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Greenwich students take on conventional wisdom

January 12, 2019

GREENWICH — When social studies teacher Joseph Baske decided the presenting order for the senior Innovation Lab projects, he thought he would start on the heaviest note and end on the lightest.

That meant first up was a video called “The People of Jonestown,” a look at the infamous massacre and what can be learned from the event, remembered by many today from the slogan: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

Students in Greenwich High’s Innovation Lab approach learning through a multi-discipline exploratory model. For their 11 projects — presented this week — Baske gave one overriding direction: Look at topics from the perspective of the conventional wisdom regarding them and research whether these commonly held opinions are sound. In addition to the mass suicide at Jonestown, students examined a range of subjects from religion and ethics to the school start time change at Greenwich High School.

Students screened, spoke about and displayed their conclusions at the Greenwich Historical Society, which Baske considered a fitting location given the social science learning on display, Wednesday night.

In the Jonestown film, Lucas Brien and Sam Baird argued that those who were attracted to Jim Jones’ message were not passive, easily manipulated people, but civil rights activists fighting racism and discrimination. Little by little, however, Jones brainwashed and controlled them.

“I think they did a really good job with a horrible, difficult subject, and the truth is more complicated than a simple slogan,” Baske said.

Jody Bell wanted to know if religion is necessary for forming ethical codes. For her research, she spoke to a New York University professor and studied trends in religious practices in the 20th and 21st century.

People used religion to form and enforce laws, she said. At one point religious, ethical mandates such as “Do not kill” became engrained into how humans think, and have become common sense.

“Human morality is borderline universal,” she said. “If you begin to realize that, it will break down this group-think, us-versus-them mentality, and create a more cohesive, less divided society in regards to religious, and religious versus non-religious thoughts.”

For their exhibit, Jessica Neri and Alexandra Cid thought the best way to present their research into the beauty industry, called “A Reflection of Beauty,” would be on a vanity.

Too many companies in the industry, they found, still cling to outdated beliefs regarding what is considered beautiful.

Currently, they said, two make-up lines are championed in the media for their inclusive products and marketing: Fenty, which has a wider skin tone range for women of color, and Cover Girl, which has made a septuagenarian woman, a man and a woman wearing a hijab each a “Cover Girl.”

Most of Fenty’s sales come from women of color, showing that the company succeeded by identifying a previously untapped market, Cid said.

“People always see coverage of Fenty and Cover Girl, and while that’s so great, there are still companies that have yet to do so,” Cid said. “If we talk about what Fenty and Cover Girl did correctly, we could raise awareness for other companies to expand their lines.”

The night ended with Shiv Vaid, a self-effacing humorist who argued music tech companies should use objective evaluations, not aesthetic preferences, to curate listening experiences for music streamers.

Spotify, a widely used music streaming service, uses subjective algorithms and nonsensical key words such as “non-violent” to create playlists, Vaid said. No software engineers for Spotify can read sheet music, he said.

He even sent his findings to Francisco Vico, a professor at the University at the University of Malaga in Spain who created a computer program that can compose music.

“First of all, I must confess my surprise, after reading this bulk of ideas, and your skills to put them into words, considering that you’re now supposed to be more concerned with American history or basic algebra than telling big tech companies what to do,” Vico responded. “That’s bold, and I like it.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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