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A Bus Powered by Human Waste


A bus that runs on a gas powered by human waste goes for a test run in England. Students can explore alternative and renewable energy sources and processes with biofuel and microbial fuel science projects.

Bio-Bus in England
Learn more about the Bio-Bus from the Bath Bus Company.

Did you catch wind of the new Bio-Bus (dubbed the "poo bus") that hit the roads this week in England for a 4-week trial? The bus, operated by the Bath Bus Company, is powered by bio-gas.

An experiment in putting alternative energy on the roads, the Bio-Bus uses gas generated by the breakdown of human waste, something the company is putting front and center for passengers with the illustration on the outside of the bus!

According to a writeup in The Guardian, one tank of gas will carry the bus more than 150 miles and "takes the annual waste of around five people to produce."

Students can learn more about biofuel and other alternative energy sources with hands-on K-12 science projects like these:

For more real-world biofuel, microbial fuel, and alternative fuel inspiration, see:

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Now within twenty miles of its target comet, the Rosetta spacecraft may help provide information about the formation of the solar system and planet Earth. Students and classes can join scientists in the next year of Rosetta watching and, along the way, explore comets and space science through hands-on science projects.

A rendering of the Rosetta Satellite arriving at Comet 67P. ESA
Above: A rendering (not to scale) of the Rosetta Satellite arriving at Comet 67P. Photo: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM.


When it comes to space science and astronomy science projects, things don't always move at light speed other than in the movies. Instead, some experiments, observations, and projects involving space take meticulous planning and possibly years of waiting and tracking before the end goal comes into sight or alignment.

Last month, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft finally arrived at its destination—a rendezvous with the Churyumov-Gerasimenko Comet (Comet 67P). Launched in 2004, the Rosetta craft traveled for ten years, two of which it spent in hibernation to conserve energy, before pulling up alongside Comet 67P. Already spanning a decade, the mission has been an exercise in advance planning and a feat that required countless calculations, trajectory plans, and even multiple slingshot maneuvers from Earth's gravitational field.

In its final few months of approach, the ESA reports that Rosetta went through a series of ten rendezvous maneuvers to tweak the craft's trajectory and speed. Every adjustment had to be right on target for the Rosetta to successfully intersect with Comet 67P.

In a statement released by the ESA on August 6, 2014, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the Director General of the ESA, announced, "After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here.'"

Reaching the comet and pulling up within range of its orbital path was a pivotal step for the Rosetta spacecraft mission—a make-or-break moment in the mission—but the Rosetta has still not completely locked itself into place. Flying a triangular shape near the comet, Rosetta will continue to get closer to Comet 67P until it is close enough to be pulled in by the gravitational force of Comet 67P, which sources say should happen when Rosetta reaches a distance of 6.2 miles from the comet.

As it hovers near Comet 67P, Rosetta will be mapping the comet's gravitational field and surface and scouting a location for dropping a lander onto the surface of the comet in November. Already, the Rosetta spacecraft has begun capturing close-up images of the comet, giving astronomers and scientists an unprecedented up-close look at the surface of a comet.


Closing In on New Answers

Comets, made up of ice and dust, are frozen vestiges of the formation of the solar system, and scientists are hoping that Rosetta will be able to help provide information and data to solve one of the oldest unanswered questions about the Earth—where did the water in the oceans on Earth come from? That comets are responsible for the oceans is one theory, and scientists are hoping Rosetta may be able to provide answers.

A decade after liftoff, Rosetta is finally in position and primed for the final and pivotal year of its mission. As Rosetta moves ever-closer to Comet 67P and, in November, drops its landing module, students and the science community alike will be eagerly watching to see what Rosetta discovers.

Student Space Science

Unlike members of the Rosetta team, students don't have ten years to plan and execute their science projects. For students interested in space science, the simple reality that space is "out there" can make it challenging to conduct a physical experiment.

Blake Bullock, Northrop Grumman

A Career in Space Science and Engineering

Students interested in space science and astrophysics can learn more about possible STEM career paths in this interview with Blake Bullock, Civil Air and Space Director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Trained first as an astrophysicist, Blake says her job lets her spend time thinking "about the future of science, technology, and aerospace innovation."

Space is a long way away! As a result, when it comes to student space science, many projects are data-driven projects which let students delve into an astronomy question, form a hypothesis, and then analyze publicly-available data sets to draw conclusions. Examples of projects like this include: Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?, NASA Asteroid Database: What Can You Learn About Our Solar System?, Sunspot Cycles, Correlation of Coronal Mass Ejections with the Solar Sunspot Cycle, Finding the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy Using Globular Star Clusters, and The Milky Way and Beyond: Globular Clusters.

These kinds of data-driven investigations can be exciting for students and offer a taste of the kinds of real-world data analysis that many space scientists do. When possible, however, and especially for students in lower grades, hands-on projects that bring space science questions to life through everyday materials, models, and simulations may more effectively capture the attention of students with an emerging interest in space science.

Inspired by the school science project of Ashleigh (profiled in the Galactic Curiosity: Fifth Grade Student Charts a Science Course for the Stars story), the new Satellite Science: How Does Speed Affect Orbiting Altitude? astronomy project guides students in exploring, using cookie sheets and a variation of marble painting, the relationship between satellites and the gravitational pull of the object they orbit.

Tasked with the need for a tangible simulation to meet her school fair requirements, Ashleigh innovated an experiment to test questions she had about the Cassini satellite and Jupiter. In the new astronomy Science Buddies project based on Ashleigh's experiment, students set up and utilize a model to explore questions about the trajectory of satellites as they revolve around planets. With a homemade satellite launcher made from cardboard tubing, students put their model satellites into orbit and study the paint trails that mark different trajectories created by different simulations of gravitational pull.

Homemade satellite launcher used in the Satellite Science astronomy project
Above: the homemade satellite launcher used in the Satellite Science astronomy project.

Students can learn more about comets and satellites in the following Science Buddies Project Ideas:


Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in Astronomy are supported by Northrop Grumman.

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For this year's Pritzker Prize winner, cardboard and paper have proven to be key materials in designing disaster relief housing. Examples of Shigeru Ban's work force a reconsideration of design, materials science, and civil engineering. Can using recyclable materials make a cost-effective and sustainable difference in the way architecture is approached? With cardboard tubes, paper, straws, and other everyday materials, students can experiment with principles on a small scale that the award-winning architect uses in humanitarian structures around the world.

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Paper Nursery School, Ya'an City, Sichuan, China, 2014. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.

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Paper Nursery School, Ya'an City, Sichuan, China, 2014. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.

Architecture is a science and an art form, a field in which form and function meet at a point where materials are turned into buildings and structures that may be used for business, housing, or social gathering. Throughout history, there have been chains of evolution in architectural style and tradition, approaches to design that often mirror trends in society. But when you think about architecture today, you probably think about big buildings, skyscrapers, and towers that create skylines in some of the world's most well-known cities. You may also think of unusual examples of architecture, like the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York, Lloyds Building in London (often called the "Inside-Out Building"), Sydney Opera House in Australia (a series of interlocking shells), or a Frank Lloyd Wright building like Fallingwater, which appears to grow out of a hillside and sits atop a waterfall.


Unique examples of architecture may make headlines, and city skylines make postcards, but even when it comes to everyday construction—ordinary houses—buildings usually involve strong materials, materials designed for permanence. These materials are often costly, and construction may be time consuming.

But what exactly is a strong material? If a typhoon blows through, will the structure withstand the force? What happens to a "strong" material during an earthquake? If the material doesn't hold up, what options are there for fast, inexpensive solutions for residents displaced by disaster?

Paper Log House, Cebu, Philippines
Paper Log House, Cebu, Philippines. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


Strong as Paper?

Out of what materials is your own house built? Depending on where you live and what unique properties architects and civil engineers have to take into account in your area (like the risk of earthquake, climate, or the composition of the ground), your house might have a framework of wood, steel, or concrete. The structure and walls of your house are likely made from materials expected to stand up to environmental factors over time.

What about a house made out of cardboard?

The idea may sound surprising, but for Japanese architect Shigeru Ban cardboard is not only a viable building material but a material he has used in dozens of buildings designed to provide relief housing for victims of natural disaster.

Ban was recently awarded the 2014 Pritzker Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes given each year in architecture. Ban has a history in commercial architecture, but in recent years, he has donated his skills to helping design and build structures in disaster zones. Most notable about his volunteer work on behalf of disaster victims is that his buildings are made primarily using recyclable materials.

Cardboard may seem incongruous to building in an area where natural forces have destroyed permanent housing, but Ban has shown, around the world, that materials like shipping containers and paper can be used to create fast, low-cost temporary housing and social structures that are sound, protective, and can be erected quickly.

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Paper Log House, 2000, Turkey. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


A Paper-based Approach

It is hard not to be awed and inspired by images of Ban's designs (like the ones shown above). Repeatedly, his work shows ingenuity in design and materials that tackles a problem (the need for a certain structure) with a simple, recyclable solution.
After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ban designed temporary classrooms, a "paper nursery school," that volunteers were able to quickly build from cardboard tubes. In Rwanda, in 1999, he designed paper refugee shelters. In Italy, after the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake, Ban designed a concert hall from a combination of materials, including cardboard, a social structure designed to pay tribute to the musical heritage of L'Aquila and to rekindle the spirit of residents. In both Turkey and Japan, Ban designed paper log housing. Ban's Japanese Pavilion (built for an Expo, not in the wake of disaster), was created from paper tubes. The structure took three weeks to build from thousands of paper tubes and spanned more than 236 feet across and 50 feet high.

In some cases, Ban's structures are designed to be able to be taken down and rebuilt, as needed. In other cases, Ban's designs become a lasting part of the community. The Cardboard Cathedral he designed after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, for example, was initially envisioned as a temporary replacement structure, but before construction began, plans changed. The beautiful cardboard, steel, and glass A-frame church is immediately recognizable as a place of worship, despite the fact that the roof is constructed from cardboard tubes.


