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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Debate sparks Common Core discussion

Last night's debate between senatorial candidates generated a spirited discussion about the Common Core on on my Facebook page. It clearly illustrates the amount of confusion and misinformation that's out there. With names removed, here's what was said:

MY ORIGINAL POST: Just one more thing..the Common Core is not a federal curriculum. And it's needed 

FRIEND ONE: Why is the common core needed or necessary?  

FRIEND TWO: Someone is going to have to convince me that the Common Core is more effective than math techniques used in the past. From what I've experienced, it requires kids to use all of these different approaches and to show their work when, really, just as we did, they know how to get the answer through memorization or simple reasoning. I LOATHE the common core.  

FRIEND THREE: My understanding from my teacher friends is that CC is a set of standards. It is not a curriculum or a teaching technique. It does promote critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills. It is up to the individual school districts to use a curriculum that help students meet CC Standards. Some companies market their curriculum as being "aligned with CC standards" and although this increases book sales, it may or may not be the case. Herein lies some of the confusion and some of the crazy things we've all seen in the media and on the internet.

ME: (Friend Three) is exactly right. It's a set of standards that was adopted while I was at the Department of Ed, so I got the good fortune of watching the process up close. It came from the realization among state level folks -- in the association of state education directors or commissioners and in the association of governors -- that students in the US were not keeping up with students in other countries and students in some states were not being taught to the same level of standards as students in other states. 

We were lucky in Arkansas because we already had a high set of standards thanks to some strong educational leaders at the state department. That made it easy for us to sign on to the Common Core effort. All we had to do was readjust where some of our key concepts were taught. For example, I remember that some of the big concern involved introducing algebraic concepts at lower grade levels than we had previously.  

The other big focus, as (Friend Three) said, was to to teach at a deeper level of understanding to make sure students really understand the most basic concepts. In Arkansas, the one criticism I often heard from teachers with our standards (or curriculum frameworks) was that they were so broad that they were tough to cover in a year's time. The Common Core should help with that issue. 

School personnel determine how the Common Core is to be taught in their classes, so it really gives teachers more freedom. 

Common Core is suffering a lot of the same plight as Obamacare in that it gives government-fearing folks a stick to use -- except they haven't done their homework. This did not stem from Obama but from the states themselves.

I doubt that will be the end of the discussion...feel free to join in with your comments here!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Compelling Education Quote of the Week: More than labels

"Our ultimate goal is to get to a point where we are not about putting a label on a teacher but about collecting data and using that data to empower educators to make good decisions about their practices. That will make better opportunities for our students." Ivy Pfeffer, Arkansas Department of Education, quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Context: Arkansas is rolling out a data management system, BloomBoard, for use with the state's public school teacher and administrator evaluation systems. BloomBoard is meant to make data collection and analysis easier for a more streamlined evaluation process.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Compelling Education Quote of the Week: Research or Advocacy?

"I think the charter idea is a brilliant idea, but we need to handle it responsibly. ... Trying to make sweeping statements about charter schools or district schools does not advance the overall cause of improving American public education." Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change in Minneapolis, quoted on NPR.

Context: Nathan was responding to a just issued report by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Researchers analyzed finances and NAEP test scores to determine that students in charter and regular schools perform about the same. But, the report goes on to say, charter schools have less funding so are more efficient.

Some called the report another instance of advocacy research and say it needs to be taken with a few grains of salt.

Patrick Wolf, author of the study, said, “Public policy in education can't ignore cost. Money is scarce, so it's a service to policymakers for them to know which education sectors are most productive."

What's your take?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Compelling Education Quote of the Week: Carrot or Stick?

"This law is working directly against us. The students who are going to help us get the high school out of academic distress are the kids who are probably going to try to leave, and then we'll never get out. If they
leave...that will make the challenge even greater for us," Dollarway Superintendent Bobby Acklin quoted July 16, 2014, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Context: Mr. Acklin was responding to the dilemma faced by the 26 schools designated as "academic distress schools" in Arkansas. Schools receive the label when more than half of their students over a three-year period score below proficient on the state Benchmark and End-of-Course exams.

