School Breaks and Math Skill Loss

With spring break on the mind, it is easy to get distracted from work and school.  Maybe you are dreaming of vacation plans, or maybe you are just dreaming of sleeping in.  Either way, probably the last thing on your mind is school and math.  However, it turns out, these breaks in learning can often lead to catastrophic losses in math skills.  Obviously summer break is going to have greater consequences (some research suggests you lose up to 2.6 months of math skills over summer break…read more here), but preparing to stay busy over breaks can be an easier habit to build over the week of spring break.

You can start by introducing students to different math games.  You can also just have students work on math problem sets, but they are probably not going to be as excited about that.

Here are some sites with some math ideas:

Prodigy Game Blog

Scholastic Game Ideas

More Math Games

 

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But WHY Do I Run?

By Meghan Pearson

But WHY Do I Run?

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(As you can see, I always take it seriously…)

Running has always been a part of my life. I began by running around with my neighbors, then played soccer, then ran cross-country, and now, since I am a glutton for punishment, I run marathons. And before you ask, yes, I actually enjoy doing it. Luckily for me, recent science shows I am actually doing interesting things to my brain while I am running.

For the next month, Inner City Science and Faces of STEM will be reporting about exercise and science and the science of exercise. We are going to look at it from a lot of different perspectives, so stay tuned!

Introduction:

Exercise has long been known to have important health effects. We have all been told that it is an important part of life if we want to live long and prosper (ha!), but the why is a little harder to put into words. I am going to start with some basic studies that looked at what effect exercise had on the aging mind.

As we age, our bodies start to fail on us. It’s a slow process, but we have all probably seen or felt it. Maybe the metabolism slows, maybe the brain can’t remember things, or maybe there is the sudden urge to yell at kids to get off the lawn. The last one is a silly example, but you get the idea. Aging stinks. But research is actually starting to pour in that by exercising, we can slow (and sometimes reverse) some of the effects on aging.

Methods and Materials:

As stated above, there is much research in this topic; however, it should be noted as human testing is still very frowned on, most of these studies are done on mice and rats. Why is this still relative? Well, it turns out we are pretty similar to rats and mice (evolution is cool!)

Many scientists are interested in how to best preserve their brain power. In one such study, they began by comparing the learning abilities and new nerve cell growth of mice from four different groups: sedentary young mice, sedentary old mice, exercising young mice, and exercising old mice. They provided the third and fourth groups (the exercisers) with a wheel and monitored their use.

Results:

This is where it gets cool. They then compared how the mice performed on different a specific maze learning test, and it turns out, the mice that exercised did better! But it gets even better. While there was a difference in the performance between the young and old mice, the old mice performed outperformed their sedentary old mice peers, and in some regards, performed similarly to the young mice of the sedentary group. The mice were able to learn more effectively when they exercised. In fact, when the researchers looked at the brains of the mice, they found that the old mice that exercised had increased their neurogenesis. This is the scientific word for they were once again creating new dendrites: nerve cells! The old mice were not able to make as many new cells as their young peers, but the old mice that exercised showed more new growth than the sedentary old mice. They were reversing some of the effects of aging. It should also be noted that the old mice were all kept sedentary until they were 19 months old (remember, the life span of mice is only about two years…). These researchers believe that beginning to exercise sooner may have lessened the effects of aging even more.

Discussion:

So what does this mean for us? Well, it is pretty good motivation to get out the door and go exercise, but it also means that there are some pretty good indicators that exercising could help us feel young for longer. Human application of these studies is never perfect, but it is usually close. The sooner a person starts exercising, the sooner they can begin to have these benefits. So go outside, go to the park, chase your kids around. Give your brain a few extra dendrites so you can feel better for longer!

If you would like to read one of the papers about this topic, I encourage you to read Exercise Enhances Learning and Hippocampal Neurogensis in Aged Mice by Henriette van Praag et al.