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Cardboard Cathedral, 2013, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen Goodenough.



Unexpected Materials

So, why paper? And "how" paper?

In an interview with CNN after the Pritzker Prize was announced, reporter William Lee Adams asked Ban about his use of paper. "The strength and durability of a building has nothing to do with the material," Ban told Adams. "Even a building built in concrete can be destroyed very easily. There can be a permanent building made out of cardboard tubes."

Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


Beyond Card Houses

Students intrigued by Ban's work, by architecture, or by the ways in which Ban's design approach contributes to disaster relief solutions around the world can explore design and engineering concepts in civil engineering and materials science project ideas like these:


Paper Temporary Studio, 2004, Paris, France. Photo by Didier Boy dela Tour
Paper Temporary Studio, 2004, Paris, France. Photo by Didier Boy dela Tour.


To see more examples of Ban's architecture, visit: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/works.html

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Soft Robots: Alternative Robot Design


Robotics engineers are experimenting with soft robots and robots modeled after biological organisms. With a squishy project at Science Buddies, students can get in on the action and test their own soft, air-powered, robot.

A recent story in MIT News shows off a cool robotic fish and highlights the softer side of robotics. This new wave of robotics research explores the benefits and possibilities of robots that sport softer, less angular exteriors, designs often inspired by biological systems and organisms.

Designers of soft robots, like the robotic fish developed by the Distributed Robotics Laboratory, take a different approach to constructing the robot's exoskeleton and thinking about how the robot will move and interact with its environment. For example, a soft robotic fish, modeled after a real fish, can bump into things in its environment differently than a more traditional hard and angular robot. A soft robot may also be able to navigate areas that a more rigid-bodied robot cannot, and a soft robot that runs into something may cause less harm and suffer less damage.


Making Connections

Students curious about robot design and about soft robots can get started exploring principles of soft robotics by making their own gripper robot. In the Squishy Robots: Build an Air-Powered Soft Robotic Gripper robotics engineering project, students use a 3D printed mold and liquid silicone rubber in the construction of a gripper that can curl around and "grip" an object. What advantages does this soft-bodied construction have over other kinds of robotic grippers?

procedural photos from soft robotics student engineering project
In the Squishy Robots robotics engineering project idea, students use a 3D printed mold to make a silicone robot that they then power by air to use as a gripper.

For a look at creating a more humanistic robotic hand, see the Grasping with Straws: Make a Robot Hand Using Drinking Straws project. Using straws, students are challenged to design and construct a robotic hand, with bendable appendages, that works using a system of threaded joints. How many "fingers" does a robotic hand need? At how many points does it need to bend? What mechanism will cause the hand to bend, move, and grip?

Understanding and identifying the need or task for a robot is important in making robot design decisions. What does the robot need to pick up? How small are the items? How heavy are they? What does it need to do with them once it has grabbed them? Other questions to ask involve where the robot will be used. A robot being used in an underwater environment, for example, will have very different design requirements.

These are questions and issues engineers must consider as part of the engineering process when designing a robot. Will the best solution be hard or soft? Experimenting to better understand how varying approaches work is a first step for students getting started with robotics.


Additional information:


April 5-13, 2014 is National Robotics Week!

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Robotics are supported by Symantec.

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Giant metal traffic control robots installed on busy streets in Africa remind students that robotics engineering tackles projects and issues that may require very big OR very small solutions.


Robot Cop for Traffic Control
Image: "Now, Robocop helps manage traffic in Kinshasa," India Today Online.

Recent robotics engineering projects at Science Buddies have shot my perspective on robotics with a shrinking serum, something that's taken my preconceived ideas about robots, drawn largely from growing up with the Jetsons on television and C-3PO and R2-D2 on the big screen, and tossed them down a long Alice and Wonderland-styled tunnel where they have emerged miniaturized and decidedly non-humanoid. Think of the skittering crew of cookie robots in Despicable Me (2010). Small. Fast. Stealthy. Focused. Hungry. Bots on a mission.

This is a new class of bots, a far cry from bots like The Iron Giant (1999), Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (1986), and Wall-E (2008). Whereas those bots won us over with their human-like qualities and similarities, not all bots are built at that scale. Both on- and off-screen, the bots that have been crossing my radar lately have been small, and smaller, and then even smaller, reaching coin-sized proportions most recently in my interview with Dani Ithier, a student in Harvard's Microrobotics Lab, where they are working on bug-inspired bots.

Smaller and smaller, a tale of shrinking robots, until a CNN story and images of the "Robo Cops" installed in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, crossed my desk.

Two towering aluminum bots have been installed in the middle of congested highways to help alleviate traffic flow problems. Those two bots, eight feet tall and bearing familiar human facial features, remind me, visually, of bots from old-school science fiction. These traffic cops look like the kind of (non-functional) bots kids construct out of cast-off parts from the garage and cardboard boxes salvaged from the recycling bin, but these bots represent sophisticated engineering. The traffic robots are reportedly powered by solar panels, have on-board surveillance cameras, and can talk. This is high-tech, robotic traffic control being conducted by robots that "come sporting sunglasses like real cops," reports India Today Online. From up high (eight feet plus the pedestals on which they stand), these robots are taking on the combined roles of traffic cop, streetlight, and pedestrian walk signal, all in an effort at reigning in a mounting traffic problem.


An Infinite Number of Designs—and Functions

The story (and image) of Kinshasa's robo cops is an excellent reminder about the breadth of functionality and design for robotics engineers. Smaller is not always better and it not always the solution. Many robots are designed to do a very specific task. They may or may not need to have a full set of "humanoid" body parts and appendages. A robotic hand, for example, may be developed to do a single, focused task, and the parameters of that task—What needs to be picked up? How heavy is the item? How far does it need to be moved?—may guide the design. Specifying the requirements of a solution is an important step in the engineering design process. Students can explore this kind of design and the engineering issues that arise in projects like Grasping with Straws: Make a Robot Hand Using Drinking Straws and Squishy Robots: Build an Air-Powered Soft Robotic Gripper.


Robots for Safety

Looking at the Kinshasa robo cops also highlights the use of robotics in ensuring safety, through prevention, through ongoing presence and monitoring, and through disaster relief. Students can explore safety-related robotics engineering and design in hands-on science projects like these:

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A car museum turned into a tragic no parking zone this week when a sinkhole opened up, wiping out a fleet of prized automobiles. Sinkholes apparently have no regard for the caliber of car or building that may be sitting on the surface, but what happens below the surface to account for sudden and catastrophic openings? With hands-on science projects sponsored by Chevron, students can experiment to learn more.

2014 Sinkhole at Corvette Museum
Above: A set of corvettes in KY disappeared this week in a sinkhole that left a massive 40-foot opening in the floor of a museum. Image: Courtesy of National Corvette Museum.

If you are a car aficionado, headline news today about the fate of eight cars in the National Corvette Museum in KY might make you cringe. A sinkhole appeared in part of the museum, reportedly swallowing a set of corvettes whole. Among the cars lost when the floor disappeared: a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder and a 1962 Black Corvette.

Whether you mourn the loss of the cars or not, sinkholes are scary. They are scary because they seemingly appear out of nowhere. The sinkhole that created an instant no-parking area at the museum is reportedly 40 feet wide and approximately 25 to 30 feet deep. What causes a section of ground cavernous enough to simply eat whatever was sitting on top of it to suddenly open up?


Sinkhole Geology

Sinkholes can be triggered by a number of different geologic processes, movements and reactions that are often unpredictable, unavoidable, invisible, and disastrous. In some cases, the reactions take years of time; in other cases, extreme conditions can create rapid change. As this video explains, earthquakes can trigger seemingly instantaneous sinkholes by causing temporary liquefaction of water-logged loose soil.

Liquefaction is one way a sinkhole may form, but other geologic processes contribute to and are responsible for sinkhole phenomena.

In the case of the missing corvettes, limestone may have something to do with what happened to the ground floor of the museum.


The Power of Water

Over time, the pH of water that runs over rocks can destabilize the structure of an area. We know that rocks are gradually eroded by many natural processes, but under certain conditions—and in the presence of specific kinds of liquids—some rocks actually dissolve and, ultimately, disappear. It may seem hard to believe that rocks that are big and hard can be conquered by simple, flowing liquids, but in the case of certain sedimentary rocks, that is exactly what happens.

Over time, or in the case of prolonged or extreme precipitation and flooding, water can build up in soil systems. In other cases, rocks are located in a place that receives frequent or periodic water. If the water is acidic, it may begin to destabilize the structure of rocks that contain carbonate compounds, rocks like limestone. The dissolution of rocks due to the pH of water can cause changes in the topography of an area, including sinkholes. (These changes are referred to as karst topography.)

Sinkholes may take years to silently form, or, they may appear suddenly, swallowing buildings, houses, trees—or even corvettes.

Note: Sinkholes propelled by pressure and resulting liquefaction may solidify again, cementing structures in the ground where they've been half-swallowed. Sinkholes created by erosion or dissolution of rock, on the other hand, won't suddenly seal back up as if the hole never happened. The hole becomes a new part of the topography of the landscape.


Making Connections

The corvette museum in Bowling Green, KY, is about thirty miles from the opening of Mammoth Cave, a system of more than 300 miles of mapped underground cave passages—caves full of limestone. The area surrounding Mammoth Cave is littered with visible sinkhole depressions and is referred to as the Sinkhole plain.

Students curious about sinkholes can experiment on a small-scale basis using the "Now You See It, Now You Don't! How Acidic Waters Make Rocks Disappear" Project Idea. In the project, students learn more about the ways in which acidic water conditions may appear and conduct a hands-on test to observe the impact of vinegar on limestone over time.

Students can explore related science in the "Factors that Affect the Transfer of Force through Saturated Soil" project.




