STEM Beats - May 2011

Lots to (Still) Learn From the Final Launch of the Space Shuttle

May 31, 2011

As most K-12 schools nationwide wind down their calendar year, my sympathies go out to the teachers who have a mission impossible task of keeping squirmy tweens and distracted teenagers engaged in the learning process. Here’s hoping that the final shuttle launch, scheduled for July 8, provides some additional engaging math and science learning opportunities that take kids’ minds off of vacations, summer camps and the local pool. I sure learned a lot this morning while listening to an NPR story on the “Crawler Crew”, the folks on the ground charged with the important task of getting the Atlantis to the launchpad.

Interesting factoids such as …

  • The space shuttle, its solid rocket boosters and its fuel tank are all put together in NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, a tall hangar-like structure several miles away from the pad.
  • There are only six people certified to drive "the crawler," a wider-than-a-four-lane-highway machine that was built to hold and manage the space shuttle.
  • It takes the crawler hours to travel the 3.5 miles to the launchpad because it can go no faster than its maximum speed of 2 mph.

Mark Nappi, vice president of Launch and Recovery Systems at United Space Alliance, the main shuttle contractor and Change the Equation member company, was interviewed for the story. He’s been with the shuttle program for 26 years and will attend the final launch with his family. The Nappi family will witness history up close and personal as the crawler moves Atlantis out of its hangar, down the crawlerway and to the launchpad. And then watch the shuttle take off one final time.

If this 45-year-old woman can find lots of “wow, that’s cool!” factoids in this one news report, I bet there are still additional engaging lessons to be imparted on kids who have a fatal case of the “is school over already!?” blues.


Bad news about College

May 27, 2011

Here's a bit of depressing news from Sarah Sparks:

In the last few years, students from low-income families have...start[ed] to delay higher education in the wake of dismal economic forecasts and dwindling financial aid. In 2009, only 55 percent of graduates from low-income families immediately enrolled in a two- or four-year college, hugely trailing the rates of high-income students, at 84 percent, and middle-class students, at 67 percent.

That's her read of data from the Condition of Education report, which the US Department of Education released yesterday morning. Low-income students may be waiting a year or so to save up for college, she writes.

That could be a big problem. Sparks cites research that paint a grim picture for low-income students students who do not enter college directly after high school. Even when you control for academic and demographic traits, they are much, much likely to get a degree in five years.

Poor preparation for college is one big factor in low success rates among students in the lowest income brackets. Lack of money is surely another.

A Fun Idea for Physics Class

May 26, 2011


Here’s a fun and fruitful idea for a physics class: Ask students to critique the physics portrayed in a film or TV show. That’s just what one science teacher asked his AP physics students to do.

Student Stephen Magnet rose to the challenge, coolly unmasking My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. OK, it might not have been a fair fight, but it’s fun to watch, nonetheless. Magnet objects, for example, to a scene where a flock of butterflies catches a falling pony, because it violates Newton’s laws of motion

The image below will link you to the video, which has racked up over 200,000 views. It’s just under 10 minutes long.


Forgot to Carry the One?

May 25, 2011

 Well, we’ve all gone back to work today. No one can use earthquakes, seas of fire or other apocalyptic challenges as an excuse to stay home. It appears the end of the world was not nigh, despite Harold Camping’s prediction that the righteous would ascend to heaven on Saturday, leaving everyone else to perish slowly in the aforementioned earthquakes seas of fire, etc. He was very sure of himself and spent millions upon millions to get the word out.

An engineer by trade, he used some very complex calculations to arrive at the date and time of the apocalypse. Scientific Americandescribes the math behind his apocalypse here.  Camping claims to have used the Bible to pin down the date of the crucifixion and then counted forward 722,500 days (10x5x17x10x5x17, for numerological reasons that would take too much space to describe here). He did by some accounts subtract one day to adjust for a shift between the Old and New Testament calendars.

Yet here we all are. Can someone out there correct his apocalyptic math?


Tags: science

Cutting Edge Science in Your Kitchen

May 25, 2011

In recent decades, science fairs have hit the big leagues. The young finalists in fairs sponsored by companies like Intel and Google have moved miles and miles beyond what Katherine Harmoncalls “the classic vinegar-and-baking soda volcano.” As science fairs get more sophisticated, are the tools you need to play in the big leagues getting out of reach? Do you need the keys to your local particle accelerator to have a shot at doing cutting-edge science? Not necessarily.

Harmon points parents and their students to Science Buddies, a website that enlists "working scientists to help design cutting-edge experiments that qualify as real research." For example, Dr. Elizabeth Young from MIT has brought her research on renewable energy within reach of parents and their children. "This high-level work requires equipment and materials costing tens of thousands of dollars," she said in a recent press release:

Now through Science Buddies, we've created a similar experiment that students can perform in their own kitchens. These 'kids' are exploring catalysts for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, at the same time becoming passionate about developing alternative fuels for their generation.

The press release offers other examples of sophisticated kitchen-table science: students use mud to build a microbial fuel cell or other readily available tools to explore plant DNA. The site now offers more than 1,000 project ideas.

Science Buddies seems to be making its mark. This year, AAAS gave it an award for the Best Online Resource for Education. AAAS is not alone in its admiration. Almost 10 million people visited it in 2010.

May it continue to grow and prosper.

Tags: science