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How one teacher's aquarium dream made science at this Texas school 10 times cooler.

He found a beautiful way to make his school a better place to learn.

How one teacher's aquarium dream made science at this Texas school 10 times cooler.
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State Farm

What do you do if you're an awesome science teacher and you want your kids to learn about water animals but don't have water nearby?

That's what James Jubran was up against as an aquatic science teacher at Alief Elsik High School in Houston, Texas.

"We don’t have the ability to go to lakes, rivers, oceans or streams," Jubran explains. The nearest large body of water is Trinity Bay, which is an hour away. Big field trips like that cost money, and the school doesn't have the funding to make them feasible.


Elsik is far from being the only school with this problem. Schools nationwide are dealing with massive budget cuts to their STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). That's a big obstacle for students looking to have careers in any of these fields.

Thankfully aquatic science enthusiasts at Elsik have Jubran — grant writer extraordinaire.

Jubran with some of his students. All photos via Elsik High School, used with permission.

Jubran grew up in Florida surrounded by the ocean, and he was always fascinated by underwater ecosystems. He often went out on boats with his family, and he never missed an opportunity to go snorkeling or scuba diving.

He became a science teacher in Florida 10 years ago, but due to statewide school budget cuts, he lost his job and decided to move inland to Houston, Texas, in 2006. He's been at Elsik for five years but has always felt somewhat limited by the lack of access to water.

So in 2016, he wrote a grant proposal for State Farm's Neighborhood Assist Program asking for help in building a gigantic aquarium for Elsik students as well as students at other nearby schools.

State Farm accepted the first 2,000 applicants for the grant, and narrowed that number down to 200. Those proposals were then made public so that people could vote on their favorites. Elsik students made it their mission to vote as much as possible.

The top 40 proposals received $25,000. The grant Jubran wrote came in at #8.

State Farm grant dispatchers and members of the school board.

Jubran immediately began pulling resources to build his dream aquarium, and within a couple months, it was finished.

The aquarium is 12 feet long, 9 feet tall, and 3 feet wide and can hold 1,100 gallons of water.

He decided to create a tropical ecosystem in the tank, home to all kinds of tropical fish. The aquatic residents were added slowly to the tank in order to build up good bacteria, which allows the tank to better handle fish waste. The slow process also helps make sure the fish all get along.

Today, there are 14 different species of fish living in the tank. They include threadfin geophagus, known for their digging skills, Silver arowana, which can grow to two feet long, carnivorous tiger oscars, shovelnose catfish, which look like their name sounds, and Redhooks — the vegetarian version of piranhas.

A few redhooks in Elsik's new aquarium.

The tank is located in the school cafeteria so that all of the students can enjoy it and, well, because it was too big to put upstairs near Jubran's classroom.

The aquarium's been in place for two months now, and everyone seems to love it and all its colorful inhabitants.

Threadfin geophaguses hanging out together.

Students are often seen pressed up against the glass watching the fish swim around and interact with one another.

Jubran doesn't love the thousands of fingerprints on the glass, but he appreciates the enthusiasm. He even has kids he's never met before coming up to him saying things like, “oh, are you the guy who built the aquarium? It’s so cool."

I don't know about that guy in the middle. He looks pretty fishy to me. HEYO!

And Jubran's students, especially the ones interested in aquatic science careers, can't get enough. Even though it's the end of the school year, he's begun assigning special teaching projects on species in the aquarium.

"Next year, students will learn everything they need to know about the fish, then develop and present a curriculum focused on the aquarium," Jubran says. That way, when students from other schools come by to check out the aquarium, Elsik students can actually teach them about what's going on inside it.

And Jubran is not finished with his plans to bring water to Elsik — he's got even loftier plans up his sleeve.

Jubran teaching his students about the aquarium.

"I'm going for a $100,000 grant next year to build an even larger salt water aquarium for the other side of the school," Jubran says.

It might be four times as much as the previous grant, but considering his success at getting that, there's a very good chance he'll be filling a larger aquarium with more exotic fish soon enough.

Jubran's initiative just goes to show there's enormous power behind one person's desire to make a difference.

You don't have to have a ton of money or a fancy upbringing to make huge waves in your community. All you need to have is an idea and the tenacity to see it through.

One teacher can make a school a better, cooler place to learn and grow. As long as Jubran's at Elsik, he'll be working on exciting ways to do just that.

If you want to find out more about Neighborhood Assist, and how it's helping improve communities across the country, check out the program here.    

This post was updated 7/11/2017.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Anthony Crider / Flickr

Dozens of "White Lives Matter" rallies were scheduled to take place across America on Sunday. The events were scheduled in semi-private, encrypted chats on the Telegram app between Nazis, Proud Boys, and other right-wing extremists.

The organizers said the rallies would make "the whole world tremble."

However, the good news is that hardly any white supremacists showed up. In fact, the vast majority of people who did show up were counter-protesters.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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