Drugs In Our Drinking Water?

Ten years ago, Becca Kassel’s project hit the TV and news headlines because her idea won then-Senator Joe Simitian’s Ought-to-be-a-law Contest.  Outraged by pharmaceutical drugs in our drinking water, she was determined to make drug companies take back unused meds to properly incinerate them.  Becca was appalled by the deformities she saw in fish as she researched the negative effects of drugs in our waterways and oceans.  Becca joined Senator Simitian in Sacramento to create a law to force pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for the take-back program.  Check out her project! As it turned out, the pharmaceutical lobby was too powerful and succeeded in defeating the bill. 

When we flush our meds down the toilet or they end up at the landfill, these drugs end up in our water.  Becca talked with the water treatment plants to find out that they DO NOT TEST or REMOVE DRUGS from our WATER!  That’s right.  They don’t have the funds to pay for the expensive tests and equipment to deal with drugs in our water.  So, we’re drinking cocktails of hormones and antidepressants! 

Researchers are finding intersex development in fish and amphibians, and antidepressants in the brain tissue of fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants.  Worried about drugs in our water?  You should be.  High concentrations of drugs are found in waterways after music festivals and social events. 

But pharmaceutical companies are profit driven – even at the cost of the well being of their very customers that they claim to be helping.  Today, my husband Rob has been working to implement a local law requiring pharmaceutical companies to develop and finance take-back programs for unwanted and expired medications.  They’ve resisted the plan and have millions of dollars to avoid their responsibility. 

Considering that 70% of American take prescription medications, which calculates to almost $310 BILLION in sales per year, the pharmaceutical companies should do their part to keep the drugs out of our water. Don’t throw out your expired or left-over meds.  Take them to a local drop-off location to ensure that they don’t end up in our drinking water.  Visit

Why You Should Stop Using Antibacterial Soaps!

Back in 2009, Natalie Kassel, one of my ProjectMERIT students, organized a campaign to get local public schools to stop using triclosan in schools.  She had conducted an experiment to prove that regular soap kills just as many germs as antibacterial soap.  After reaching out to every school in the county, she successfully banned triclosan and protected thousands of students.  Her project, WASHUP (Worthless Antibacterial Soap Harms Us Permanently) brought attention to this problem almost a decade ago.

Today, eight years later, researchers have found that triclosan interferes with hormones and reproductive systems.  Yup!  And what’s worse?  Triclosan is found in most Americans! It pollutes the environment and it harms our bodies.  What’s alarming is that it is in many personal care items (lotions, shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste, and soaps), as well as clothing (underwear, sports apparel, sweatshirts, dresses, wet suits, and shoes).  For a complete list of items, check here!

Grade Inflation is Real...

...and how it will affect your child’s college admissions is alarming.

We all hear about grade inflation – when teachers give A’s to average students – and we look the other way, especially when our kids benefit from them, right?  I’ve heard about teachers giving students a full-letter grade bump just for showing up to take the standardized tests at school each year. Others give students 10 points for bringing in snacks or class supplies.  What’s worst of all are teachers who offer so much extra credit that students don’t do their work or study for tests because they know that one way or another, they can pull their terrible grades up to A’s by the end of the semester.  None of this builds character or prepares students for college.

Grade inflation hurts the students.

Yup!  Because so many schools are inflating grades – especially in white, affluent schools—colleges can’t rely on grade point averages (GPAs) to assess whether or not the students will be successful in their colleges.  So when colleges can’t rely on the students’ grades, they revert to the SATs and ACTs.  After all, college-bound students take the exact same test in a proctored classroom on the same day across the country.  If we’re comparing apples to apples, this may seem more reliable than GPAs. 

But SATs and ACTs don’t determine which students will be our next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  Testing reading comprehension, grammar, math and science skills in a timed, multiple-choice format does not weed out students who would do poorly in college. Instead, students who do well on standardized tests today are those who can afford private SAT/ACT tutoring and spend years preparing for these tests.

Both the inflated GPA at wealthy white schools and high SAT/ACT scores due to expensive prep programs give these affluent students an unfair advantage.  They aren’t better equipped to succeed in college; they’re simply able to afford to attend schools that give away A’s and spend many hours under the expensive supervision of SAT/ACT coaches.

The good news is that college admissions officers receive school profiles that list GPAs and demographics so they know which schools inflate grades.  And colleges that require personal statements, essays, letters of recommendation and interviews use an eclectic approach to selecting their incoming classes.  When a student stands out because they’ve done a project or something remarkable, colleges notice. 


