi, who are both life partners and collaborators on this project, the excitement was amplified in working with their students.  

“We had students from different disciplines, from different backgrounds, at different points of study—all of them are extremely brilliant—working together,” Riahi says.  

There was a point where all of us started speaking the same language. That was really rewarding and fun.  

The mutual understanding didn’t come overnight. In all, it took nearly two years of collaborating to morph the research into the final exhibit, and it was done throughout the pandemic. The group started with meetings over Zoom, working together on the initial art renderings; once it was safe to do so, the team began to gather face-to-face.

To practice social distancing, “we did a lot of group meetings out in the backyard, bringing tea out when it was cold,” Riahi laughs.  

Eventually, as UMass reopened its doors for a typical semester, the group was able to share lab space. It’s what helped the project transcend from concept to reality.   ​

Only the Beginning

Ahead of the exhibit’s opening night, the team of architects and scientists found themselves battling against supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic as well as an advanced timeline that would have the exhibit open a full month earlier than originally anticipated.

They all got to work, including folks not directly involved with the research: Evan Janes, manager of the Olver Design Building Shop; Umang Patel, Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering; Daniela Caraeni, Ph.D. student in mechanical and industrial engineering; and even Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi’s seven-year-old daughter, who helped paint the gallery wall.  

“She was surprisingly good at it,” Thurber says with a laugh.  

Assembling the exhibit was intense, with the weeks leading up to the exhibit’s debut regularly including eight-hour days that might consist of anything from sweeping floors to painting walls to sanding glass pipes by hand to artfully laying LED lights. 

But, Riahi notes, “It was a pleasure to spend so much time together. It feels as if we’ve gained friends.” 

When opening night rolled around on Jan. 27, the team says they expected about thirty patrons to attend the exhibit’s opening night. The crowded ended up being much, much bigger.  

“It was wild! We had the gallery full. It felt like hundreds,” DeWitt says. “I know we’re still very much in the pandemic, but [that experience] sort of felt like we were creeping out. It gave me hope.”  

The opening reception, a culmination of two years’ worth of work, left the team feeling rewarded.  

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing any part of my research,” Boersma says. “I’m super proud of what we’ve done here. When all those people came to the gallery opening, this really cemented that we’ve actually done something nice.” 

Opening night also helped put their work into perspective, Carleton says. “You get very myopic when you’re working in it. You need somebody’s fresh eyes who can see it as a whole.”

While Thurber enjoyed being able to explain her work to her friends, it was watching a sea of art students flood into the gallery, share ideas and ask questions that resonated with Modarres-Sadegh.

This is exactly what I was trying to get out of the exhibition. Now, I have an architecture student telling me about fluid mechanics. Maybe I should be grumpy, but someone else is now understanding what I do without having the background.


Modarres-Sadegh and Riahi agree the project has opened a world of possibilities for future collaborations and opportunities to deeper understand how their respective fields of study work together. In this way, the discoveries they made will have long-lasting impacts, forging not just new opportunities for faculty research, but for student experiences, too. 

“We were grateful because this was an open-ended research problem,” Riahi says. “The original idea was that the installation is a demonstration of everything we have done, but we are realizing we are just getting started.”  

Find “In the Wake: Drawing Dynamics of Vortical Structures,” on the first floor of the Design Building through March 10. It was funded by a grant from the Provost’s Office

Learn more about the exhibit.

Southern Poverty Law Center Event Tackles Hate, Extremism in US

Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lecia Brooks spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 on the state of hate and extremism in the U.S. during the featured lecture for the Hate Has No Home at UMass campaign on Oct. 2.

Brooks, who led the talk in the Bernie Dallas Room in Goodell Hall, offered a detailed assessment of the recent rise in hate groups. She discussed where and how these hate groups emerge and also provided guidance for effectively challenging bigotry and hate speech. 

“People often ask us, ‘why is there an increase in hate?’” said Brooks. “The primary driver is shifting demographics.”

Read more.

Building Bridges Showcase, Opening Reception Set for April 11

As the spring semester begins, the university will launch Building Bridges, a public art and engagement initiative designed to foster new connections among UMass Amherst community members who come from greatly varied backgrounds and hold differing perspectives. It’s an opportunity, no matter what your role or job may be on campus, to become actively engaged.

The project includes a series of high-profile art installations, enrichment courses for staff, events and lectures. Together, these are intended to invite people with different personal backgrounds— across race, religion, class, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability and nationality—to connect and strengthen community.

“In the fall, we embarked on the Hate Has No Home at UMass campaign to affirm the importance of respecting difference in our community,” says Enobong (Anna) Branch, associate chancellor for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. “This semester, we plan to offer several initiatives to foster community-building. The Building Bridges initiative speaks to the power of creative expression and engagement as a means to build connections across difference and create a more inclusive campus community.”

To achieve this, students, faculty and staff are invited to get involved in Building Bridges in a way that feels meaningful to them, whether by attending an event or contributing to one of the three core projects: a Building Bridges Art Installation; a course called Building Bridges: Our Immigrant Voices; and a course called Building Bridges: Showcasing Worker Artists at UMass.

Read more.

What Should Your Higher Ed Institution Look like on Social Media?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broken, well, you should probably rectify that. That’s my basic lesson when it comes to how your higher education institution should look on social media.

Here’s an excerpt.

Most institutions find themselves home to dozens of social media accounts that exist beyond their signature accounts. Offices, departments, schools, clubs, and other entities often develop their own presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and elsewhere.

These additional accounts can be great when it comes to promoting your institution’s message, but can pose a challenge when trying to determine how users are supposed to tell these accounts apart.

And it all starts with the social media avatar.

Read the full article over at Higher Ed Experts and feel free to tweet me @crysmaldonado with your thoughts!