Support for Geology resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies is provided by Chevron.

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Stories about Mary Barra have the potential to empower, encourage, and inspire students of all ages as she takes on a very visible and important leadership role in the automotive industry. As Barra shows, even something as simple as making paper boats can make a difference in how students (or adults) perceive science and engineering—and maybe in how a company performs!

Mary Barra, GM Senior Vice President with students from Bates Academy
Mary Barra, new CEO of GM, leads the GM "A World in Motion" skimmer boat in Bates Academy student competition last year. Image: © General Motors.

The weeks leading up to the start of Mary Barra's reign as CEO of General Motors (GM) have sent ripples of excitement and inspiration through all kinds of media corners, from those who cover the glass ceiling, to those who see Barra's rise as a wonderful tribute to hard work and company loyalty, to those who simply love cars, to those who see in Barra a role model for female engineers and scientists of all ages. Indeed, since the December announcement that Barra would be handed the keys and become GM's new CEO upon the retirement of Dan Akerson this month, the media has been buzzing with stories about Barra, a Michigan native, who started at GM as a teenager, who really wanted a fancy sports car for her first car but bought something more practical in order to be able to afford college, and who has risen, quietly, to the top of a global auto manufacturing company that has been on a successful rebound since its financial troubles in 2009.

Though Barra has carefully sidestepped many gender-specific questions, it is clear that, just by being who she is and where she is, she is poised to become a powerful role model for young engineers, especially for young women. With the status of "girls in science, technology, engineering, and math" (STEM) frequently under the media microscope and a concern for teachers, parents, and community leaders, Barra's history, educational background, and new position in the world of automobile engineering offers a wonderful beacon of possibility. To girls who love cars, who love engineering, or who love any STEM subject that is frequently viewed as "for boys," Barra's story offers inspiration and a reminder that doing what you love is what matters.


The Engineering Design Process

In reports and interviews this week surrounding the Detroit Auto Show where she unveiled the 2015 GMC Canyon, Barra has talked about teamwork and about collaboration, ideals and practices that may prove to be cornerstones of her strategy leading GM. While these qualities could be highlighted to smooth the transition into her new role, it seems they are not new catchphrases for Barra but are, instead, central to her style, vision, and approach.

A team-building activity she spearheaded last year at GM showcases Barra's emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and on the engineering design process—Barra orchestrated a "paper sailboat challenge" for more than 200 GM engineers and designers.

While team-building exercises and activities are common in big business, Barra's paper sailboat challenge stands out for its novelty, for the simplicity of getting everyone involved in doing something that might feel a bit silly but showcases the fun in the process, and for the simple fact that the event has its roots in an activity she did with third grade students as community outreach at a local school.

At Bates Academy in Detroit, Barra and other members of her team got hands-on with a group of students in a "skimmer" competition where they created boats and then raced them across hard floors (not water) using fans to simulate the necessary winds. This kind of community STEM event is wonderful for students and helps to show students that science, technology, math, and engineering can be fun, that the steps of the engineering design process are accessible, and that even small changes can bring innovation and, maybe, a winning new design—or the fastest skimmer.

We love the story of the paper sailboat challenge and its skimmer origins with Detroit students. We love the photos and video of Barra and her team working side-by-side with the kids. And who can help but love the "C'mon, mama needs a new pair of shoes!" comment from one of the enthusiastic participants?


Getting Involved

Creating opportunities for hands-on science and engineering at a local school is a great way to contribute to science education and to help show both girls and boys that science and engineering is fun, exciting, and offers many different paths for the future. If the story of Barra and her paper boats inspires you, and you are wondering how you might create a similar kind of activity either for students at a local school or with a group of kids at home, take a look at these hands-on science projects, all of which are ideas that could be transformed into a fun class or group activity or competition:

Prefer dry ground? There is no need to stop with boats. Paper airplanes, hovercraft, and marble runs make great hands-on engineering activities for students, too:


Real People, Real STEM Inspiration

For more stories about volunteers helping create hands-on science and engineering opportunities in classrooms, schools, and programs in their communities, and for additional stories about encouraging girls in STEM, see the following posts on the Science Buddies Blog:


More Information

To learn more about Mary Barra, see:

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Recent reports of laboratory-created rat kidneys provide hope for the future of bioengineered kidneys for those with kidney disease. Students can get involved in this hot area of biomedical technology and research with their own bioinformatics projects.

Bioengineered

Cutting Edge Science Projects: Putting Medical Biotechnology in the Hands of Students

For students interested in medical biotechnology, the desire to explore, tinker, and experiment may pose an obvious hurdle—how can students get hands-on without the availability of a research lab? Your local science fair probably will not include a urine-producing sample of a homegrown kidney (like the one pictured above), and students interested in medical therapies and treatments may not be conducting experiments on pharmaceuticals.

Thanks to support from sponsors like the Amgen Foundation, Science Buddies is making sure that medical biotechnology is not off limits to students. The Medical Biotechnology interest area at Science Buddies helps connect K-12 students with scientist-authored Project Ideas for hands-on exploration that tie in with real-world problems and challenges.

The recently released "The Skinny on Moisturizers: Which Works Best to Keep Skin Moist?" Project Idea is a great example of a hands-on science project that gives students the chance to explore medical biotechnology. In this project, students investigate the correlation between the ingredients in various moisturizers and the effectiveness of the moisturizer. Do all moisturizers that promise to target dry skin really help? Which ingredients are most common and which ones really work?

While a student could conduct a test surveying respondents' impressions of an array of moisturizers, students looking for a more analytical project need a way to test and evaluate how the moisturizers really work—not just how someone perceives each one to work. Testing with "skin" isn't a viable approach for a student biotechnology project, so what is a student to do?

In developing this project, Science Buddies staff scientists worked to devise a way for students to simulate skin (using gelatin) in order to objectively and analytically test, observe, and evaluate the performance of skin lotions over time. The project lets students use and practice lab techniques, including careful record keeping and observation of the various testing dishes. The intermediate project may take several weeks to complete, but at the end of the project, students are able to draw conclusions about the effects of certain ingredients, conclusions that may stimulate further or additional testing.

What moisturizers should you buy if you really want to moisturize your skin? Have a student put it to the test. You might be surprised how your favorite lotion performs!

Many medical conditions involve treatment and therapy that have life-altering consequences, but for patients in renal failure, a condition in which the kidneys stop functioning, the feeling of being tied down has very literal significance. Patients with end-stage kidney disease often spend many hours, multiple times a week, hooked up to dialysis machines that do what their kidneys are no longer able to do—filter waste, salt, and extra water from the body. Dialysis also helps keep certain chemicals in the body in balance and works to keep a patient's blood pressure stable.

Though the treatment involves being tethered to giant machines for hours on end, for patients in renal failure, dialysis may be the only thing the keeping them alive. Many of these patients are waiting for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, organ availability is far lower than the number of patients in need of a kidney.

"There are currently 118,617 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the U.S. Of these, 96,645 await kidney transplants." (National Kidney Foundation, June 2013)


Supply and Demand

Thousands of patients die each year while awaiting kidney transplants, and with the number of people with kidney disease climbing at a rate of approximately 5 percent per year, the reality of organ shortage is a mounting problem. According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), more than 26 million adults in the U.S. have chronic kidney disease (CKD). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correlates this to 1 in 10 Americans having some form of CKD, and statistics suggest that more than 350,000 Americans are on dialysis in a clinical setting.*

As with many diseases, there are stages to CKD, and treatment can help slow the progression of the disease. At the far end of the spectrum is end-stage renal disease (ESRD), also known as kidney failure. For a patient with end-stage renal disease, a kidney transplant is the only possible cure. More than 90,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and the number of kidneys available each year in the U.S. hovers around 18,000. In 2012, there were 16,812 kidney transplants in the U.S., according to the NFK.

When it comes to kidney transplants, there is a clear supply and demand issue.

For patients on the list, waiting becomes the name of the game, and dialysis is the key to waiting. Without dialysis, these patients will die. So they file in two or three times a week for multi-hour dialysis sessions, and they wait.

While they wait, researchers are racing to find, develop, and even grow alternatives.


Building and Bioengineering Solutions

Taken together, the growing number of patients, the limited supply of organs, and the high cost of kidney failure treatment create a staggering problem in the healthcare industry, and the race is on for new and improved technologies and approaches that may someday change the face of kidney disease.

The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) recently released reports of research on a new dialysis machine that may become a game-changer. The device they have developed is small—very small in comparison to clinical machines, machines that are often the size of a refrigerator. Not only does the device shrink the size requirement for dialysis filtering, but it is implantable. The device UCSF researchers have built, and which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put on a fast-track for testing and approval, is, essentially, an artificial kidney and could dramatically change the reality of dialysis for patients in the future.

While an artificial kidney is one high-tech approach to improving the quality of life and treatment for patients with kidney disease, growing new kidneys for transplantation is another, and recent news from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA suggests lab-grown kidneys are not only possible but may be available sooner than you think.


Growing Kidneys

In April, the New York Times reported that functional rat kidneys had been successfully bioengineered by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital. Kidneys are complicated organs, and growing a kidney, from scratch, poses many challenges. Kidneys require more than one type of cell, for example. So the news from Massachusetts General is exciting.

Rather than attempting to grow new organs from ground zero, the lab-created kidneys in Boston involve decellularization, taking existing kidneys and separating them from their original cells. In this process, scientists create and use a "scaffolding," basically a skeleton of an organ's connective tissue from a patient that has been stripped of cells and onto which cells from another source or donor are encouraged to grow. The advantage of a decellularized kidney is that it contains a network of collagen, blood vessels, and other structural components necessary for sustaining kidney cell growth while maintaining the native shape and architecture of a normal kidney.

In the lab, cells derived from human umbilical cord tissue and newborn rat kidneys were then placed onto the scaffolding. After a few days, the cells regenerated new kidney tissue on top of the original kidney structure. After transplantation into rats, the kidneys successfully produced urine—a mark of a functioning kidney.