TEDxMeritAcademy Speaker Pascal Costa

Thrilled that we are hosting a TEDx event at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz! Join us on Aug 14, 2017 at 7 pm.  Get your tickets for TEDxMeritAcademy at  Meet Pascal Costa, one of our speakers!

“How to stop overpopulation before we reach 10 billion people on Earth”

Overpopulation is a huge problem. We have too many people, and because of our immense growth experienced in the last century, we are experiencing new problems. Because of overpopulation, we have recklessly produced dirty energy and destroyed fertile land to meet the needs of our ever-expanding population. Forests have been decimated in order to make room for farmland and to produce lumber. We have exploited natural resources such as soil, water minerals, oil, and coal because we have grown dependent on them. As a result of our growing numbers and exploitation of natural resources, we have caused the extinction of 130 mammal species, and have endangered 250 species. Today, about 1000 species are now threatened. Through overpopulation, we have increased pollution, consumption, and the deterioration of land. There’s a simple way to reduce the world’s population and I’ll share my idea with you.

About Pascal Costa:
Pascal Costa founded Preventing OverPopulation, a non-profit organization that educates child-bearing people about how their decisions to have children directly affect the world.  She has presented her project at the Earth Day Santa Cruz festival and she was interviewed on Earth Watch Radio. Pascal recently graduated from high school and plans to continue to advocate for population control in college.

Summer Plans for High School Students

If you’re a parent of a high school student, you’re probably getting a lot of pressure from other families to send your child to some expensive summer camps on prestigious college campuses and load them up with SAT-intensive classes.  Umm. You’re probably hearing about how your neighbor’s kid is booked solid with back-to-back camps and programs that cost thousands of dollars. And, you worry that your child won’t be able to compete in the college admissions race.

But, don’t worry that your child isn’t keeping up with the Joneses this summer because colleges aren’t looking for those kind of students. Nope!  They might want the parent, but certainly not an entitled child whose parents did the research, paid the exorbitant fees, and forced them to participate.

Instead, keep your kids home this summer and encourage them to do a project. That’s right.  By brainstorming about doing something on their own over the summer, they’ll be using their creative parts of their brains and implementing something that they build by themselves.  This teaches kids how to innovate – which will make them more confident and capable young people.  Isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?  We don’t want robots who regurgitate facts or complain about life – we want kids who solve problems by creating solutions.

And, colleges want these innovative thinkers, too!  They don’t want students who insist on having study guides for tests because they don’t want to learn anything that will not be on the test.  They want students who demonstrate that they can start projects that can solve problems or that they do what they are passionate about. 

If you want your middle or high school student to have a life-changing experience this summer, have them do a project!  Check out ProjectMERIT for ideas.

Learn more about specific classes and the many ways we can make your child's summer the turning point in their academic careers!

[Check out the brochure here!]

3 Steps to Starting a Project That Will Get You Into Top Colleges!

Worried about how your child will get into top colleges?

It still surprises me when my new teenaged clients tell ME what they need to do to impress college admissions officers. They come with their lists of AP classes, expensive summer camps, and all of the sports teams and clubs they belong to.  I smile and nod as they tell me about all of the “hard work” and how they’re “so busy” they don’t have time for anything else.  When they’re done with their monologues -- and feeling quite accomplished with themselves, I honestly can’t remember one thing they did that made them stand out amongst the other millions of kids vying for those coveted acceptances to the top colleges in the US. And that’s why their plan doesn’t work.

When everyone across this nation takes the same AP or IB classes on the exact same day each year, and they’re all taking SAT/ACT prep classes to artificially inflate their scores, perfect GPAs and SATs don’t guarantee admission into selective colleges because these students don’t stand out. So what do you need to do to get into top universities?


Yup, it’s as simple, and yet as difficult as that. Forget all the AP classes, starting or joining dozens of clubs, and dedicating ridiculous hours for practices and rehearsals. If everyone is doing them, unless you’re the MVP or you’re winning Academy Awards, it sounds like busy work – because it is.

Here’s what you need to do:

1.Choose a project

Spend time brainstorming before moving forward.  Think about issues that need to be fixed, applications that need to be written, and books that need to be published. It really doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re fascinated and passionate about it.