It points to the truly tough conundrum the state faces in dealing with such schools. As Mr. Acklin said, helping the students (they now have the option to transfer to other schools) has the potential of further harming the schools, despite schools' and districts' efforts to improve student performance.

Surely there's a better way to serve both the student and the school. Any ideas?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Get back to nature with PD

Here's a great opportunity for an Arkansas teacher shared with us by Arkansas Parks and Tourism...

Buffalo National River is offering an opportunity for one, local teacher to become a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher (TRT) this summer. The TRT program is a professional development opportunity for grades 5 -12 teachers to spend the summer acquiring new skills in experiential learning through a program provided by a partnership between the National Park Service (NPS) and the University of Colorado – Denver. The participants spend between four and 6 – 8 weeks at Buffalo National River developing a major educational project and participating in an online graduate course from CU Denver.

The goal of the TRT program is to train teachers in the resources and themes of the NPS so that they can return to their schools in the fall and incorporate their new skills into their classroom activities. NPS aims to reach students from under-served schools and districts by recruiting teachers from Title 1, urban, rural, and tribal schools to participate in the TRT program.

For more information and to apply, please go to

Monday, June 16, 2014

Can't we create a virtual win-win?

As a small business owner, I am more than somewhat sympathetic to the desire local internet providers have to sell services to the school districts in their areas.

BUT  (and, just as I typed it, it's a big "but") by putting the needs of the schools and, more importantly, the students first, we're also putting all of Arkansas first.
We can't teach students in a barely digital, 20th-century environment and adequately prepared them to be productive in a highly digital, 21st-century world.

Truly, we're hindering our state's progress, if we do. And, let's face it, Arkansas has a history of doing that.

School officials have been voicing the need for more broadband access for years. It's not a new problem. But it has been a money problem and one that private providers have been too slow in trying to help solve. Instead, and this is a natural tendency, of course, they've viewed it as a source of revenue for themselves.

Wouldn't it be nice if the industry and the state could join together to find a solution that helped everyone. After all, just as Arkansas needs smart students who grow up to be productive citizens (hopefully who stay here to make a better Arkansas) we also need to support our small businesses.

We work with a client who has a great model for doing that. Arkansas Preschool Plus wants to improve early childhood education in the state. While some states are pursuing this goal by funding preschool, Arkansas Preschool Plus is partnering with communities to support private day cares and early childhood centers in their area. They are boosting education for young children AND helping small businesses serve their clients better. It's a win-win.

FASTER Arkansas, a group of private industry representatives appointed by Gov. Beebe, back the state's proposal to change the law so school districts can join ARE-ON. (FASTER stands for Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results and ARE-On stands for Arkansas Research Education Optical Network.)
FASTER Arkansas believes this will provide a cost-savings to the state and to school districts.

As they testified at the legislature last week, ARE-ON is also a public-private partnership. We hope that means the organization, which currently serves higher education, will create that symbiotic relationship that will benefit everyone -- private providers, school districts and students.
Wouldn't that be best?

Gov. Beebe and two education organizations -- Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators and Arkansas Rural Education Association -- think so. Here's an exerpt from an email AREA sent to its membership:

"Out of 42 states using this network, or a similar network,  Arkansas is the only state that has made it unlawful for K-12 students to access ARE-ON. These other states also have more and less expensive broadband for their students. ADE surveyed schools in 2013 and found that schools were paying from $1.20 per MB to $2.80 per MB and 80% of schools said their broadband connections were inadequate.

"Both Quality Digital Learning Study Committees recommended that ARE-ON be the backbone service provider to schools and let the private providers connect from ARE-ON to a central location at the school. The study also recommends professional development for teachers and network technical support to help districts create, maintain and effectively utilize local area networks.

