This Week in Research: Absent Students and Wildfires

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Absenteeism is a major problem for public school students; it interrupts teaching continuity, leads to lower grades, and makes kids more likely to drop out entirely. Many school systems react to chronic absenteeism by punishing students–but according to new research from Johns Hopkins, that may not be the best way to keep students in school.

In a report issued by the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, researchers looked at 100 public schools in New York City. Sure enough, the students who missed 20 or more days of school per year had lower grades and higher drop out rates. “Chronic absenteeism is an unseen force, like bacteria in a hospital, that wreaks havoc with our efforts to use our schools as pathways from poverty to adult success,” said Robert Balfanz, co-director of Everyone Graduates. “But this report shows that once we understand the dimensions of the problem, it is possible to organize relatively low-cost and broadly reproducible responses that can prevent it from occurring and can mitigate its impacts.”

The best way to mitigate chronic absenteeism, the researchers found, was to create incentives that encouraged kids to come to school. When students were rewarded with certificates of honor, special privileges, public acknowledgement, and other rewards, they were more likely to come to class. Possibly even more effective was a mentorship program that paired students at risk for absenteeism with an older person — anyone from a social work student to an older classmate to a retired volunteer — and saw a two-week jump in school attendance over the year.

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In 2010, lightning sparked a wildfire in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. The fire raged for nearly a month and consumed more than 6,000 acres before it was finally put out. A University of Maryland researcher is pairing up with scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to help fight future fires of such magnitude — but he’s not spraying water; he’s using a computer instead.

UMD professor Wilfrid Schroeder has helped NCAR scientists develop a cutting-edge computer model that can help simulate fire behavior while also incorporating up-to-the-minute data from satellite feeds. This is tricky work, because fire is notoriously unpredictable. A stray ember blown into the air and landing on unburned fuel can cause the fire to spot; fires are even capable of creating their own mini-weather systems within the flames.

The new model takes advantage of higher-res satellite images — in old models, each pixel represented 1 kilometer; in the new version, a pixel cover 375 meters, making the image much sharper.

“With this technique, we believe it’s possible to continually issue good forecasts throughout a fire’s lifetime, even if it burns for weeks or months,” said Janice Coen, lead author of the paper describing the new model. “This model, which combines interactive weather prediction and wildfire behavior, could greatly improve forecasting—particularly for large, intense wildfire events where the current prediction tools are weakest.”



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