2.Delve into it

Research what others are doing about your idea to determine whether or not there’s room for you.  Find your niche and create your brand. Then, get the word out and grow your idea or market your product. Make calls. Be persistent. Don’t give up.

3.Realize your goal

Every step you take will get you closer to your goal.  For every student I guide, I watch doors open for them because of their persistence and their eye on the goal.  They get invited to speak at conferences or on TV/radio.  Success begets success. They accomplish their goals.

Students who do projects have fascinating stories to tell on their college admissions essays.  Nobody wants to read about your team spirit or how grateful you felt after you went to an elite summer program. Instead you’ll captivate admissions officers by telling them about overcoming the inevitable obstacles you had faced when developing an app or trying to talk to the governor. When they read about how you protected the weak or started a non-profit organization to stand up to corruption, you’ll have their undivided attention.

Colleges don’t want robotic students who are good at memorizing facts, take overwhelming AP classes and spend all their free time at practices working under coaches or directors.  These types of students will not be our future leaders of innovation or the world.  Instead, admissions officers want interesting students who find solutions to problems and have unwavering drive to reach their goals.

Naturally, these projects must be done by the student – not their parents.  If you need help with starting a project, check out my book Beat the College Admissions Game: Do a Project! or if you need support, meet with me at one of my offices or on Skype.  The ideal time to start a project is in 8th or 9th grade so you have time to develop amazing ideas.  But, I work with juniors who develop their projects just in time for applications in 12th grade.

It’s time – DO A PROJECT!

How to Ensure a Successful Life and Career By Choosing the Right College

The Criteria for Choosing Colleges has changed; Make sure your child considers these factors!

6 factors to consider when choosing your college

If you have a child who is considering which colleges to apply to or if they’re already seniors and they’re weighing their college options now, consider behavioral economics instead of rankings. Forget about the US News and World Report – they collect data based on admissions yields, retention, grades, test scores, and graduation rates. While this may seem important, they don’t include career satisfaction or how prepared grads are for real life.

The Gallup-Purdue Index has surveyed 60,000 graduates (over 80 years) about their satisfaction with their college experience and preparation for a successful career and a happy life.  It lists 5 essential elements of a “Great Life”: Purpose, Social, Financial, Community and Physical Well Being.

Here is what is key in getting the most out of the college experience.

Instead of looking at rankings, prestige of college, and physical characteristics of the college, successful college grads who have a great life now consider the following elements essential to the college experience:

  1. At least one professor who made them excited about learning
  2. One professor who cared about them as a person
  3. One mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams
  4. Long-term PROJECT (more than a semester to complete)
  5. Internship or job where they applied class learning
  6. Extreme involvement in extracurricular activities and organizations

Sadly, less than 30% of college grads in the US experienced any of the above.  Seriously? Those who had a job or internship in college where they applied what they were learning in the classroom were twice as likely to be engaged at work later in life. 82% of those who experienced all 6 elements above feel that their college experience prepared them well for life after college; and by a strong contrast, only 5% of those who did NOT experience any of the above felt well prepared for life.

The US News and World Report does not consider any of these vital factors into their rankings today. Hmm. Now that Gallup has conducted behavioral economics studies about colleges and universities, we’ll see more information about what really matters when our children go to college.  So as your child starts considering colleges, ask questions about how engaged your child will be with professors, internships and student activities. Seems like these are more important considerations than the old ranking system.


Using the Pokemon Go Idea to Help Others

Remember the craze over Pokemon-Go? I never quite got it.  Watching thousands of people searching for an imaginary character here in the real world for the sake of, um, well, "catching" one seemed odd to me. While not into the game itself, I was most impressed with the marketing strategy used to get intelligent, busy people to find time to travel out of their way to play this game.

While talking with one of my clients during our session, we mused about the Pokemon-Go phenomenon.  What happened next was really exciting. This 16-year-old student decided to create an app that is similar to the Pokemon-Go game in concept but with a wonderful twist.  Instead of luring gamers to chase inanimate objects, his app would connect people who need a little help with nearby caring people who have a little time (and desire to win a lottery!). Yup!

