We All Sleep, But Can We Explain It?

Alan Alda has announced the latest topic for his Flame Challenge – sleep (H/T LiveScience).  This is the fourth year of the challenge, which is a contest for scientists to try and explain scientific concepts to an 11-year old.  Entries are judged by students.  The topics for previous years were flame, time, and color.  The deadline for entries is February 13, 2015.

While scientists are the contestants, the organizers need students to judge.  Teachers can sign up their classes to help review the entries, which can be in written, video or graphic form.  For the purposes of this competition, scientists can be retired, currently employed in doing scientific work, or working on (or holding) a graduate science degree.

There are two divisions for entries: written and visual.  Written explanations must be no more than 300 words, and videos can be no longer than 5 minutes long.  Winners in each division will receive $1,000 and a trip to New York City.  There the winning entries will be recognized at the World Science Festival and the winners will have a chance to meet Alan Alda.

The contest is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.  Alda, when not acting, is a visiting professor at his eponymous Center for Communicating Science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.


New Things To See And Read – Boundaries and Master Classes

Two items of note for those looking for some new things to help broaden their horizons.

Boundaries is the first issue of Method Quarterly, a new journal focused on the scientific method.  (H/T to Alexis Madrigal and his 5 Intriguing Things newsletter.)  A mixture of interviews, fiction, reporting and essays, Method Quarterly strikes me as more of a kind with a literary journal or the magazine for an institute like the Wilson Center or the National Academies.  From the About page:

“The scientific method is much more than the technical details of experiments: it’s the culture of the lab, the politics of science funding, the art of experimental design, and the science of telling a good story. What gets left out of scientific publications? What don’t we hear about in popular articles about scientific discovery and technological innovation?

“Method features stories about science in the making. Rather than focus on discovery or futuristic potential, we want to think critically about process—how science actually gets done. We want to ask questions that open new conversations about science in the popular media”

I think that’s a good thing, and I encourage you to see if I’m right.

There are also more Master Classes available from the World Science University.  In addition to the three that started last month, you can now take more short courses on various elements of cosmological theory.  As is the case for the other courses, no formal training in mathematics and physics is necessary.  And the material will be covered in a few hours.

Zombie Classes Can Be Serious

College courses that take advantage of pop culture are nothing new.  Nor are courses focused on zombies.  But it’s rare for the producer of the pop culture to get behind the courses in a significant fashion.

That has changed (and I’m late to the party).

But Not Simpler (over at Scientific American) reported that AMC, the network that airs The Walking Dead, collaborated with the Canvas Network and the University of California, Irvine on an online course.  Running last fall, Society, Science Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead was an eight-week course running in tandem with the fourth season of the zombie program.  It was also quite interdisciplinary, as the expected course outcomes describe:

  • Describe how infectious diseases—like a zombie epidemic—spread and are managed
  • Apply various models of society and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to existing and emerging societies as a means for understanding human behavior
  • Analyze existing social roles and stereotypes as they exist today and in an emerging world
  • Debate the role of public health organizations in society
  • Describe how mathematical equations for population dynamics can be used to study disease spread and interventions
  • Apply concepts of energy and momentum appropriately when analyzing collisions and other activities that either inflict or prevent damage
  • Summarize multiple methods for managing stress in disaster situations

Over 65,000 people signed up for the course last year.  Given that demand, I’m surprised that I cannot find an instance where this particular course has been repeated.  Especially since Instructure (the parent company of Canvas) conducted a survey of more than 12,000 course participants.

If You Only Have A Week, World Science University Can Help

World Science University launched earlier this year with an online resource portal and courses for those with and without mathematics skills.  The courses take a minimum of 2-3 weeks to complete, but World Science University now has something for those who just don’t have that kind of time. Master Classes start this week at the WSU.  You can learn about cosmic inflation from Alan Guth, the standard model of particle physics from Maria Spiropulu, and unification of forces from Robert Dijkgraaf.  For more on the Master Classes, which should only take a few hours of your time, watch this promotional video. Like most of the U’s offerings, formal training in mathematics and physics isn’t required.  (a brief registration, however, is.)

PCAST Letter Report Encourages Educational Technology To Boost Access

On September 28th the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released a letter report on education technology.  The focus in this letter report is on using education to boost access to higher education.  Costs are rising, which likely doesn’t help the notable gap based on income of the percentage of high school graduates that immediately enroll in college.  The report recommends that the federal government take steps to support the coordination of efforts to connect workers with training and jobs.  The jobs in question here are considered ‘middle skill’ jobs – needing a certification, license and/or two-year degree.  They comprise the bulk of the workforce.

The letter report has three recommendations:

Better coordination of federal efforts to support the connections between workers, trainers and jobs, specifically within the Departments of Labor, Education and Commerce.
Continue the support of information technology research that can help train workers, assess skills, and provide career guidance.
Lead the private sector by finding ways to use information technology to assess the skills and employment needs of the federal government and finding the people that meet those needs.

The third recommendation, as PCAST notes, is a break from the recommendations in its report on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  In that report, the Council was more confident in the private sector’s ability to drive growth in that area.


For At Least One Week, Virginia Is For Science

The first annual (take that, USA Science an Engineering Festival) Virginia Science Festival starts this Saturday.  Many events will take place in Roanoke (on October 11) and Blacksburg (on October 4), perhaps due to Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech sponsorship (along with the Science Museum of Western Virginia) of the Festival.  However, events will take place throughout the Commonwealth.

Initial funding for the Festival was boosted by a 2013 grant from the Science Festival Alliance. Regrettably, I won’t be able to get to Southwest Virginia for the bulk of the events, but I am hoping for a strong turnout and interest in expanding the event for its second annual festival in 2015.

Google Science Fair Winners Once Again Span The Globe

Earlier this week Google announced the winners in its fourth annual Science Fair.  A truly global affair, entrants to the Fair submit their projects online and 18 finalists were recognized at Google’s headquarters for their efforts.

The top three winning teams were from Ireland, Canada and the United States.  A trio of Irish 16 year-olds took top honors for their work on bacteria for aiding in cereal crop growth.  A 17 year-old Canadian was tops in the 17-18 year-old division for her work on exploring the applicability of sand filters to biodegrading oil sands contaminants (the project also received special recognition from local area judges).  A 14 year-old from Pennsylvania won in the 13-14 year-old division for his work on fruit-fly inspired robotics.

Aside from the winners in each of the age divisions (one of which is always the Grand Prize winner), there are three other competition-wide prizes.  The Computer Science Award (new this year) went to the 14 year-old roboticist who won his age division.  The Science In Action Award (sponsored by Scientific American) recognized a 15 year old from New York who developed a wearable sensor that will help caregivers by warning when their patients are mobile.  The Voters’ Choice Award recognized a 15 year old finalist from India who has developed a breath-to-speech device that can assist those with disabilities to speak.

Congratulations to all the entrants, and the winners.  You can sign up for notices about the 2015 Google Science Fair and follow the competition year round.