Monty Hydrogen and the Quest for the Holy Fusion Reaction

By Terry Caston

It is the year 1820, just around the dawn of the industrial revolution. The world population is about 1 billion. You were probably born on a farm, work hard every day growing all your own food, and you may never leave your hometown your entire life. If you wanted to say happy birthday to granny who lives across the country, you sent a letter in the mail months in advance. If you wanted to read a book when the sun went down, you lit a candle-which you probably made by hand. Flash forward. It is the year 1920, and the world population is about 1.8 billion. You might live in the countryside, but you could go to the big city for a job in a factory. You may be lucky enough to ditch your horse and buggy for the brand new invention, the car. Want to say hi to granny, you could pick up one of those rotary phones, and you could turn a light bulb on to see at night. Fast forward again to today, the world population is about 7.2 billion. It doesn’t really matter where you were born because we have planes, trains and automobiles. Want to talk to granny? Just # or ‘like’ her latest Instagram post, but not Snapchat cause granny doesn’t know how to snap. Want to do anything at all, just ask your phone.

The quality of life has increased dramatically over time, and this is largely due to the availability of energy to power our lights, machines, phones, cars and devices. However, as the population of this planet increases, we put more strain on the global supply of fossil fuels and the environment. You’ve probably heard somewhere on the news, or heard someone talking, or read in an article something about the energy crisis, and this is a very real problem. The gasoline from your cars and the coal and natural gas burned in power plants to keep our phones charged pump dangerous gases into the atmosphere. These gases are clearly a major contributing factor to the rise in temperature of the planet. Water levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, super storms will become more violent, and resources will become scarcer causing more competition and violence to attain them. At current usage rates, it is likely we will run out of oil, gas and coal in your lifetime. Sound scary? It is.

But we humans are pretty good at solving problems, and there is so much free energy around us. Wind powers giant wind turbines to create energy. Solar panels use energy from the sun to create energy or to heat giant tubs of water to evaporate into steam and power turbines. We dam rivers to run water over turbines in hydroelectric power plants. We even use heat from the earth to turn water into steam and power turbines. However renewables only account for 10-20% of the energy generation on the planet, and that demand keeps going up and the developing world industrializes.

Then you’ve got nuclear energy. Every nuclear power plant today is a fission reactor. With fission, we take really big atoms like uranium and plutonium and break them down into smaller atoms. Fission creates massive amounts of energy, but it also creates massive amounts of nuclear waste which has to be put into barrels and buried for millions of years. There is also a limited supply of nuclear fuel, maybe a couple hundred years, and the safety and security risks around the radioactive waste make nuclear fission unpopular. It doesn’t look too great, but there is one energy source that is the holy grail of holy grails and would solve all of the world’s energy problems tomorrow.

Can you think of an energy source that is so powerful that at 93 million miles away it will literally burn your retinas out of your eyes if you stare at it for too long? The sun operates by nuclear fusion. This is different from fission which was discussed above. Where fission is splitting a really big atoms, fusion works by smashing two very small atoms together like hydrogen, and making helium. When you smash these two hydrogens together, the resulting helium atom is just a tiny bit lighter than the two hydrogen atoms. You’ve heard 2+2 = 4, this is more like 2+2 = 3.999999. That tiny little bit of mass is converted completely into energy. Ever heard of that famous Einstein equation E = mc2? The E is energy (what we want). The ‘m’ is mass (that tiny little bit of difference between the hydrogen and helium). And the c (this is the important part), the c is the speed of light. That’s 670,600,000 miles per hour. And then it’s squared. That’s a lot of zeros. So moral of the story, tiny bit of mass is A LOT of energy.

So where do we find the fuel for this magical fusion? What has hydrogen in it? Water! Have you ever seen a picture of earth from space? We have A LOT of water. And remember how fission had nuclear waste? Well there is much less nuclear waste from fusion, and the waste is safe to humans in hundreds of years, not millions of years. Can you imagine a world where we had an almost infinite energy supply (fusion) from an essentially unlimited fuel supply (sea water)? Energy would be free. Wars over oil and fossil fuels would stop tomorrow. We would stop burning fossil fuels, and the only place you’d find gasoline powered automobiles would be museums. So great, fusion sounds awesome, why are we wasting time reading this blog, let’s go fuse some stuff now right?

Wrong. We’ve been working at this for a long time, and it’s not easy. You’ve got to get two positively charged atoms together, and they don’t want to get close. Ever tried to push the positive side of two magnets together? It’s kind of like that times on a much bigger scale. In order to do this, we have to heat the reactants up into a material called a plasma, and that takes a lot of energy to start. The only places we’ve been able to create the conditions to start fusion on Earth are in thermonuclear explosions. The sun can do this because it’s really big and has gravity on its side but much harder in a lab. You’re essentially making a tiny star in the lab. Then you have to contain the little star which is a whole other set of engineering challenges. This was in fact the entire premise behind the 2004 movie Spiderman 2, where Dr. Octopus makes a fusion reactor, and then he goes crazy. We’ve been able to create fusion reactions on Earth as a proof of concept, but only for very short periods of time, seconds, before the reaction stops. Though people have been seriously researching fusion since the 1950’s, commercial fusion power plants are still out of reach. This is a problem that will probably be solved by the next generation of scientists who are middle school students today, so if you really want to save the world and think about going into fusion research, I guarantee the vine or snapchat of the first sustainable fusion reaction will get a lot of likes.

