September 23, 2013


Volume 8, Issue 6 – September 23, 2013


Around Campus

It was a busy week around campus with lots of meetings, more interviews of job candidates for various positions, and playing catch-up from my Brazil trip (see below).  One of the more interesting meetings I had was with Kisa Ranasinghe (Physics), who wanted to discuss various ways we might encourage students to become involved in research at earlier times in their college careers.

Kisa has a fine idea, since students who are more engaged (in research, campus activities, or whatever) are more likely to be retained at the college and to graduate.  While many of our students do research during their senior year, Kisa’s thought was to provide some incentives so that they might volunteer to get involved (on a non-credit basis) in research as early as their second semester at SPSU.  We batted around a number of ideas, which got me thinking—do any of you have any ideas how we might be able to support student research more strongly?  I’d be interested in hearing them, and I’m certain that the Deans and I will be able to come up with some funds to implement any good ideas.

The week had a couple of Hispanic Heritage Month activities sponsored by the Cross Cultural Conversations group and the SIS Department, including a presentation on Wednesday about their “Travels to Spain” by Profs. Al Churella and Marianne Holdzkom (both SIS) that I hear went extremely well.  On Thursday evening, SPSU hosted a musical theatre presentation called “Los Valientes” (the Valiant Ones).  The performance was really great, with some 125 persons in attendance.  The show consisted of three parts—the first about the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the second about martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the third about Mexican outlaw Joaquin Murrieta (who some say was the inspiration for Zorro).  The ensemble consisted of three musicians (one on cello, one on piano, and one playing vibes/marimba/drums) and a single actor playing all three roles.  Both the acting and music were excellent.

The next several Cross-Cultural Conversations events include:

  • September 25, 5:00 PM in the Building N Gallery:  A presentation of student architecture work carried out during two summer Architours in Paris and Barcelona organized by Architecture faculty Ed Akins and Michael Carroll.
  • October 2, 12 Noon in J-130: A lecture by Architecture Prof. Pegah Zamani about the project “A Living Machine”, five studies representing different periods in the lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two major Mexican artists.
  • October 7, 6:00 PM in the Student Theatre:  A presentation of the multiple award-winning Chilean film “No”—part of the International Film Series.

You can see detailed descriptions of upcoming Cross-Cultural Conversations events at the blog at  Sign up to follow it already!


Jammin’ It Up

This Friday brought the latest Global Game Jam to be hosted at SPSU.  Organized by Prof. Jon Preston and the School of Computing and Software Engineering, with logistics by Leigh Anne Soublis, Greg Scott, and lots of volunteers, this year’s Game Jam was the largest ever with 250 participants.  This year’s theme was creating games related to health issues, since one of the sponsors of the Jam was the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  I had dropped by to see how things were going on Saturday, and came by on Sunday for the closing ceremonies.  The crowd was impressive and quite excited, and each team had prepared a 1-minute video about their game, followed by a 1 minute “elevator speech” about what they were trying to accomplish.  Five teams won $250 awards and the opportunity to further develop their games over the next few weeks, with the top game to lead to a paid internship.

gamejamClosing ceremony at Global Game Jam

 CDC was hoping that a dozen games might be developed over the weekend.  When the Jam reached its closing ceremony at 5:00 PM on Sunday, the actual number of games developed was 31.  Pretty cool!  Congratulations to all involved for their fine efforts!



Panorama do Brasil, Part 2

The first part of the Brazil trip was covered in last week’s BLAB, which covered up to

Wednesday morning, when we left Salvador for Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco.  After checking into my room on the 26th floor of the Transamerica Prestige Hotel (across the street from the beach!), we went out for a fast lunch.  A fast meal in Brazil means a bit over an hour—the normal time is more like two to three hours, a much more civilized pace.  The restaurant had some 20 set meals you could choose from, and we washed it down with some good local beer.

