Teaching students to look behind the screens

Ella Beth Wengel, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's granddaughter, right, introduces Mattie Brawner to coding at an event at the Clinton Library.
Ella Beth Wengel, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s granddaughter, introduces Mattie Brawner to coding at an event at the Clinton Library.
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson stood before the assembled students at the Benton High School auditorium and asked for a show of hands: How many were interested in a career in computer coding? What he described as a “smattering” raised their hands.

So then the 65-year-old governor proceeded to tell the teenagers why computers are important. Farmers use software to determine how much to water their crops, he said. Manufacturing is now done by robots controlled by computers. When he was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, computers predicted potential terrorist attacks at ports so millions of containers didn’t have to be searched one at a time. He also showed the students a code.org video featuring a bunch of old guys, including Bill Gates, 60, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 32, talking about coding. When he asked for another show of hands at the end of his presentation, more hands were raised.

Battle of the deep pockets

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

When you read about a lawsuit against a nursing home, do you usually assume that the alleged victim was mistreated and the nursing home should be punished, or that some lawyer is looking for a jackpot verdict?

Deep-pocketed supporters and opponents of a proposed amendment will try to encourage those assumptions in their favor between now and November.

“An Amendment to Limit Attorney Contingency Fees and Non-Economic Damages in Medical Lawsuits” would direct the Arkansas Legislature to limit pain and suffering damages to at least $250,000. (Please note the words “at least,” my fellow reporters who keep omitting those words.) Trial lawyer contingency fees would be limited to 33 1/3 percent after expenses. There would be no limits for other types of damages.

Where’s this debate headed? In politics, always follow the money.

Would you rather rank your choices?

Hand with ballot and boxBy Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Are you dissatisfied with the candidates but uncomfortable voting for the “lesser of two evils.” Maine may have a solution: ranking your choices.

Mainers will vote this November on implementing ranked choice voting, where in a multi-candidate race they would mark their first, second and third choices. If no candidate receives a majority, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated. Their votes are awarded to their voters’ second choice candidates. If there’s still no majority winner, the process continues until one candidate has a majority.

Such a system is uncommon but not unheard of. In Arkansas, military and overseas voters rank their choices because there isn’t time to mail them a ballot if there is a runoff. According to FairVote, an election reform supporter, 11 cities elect their city officials using ranked choice voting. It’s how Ireland chooses its president and Australians their Parliament.

Letting boys be boys in school

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Every year before students have taken their standardized tests, former principal Terri McCann, now a district administrator, has walked into the third grade all-girls’ classroom at West Memphis Bragg Elementary, told students what to expect, and reminded them to sharpen their pencils. It’s always been very calm and encouraging. Then she’s walked to the all-boys’ classroom, closed the door behind her, and shouted, like a football coach, “Are you going to let those girls beat you again?!”

“No!” they’d yell like they were ready to run out of a locker room and run over an Ole Miss Rebel.

Those motivational techniques are just one of many ways third grade boys and girls are taught differently at Bragg Elementary, and it all started when McCann and other school leaders looked at test results and realized that girls were outscoring boys just about everywhere in every grade.