"For this plan to be implemented, Act 1050 must be changed to allow K-12 to have access to ARE-ON."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Crisis communication -- don't wait until you're in a crisis to communicate

First Class Communication has always told our clients that when it comes to crisis communication...
  • You need to be as honest as you can with what you know
  • You need to show genuine concern for anyone who has been hurt
  • You need to say how you're going to make things better in the future -- and then, for Pete's sake, make sure you follow through
So it was reaffirming to hear respected crisis communication expert Diane Chase, owner of C4CS in Pittsburgh, PA, and Charlotte, NC, reframe that same advice in three easy questions. The questions she posed are without a doubt ones you must think through before you give any media interviews about a crisis:
  1. What do you know?
  2. How do you feel about it?
  3. What are you doing about it?
Chase, who spoke to the Arkansas Chapter of IABC today, also had some other great bits of wisdom regarding crisis communication:
  • You can't wing it. (That's why it's so important to prepare a crisis communication plan that is regularly reviewed and updated.)
  • Crises are a matter of when, not if. (So, really, you need to be ready.)
  • It's vital to build relationships with media and other stakeholders before a crisis occurs.
  • Crises present both danger and opportunity -- how you handle them defines which of those they turn out to be for you and your organization.
Are you prepared to turn a crisis into an opportunity?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Social media success -- it's more than a numbers game

Before embarking on a social media plan, we always ask our clients what they want from their social media efforts. The reply is often, “To get more followers.” We understand! Everyone wants more followers.  It makes your organization appear popular...well-liked...valid!

But having an astounding number of followers doesn’t necessarily mean you have the
right followers. To make the most of your social media efforts, you need to gain followers who will help you:

  • Reach your organization’s larger goals
  • Promote your brand
  • Interact
To get those followers, an effective social media strategy should:

1.   Support the overall goals of your organization.

In order to accomplish this, you first need to define your organization’s overall goals for the next one to five years. Think about where you want to be – not on social media, but as an organization as a whole. Make it easy on yourself by keeping the list to three goals. More than that is probably not realistic.

After you set your goals, think about who, specifically, are the best people to help you reach each. Which social media channels are those people you identified using? Are some on Twitter and others on Pinterest? Target your message explicitly to those people, on those channels, and you will reach the larger audience, too.

2.   Reflect your organization’s brand identity.

A good social media strategy takes into account how your brand relates to people’s lives. Don’t be entirely self-promotional. In addition to reflecting your brand’s voice and important issues, your content themes should target the wider, related interests of your audience.

Facebook and Google+ posts that are relevant to your audience’s lives, rather than simply lauding how great your brand is, will attract customers and brand advocates. They are the ones who will spread the word about how fantastic you are.

3.   Include a means of engaging with your online community.

When planning your conversation calendar, remember that social media is not only about pushing information to your audience. The “social” part of it requires that you spend some time IN the conversation. Be sure to include time to respond to questions, reply to comments, and acknowledge mentions.

Also, include time to really listen to the conversation going on around your brand: read timelines, news feeds and boards. Find out what the people who like your organization are talking about, so you can be part of that conversation, too. When people realize you are fully participating in the dialogue, your community becomes stronger and wider.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making a difference in kids' lives

I saw a terrific video on Facebook this morning of a young woman reading a poem she'd written called The Lost Generation. I encourage you to watch it.

The poem is a plea for adults not to write this generation of kids off as a hopelessly lost cause. Instead, she says in a hip-hoppy rhythm, give young people the nurturing and support they need to grow into the people they can and truly want to be.

A recent assignment has allowed me to talk to some adults who have done just that.

The Arkansas Community Foundation, which supports amazing work in towns and cities throughout the state, focuses on improving education as one of its seven pillars.  As part of that focus, the Foundation wanted an article about improving graduation rates for this summer's issue of Engage, the organization's magazine.

My graduate degree is in data-based journalism, so I started my research with graduation rate data obtained from the Arkansas Department of Education. I compared rates from 2010 to 2012 (the most recent available) to find those high schools where graduation rates spiked the most.

I have to say, there's no better feeling for a data-based journalist than when the "shoe-leather" reporting so completely bears out what the statistics show. And this was certainly the case here, as the data  pointed to real efforts to help students stay in and graduate from high school.

Without giving too much away, I interviewed leaders at three of the school districts where the graduation rates increased the most between 2010 and 2012.