A Lifetime of Curiosity

by Robert (Bud) Talbot, PhD

Dr. Talbot’s STEM of choice is Science with a focus on physics education. He now works for The University of Colorado Denver, as an assistant professor of science education in the School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Talbot helps to recruit and train new secondary school science teachers, and does research on teaching and learning science at the university level. In his spare time, outside of work, Dr. Talbot loves to run, work with technology (especially amateur radio!), engage in citizen science projects, and do sciency things with his 6 year old twin daughters. If there was one thing he wished he had known before college about STEM, it would be “how being scientifically literate shapes the way you do anything and everything in the world!”

He studied for many years to get where he is, first at Indiana University for degrees in Geology and science education (BS and MS), then at the University of Colorado Boulder for a PhD in science education, researching how to develop tests and surveys to be used in science teaching and learning.

Introduction

My bio is above, but that is not who I am. Here’s the truth about me: I’m a geek and I’ve always been a geek. I love geeky things like technology, computing, and amateur radio. But I also love to be active. I’m totally obsessed with running and I love to dig deep into all of the data related to my running: GPS tracks, heart rate, power output, pace- lots of numbers! All of this geekery was instilled in me early on. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where we spent a lot of time outdoors, camping, hiking, taking crazy roadtrips. Did I mention maps? I LOVE maps. They are everywhere in my house. Anyway, back to my childhood. My mom told me that I once went to the public library at the age of 6 and asked for a book on “splitting atoms.” Of course I don’t recall that, but I bet it was a cool book. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was well on my way to being a science teacher.

Materials and Methods

Degrees can only tell you so much about a person’s STEM career, here’s my actual journey: I thought I wanted to be an accountant when I started college. My brother in law was an accountant and I really looked up to him. But the classes turned out to be really boring! Then I discovered Geology. What fun! Maps, rocks, lots of camping and hiking. That was the best. So now I was on my way to being a geologist. Well, I ended up taking a few years off from school before finishing (long story…) during which time I realized that my true passion was trying to help others see how cool science was. I was always asking questions and getting others to geek out with me. So it seemed natural that I should be a teacher!

I went back to school and became a high school physics and Earth science teacher. It was a great experience, and I was fortunate enough to learn a lot and build lasting relationships with many of my students. I know that my work made a difference. After seven years of teaching, I yearned for more learning and to work with teachers, so I went to graduate school in Boulder. It was there that I learned about research on teaching and learning, which prepared me for the job I now have as a professor.

Results

Right now, I am focusing on undergraduate science education at my job as an assistant professor. We help other professors to think about better ways to teach biology, chemistry, and physics at the university, and investigate the impacts of innovative teaching on how students learn. Our main focus is to help students in these courses succeed and become prepared to pursue their future goals. Our work is making a difference!

Discussion

I love science education, and especially physics, and here’s why: it really helps me to see how important it is to have a scientific worldview. I can apply scientific reasoning to any aspect of my life. Not only is that fun, it is useful. Many of the skills and dispositions that we use as scientists (like curiosity, research methods, and writing ability) are useful in all aspects of life. And my interest in physics and Earth sciences lets me do lots of fun things in my spare time, like amateur radio (my callsign is W0RMT), and participating in citizen science projects (check out CoCoRaHS, mPING, CWOP, SETI@home, and LHC@home).

Science is everywhere, and it’s fun and useful. It leads to a lifetime of curiosity!   

Canis lupus familiarus: A ridiculous story of artificial selection

By Dr. Debbie Rook

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“Natural Selection” is a complicated and intricate biological concept that often trips up the most educated and well-read among us. To get to that, we’re first going to start with something we all can relate to and understand- specifically, breeding or “artificial selection”. This means specifically that people are the selecting what traits are passed on to the next generation, instead of nature.