RecifeView from my hotel room, Recife

 In the afternoon, we met with representatives from Pernambuco who were interested in university exchange.  As it turns out, there was an earlier initiative to bring the US and Brazil together in higher education called Partners of the Americas, which came to SPSU in the 1990’s.  One of the leaders in Recife remembered meeting with faculty in IET (Walter Thomas was the only name he remembered), Business, and Architecture.

We then met Usha Pitts, US Consul from Recife.  Usha was younger and much more candid than I would have expected for a Consul.  She gave us a bit of the history of the state of Pernambuco, and noted that the US consulate has been there for more than 200 years!  The US presence in the area has waxed and waned over time.  It was big in the 60’s and 70’s, when we thought the area might go communist, then it waned in the 80’s and 90’s with the end of the Cold War.  It’s growing now, due to the rapid economic development of the area, and consists of 22 American officers and 70 Brazilians.

ConsulConsul Usha Pitts addressing our group

 The Brazilian government is investing heavily in the area, trying to overcome poverty.  There is a booming middle class, with strong consumerist tendencies.  The federal and state universities don’t come close to meeting the demand for higher education from the middle class, leading to development of private (profit and non-profit) colleges and to many students studying abroad.  Her advice to American universities was to “know where you add value, and play to that.”  She thought our best option was to find a reputable local partner, since going it alone takes cultural awareness and physical presence.  She noted that we need to take the long-term view—we shouldn’t expect to fly in and expect things to happen overnight.  The largest challenge is lack of familiarity with English among students.   The best solution is to bring them to the US in the summer for intensive English training, and move them into academic courses them in the fall.

Another issue is that many Brazilian federal and state universities don’t have campuses in the American sense of the word—there are no dorms, cafeterias, etc.  At the national universities, it’s not uncommon for the faculty to go on strike for several weeks in a year.  For these reasons, private colleges may be better fits as partners.

A representative from Education USA (a State Department advisory agency that works with Brazilian students about study abroad) spoke to us about higher education in Brazil.  Student in Brazil take a comprehensive exam in November of their senior year of high school called the vestibular.  A good score gets you into a federal university, which is free.  Those with lower scores go to the state universities, and to the privates.  One interesting fact is that if you get a masters or a doctorate abroad, for it to be valid in Brazil it must be reviewed and validated by a federal university.  In practice, if you go to a major foreign university, this is pretty much a formality.

We had dinner that night in a Brazilian steak house.  The way it works is that there is a buffet with salads of many types, side dishes (pasta, potatoes, rice, etc.), sushi, and some meat, from which you help yourself.  While sitting at the table, various servers come by with large skewers of meat (beef, chicken, pork, boar).  If you want some, you just point and they cut some for you and put it on your plate.  This goes on until you’re stuffed, at which point the desserts come by.  I’ll say one thing—you can’t leave the place hungry.


On Thursday morning we met with representatives of three universities.  The first was the University of Pernambuco, which has 18,000 undergraduate students and an additional 3,600 graduate students.  Their strategic areas are health, engineering, biotechnology, and education.  They have research centers in mechatronics and biotechnology.   The next was the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (15,000 students) which focuses on agrarian sciences and other sciences, most heavily biology.  The last was the Federal University of Pernambuco, which is a major research university—the top university in the northeast of Brazil.  They have 36,000 students, and focus heavily on science and engineering.

We were scheduled to see a bit of downtown Recife, which has attractive squares and older buildings, including the oldest synagogue in the Americas.  Jews fleeing the inquisition in Spain and Portugal went to Brazil, which at the time was a Dutch colony offering religious tolerance.  They built the synagogue in 1636.  When the Portuguese took over, the Jews left with the other Dutch settlers, winding up in the colony of New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.  As we approached the area, we got out of the bus, walked toward the synagogue, and a tropical downpour began.  We all ran back to the bus but it was too late—we were all soaked.  So instead, we drove back to the hotel to change clothes.