At each one, school leaders had made concerted efforts to improve students' academic performance and, in turn, graduation chances and future opportunities. Sure, changes were made in the classroom in terms of instruction and curricula and credit-recovery opportunities. But the larger themes running throughout the interviews included the importance of:
  • Spending time with students to let them know they and their futures mattered and that success was expected of them.
  • Providing opportunities for students to realize they really, really could pursue a future that included college, technical school, the military or a job with a career path.
  • Involving parents and community in efforts to keep students on target for graduation.
No doubt, strong, determined and caring leadership made all the difference in the world at these schools. The stories illustrate it. The data prove it. The poem's author begs for it.

He who opens a school door, closes a prison. -Victor Hugo, poet, novelist, and dramatist (1802-1885)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Speaking Up for the Common Core

At its last meeting, the Arkansas State Board of Education heard from two students and a teacher -- all from Benton School District and all very articulate -- speaking in favor of the Common Core.

Jessica Herring, a seventh-grade English teacher shared that her favorite part of the document aligning the district's curriculum to the new standards is entitled, "What the Standards Are Not." There you find: "The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. ... A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers."

Herring values that aspect of the Common Core because, she says, teachers are the ones who best know their students needs.

Seventh graders Ethan Tallent and Blakeley Fiedler talked about the creative, hands-on lessons their teachers use to make learning come alive during Common Core instruction.

Student Fiedler pointed out that the U.S. has fallen from 1st to 17th in worldwide education rankings. "If using Common Core will help us get to where we need to be in order to be competitive with the rest of the world, then we should use it," she said. "Nothing worthwhile is ever easy."

Click on the above names to see the videos of each of the presentations. They are worth watching...and, in the midst of all the anti-Common Core ranting out there -- these remarks are definitely worth sharing!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Check out these cool photos

One of the many talents founding partner Dauphne Trenholm brings to First Class Communication is photography. On the first day of this year, she started her own blog -- Scene from the Hill at -- with plans to update it with a new photo each day throughout 2014.

All of the photos so far are not at all work-related, and there's some really cool stuff on there. This one is called Winter Textures.

In addition to the photos, she includes all the info photographers care about -- exposure mode, focal length and so forth. Whether you are into the technical aspects or just want to see some great photos - visit her blog and enjoy!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Half-truths at best about Common Core

If everything that was put out there about the Common Core State Standards at Saturday’s anti-Common Core rally were true, we’d be running away from it too.

But it wasn’t.

In fact, we heard a lot of half-truths, totally misinformed statements and emotional grandstanding during the long-winded rally.

We also heard this story from a neutral observer who just wanted to learn more about Common Core. It’s a story that illustrates an important point about the environment Common Core now faces:

A friend had a daughter who was struggling in her high school math class this year. What could be different? Why, the Common Core was being newly implemented. That horrible Common Core – it was causing all the “harm to students” the naysayers said it would. Further investigation, however, showed that the girl hadn’t been keeping up with her homework, thus the falling grades. 

Having been employed in communications at the Arkansas Department of Education from 2005-2011, we were there when Common Core was just a hopeful idea to help students all across the country meet their potential and a plan to keep the United States from falling farther behind other developed nations both educationally and economically.

Because we were involved at that stage, we went to Saturday’s event knowing quite a bit about the early context and development of the Common Core State Standards. You can read those in Friday’s post.