Think of a dog, any dog. You may know a chihuahua down the street or your great aunt’s mastiff. Dogs come in amazingly different varieties, different sizes, weights, strengths, hair, tails, ears, noses… you name it! You probably have heard that the dog came from wild wolves, which even look like a few breeds (huskies and malamutes, mostly). But how did we get there? How is that even possible to get so much change in just a couple of thousand years?

Artificial selection is the answer. Back in the days long ago (around 130,000 years ago), there were likely wolves that hung out around farmers or nomadic tribes because there was easy food to get- whether it be cattle or other farm animals, the rabbits that came to eat crops, or simply leftover scraps that were either discarded or given to the wolves willingly. Over time, the wolves that had a nicer temperament (less biting, better smiles), would be given more scraps (think if a stray dog came up to you at a park- would you share your ham sandwich if it was growling at you or cuddled next to your side?). This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the more tame of the wolves and the humans. Now, how was this really selecting? The humans were not breeding these dogs yet, nor were the animals even living with them, so how could that change the population? Simple- food. The nicer dogs are more likely to get scraps from the humans, and therefore more likely to survive the winter and reproduce, while the mean wolves got no scraps and had to fend for themselves. Slowly over time, the scrap-grabbing would change into cohabitation of tame wolves and humans, which would allow those dogs to have even more offspring, because they were being actively cared for by the humans. And that’s how you get dogs! Bring a nice wolf into your house and in a couple (hundred) generations you’ll have yourself a dog (but don’t try this at home…).

So that’s great, a slow change in the population over thousands of years got us from nasty predator wolves to tame live-in dogs. But how did we go from wolf-like dogs (big, sharp teeth, long noses, pointy ears) to all the different kinds today (big/small, variable teeth, long/short/pug noses, pointy/droopy ears)? That is where serious artificial selection comes in, breeding.

Say you are a farmer and need a dog to look after your flock of sheep. You start with the basic wolf-dog and you select for traits that you want. Specifically, you want a dog that is kind to you and your sheep but will scare away other animals. So you take all your dogs and find the ones that meet those criteria best. They won’t be perfect yet, maybe it will sometimes snap at you or a sheep, but otherwise just likes to chase off coyotes. You mate the two together that have the best traits. Those offspring then will have a smaller range of these traits closer to your ideal. It’s possible that in one generation you will have succeeded with at least one of the dogs, but if not you just try again with the next breeding cycle. This also works if you need a dog to pull a sled, or find foxes, or cuddle with your kids, or even carry in your purse. Slowly, over a few generations you can get a lot of change in these animals.

I’ll give you one more example because I think it is so cool. Bull terriers. Bull terriers are known for their noses that are shorter and angled downwards. Here is one:

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This is a very dramatic feature, so you’d think that it would take hundreds or years to get a nose like that from a regular looking dog. BUT…

Here is a bull terrier from 1915.

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And 1918 (for good measure).

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You can see that those noses have changed a lot in the last hundred years. The 1918 picture also shows you a little how this works. If you look at the four dogs, they are all bull terriers and likely related, but there is variation (differences) between the noses. Specifically, the second from the left has a nose that is slightly more downturned than his siblings. If you were trying to make the modern bull terrier, he is the dog you would want to mate to get the next generation.

So you can see that in a few decades you can get dramatic changes in breeds of dog, all by having humans select traits that they like the most. Selective breeding has brought about the multitude of types of dogs that you see today. Hopefully you have a better understanding of this now that you’ve seen it in action!

Next time: nature takes a crack at selecting for different animals, incredible variation, and adaptation occurs.

The Zika Virus (#1)

By Lauren A. R. Tompkins

A collection/series of blog posts entitled:

The Zika virus pandemic – insights from a scientist

The past few weeks (March 2016) have provided major advances in our understanding of Zika virus through publication of several key research studies. In the wake of the global response to the Ebola virus outbreaks, measures to expedite research and prevention strategies for Zika virus are now underway. Emerging infectious diseases, which manifest outbreaks without warning and often without the presence of effective control measures, are dramatically affecting how information is shared between scientists and how prevention strategies, such as vaccines, are regulated. In a time of public health crisis, the scientific community has pulled together with the common goal of a rapid response to combat Zika virus.

