ASU study aims to reduce stress in disadvantaged schools

December 5, 2013

Extensive research has shown that disadvantaged school environments are highly stressful at multiple levels for students, teachers and administrators. Such findings are particularly troubling in light of the mounting evidence that chronic stress translates into long-term adverse effects on learning, memory and health outcomes. 

An interdisciplinary group of experts from Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Education is researching solutions for this emerging health challenge. These partners will launch a pilot study to test the effects of an intervention targeted to reduce school-wide stress with funding from CityBridge Foundation and The Ludwig Family Foundation.  ASU pilot student targets stress in at-risk children Download Full Image

The researchers will collect saliva from students and teachers to measure levels of salivary cortisol, alpha amylase, nerve growth factor and immunoglobulin. The samplings will then be compared with written surveys to assess psychosocial stress, grit/resilience, and students’ and teachers’ self-beliefs related to learning and teaching. 

“This is the first approach of its kind to quantify biological levels of perceived stress at the individual, classroom and teacher levels, and may shed light on the link between stress and key educational metrics,” said professor Douglas Granger, the director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at ASU. 

The intervention being tested was developed by the nonprofit Turnaround for Children to reduce psychosocial stress in high-risk, high-poverty educational settings. The partnership between the universities is led by professors Granger and Sheila Walker, and is being conducted in two District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C. 

“The extremely stressful conditions found in high-poverty educational settings, including the negative culture and lack of physical and emotional safety experienced by students, can create a destructive cycle, inhibiting learning, resilience and health amongst students, teachers and administrators, and can create a persistent atmosphere of chronic stress,” said Walker, a research associate with Hopkins. “Our long-term aim is not only to optimize the learning environment for individual children, but also to improve psychological and physiological health for all students at a school system-wide level.”

The investigators will build on new research by experts in systems biology that validates the importance of examining classrooms and schools as dynamic, interactive systems, particularly given the growing evidence to support the contagion effect of stress and its many downstream consequences.  

Walker commented, "We believe that this study has ground-breaking potential to further our understanding of how to optimize educational environments for high-poverty, at-risk children.”

The researchers hope that their approach, which combines information from social and biological sources, can provide valuable data to help fortify educational settings and optimize outcomes for at-risk children. Moreover, the findings are expected to have important implications, not only for improving academic success, but also for enhancing broader life outcomes, quality of life and long-term health. CityBridge Foundation and The Ludwig Family Foundation are both Washington, D.C.-based philanthropic organizations dedicated to education and promoting positive change in communities. 

The Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research is a research unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


Student internships lead to full-time careers

December 5, 2013

Arizona State University alumnus Ed Vasko is truly putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to supporting his alma mater. Vasko’s Scottsdale-based cybersecurity firm, Terra Verde, brings several students from ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on board each semester as interns. Four of those former interns, now New College alumni, have obtained full-time employment with the company.

“There is a worldwide shortage of trained cybersecurity professionals,” Vasko said. “Recent reports put cybersecurity job growth at 10 times that of other technical fields, and these internships provide a direct opportunity to enter this field. Terra Verde employees Download Full Image

“Another motivation we have for offering internships is that Terra Verde is committed to giving back to the local communities where we work and live,” he added. “And the ability to work with the next generation of professionals is beneficial for our employees just as much as the interns.”

Interns at Terra Verde research a specific security topic that is mutually chosen between the intern and one of the firm’s senior security professionals with whom the intern will be working. Topics have ranged from best methods to secure wireless networks to bringing about cultural change that helps improve cybersecurity adoption at large corporations. Interns also assist Terra Verde’s security teams with their day-to-day needs.

“My internship really got me a lot of hands-on experience working with managing a network, maintaining a network and troubleshooting with office staff when problems arose,” said Stephen Calvert, who now works full-time for Terra Verde after completing his New College bachelor’s degree in applied computing.

“On top of that, it let me use devices on which we only learned core concepts in class,” Calvert said. “I was able to interact with customers, which showed me what type of cybersecurity activity people in various industries see in real-world situations.”

Calvert and the other interns are treated as professionals during their internship experiences with Terra Verde. That starts with the hiring process. The potential intern interviews with people ranging from the company’s human resources manager to the director for whom he or she will be working.

“Through this process, we help expose interns to what interviews are like and also identify specific areas through which we can mentor our interns on improving their communication skills to be more effective once they enter the job market,” Vasko said.

Ultimately, what you get out of an internship is affected by what you put into it, said New College alumnus Brian Saenz, who also landed a full-time job with Terra Verde after an internship.

“If you treat the internship as you would a real job, your outlook will be a lot better and you’ll come out with a better understanding of your field and the direction you might want to take when you complete your degree,” said Saenz, who conducted back-to-back internships in the summer and fall of 2012, and was hired when he graduated with an applied computing degree in December.

But it’s not just applied computing majors who can land internships with Terra Verde.

“We want anyone with a passion to learn new things and grow with that new knowledge by applying it in innovative ways to feel welcome at Terra Verde,” said Vasko, who earned his New College degree in 1995 as a history major. “We are not looking for specific majors so much as the ability to absorb, synthesize and produce quality work. Students in all majors can – and should – apply.”

Founded in 2008, Terra Verde provides cybersecurity services and solutions to clients around the world. The company’s clients include large government agencies and Fortune 500 companies, as well as small businesses. “Our services include assessing, designing and implementing cybersecurity solutions that are pragmatic and value-driven to help our customers protect their critical information,” Vasko said.

And the company is strongly committed to providing an environment in which both interns and full-time employees continue to expand their talents.

“During my internship I was given responsibilities that led me to develop my skills in many areas relating, but not limited, to computer security,” Saenz said. “I’m still growing and developing, and Terra Verde is doing a big part to push me towards new skills, abilities and certifications. I have traveled out of state to work with clients and experienced a lot more than I could have expected to be doing within a year of graduating. This will not only help me now and make me more valuable to the company, but will also set me up for a prosperous career.”