After lunch, we drove out to Olinda, a historic district of Recife.  The story of how it got its name is that the Portuguese viceroy looked at the site and said o linda (how beautiful), and thus the name was coined.  The area is quite beautiful, with beautiful churches and other historic buildings overlooking the harbor of Recife.  It’s a popular tourist destination, so there are a lot of small shops there too.


Church of Saint Savior of the World at Olinda

IMG_1872View of harbor at Olinda

IMG_1868Me at Olinda

IMG_1876Tropical paradise

We then went to the Carvalheira distillery, where a popular local liquor called cachaça is made out of sugar cane.  They showed us the traditional process, where the cane is first pressed and the alcohol is then distilled using an alembic (that’s a medieval term for a copper distillation vessel—the same term is used in Portuguese).  The resulting liquor can be mixed with various other flavorings, but is usually drunk mixed with a bit of sugar and with limes.  It’s quite delicious.

IMG_1904Historic cane press at Carvalheira Distillery

 That evening, it was another Brazilian steak house, and then off to sleep.


On Friday, we went to meet with Dr. Aurelio Molina, from the Secretariat of Education in Pernambuco.   Dr. Molina developed a program called “Win the World”, aimed at bringing courses in intensive English and Spanish to students from public high schools.  The students, in their second year of high school, then travel to English and Spanish-speaking countries for a semester, and live with a host family.  The largest number of students go to Canada, and 210 are expected to come to the US in 2014.  The goal is to make the students more aware of opportunities abroad, including with the Scientific Mobility Program.  This is part of a project funded by the government of Pernambuco, which wants to become the first bilingual state in Brazil, believing this will lead to economic and social development.  We heard several stories of the effect this program had on students from families in poverty, and it was impossible not to be deeply moved.

 Aurelio“Win the World” meeting.  Dr. Molina is 2nd from the left.

We went to lunch on the campus of a large private university known as Uninassau, which has campuses all over Brazil and offers pretty much everything.  They are interested in signing bilateral agreements with American Universities.

Later that afternoon, we stopped at a Catholic high school/university combination called Faculdade Damas.  The school has very attractive facilities in its own wall-enclosed area of Recife, and the university focuses on Architecture, Law, and Business.  As the name implies, it was originally an upper-class women’s school, although both the high school and college parts are now co-ed.  The school also had its own lovely small church, which reminded me of the church at Merrimack, a Catholic College in Massachusetts which was the first place at which I taught.

ChurchChurch at Faculdade Damas

The day closed with a group meeting discussing us forming a consortium to work together in the future on international initiatives.  We then went out to dinner at, yes—another Brazilian steakhouse.  I had to eat quickly, because Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) was rapidly approaching.  On Yom Kippur, one goes on an absolute fast—no food, no liquids, nothing.  I had decided to fast at sunset Atlanta time, which was 9:30 PM Recife time.  The dinner finished just in time, and it was then back to the hotel for our last night sleep.



Our flight on Saturday to Brasilia wasn’t until after noon, so I had some time to kill in the morning.  I decided it was stupid to have stayed in a hotel by the beach and never have gone to the beach, so I grabbed my camera and headed down the driveway to cross the road.  I was promptly intercepted by one of the three security guards who had been assigned to us the entire time we were in Recife, which (apparently) has some crime issues.  The state officials wanted to make sure nothing happened to us on their watch, hence, the guards.  The guard motioned to my camera, in effect asking “are you going to take some pictures?” and when I nodded “yes”, he followed me to the beach.  The weather was a bit overcast, but the beach was still beautiful, calling me to come back in the future.