 First blog post for this series, entitled: The politics of Zika virus

             On Monday (April 11, 2016), Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), addressed reporters at a White House briefing. The topic of discussion was Zika virus and an appeal for the necessary funds to prepare for mosquito season, when the virus will likely spread to the southern United States. According to the CDC, at least 346 people from the continental United States have been infected with the virus, mainly through travel-related exposure. However, with the summer months approaching, and mosquito populations expanding with warmer weather, local transmission of Zika virus is likely to occur.

A gridlocked Congress is not an unusual concept to the American people. Still, a “public health crisis of international concern”, as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February of this year, should theoretically hold weight if politicians continually claim to have the best interests of Americans in mind, let alone the public health of all inhabitants of our planet. Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans are tightening their wallets and stubbornly resisting the allocation of necessary funds for combating Zika virus. Rather than listening to knowledgeable scientists and public health officials, pleas for appropriations are falling on deaf ears. Indeed, President Obama has asked Congress, again, for the full $1.9 billion dollars that is required to fuel Zika virus research. On Tuesday (April 12, 2016), Congress approved a bill to provide financial incentives to companies to develop treatments for Zika virus infection, although no funding was provided. Currently, roughly $600 million has been diverted from the Ebola virus funds towards Zika virus research.

Let me pause here to let the following concept sink in: now that Ebola is no longer a potential threat to the United States, it is assumed that the rest of the world can handle the fallout itself…but, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, announced in January that although all known chains of transmission in West Africa had stopped, including the most recent outbreak in Liberia, new flare-ups are likely to occur. This will require a sustained response for prevention of future outbreaks. Indeed, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, told reporters, “We face two global health challenges, Ebola and Zika, and we don’t have an option to set one aside in the name of the other.” The decision to pull money from the Ebola fund is somewhat analogous to withdrawing military troops from countries where the United States has intervened and then pulled out, for one reason or another, hoping for sustainable change in those regions. Historically, this system doesn’t seem to work, and furthers the global opinion that Americans don’t care about non-Americans.

There is a comical phrase among infectious disease scientists: “ATM diseases” get the money. Essentially, the majority of funding is allocated to AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria research, which some say are “sexy diseases” as they engender public attention. We know that these diseases are incredibly important to study and combat, but when funding is limited, research on other diseases stalls. Why don’t we know that much about Zika virus? It didn’t cause outbreaks until recently. This is the problem with emerging pathogens: they burst forth rapidly when we don’t have the tools to control them. The scientific community is now scrambling, working around the clock to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. $600 million sounds like a great deal of money, but it is nowhere near enough to fight Zika virus, as Dr. Fauci reiterated on Monday.

Pull-quote: “When the president asked for $1.9 billion, we needed $1.9 billion.” – Dr. Fauci, NIAID

One day several years ago, as a novice virologist, I was star struck when I met Dr. Fauci during one of his routine visits to the laboratories of the NIAID. The first thing I noticed was Dr. Fauci’s notorious New York accent, the second, his calm demeanor, humility, and compassion. His lectures inspired me, giving me great faith in the leaders of our scientific community. Why this faith is lacking in our Congressional leaders is nonsensical to me. If we cannot trust those we have appointed to run programs ethically and passionately, then what is the point of having these leaders?

Pull-quote: “Everything we look at with (Zika) virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.” – Dr. Schuchat, CDC

The NIAID and CDC, institutions that preserve public health in America, are not the only scientific leaders voicing the urgency of combating infectious disease outbreaks before they become uncontrollable pandemics. The WHO has also emphasized the potential consequences of a Zika virus pandemic. Indeed, although Zika virus is an old virus (it was discovered in 1947), it emerged as a rapidly spreading pathogen causing sizeable outbreaks in recent years. In the span of about one year, 440,000 to 1.3 million Brazilians have been infected with Zika virus, which has spread to at least 33 countries. At this point, the association between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and microcephaly, a condition among infants resulting in a smaller than normal head size, has essentially reached causality. That is, scientists can definitively and causally link the virus to microcephaly. [In subsequent posts, I will present some of the important research rocketing into publication regarding this issue.] In addition to microcephaly, the WHO acknowledges that Zika virus infection likely causes Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks his/her own nerves.

Science is not devoid of political influence. Granted, financial resources are not endless, but history has shown the rapidity with which infectious diseases can spread and the devastation that follows. We were not prepared for Ebola virus, which claimed the lives of over 11,000 people. Will the necessary funding come for Zika virus research, or are we destined to continually ignore potential public health crises until it’s too late to combat them?

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