Rally at the Capitol on Feb. 1
Here are just three of the things we heard Saturday that alarmed us, to say the least, and that also made us realize that Arkansans are in need of accurate information about Common Core. This anti-group said:
  • Common Core narrows the curriculum, so students are learning less. This half-truth, sadly, was voiced by a high school teacher.  Yes, it’s true, the Common Core for both math and English focus on deeper levels of learning of the most important concepts and skills. Gone are the broad array of facts that teachers must cover to meet the former Arkansas curricular expectations.  This teacher said there’s so little to teach, that kids just sit in class with nothing to do. That reminds me of concerns I heard about block scheduling – that too many teachers new to the block system failed to use the expanded period to teach more meaningful, hands on lessons. Instead, they were delivering their same 30-minute lecture and letting students spend the rest of the time doing homework and visiting.  I’m not blaming teachers…maybe better training on how to incorporate Common Core learning standards into the classroom is needed.
  • Common Core produces workers, not thinkers. Again, a half-truth used to scare. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want her childreb to be able to land jobs  when they graduate, whether from college or high school.  So, yes, an important goal of Common Core is to prepare American students to be able to compete in the 21st Century economy. But, here’s the catch. Never before has landing a good job so depended on an individual’s ability to think critically, to problem solve, to adapt to new situations, to communicate well, and to learn new concepts and processes. And the reason Arkansas wanted Common Core implemented is so ALL of our students would benefit from this curriculum.
  • Common Core is a big plot to line the pockets of testing companies. True, testing companies will continue to make lots of money to research, test, implement, score and report test results. It's a complicated, sophisticated job, after all. But that was happening long before Common Core – ACT, SAT, SOAR, AP, states’ benchmark testing --  a decent argument can be made that students spend too much time being tested in recent years.  I’m not sure we’ve got the accountability equation right yet, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not needed. Common Core assessments, though, when fully implemented, will serve a purpose beyond accountability. For example, students will have summative tests along the way to determine which, if any, concepts need more time for mastery.  
We heard so many more false charges that we'll attempt to address later -- Common Core is rewriting history, brainwashing students, the stimulus for teacher evaluation systems, and the list goes on! Not only do students and parents need a better understanding of why Common Core is important and beneficial, but, it seems, so do many of our educators. And the facts need to start being sounded much more loudly than the vocal opposition we heard Saturday.

Friday, January 31, 2014

And the (anti) beat goes on

The anti-Common Core march in Arkansas is on. Literally. A group of protesters to the new and deeper learning standards for students will gather at the Arkansas Capitol at 2 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 1).

We’re all for the Constitutional rights to free speech and the right to assemble, and therefore respect their rights to make their case in this fashion. But we feel called to exercise our First Amendment right as well and state again that First Class Communication firmly throws our support to the teaching of the Common Core.

We plan on being at the Capitol Saturday to hear what these Arkansas Against Common Core organizers have to say, but we’ll be armed with a few facts of our own. Here’s what we know for sure about Common Core in Arkansas:

  • State education leaders across the country – as well as governors both Republican & Democrat – warmly embraced the idea and strongly supported the development of the Common Core. Common Core has the support of Gov. Mike Beebe, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the State Board of Education, the Arkansas Department of Education and many, many educators and citizens across the state.
  •  One of the early and loudest cheerleaders for the Common Core was Gene Wilhoit, then head of the Council of Chief State School Officers and at one time director of the Arkansas Department of Education. 
  • The Common Core student learning standards were developed by leading educators from the local, state and national levels. Common Core was not a top-down mandate.

  • The process involved studying the best state student learning standards at the time as well as SLEs being taught in nations that are leading the world in education achievement. Student learning standards in English and mathematics that would enable higher levels of learning by American students resulted.

  • States’ educators have been operating under student learning standards for years. In Arkansas, SLEs have been put together by large committees of educators in much the same way the Common Core standards were – referring to the learning standards from leading states like Massachusetts as well as cutting-edge education research in the subject area being addressed.

  • Arkansas student learning standards, always approved by the State Board of Education before being taught, have been recognized for their quality, mainly because they did encourage higher levels of thinking across all subjects.

  • The major complaint, especially from educators, about Arkansas student learning standards is that there are so darn many of them. It was hard to cover the broad scope of SLEs and still have time to teach well the more complex but most important concepts. (The Common Core, by the way, fixes that.)

So, it will be interesting to be at the Capitol on Saturday and hear what these “agginners” have to say. Our fear is that we’ll hear more in the way of scare tactics than facts. Either way, we’ll report back on Monday.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Make your presentations pop

Remember the last time you sat through a presentation reading every word the speaker said because, well, there they all were, looming large on a big screen?

How soon did you quit listening and just start reading?

How soon did you think to yourself, just hand me the printout of the slides, and I can read them at home in a comfy chair?

Or, worse, how soon did you give up on the presentation altogether and start planning your weekend?

We’ve all been there – but hopefully not as presenters!