The scaffolding approach moves away from research involving using stem cells to grow complete kidneys and may have advantages when it comes to future implant success rates. In transplantation, the risk of rejection by the body is always an issue. With the scaffolding approach, researchers may be able to create organs that will be easier for the body to accept—they already look like kidneys because, in part, they came from kidneys and, potentially, from the patient's body. "By creating a skeleton or 'shell' of the organ to be produced and then re-populating this skeleton with kidney cells from another individual, it would not be necessary to use drugs that suppress the immune system," notes Leslie Spry, spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation, in a recent article.

In concept, the scaffolding approach changes the direction for biomedical research on kidney creation. "If you put the organs side by side, it would be hard to tell which is the bioengineered organ and which is the real organ," said Dr. Joren Madsen, director of the Massachusetts General Transplant Center in a report published in The Boston Globe. According to the news story, Madsen plans to be part of the team that works on the next round of testing, possibly scaling the procedure up for use with bioengineered pig kidneys. Though the lab-grown kidney looks like a kidney, Madsen cautions that the functionality of the kidney still has a long way to go.


A Step Towards a Cure

The research on lab-grown kidneys is still in its beginning stages, and the availability of a such a kidney for humans may still be many years away. While the kidneys grown in these laboratory experiments do produce urine, they do not yet do all of the sophisticated tasks kidneys need to do. For example, the rat kidneys do not function as effectively as normal kidneys in reabsorbing nutrients from the blood. Based on the performance of the laboratory-grown rat kidneys, researchers have ideas for future experimentation using different types of cells, including stem cells.

Despite the challenges, the success of the bioengineered kidney has medical researchers and biotechnologists excited about the possibilities for growing kidneys to treat human disease.


Making Connections

Although researchers have been able to create functioning rat kidneys in the laboratory, the current process yields kidneys that are not as efficient as natural kidneys. There is still much room for improvement in terms of perfecting the art of bioengineering kidneys to ensure that patient-specific kidneys can be generated on demand and can perform at levels closer to natural kidneys. Understanding what proteins and factors are necessary for normal kidney growth may aid researchers in the race to improve the bioengineering of kidneys for use in future patient transplants.

Students who are interested in learning more about the power of stem cells in engineering organs can explore the molecular and biochemical factors that determine kidney synthesis in the following advanced hands-on science Project Idea:




* A smaller number of patients use a form of home dialysis.



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A team from Canada captures a longstanding prize with their human-powered helicopter. You won't be parking yours any time soon, but the story is an inspiring example of engineering design, innovation, and perseverance.

News of a last month's human-powered helicopter flight "win" by a Canadian engineering team brought the movie Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) immediately to mind. Kiki has always been a favorite of the Hayao Miyazaki movies in my house, but the character obsessed with getting his bicycle to serve as a means of flight hasn't ever been a focus for us. The title character, after all, flies by broom! But as I read a news story from the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an image of that character, Tombo, furiously pedaling his bike through the seaside town in the movie, immediately came to mind.

His bicycle had two wheels though.


A Winning Flight

Just last week, the Kickstarter-backed AeroVelo team from Toronto officially won the AHS Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition. The competition was established in 1980 to challenge engineers to push the limits of what is possible, and for more than thirty years, teams have been chasing the prize and a dream of human-powered flight.

More than a year's worth of engineering—and pedaling—paid off for the AeroVelo team after they successfully pedaled their human-powered helicopter, Atlas, for a sustained flight of just seconds more than the one minute requirement and just above the necessary three meters off the ground and walked away with the $250,000 prize. (The winning flight took place in June 2013. It took almost a month for analysis and verification of the data by the American Helicopter Society before the win was confirmed.)

Before you start reshaping your vision of the future as one traversed by flying bicycles, you will want to watch the team's video to take in the sheer size and intricacy of their design. Be sure and note, too, the discussion in this video interview of how easily things can "go wrong" even in mid-air. The team apparently suffered two serious crashes during the year of testing. Beyond maintenance requirements—and the risk of the helicopter falling apart unexpectedly—there is a reality to the physical energy and stamina needed to sustain flight. This is certainly transport for only the fittest of travelers!

Even so, the story of Atlas is impressive and inspiring. It is hard, in fact, to watch the video and view photos of their testing and design and not think about Da Vinci's notebooks and drawings. With Atlas, the AeroVelo team has given proof of concept to something many believed impossible.


In Pursuit of Innovation

How would you start tackling a challenge like human-powered flight? The Engineering Design Process offers a set of steps that can help you start with an idea, track through the stages of thinking and problem-solving to come up with a design to test, and then prototype, test, and tweak, as many times as needed, as you work toward an end product that meets the need or goal.

In their own coverage of the award-winning flight, the AeroVelo team writes, "The Atlas as flown on June 13th behaved very differently from the aircraft we first flew some 9 months ago, a result of many incremental improvements and changes."

Incremental is a key word there. In engineering design, improvement is often achieved additively, in small steps, sometimes one at a time. This approach lets engineers target specific problems or weaknesses, making design changes to improve certain aspects of the prototype and then verifying the effects of those changes through testing.

In a Popular Mechanics story about the Atlas' path to victory, Jeff Wise summarizes the team's year of testing: "Time and again they crashed and rebuilt. Time and again they waited on tenterhooks while Gamera came agonizingly close to winning, or set up the machine, tuned it, and got it running, only to have to break it down again so that amateur soccer teams could use the playing field. They kept adjusting and modifying the airframe for greater stiffness, stability, and performance. Finally, incredibly, it all came together."

That... is the engineering design process in action.

You can find out more about the project and their vision in the "Ingredients for Innovation" TEDx talk (April 2013) by AeroVelo founders Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson.


Making Connections

For students interested in, and excited by, the story of the Atlas human-powered helicopter, the following Science Buddies Project Ideas shed light on some of the aerodynamics design and engineering principles that may factor into the process:


More Than One Approach

The Atlas design is only one way to approach the human-powered helicopter challenge. The Gamera, engineered by students at the University of Maryland, looks very different, though pedaling is still at the core of the system. See this article from last year for an overview of Gamera's development.

What approach would you take?

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Thanks to the Asian citrus psyllids, your breakfast cup of orange juice is at risk. Learn more about citrus greening, the threat to the citrus industry, and ways students can develop related hands-on science investigations.


Citrus leaves pest / USDAGOV

A Fruity Problem

Apple and orange growers, both, are fighting for the survival of their crops. The enemy—pests. The image above from the USDA shows leaves covered by Asian citrus psyllids in various stages of their life cycle.


Related Reading

Teresa Weir's memoir, The Orchard: A Memoir, is the story of a young woman, an outsider, who ends up married to an apple farmer. The Orchard is gritty in terms of human relationships, but those relationships, hazy as if captured on old film, are set against the backdrop of a family apple orchard, one permeated with the smell, fog, and taste of round after round of pesticide. Weir witnesses one apple farm's pesticide-laden battles against the codling moths, sees the larvae infiltrate a year's crop, despite constant spraying, and watches two generations of farmers die of cancer. For adult readers.

Rachel Carson's date of birth (May 27, 1907) passed a few weeks ago, and as her book, Silent Spring, rose to the foreground in memory of her pivotal work in marine biology, conservation, and environmental science, stories of oranges and apples also rose, strands of the present mingling with specters of the past. There are proverbial warnings, of course, against the usefulness of comparing apples to oranges. What happens when you throw coffee beans into the mix? What commonality do they share?

Oranges, apples, and coffee beans are all being threatened by pests and pathogens, ones that are seemingly impervious to currently available pesticides and ones that threaten to bring down staple agricultural industries around the world.


Rotten at the Core

The codling moth (Cydia pomonella) and the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana). These are just two of a list of herbivorous pests from the lepidopteran family Tortricidae. Both have proven to have a destructive and pervasive impact on apple orchards and other fruit-bearing trees. Although there are non-chemical alternatives, pests like these are often treated, not always effectively, by wave after wave of pesticides.

The Pacific Northwest Management handbook lists twenty-eight different pests that specifically threaten or target apples. The codling moth is one of these. On the codling moth information page, there is a list of pesticides and treatments used to target the persistent and destructive pest. Treatments vary by time of year, but during summer months, there are sixteen different chemical applications listed for commercial use, some ovicidal, some larvicidal. Growers are also fighting the moth microbially using the codling moth granulosis virus, a virus that contains a "selective biological insecticide that must be ingested (by the pest) in order to be effective."

So there's the proverbial "worm"—the codling moth larva—at the center of the apple, but where do the oranges, with their thicker skins and lack of a core, come into this story?

Florida.


A Pending OJ Crisis?

Recent stories in both Scientific American and the New York Times have chronicled an alarming tale of invasion and a growing threat to the citrus industry.

The bacterial threat, referred to as citrus greening, Huanglongbing, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, or yellow dragon disease, arrives with the Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri. Asian citrus psyllids feed upon their host plants, but their hunger is less destructive than the damage they do as carriers of the bacteria that causes citrus greening, bacteria for which scientists have found no effective treatment.

You won't pick up an orange and find a larva inside, but trees infected with citrus greening yield smaller, harder, and more bitter-tasting fruit—fruit that never fully ripens to its classic color, hence the "citrus greening" moniker. By sight alone, the effects of the disease are visible in the stunted crop. There is no cure, and once infected, plants typically die within a few years.

The danger to the citrus industry, and the challenge of eliminating the spread of the disease, led to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) imposing a quarantine in 2010. Under the quarantine, the transfer of certain plant materials and products between states was disallowed, an attempt to stop the transport of the disease out of states where citrus greening had (then) been detected: Florida, Georgia, the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, two parishes in Louisiana and two counties in South Carolina.

