STEMbeats Blog

Using Technology to Cope with Disaster

March 18, 2011

If you want to see how technology and innovation can help us cope with disaster, have a look at Google's swift response to the terrible events in Japan.

Many Google engineers are devoting as much as one day a week--a full 20 percent of their time--to efforts to help the Japanese people. (Google famously lets employees spend 20 percent of their time on work outside their usual area of focus.)

One product of this strategy has been the "Person Finder," a tool Google employees created in the wake of the earthquakes in Haiti last year. This tool allows people to search for loved ones after a catastrophe. Since last year, Google has deployed the "Person Finder" after earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand as well as Haiti.

CNN reports that Japan's People Finder already has almost 250,000 records, "more records than all of the previous Person Finder sites combined."


Google is a member of Change the Equation.


Tags: technology

Are You Smarter than a 17 Year Old?

March 17, 2011

By the tender age of two, Evan O’Dorney’s strong interest in math was already established as evidenced by his desire in checking math textbooks out of his local library. This week Evan took top honors in the Intel Science Talent Search for his mathematical project in which he compared two ways to estimate the square root of an integer. According to an Intel news release, Evan discovered precisely when the faster way would work, and his research led to him solving other equations useful for encrypting data. The Intel Science Talent Search is one of America’s most elite and demanding high school research competitions which honors high school seniors with exceptional promise in math and science. That’s right. Evan is 17.

Earlier this week, Evan and nine other high school seniors, out of a group of 40 finalists, received top honors from Intel for satisfying their endless curiosity by exploring how the world works and developing solutions for global challenges. The accomplishments of this group of 40 young men and women are mind-boggling—more than the average person could hope to have extolled in their late-in-life obituary.

Intel CEO and Change the Equation member Paul Otellini praised the “creativity and leadership” of the 40 winning mathematicians and scientists and said that they “hold tremendous potential to move our country forward. They are already addressing real-world problems like cancer treatment, disease prevention and national security. We need to identify the common characteristics that inspired these high school seniors to successfully revitalize math and science education nationwide.”

Nearly 1,800 students nationwide entered the competition. Wouldn’t it be great to have a crystal ball so that we can see what these kids will accomplish in the next 20 years? Watch out world!


Tags: math, science

A Tale of Two School Systems

March 16, 2011

The United States sometimes seems like two different countries. There is the country of students who perform among the best in international tests. And there is the country of students who perform much, much worse.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently took a close look at results from these tests. Here's Fordham's Mike Petrilli:

  • In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined....
  • Proportionally, Asian American students are the best readers in the world, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders


  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
  • Approximately 50 percent of black American students are low-achieving in math—a higher proportion of students than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In reading, only Mexico does worse.


The US is big enough to produce lots of "scientists and entrepreneurs," Petrilli argues, which is why it has been able to remain innovative even while a large share of its young people doesn't do very well in school. Yet Petrilli wryly notes that China and India are big, too: "when they starting taking the PISA exam we might discover that their high-achieving students outnumber ours many times over." Shanghai's students may have given us a taste of things to come when they trounced students from every country in the OECD.

Petrilli adds that US inequity cannot do us much good in the long run. "It’s hard to imagine the U.S. maintaining its economic strength—or social cohesion—while miseducating such a large number of its youth."

Rather than leveling the playing field, schools often compound the disadvantages of poverty.Low-income students of color often start behind when the enter school, and they are much more likely to be taught by teachers who lack degrees or certifications in their fields. They have much less access to rigorous AP courses. They often attend troubled schools with very high teacher turnover.

The US will pay a higher and higher price for these inequities as countries like China educate more and more of their students. We cannot expect our size to compensate for our failings.


Tags: math, science, minorities

Lessons from Legos

March 15, 2011

“It’s cool to see how a math equation can put a patch on a heart." That wonderful line comes from DeMarcus Hicks, a 12-year-old team member in a robotics competition here in Washington, DC. Marcus and his teammates used legos to build a robot that can perform open heart surgery (after a fashion).

Another teammate, 14-year-old Brittany Robinson, had this to say: “At those tournaments. we became a part of this really cool community. We got to see what other teams were building, how they were responding to the same missions.”

Hicks and Robinson both live in the troubled Anacostia neighborhood in Washington. They compete with well-heeled teams from the suburbs and have done very well.

Read the entire story in The Washington Post.


Happy Pi Day!

March 13, 2011

Happy Pi Day! Yes, Monday, March 14th (3.14) is Pi Day, for what should be obvious reasons.

What should you do to celebrate? That's up to you, of course, but here are a few ideas reported in The Chicago Tribune:

In an after-school pi event at Walter Payton College Prep, students will throw hot dogs on a floor marked with evenly spaced parallel lines. Why? Because the proportion of hot dogs that cross the lines when they fall works out to be approximately one over pi, said Payton mathematics chairman Paul Karafiol.

One highlight of many Pi Day events is a competitive recitation of the numerous digits of pi, which modern computers have calculated to a trillion decimal places.

If reciting numbers or tossing meat aren't really your thing, then there are surely any number of other things you can do to celebrate pi. For example, a musician named Michael Blake set pi to music, creating a lovely and complex melody.

If you're not as ambitious as Blake, then just take a few minutes to watch his brief video. Consider it a fitting homage to the beauty of pi.

Update (3.14). It looks like Youtube removed Blake's piece for an alleged copyright violation. The complaint was filed by another composer named Lars Erickson, who composed his own pi symphony. (We don't know whether his action was justified or not--consult your attorney).