After all, PowerPoints and newer Prezis can be truly powerful tools to spice up presentations. But they need to be used creatively and as a means of supplementing or reinforcing your points. Mostly, though, they should be used to engage your audience.

How do you do that? One, never, ever simply rewrite your notes into a number of slides. Even if the words are not verbatim but pared down into bullet-points, you risk losing your audience if you don’t do more.

Sure, bullet points can be effective, but only when they are used to highlight the most important points that you are verbally elaborating on. When you use them, make sure they are there to reinforce the most important ideas presenting.

Another common mistake with electronic presentations is the use of detailed spreadsheets or charts. True, this is a way of supplementing the words being spoken, but we’ve seen too many that are way to complex to be shown in this manner -- the cells, numbers and words are simply too tiny for audience members to be able to see, let alone comprehend. Again, pull out the most important statistics or results, highlight those on the screen and just talk about the rest.

A better way to use either PowerPoints or Prezis is to illustrate important points with a fitting photo, funny cartoon or pertinent video clip that serves to illustrate a point.  Those techniques, when used well, grab and hold your listeners' attention, making it much more likely that they’ll get what you are trying to say.

Prezis are fun because you can be even more creative. For instance, a presentation First Class Communication gave about branding zeroed in on different parts of a cartoonish, branded cow.

With everything that’s available on the Web, there’s no excuse to have a boring presentation…ever…again.

Monday, January 20, 2014

APSRC's PSE Insurance Central gives educators one-stop info source

If you've been following the public school employee health insurance issue, you know it's complicated. And, if you haven't been following it -- well, you need to start.

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center (APSRC) hired First Class Communication to assist with its PSE Insurance Central, a single repository of information to make it easier for school district leaders and all public school employees to keep up with the latest developments in the health insurance arena.
Why should educators pay attention? Only because the school employee health insurance system in Arkansas is bound to look a lot different within a couple of years. Why? Changes are hurling toward the system from two sides -- the federal Affordable Care Act and the state legislature via the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Program Legislative Task Force.

The legislature created the Task Force last fall after the State of Arkansas was forced to bail out the public school employee health plan to keep insurance rates from increasing dramatically. The Task Force was charged with spending the next one to two years determining how best to restructure the state's system to both be viable and to co-exist with the new federal mandates. No easy feat, for sure.

No doubt, the final outcome could mean big changes for school districts and school employees both. Will school districts have to offer their own plans? Will all school employees be directed to the new state exchange? These are only two of the many possible outcomes voiced so far.

  • Summaries of each Task Force meeting
  • A weekly blog with the latest news and announcements
  • FAQ about the state and federal health insurance plans
  • A calendar of Task Force meetings and other related events 
If you have questions about either the state school employee health plan or the Affordable Care Act you that you would like researched and answered, send them to APSRC's Katie Clifford or First Class Communication's Julie Johnson Holt.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

STEAM teachers will love Innovation Hub

We’ve got to tell you about one of our cutting-edge clients that will be contributing lots to the education arena.

The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will be doing all kinds of classes and programs to equip entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed at home, but there are some things that will specifically appeal to educators.

Just this week the Innovation Hub announced a partnership with the EAST Initiative to create The STEAM Room at the coming-soon Argenta Innovation Center. STEAM, as many of you know, stands for science, mathematics, engineering, art and mathematics.

EAST is already in more than 200 schools in six states with its respected model for STEM education, but this will be the first time it is able to offer its curricula to adults as well as to students.

Examples of training and programs to be offered in The STEAM Room include coding, programming, 3-D design, animation, videography, graphic design and more.

The Innovation Hub will offer some cool after-school programs, too, like a club for students interested in computer programming -- as well as school-day (field trip!) opportunities any STEAM subject teacher will want to take advantage of for his or her students.   
For instance, at  The Launch Pad, also to be located in the Argenta Innovation Center, school groups will have the opportunity to work on some expensive, high-tech equipment in the areas of computer technology, electronics, carpentry, machining and metalwork.

No doubt, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will make a splash in the world of economic development, but the school community will benefit from some major ripples as well.

To stay up to date with the Hub’s happenings , sign up for the Innovation Hub’s e-newsletter at