Citrus greening was first identified in Florida in 2005. Eight years later, citrus greening continues to work its way through the roots (and fruits) of the citrus industry. Recent stories about citrus greening have focused primarily on the growing impact of the disease in Florida, and in its coverage, the New York Times reports a stealthy migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida. Noting that the state's citrus industry has been in decline for the last 15 years, the New York Times story cites a 2012 report from University of Florida agricultural analysts that estimate that "citrus greening cost Florida's economy $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs" between 2006 and 2012.

This year, the damage to citrus crops and the citrus industry is reportedly stacking up to be the most significant yet.


A Moving Target

Though Florida may be the poster child of the orange juice business in the U.S.—and possibly the unfortunate "face" of citrus greening—Florida is not alone in its struggle with the Asian citrus psyllid.

Save Our Citrus App

The USDA's free Save Our Citrus iOS app makes it easy for growers report and diagnose citrus problems. Not every failed crop signals invasion of the Asian citrus psyllid. There are other culprits, including citrus canker, citrus black spot, and sweet orange scab. The Save Our Citrus app encourages people to report symptoms and upload photos for evaluation from citrus experts.

Georgia, too, along with isolated parts of Louisiana and South Carolina, was included in the USDA's 2005 quarantine. But the creeping citrus blight has been on the move. Both Texas and California are implicated in the New York Times article, and a Google search on citrus pests immediately brings up the website for the California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee (CCPDPC), a committee of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. California isn't simply being proactive. California citrus, too, is at risk:

"The committee was created to advise the Secretary and the agricultural industry about efforts to combat serious pests and diseases that threaten the State's citrus crop. Most recently, for example, California's citrus growers are confronting the arrival of the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny pest that can spread the fatal citrus disease huanglongbing. Multiple detections of the pest have been confirmed in southern California."

When it comes to citrus greening, it seems that citrus is citrus, and the Asian citrus psyllid isn't particular about its geography. The Asian psyllid is hungry and diplomatic in its trail of destruction. If it can find the grove, it will. And if one grove is treated, the pests may just move to a neighboring grove, a reality that makes the pest that much harder to eradicate. Individual growers, alone, cannot get rid of the Asian psyllid.


A Jolt of Caffeine

Apples. Oranges. And coffee?

Coffee fits into this story because what has happened with apples, and what is happening with citrus, parallels ongoing battles around the world with pests that target the coffee plant. The black coffee twig borer has long threatened coffee crops in Africa, and Hawaii's coffee industry is currently battling another pest, the coffee cherry borer.


Fighting Pests in the Fields

For farmers and growers, the race against species-specific pests—and the threat of pests finding a way to their crops—is an immediate challenge, a battle being waged every day, often with new rounds of pesticides in an attempt to salvage current crops, even when current treatments will not wipe out the source of the disease.

Students interested in agricultural and environmental science can jump into the mix of apples, oranges, coffee beans, and other pest-threatened crops with hands-on research projects that analyze what has happened, what is happening right now, and, ultimately, what can be done or tried next to deal with each specific pest in an effective but environmentally safe way.


Making Hands-on Student Science Connections

The following science projects offer inroads for student science investigations at all levels, from introductory explorations of natural alternatives to target specific pests and insects to plant biology and environmental projects related to pesticides and genomics projects that encourage advanced students to design custom research projects:


Further Reading
See Anna Kuchment's "No More OJ? An Invasive Insect Threatens the Citrus Industry" in Scientific American, March 2013 issue.

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April 25 is National DNA Day, a day that commemorates the 60th anniversary of DNA's double helix discovery in 1953 and the completion of the human genome project in 2003. We all boil down, genetically, to chains of DNA—each of us with an individual DNA sequence. Take time this week to talk with your students and kids about DNA, its history, the scientists who helped crack the code, and ways that students at all levels can get hands-on with DNA-related science.

DNA structure double helix

DNA's familiar "double helix" structure is shown above in the illustration from the U. S. National Library of Medicine. This week marks the 60th year since the first identification and modeling of DNA's structure. Celebrate the molecule that encodes all life with hands-on science activities and exploration. Kids of all ages can learn more about DNA!


Family DNA Activity

The Genes in a BottleTM kit from Bio-Rad Laboratories makes DNA exploration a recipe for cool family science fun! Pair the kit with our project to guide the activity, and then capture and preserve your DNA in a necklace that puts your genetic code out there for everyone to see! See "DNA Show and Tell: Biotechnology You Can Wear Around Your Neck" for more information or check out the kit
at Amazon.com.


Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin

Are you curious about Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA? Franklin's story has been given new light in recent years. The following books and film offer more information:

 

 

When it comes to advancing understanding of genetics and genomics, the discovery of DNA's structure stands as one of the most important turning points in science history. DNA is the blueprint for all organisms, from tiny bacteria to huge whales and long-extinct T. rex dinosaurs.

DNA, and the information it encodes, not only makes each individual organism unique, but also is responsible for certain similarities and traits in groups of organisms. A rose smells the way it does because of DNA. The color of your eyes has something to do with DNA. Whether or not you are at a higher risk of certain health problems may boil down to certain genetic markers you have or do not have. Although genomes (the sum total of DNA needed to encode an organism) are usually copied and acted on in predictable ways, occasionally these mechanisms go awry. Individual stretches of DNA can change or be altered. Transformations, mutations, and other errors in a person's DNA may result in differences in how people respond to a medicine, for example, or may, over long evolutionary time, result in entirely new species.

Encoding the template for a whole organism sounds like a lot of responsibility for a single kind of molecule, but deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) does just that!


Finding the Double Helix

There were many scientists involved in identifying and isolating DNA and tying it to understanding of heredity and chromosomes. The history of DNA-related discoveries and breakthroughs dates back to the first isolation of DNA by Friedrich Miescher in 1869. Miescher extracted a DNA sample from cast-off, pus-covered bandages. It sounds kind of gross, but Miescher's discovery fueled further research and inquiry. Until the structure of the DNA molecule was established and modeled, however, scientists were unable to fully explain and further explore the role of DNA.

That all changed in 1953.

The publication of both Photo 51, an x-ray diffraction photo (taken in 1952) showing the crystalline structure of DNA, and of a series of papers describing the structure of DNA in Nature in 1953 was a pivotal moment in science. Photo 51 was taken by Rosalind Franklin, a scientist working to create a crystal of the DNA molecule that would enable x-ray diffraction studies and, she hoped, enable her to deduce the structure of DNA. The x-ray pattern captured by Photo 51 revealed, for the first time, the ladder-like structure and winding helix shape we now associate with DNA.

The findings published in the same 1953 issue of Nature as Franklin's photo were from James Watson and Francis Crick. After seeing Franklin's photo, Watson and Crick were able to make a model of DNA that showed the molecule's structure. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on DNA. (Franklin, whose photo may have cracked the code, died in 1958, her contributions then largely unacknowledged.)

April 25 is National DNA Day, a day that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the double helix discovery in 1953 and the completion of the human genome project by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in 2003.



The video above from the NHGRI helps students understand the role of DNA, what a genome is, and more.

Breaking It Down

You may have played with a model of the DNA structure, or maybe you wear a visual representation on a t-shirt or have a poster or model hanging on your bedroom wall. A helix is defined as "an object having a three-dimensional shape like that of a wire wound uniformly around a cylinder or cone." In most DNA, two helical strands are wound together creating a double helix. Individual DNA molecules (or strands) are each constructed of two long polymers, chains of repeating units made up of pairs of four nucleotides that appear in various repeating combinations. These nucleotides are adenine ("A"), thymine ("T"), guanine ("G"), and cytosine ("C"). These letters give scientists the ABCs (or ATGCs) of DNA—it's a four-letter alphabet which underwrites all known life on Earth!

Armed with knowledge of the structure, composition, and pattern of DNA strands, scientists are able to tackle questions both about history and about the future. Students can, too!


Students "Do" DNA

From fun home activities that let students and parents explore (and show off!) their own DNA to sophisticated projects for advanced student exploration, Science Buddies has a range of Project Ideas that enable students to better understand the role of DNA and encourage them to explore questions related to genetics, genomics, biotechnology, and bioinformatics. You might be surprised at what your fruits and vegetables drawer will yield in terms of visible DNA discovery, but that's just the tip of the genome!

Some DNA-related Science Buddies Project Ideas to explore:


Extend the Conversation

There are still questions for scientists to ask and answers to be unlocked through further study of DNA. Just last year, samples of DNA with four strands were discovered. See this article in Nature to shake up your understanding of DNA just a bit. What happens when you square or quad your genetic code?




Science Buddies Project Ideas in biomedical technology are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in biotechnology techniques are sponsored by Bio-Rad Laboratories.

See also Science Buddies Project Ideas in genetics and genomics.

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Living on a farm can be smelly business. But stinky piles of biowaste can hold the key to an alternative energy solution that can have a major impact on a farm's available energy and power. Get inspired by one dairy's success and find out how you can explore the potential of turning waste, trash, and other unexpected bio sources into alternative energy.

Image from From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy student science project
Image: The hands-on "From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy" science Project Idea lets students experiment with the production of biogas and which sources of biomass generate the most biogas.

Know Your Biofuels!

There are three types of biofuel that often emerge in a discussion of biochemistry-based alternative energy: biogas, biodiesel, and bioalcohols. These are all green solutions, some of them straight from the farm—literally! So what's the difference?

  • Biofuel: the umbrella term for alternative and renewable fuels (liquids, solids or gases) that are derived from organic matter.
  • Biogas: fuel that is produced by the anaerobic breakdown of organic matter or waste (like manure).
  • Bioalcohols: these alcohols, like bioethanol, are created by the fermentation of carbohydrates in crops like corn and sugarcane. Bioalcohols can also be created from the fermentation of "cellulosic biomass" from non-food sources like grasses and trees.
  • Biodiesel: made from vegetable or soybean oils or other natural oils and fats, biodiesel can be used as a diesel alternative or as a diesel additive.