IMG_1910Recife Beach by the hotel

We packed the bus and took off for the airport, and our flight took off on time at 12:40, with the usual problems for some of excess baggage weight.  We got to Brasilia at 3:20 PM, and were supposed to take off for the US at 9:53 PM, a mere six hour layover.  First problem: we waited and waited at the baggage carousel, and there was no baggage.  After about 30 minutes, we asked what was going on and found out that all baggage coming to Brasilia has to be x-rayed by the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI, and something had gone wrong at the x-ray center.  After about an hour, our bags finally showed up, but not before our cell-phones began going off, giving us a message from Delta that our flight was going to be three hours late, not leaving until after midnight.

We killed time by looking around the airport, having another planning meeting, and basically hanging out.  I managed to hook up to the airports wi-fi, and finally succumbed to downloading the Candy Crush app on my iPhone, reaching level 26 before stopping.  As evening approached, the rest of the group decided that they wouldn’t eat dinner (Delta had given each of us a voucher for a free meal due to the delay) until 9:30 PM, so I could break my Yom Kippur fast and eat with them.  Pretty darned sweet!   We went down to a buffet on the second level, had a nice dinner, and the gate for the flight opened at about 11 PM.  We got on the plane without further incident, where I watched the new Star Trek movie (not bad, though the crew of the Enterprise seemed so young!) and then fell asleep.

We arrived in Atlanta a little after 8:00 AM, said our goodbyes, and I picked up the car and drove home, arriving at about 10.  When I got home, son Mark (who had been pretty mopey while I was away) wanted to go out shopping at noon, so it was back to business as usual.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last time’s trivia challenge focused on the letter “Z”.  Our winner was my sister Drorit, with the fastest reply with all correct, but the campus winner was Dean Tom Nelson (A&S).  John Stephenson also got all five correct.  Here are the correct answers:

  1. Some include Pisces, Aquarius, and Virgo.  Signs of the Zodiac.
  2. This bold renegade carves a “Z” with his blade.  Zorro.
  3. They were first introduced by the post office in 1963.  Zip codes.
  4. Spice islands off the coast of Tanganyika.  Zanzibar.
  5. Movie star who appeared in the silent version of “A Little Princess” (1917) with Mary Pickford, as well as in “Finn and Hattie”, “Life with Father”, and many other comedies.  Her last film appearance was in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in 1963.  Zasu Pitts.  I always liked that name, ever since I first heard it when I was 14.



This Week’s Trivia Challenge

Today’s trivia challenge focuses on the letter “Z” yet again, with which all answers begin.  No looking up the answers now!  SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!

  1. Animal that’s white with black stripes, or is it black with white stripes?
  2. Popular school of Buddhism.
  3. He played Troy Bolton in “High School Musical”, and has starred in “Hairspray”, “The Lucky One”, “At Any Price”, and “The Paperboy”.
  4. The nation formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, its president is Robert Mugabe.
  5. Family of stringed instruments in which the strings do not extend beyond the soundboard.
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2 Responses to September 23, 2013

  1. Mona Sinha says:

    Dr.Ranasinghe’s idea to involve students early on in faculty research as a way to mentor them, hone their research skills and thus raise retention levels, is a really a good one and has the potential of a win-win for faculty and students. I shared my thoughts with Dr.Szafran and he liked it enough to suggest I post it here for you all to consider. Consider for example a campus-wide “Research Mentorship Program” where faculty engaged in active research post/announce their need for research assistance (searching for academic papers, writing literature reviews, writing case studies, finding examples….whatever their research needs are), and interested students sign up (or are encouraged to sign up by their Advisors). In return for their research help, students get awarded a certificate of participation in the program, a letter of commendation, a mention of thanks in a publication…or even maybe co-authorship… depending on their level of work. Plus their new research skills might reflect in the class projects they turn in as well.

    For faculty who want to publish but departmental budgets do not allow for graduate assistants, this would be a boon. For SPSU it will increase faculty publication and prestige. Win-win all the way….

  2. Drorit Szafran says:

    There’s a certain thrill at winning your big brother’s trivia game. I confess…I am competitive enough to want to win every time…Bet you didn’t know that about me. Glad you’re back home. Happy the trip was so much fun…

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