Ever wish someone could pick up some diapers or coffee creamer for you when you’re in a bind?  Or if your back goes out while carrying in groceries, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone carry them in for you? There’s always someone nearby but they just don’t know you need help. So instead of chasing a Pokemon character, you would be checking to see if anyone needs help.  My student is setting up an app that connects these people by creating a point system for the volunteer and a nominal-fee system for the person needing help. To encourage the do-gooders to check their app to see if anyone needs a little assistance when they might have 10-15 minutes to spare, the nominal fees go into a big pot (like a lottery) that can be won by any of the do-gooders

Now that’s a game even I would play.  I could help someone out when I have extra time and I could win some money?  Um, yeah! If he could get a fraction of the people who chased Pokemon to help others, imagine how we could transform our communities into a more giving and loving world. I’ll keep you posted on my student’s progress.  Want to help him build the app?  Call me at Merit (831-462-5655)!

Will's Tiny House Project

Will is just about done building his tiny house project.  He started it in July of this year and worked on it every day during the summer.  He got it framed before he headed back to school. Then when school started, he continued to work on weekends when it wasn’t raining and installed the plywood sheets around the house and the roof framing.  Now, over the winter break, he put up the siding, got the roof installed, and started the electrical installation. 

This has been quite an exciting project for Will because he laid out his own building plans, created a budget, purchased all of the materials, and organized the build schedule with his mentor.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, Will had zero building skills prior to the start of this project.  He has learned all of the aspects of building a real house because a tiny house is a real house. 

Will plans to major in electrical engineering with a possible double major including mechanical engineering.  By spending a year building a tiny house, he has a valuable perspective from the builder’s point of view.  By understanding the importance of the end-user’s skill set and knowledge, he’ll be a more effective engineer.

Why America's Students are Falling Behind

The Global Achievement Gap

As a parent, you do what you can to prepare your children for college, and then ultimately, a successful career.  Right?  You search for the “best” schools that rank high and get kids into top colleges. Although you’re doing all the right things, you’re probably considering schools that are outdated because they are still teaching to the standardized tests.  Yup!  The curriculum emphasizes MEMORIZATION and COMPLIANCE in a new era where information is a click away. 

Do our 11th graders really need to memorize the years each US president held office?  Really? That just sucks up a huge part of your child’s brain capacity, which doesn’t leave time or energy to be innovative

According to Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, there are 7 key skills that our youth needs to master to be successful in landing great jobs.  Don’t wait for your schools to reform because it’ll take a few generations for them to get it right.  As a parent, you can instill these qualities right at home.  You can also have your children participate in ProjectMERIT, where they start a unique project that they organize and orchestrate on their own.  I have all of my students and clients do these projects.  Why? By giving them ownership of their project that they build from the ground up, they learn how to solve problems, communicate with business people, create a marketing plan, use social media to create a movement, and to think about major economic, environmental, and medical issues that they will inevitably face in the not-too-distant future. It really changes them from the inside out!

Here is Wagner’s list of things you can do at home to prepare your children for success in their careers:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving:
    Give kids the opportunity to fix things that break at home and don’t hover while they do it.
  2. Leading by Influence:

Let your kids advocate for themselves. Give them guidance but let them to do the work.

  1. Agility and Adaptability:
    Demonstrate a “can-do” attitude when things go wrong.  Enlist their help in finding solutions when things change.
  2. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism:

Encourage your children to follow their interests that they can take to the next level.

  1. Effective Oral and Written Communication:
    Involve your children in lively conversations and debates. Have them write letters to improve their written communication.
  2. Accessing and Analyzing Data:

Demonstrate good research skills by showing your children how to find answers to any question and how to find reliable sources.

  1. Curiosity and Imagination:

Support your children’s curiosity by encouraging them to pursue answers or start projects.  Buy supplies and take them places to further explore their interests.

Two-hundred thirty-five years ago, the United States was formed by pioneers who followed their passion for a better life. Only the strongest and most innovative people dared to cross vast oceans to arrive at a hostile place where they weren’t wanted. They became our founding fathers and led America to become the superpower it is today.  But, after the Industrial Revolution, and then after the glory days post WWII, Americans have become passive. 

We no longer have to work family farms and we have become accustomed to luxuries like nice homes, cars, and 40-hour work weeks. Kids no longer have to work in family-run businesses or farms so they have lots of leisure time. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, students spend each year studying for standardized tests and memorizing useless facts that they could easily find on Google in a few seconds.

Because our students spend much of their precious time memorizing information and learning how to take standardized tests, they don’t have time to find solutions to problems big and small and use their brains to participate in innovative, creative, and exciting projects. It sounds to me like it’s time to make room in our children’s schedules to do something that will develop their initiative and entrepreneurial skills, and get their synapses in their brains firing again! 


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