A recent story in the New York Times spotlighted Fair Oaks Farms, an Indiana-based, family-owned-and-operated dairy that has turned its five million pounds of daily cow manure into a sustainable stream of natural energy that powers its dairy and farm operations as well as a fleet of tractor-trailer trucks that make daily deliveries to milk processing facilities. According to the story, shifting the delivery trucks to also use the farm-produced biogas was a logical next step in Fair Oaks' alternative energy planning and helped the dairy find a way to convert potential biofuel that was being left unused into an environmentally-conscious solution—one with a marked impact on fossil fuel use and emissions. The dairy estimates that their use of biofuel for the delivery trucks will "take two million gallons of diesel off the highway each year."

For Fair Oaks, upcycling biowaste is a solution that makes sense, from the piles of manure up. They already have the bio source (the cows), and the piles of waste accumulate daily, whether they use them or not. Their success, and the amount of self-sustaining power they are generating, tells an inspiring story about the potential of biofuel. On the level of a single farm, Fair Oaks has created an ecosystem that connects their herds to the production of both their dairy products and of the energy that runs the whole operation.


Making Connections

Turning biowaste into natural gas is one approach to creating an alternative energy solution. Cow manure contains methane, a biogas, which can be captured and used for energy. Other sources of biomass are also possible for use in the production of biofuels or agrofuels. Corn for gas? Your compost bin as a source of household power?

Students who are interested in biochemistry-based alternative and renewable energy can explore issues, challenges, and possible approaches in the following hands-on science Project Ideas:

To read the full New York Times story, see: "Dairy Finds a Way to Let Cows Power Trucks."

Science Buddies Project Ideas for student exploration of energy and power are sponsored by SAIC.
Science Buddies Project Ideas in biotechnology techniques are sponsored by Bio-Rad Laboratories.

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Interest in student robotics continues to grow. Find out how to get your (and your kids') feet wet with hands-on robotics engineering projects and activities. From taking robotic steps with LEGO® to upcycling toothbrushes or recouping the innards of cast-off electronics, robotics projects can turn kids on to creative thinking and STEM tinkering! Start at the beginning with simple bots that require only a few parts, and then move on to increasingly more innovative and sophisticated designs, building know-how with each new bot. Watch your student's understanding of robotics engineering grow bot by bot!


"You did what with your brother's toothbrush?"

Nestled in between April showers and May flowers is something much less natural and more gritty, much more tech-savvy, sci-fi-inspired, and DIY oriented—National Robotics Week, April 6-14.

A growing wave of young tinkerers and builders are exploring robotics, often thanks to the availability of after-school robotics clubs and programs and summer science camps. Meeting the needs of both students interested in transforming their bot-building into school science projects and students and parents looking for guided home robotics challenges and explorations, the Science Buddies Robotics Area continues to expand, and there are more new K-12 robotics Project Ideas in development and coming soon!


Inspiring Young Engineers

Ben Finio, a scientist at Science Buddies, recently helped lead a group of kids in building awesome light-following Bristlebots at a Makerspace gathering in Ithaca, NY. Bristlebots, originally popularized by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are DIY versions of vibrating robotic bugs. With a few simple components, possibly even upcycling a cast-off handheld device from the household junk drawer, kids and families can make their own vibrating bugs with toothbrush bristle bodies and legs. The upgraded model Finio invented and helped students build (shown in the video above) uses two motors and two light sensors to create a bot that will trail around after a light source. Talk about a cool tech spin on classic tag-along toys!


Racing Bristlebots at Science Buddies /  hands-on robotics project
Science Buddies Bristelbot ExplorationScience Buddies Bristelbot Exploration

The brand new "Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!" robotics Project Idea helps students turn Bristlebot building into a comparative science project. In this project, students are guided in building a base-model Bristlebot and then investigate the impact of using different materials. How will different toothbrush bristle designs affect the speed of the bot? Students will build and compare two bots in the project, but the project can easily be extended as students make their way through the toothbrush aisle at the grocery store in a quest for the best head of bristles for bot building (as opposed to teeth cleaning!).

Finio will be bringing a version of his light-tracking Bristlebot to Science Buddies in the future, but parents and students can get started now with their first Bristlebots. What other enhancements can you make to a bristlebot to change the core design?


Where to Start with Robotics

As is often the case with engineering and tinkering-style projects, Finio assembled his Light-following Bristlebot from assorted parts. Knowing how and what to take from disparate places to enable a successful hands-on robotics exploration can be a stumbling block for many parents and teachers who want to give their kids and students robotics opportunities but are unsure where to begin and what to buy.

Finio encourages parents, especially those with younger kids, to look for robotics projects that involve only a few components and don't require complicated circuits, mechanisms, or programming. Bots like the Bristlebot or an Art Bot (which uses pens for legs), can be easy but engaging entry-level projects, ones that parents can assist with or that older kids can undertake as a launching point for getting started with robotics.


Books on Bots

You can find many blueprints for robotics projects online, and if you work with a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, there are numerous project books for design inspiration. Here are a few other robotics titles you might explore at your local library or on a bookstore shelf as you search for inspiration and projects that fit you and your student's level of interest and expertise.

Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects contains projects accessible even for new robot builders!

Robot Building for Beginners covers more advanced robotics engineering concepts.

Robot is part of the DK Eyewitness line of reference books for students.

Robots is another conceptual introduction to robotics for students.

My Robots: The Robotic Genius of Lady Regina Bonquers III is the invented history and sketchbook of a female robotics engineer. This one isn't just for girls but definitely has girl-power potential!

Investing in a robotics platform like LEGO® Mindstorms® or VEX is another pathway parents might consider. With a platform, kids can use build dozens of robots using designs available online or in the many, many books full of step-by-step bot ideas. The kits themselves may require substantial initial investment, but these kits have high reuse value, can be extended with add-on components, and offer programmability as well.


Empowering Student Robotics Engineers

At Science Buddies, students interested in robotics, of any flavor, or students who already have experience with or access to a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, can find robotics engineering challenges that can be used for home fun or as the basis for a more involved science or engineering project for school.

The following Robotics Project Ideas offer a sample of the kinds of explorations students can find in the Robotics Area at Science Buddies:


Why Robotics

With its combination of innovation, creative thinking, engineering, and electronics, robotics can be a wonderful way to help encourage your student's engineering design skills, as well as important troubleshooting and problem solving strategies. If something doesn't work, figuring out why and then evaluating what you can do about it are core concepts when working with bots of all sizes. Equally important is the reality that there are no right answers in terms of "how" to build or design a robot.

Finio says he likes robotics for students and for STEM education because it is interdisciplinary. "Robotics is a combination of math, physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, programming, and sometimes even chemistry and biology," says Finio. "So whether you like using your hands to build things or prefer working on a computer, you can probably find something within robotics that you think is fun. Designing robots really encourages tinkering, prototyping, and trial-and-error. Even professional engineers rarely design robots that work perfectly on the first try!"

Light-sensing bristlebot construction / student robotics in action
Light-sensing bristlebot construction / student robotics in action
Pictured above: participants making light-following Bristlebots at a hands-on robotics event with Ben Finio, Science Buddies.


For more information about National Robotics Week, visit www.nationalroboticsweek.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering are supported by Northrop Grumman and Symantec Corporation.

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SXSW Interactive Festival attendees got a chance to see a full-scale model of the giant James Webb Space telescope last month in Texas.

Crowd gathered around Northrop Grumman's model James Webb Space Telescope
Visitors to the Webb Telescope exhibit at South by Southwest engaged in presentations by prominent astronomers including Nobel laureate John C. Mather. Photo: Courtesy, Northrop Grumman.


The image above, with the crowd gathered around, looks like something straight from a science fiction movie or novel. With its futuristic design, sophisticated sunshield system, and honeycomb of multiple mirrors, the Webb Telescope may, in fact, seem like the "stuff" of science fiction. Once launched, the space telescope will let astronomers study the formation of galaxies, planets beyond our Solar System, and newborn stars by examining their thermal radiation.

According to Northrop Grumman, more than 10,000 SXSW visitors got to see the four-story model Webb Telescope, explore the kinds of questions the telescope might help answer, and engage in related hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities as part of the exhibit.

The model James Webb Space Telescope will be housed in Texas at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, a facility Northrop Grumman characterizes as "home to the only vacuum chamber in the world that is large and cold enough (-440°F) to provide a space-like environment for the Webb Telescope." With plans to launch the Webb Telescope in 2018, vacuum chamber testing is scheduled to begin in 2014 in historical Chamber A, a facility once used to test Apollo spacecraft.


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Northrop Grumman's four-story high, tennis court-sized full-scale model of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope attracted thousands at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, March 8-10. Photo: Courtesy, Northrop Grumman


Supporting K-12 STEM Education

As an extension of the SXSW exhibition, Northrop Grumman and partners, including NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of Texas, went into classrooms throughout Austin, TX and engaged K-12 students in STEM science and art projects related to the Webb Telescope. Projects and artwork created during these school activities were displayed at the SXSW event in support of hands-on learning.

"In this spirit of STEM outreach, the Webb Telescope's presence at SXSW culminated with a Guinness World Record attempt for the largest astronomy lesson," notes Northrop Grumman. "The previous record was 458, but the crowds in Austin helped set a new world record of 526."


Simulating Cutting-edge Science and Engineering

Visitors to the exhibit got to see demonstrations of next-generation hardware and mirror displays and the infrared camera being used in the Webb Telescope. The photo above spotlights the unique sunshield, a series of multiple membranes that have been designed to enable the Webb Telescope to function in extreme space temperatures.

Students can explore the challenges and engineering questions that have gone into the construction and design of the Webb Telescope in the "The James Webb Space Telescope's Amazing Multiple Mirrors and Sunshield" physics Project Idea.



Science Buddies Project Ideas in astronomy are supported by Northrop Grumman.

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When Mavericks' unusual sea floor terrain meets up with the perfect winter weather conditions rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, the surf's right for big waves. Students can learn more about the area's extreme surf with a range of hands-on science investigations.

Mavericks
Photo: Courtesy, Rick Hyman

In January, daredevil surfers and fans of extreme surfing gathered along Pillar Point, just outside of Half Moon Bay, CA, for Mavericks Invitational. It was the first time in three years that conditions were right to hold the event.


The surf break, which gets its name from the dog that tagged along with a trio of surfers who first decided the break wasn't surfable, was surfed solo by Jeff Clark for more than a decade before other big wave surfers gave the break a try. Winter storms in the Pacific Ocean create big waves at Mavericks, swells that often crest well over 25 feet and create a surfing challenge unlike any other.

Today, Mavericks has developed the kind of notoriety often heaped upon X-game-type sporting events. Since the annual Mavericks surf contest began, there have been both deaths and injuries, and only the elite are invited to brave the waves in an epic showdown that pits surfers against the biggest surf the Northern California coast has to offer. The mystique surrounding Mavericks is steep. The dynamics of the rocky ocean floor can be punishing. The force of the swell cannot be underestimated. This is not your ordinary big wave surfing.

One online surf guide describes Mavericks as "a cold heavy water wave, breaking over a punishing rock bottom with shifting currents [and] visited by great white sharks." Even for Hawaii's legendary big wave surfers, Mavericks is a watery beast of its own.

Though yearly in concept, the date of the Mavericks event varies. These are diehard surfers, but for the surf to be right, the conditions have to be perfect, and the contest window is open for only a few months in the winter. Once meteorological reports and ocean projections pinpoint the timing, a select group of surfers are invited for a surf contest that may happen as quickly as 24-48 hours later. Despite the short notice, the competition draws upwards of fifty thousand spectators and is webcast live.

Ocean Sciences, Math, Physics, and More


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You can learn more about big waves in the KQED QUEST video (above). Or, catch big waves on the big screen with movies like Chasing Mavericks (2012, PG) or Riding Giants (2004, PG-13).
Predicting the surf at Mavericks requires precision forecasting. The team in charge of monitoring ocean and weather activity in hopes of finding a perfect mix of swell, tide, and wind spotted this year's oncoming Mavericks dynamics when the swell was still 3,000 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. Realizing the waves are coming and pinpointing competition-caliber surf conditions is the challenge for the Mavericks Invitational coordinators. Evaluating what's happening at the surface and at sea is part of the puzzle, but for surfing fans, understanding why the waves at Mavericks are so large requires investigating what's happening underneath the water, too.

When you make a map of the mountains and valleys, for example, of an area, you are mapping the topography of the land or the surface contours of the Earth. Bathymetry is a similar study of the depth of the ocean floor. Using bathymetry, contour maps are created that show the terrain of the ocean bottom. In the case of Mavericks, bathymetry studies reveal an unusual underwater ramp bordered by deep troughs on each side. The specifics of the ocean bottom in this area create a scenario of angles, speeds, and bending waves that result in the large, powerful, and unique Mavericks wave. For oceanographers, these waves are a fascinating example of the ways in which the ocean bottom, the weather up top, and laws of physics and math all come to play in wave formation.


Student Making Science Connections

Students interested in Mavericks, ocean sciences, or even extreme surfing, can learn more about related topics in the following science Project Ideas:

  • Roaming Robots: Build Your Own Underwater Robot: Underwater data is gathered from a range of sources and techniques, but students curious about Mavericks can learn more about underwater robots that may be used to gather data about the ocean floor. The "Roaming Robots: Build Your Own Underwater Robot" Project Idea guides students in building and testing a simple DIY bot using familiar household or basement materials.
  • The Science Behind Tsunamis: Study the Effect of Water Depth on Wave Velocity: What do Mavericks and Tsunamis have in common? Big waves, of course! But both also share velocity. The slope of the sea floor in the area of Mavericks is related to the way the energy of the waves are channeled to the shore. In this science project, students explore the relationship between ocean depth and wave speed.
  • Ocean Currents: Modeling the 'Global Conveyor Belt' in Your Kitchen: Bathymetry has a lot to do with why Mavericks big waves are possible, but the "perfect" conditions event organizers watch for each year depend on certain weather conditions, the convergence of meteorological happenings that begin far from shore. In this science project, students explore the relationship between the channels of differing temperatures in the ocean and the velocity of ocean currents.
  • Catch the Wave!: In this energy and power project, students use online ocean buoy data to determine possible coastal locations that could be used to harness wave energy as an alternative energy power system. What could a day of Mavericks-sized waves power (besides surfer enthusiasm)?

You may not ever "catch" a Mavericks wave. But with a bit of hands-on science, you can better understand what's going on both under the water and at the top as the waves roll in!

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Do you use a package's nutritional information when making food choices? Can you trust the accuracy of the information? Nutritional content requirements are becoming more widespread, but the information on a label or a restaurant brochure may or may not be correct. Students can learn more about nutrition and explore the kinds of science involved in analyzing a food's nutritional composition by holding favorite foods to the fire, literally! Which foods offer the most chemical energy for the body?

Calorie Detective screenshot / food scienceImage: screenshot from "Calorie Detective," by Casey Neistat, New York Times

A short documentary film titled "Calorie Detective" recently debuted on the New York Times "Opinion" page. The film, which runs just over five minutes, combines a catchy sound score, DIY-inspired presentation of data, and nitty-gritty science. The result is an engaging video that lets viewers tag along as the filmmaker takes an informal look at the nutritional content information provided for both packaged and made-to-order foods.

Food package labeling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and new policies may require the availability of nutritional information at chain restaurants. While restaurants and food manufacturers are required to make caloric and nutritional data available, the information is not necessarily checked, validated, or monitored. Does the cinnamon raisin bagel you had for breakfast really have 210 Calories?


Burning Calories Science Project Kit
Student Science

Students interested in food science and kitchen chemistry can get hands-on with the "Burning Calories" analysis of the chemical energy offered by various foods. A science kit is available in the Science Buddies Store.

Student food scientists can also investigate a food's supplemental iron content using the "Mag-nificent Breakfast Cereal" biotechnology Project Idea.

In an increasingly health-conscious age, many people make food purchase choices based on the perceived health content of the product or food, which often boils down to the number of Calories or the amount of fat noted on the label. For many health-conscious diners, a discrepancy between the information on the label and the actual nutritional value may be trivial, an inconvenience, or a matter of brand honesty. For other diners, the accuracy of nutritional data is more serious. For example, for someone using nutritional data for medical reasons (like calculating carbohydrates in order to determine insulin needs), the legitimacy of the information provided by a label or restaurant nutritional data can be critically important and a misrepresentation of nutritional data may have immediate and potentially serious health consequences.

In the "Calorie Detective" video, filmmaker Casey Neistat puts an assortment of his favorite daily food purchases, including a breakfast muffin, a Starbucks Frappuccino, and a packaged tofu sandwich from the grocery, to a "nutritional content accuracy" test. With the help of scientists at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, Casey compared the stated caloric content of five foods with the actual Calories contained in each. According to the video, the food testing to determine the actual number of Calories in each food took ten hours, precision lab equipment, the help of two food scientists, and a lot of math.

While the tests for "Calorie Detective" were conducted by scientists, the testing for the film is largely informal. They didn't run multiple trials for each of the foods, a step that would give a look at the average number of Calories for each food to compare to the stated nutritional value data. The results are not statistically conclusive. However, as the "Calorie Detective" film shows, what you see on the billboard when you order, on a package label at the store, or on a glossy nutritional card by the cash register, may or may not tell the whole story. Things get particularly tricky when items are made by hand, as you order. Maybe you end up with a double scoop, a bigger handful, or an extra squirt. There goes the accuracy of the average nutritional content data for the item!


Making Connections

Students curious about how scientists, like the ones shown in the video, test and determine nutritional information can take hands-on steps in food science with an exploration of another aspect of nutritional value—how much energy a food offers the body. When your body breaks down and digests a food, not all Calories offer the same value to the body. You may guess that the potential "energy" stored in food has something to do with the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the food. But what is the relationship? What kinds of foods offer the most chemical energy or the best bang for the number of Calories?

In the "Burning Calories: How Much Energy is Stored in Different Types of Food?" food science Project Idea, students can conduct their own food testing and get answers by setting food on fire, using a homemade calorimeter, and simulating the oxidation of food to measure the energy that cells can use or store from different foods. A convenient Science Buddies kit is available for this science project!

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Hands-on winter science may be full of snow and ice, but that doesn't mean it can't be colorful! Take a cue from this inspiring story about an engineering student who gave a colorful twist to a backyard igloo. Students can explore physics, civil engineering, and more in related science projects at home or in the backyard on a snow day!

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Rainbow igloo project caught the attention of makers and engineers of all ages—and opens up plenty of angles for hands-on student exploration! View full image set.

In many places, winter months are dominated by a subdued palette, quiet tones of gray and white, deep greens and browns, a monotony of color dictated by snow, wintry skies, barren deciduous trees and evergreens. Spicing up the visual landscape with a burst of unexpected color might be a fun and creative winter challenge. But what shape or medium will your color take? When New Zealand-based engineering student Daniel Gray visited his girlfriend's family in Edmonton, Canada, he was greeted with frigid temperatures and a challenge from his host: brighten things up! More specifically, his girlfriend's mother threw down an engineering gauntlet for Daniel: build an igloo in the back yard.


This may sound a bit like an activity parents might suggest for restless children on a snow day: go build a snow fort! As the story goes, the heart of the igloo challenge was similarly conceived. Brigid Burton (the mother) wanted to have a project to keep Daniel occupied during an extended holiday visit so that he wasn't bored and so that she would have plenty of time with her daughter while Daniel was busy. In preparation, Brigid spent months filling empty milk cartons with colored water and putting them aside to freeze. When Daniel arrived, Daniel learned that he had "work" to do during the holidays, especially if he wanted Brigid's approval of a future engagement between Daniel and her daughter.

Daniel's igloo took approximately 500 colorful frozen ice blocks, a large chunk of time, and lots and lots of snow mixed with water ("snowcrete") to hold the cartons together. In the end, Daniel completed the challenge and secured his future mother-in-law's approval, but Daniel's story—and the whimsy of a rainbow igloo—also caught the attention of engineers and makers everywhere. If the conditions are right... why not try your hand at an igloo!


Making Connections

Building an igloo, in and of itself, is a great conceptual and hands-on project for students. But Daniel's igloo also raises a number of other angles for student inquiry. Here are some suggestions for students interested in exploring a hands-on science project as an outgrowth of the inspiring rainbow igloo story:

  • "Dome Sweet Dome": The dome shape of a traditional igloo offers interesting issues for students exploring structural design. Once built, the structure is sound without any internal support beams and strong enough, if done correctly, to support a surprising amount of weight at the centermost external point. In the "Dome Sweet Dome" civil engineering science Project Idea, students construct a geodesic dome from tubes of rolled up newspaper.
  • Science Kit: Investigating the Mpemba Effect
  • "Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?": Daniel's girlfriend's mother spent months preparing ice bricks for the igloo. If you needed to freeze ice bricks on the spot, however, to supplement a quantity you have ready or to generate a number of bricks in a short amount of time, are you better off using hot water or cold water? Explore the Mpemba effect and put it to the test! Making a few dozen bricks for a small igloo project, ice chest, or snowball barricade in the back yard is a perfect excuse to see whether hot or cold water freezes fastest! (A Science Buddies kit is available for this exploration!)
  • "Mixing Light to Make Colors": You know that even if you only have a few colors of paint on hand, you can mix a range of secondary and tertiary colors. Does light mix the same way? The translucent colored ice blocks in the rainbow igloo might create interesting colors on the inside, a changing interior as the angle of sunlight on the surface changes throughout the day. In the "Mixing Light to Make Colors" science Project Idea, students use colored films (or hand-colored transparencies) to explore how light shining through different colors mixes to create the color our eyes perceive. Anyone interested in theater knows that different "gels" are often key to getting the right lighting effect! Budding photographers, too, can turn this science exploration into an eye-opening experiment.
  • "How Does Color Affect Heating by Absorption of Light?": A typical igloo, made of snow, is opaque, and igloos are known for their ability to offer insulation and warmth even in extremely cold temperatures. The ice bricks in Daniel's igloo are filled with water tinted with food coloring. As a result, these blocks are more translucent than a traditional igloo's snow blocks. Will the rainbow igloo melt more quickly? Will the temperature inside the rainbow igloo be similar to a snow igloo? While the colors used in the ice bricks for the rainbow igloo offer more whimsy than engineering purpose, when it comes to painting a house, color can be an important factor. In the "How Does Color Affect Heating by Absorption of Light?" science Project Idea, students explore the relationship between color and heat absorption using small jars of water covered with various colors of paper. When it comes to creating the warmest space, is there an optimum color for house or windows paints, coverings, or materials?

Additional Reading

To read more about Daniel's igloo, view the local news coverage, or see photos taken during construction, visit the following sources:


To learn more about igloos and other snow-based architecture, check the following books:


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Archaeologists and scientists have announced that the remains found last summer beneath a Leicester parking lot are those of Richard III, a much-maligned figure from English history. The story offers an enticing mix of history, literature, and science. Curious students, classes, and parents can learn more about genetics and genomics procedures used to solve the puzzle of the skeleton's identity.


Skeleton in Leicester
Human remains found in trench one of the Grey Friars dig. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Leicester.

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

These famous opening lines were spoken by Shakespeare's Richard III in the play by the same name. The bard's portrayal of Richard III, based on Sir Thomas More's record, possibly set a skewed stage for the way history has remembered Richard III. Both in terms of physical appearance and bitter and ruthless personality, Shakespeare penned an unlikeable and unhappy anti-hero. To a degree, historical facts support the characterization. The story of Richard's rise to the throne and, notably, the disappearance of his nephews, the "Princes in the Tower," paints an undeniably negative picture of the last ruler from the Plantagenet family. But other accounts of Richard suggest that literature has had much to do with how Richard has been remembered.

Richard III was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth, the final conflict in the War of Roses, a series of battles between the houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. With Richard's death, Henry VII ascended to the throne and began rule by the Tudors, a ruling dynasty that continued for more than one hundred years. Historical account of what happened to Richard III after his death is vague. Some maintained his remains had been buried near a local church, but as the years passed, the original location of the Greyfriars Friary was lost.
The lack of concrete knowledge regarding the fallen king's burial fed an aura of mystery regarding Richard's remains, a mystery that has intrigued historians for years and a puzzle that a team of scientists and archaeologists from the University of Leicester undertook to solve.


Digging into History

Last August, the remains of a body were found in Leicester, England by a team led by archaeologist Richard Buckley. Having determined the location, they thought, of the original Greyfriars Friary, a parking lot now, Buckley and team began to dig. They turned up "a human skeleton, complete with evidence of battle wounds—a blow to the head, and an arrow in the back—and scoliosis, or curvature of the spine."

Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton confirmed that the individual died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th century, which fits with Richard's death in 1485. The age of the individual at the time of death was posited as late 20s or early 30s. Richard died at 32. These results offered early indication that the remains might be the ones for which the team had been searching and fueled the quest for irrefutable identification. Characteristics of the skeleton, including the scoliosis and evidence of a fatal blow to the head further appeared to corroborate the story. But many people died in the late 1400s. Determining, without a doubt, the identity of the skeleton required more comprehensive and sophisticated research and science.

Richard III: History and Literature


After many months of scientific inquiry, the identity of the remains has now been announced as conclusively belonging to the oft-maligned king. The announcement has left many intrigued. More than 500 years have passed, but a number of clues and the results of many scientific procedures, including mitochondrial DNA sequencing and radiocarbon dating, all go together to tell a unified story: the skeleton is that of Richard III.


The Thrill of Science

For young scientists, the story of Richard's exhumation and discovery is one that combines the best of history, adventure, mystery, and science. In a fitting twist, this week's science news tells a tale worthy of the stage. But in the end, science held the key to the identification of the skeleton. As detailed on the University of Leicester's The Search for Richard III site devoted to the excavation and identification, the many stages of scientific research and analysis included DNA extraction, X-ray tomography, osteology, and carbon dating.

Students fascinated by the story can conduct their own genetics and genomics science explorations to learn more about the processes scientists used to solve the puzzle of the skeleton's identity. The following Project Ideas guide students in hands-on research working with BLAST and building evolutionary trees using mitochondrial sequences:

Stay tuned! A new Project Idea is coming to Science Buddies that will give students a chance to simulate radiocarbon dating.


Further Reading

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Did you get the flu shot? This year's flu season started early and with a vengeance. How effective is the vaccine against the influenza making the rounds? Using an online bioinformatics tool, students can analyze flu data from previous years and make their own predictions.


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Image: Bigstock
Flu season data offers students the chance to use bionformatics tools like BLAST.
This year's flu season is proving to be one of the worst in the last decade. Outbreak of the flu has been reported in most states, but this year's flu hit particularly hard in some northeastern states. In mid-January, NewYorkDailyNews.com reported startling statistics about the prevalence of flu in New York: "During last year's entire flu season, only 4,400 cases were reported. So far this season, there have been more than 15,000—an increase of close to 250%." A recent New York Times article ran with a headline that termed the number of deaths related to this year's flu as epidemic in scale. Both New York and Boston, MA declared a state of emergency due to flu this January.

Severity of the outbreak varies across the country, but a look at Google's Flu Trends site for the United States shows a predominantly "red" map (compared to the global map). While some reports claim that flu season may be peaking, other sources caution that the season is not over—and there is still time for the flu shot to be helpful. According to the CDC, there is still vaccine to go around. Of the 145 million doses produced for this year, the CDC reports that "as of January 18, 2013, more than 133 million doses [have] been distributed."


Verifying the Vaccine

Reacting to alarming flu-related news reports, people have flocked to pharmacies and doctors' offices in hopes of getting the flu shot before supplies dwindle. The question remains: Will this year's flu vaccine protect you from getting the flu? It's a toss-up.

Each year, the flu vaccine is formulated based on a prediction of three strains of flu that scientists anticipate will be common during the coming October-March flu season. According to the CDC, the 2012-2013 flu vaccine includes "an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus." This year's vaccine is already being tentatively called a success. In a recent briefing, the CDC termed it "62% effective," which they define as meaning that people who get the flu shot this year are about 60 percent less likely to end up in the doctor's office because of the flu.

How accurate were the predictions that led to this year's vaccine formulation? Students interested in genomics and biotechnology can do their own data analysis of this year's flu season using BLAST, the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool. BLAST is a bioinformatics tool used for sequence alignment, a process by which scientists compare two strands of DNA. The "BLASTing Flu Viruses" genomics Project Idea challenges advanced students to do their own detective work and retrospective analysis of the effectiveness of flu vaccines from previous flu seasons as well as to begin analyzing reports and data from the current season (current-season weekly reports are available).

In this project, students can familiarize themselves with several important bioinformatics techniques as they look up gene sequences for the virus strains that were included in certain vaccines and compare those to the strains that were documented as prevalent during the same year's flu season.


Preventing the Spread

While getting the flu vaccine, proactively, is considered by many to be the best way to protect yourself from the flu, being careful to wash hands frequently and effectively is an important step in helping cut down on the spread of any virally transmitted disease. Reminding and better educating students about hand washing is important and can be turned into an eye-opening science project or classroom experiment. See the "Spread the Soap, Not the Germs" microbiology project for a glowing look at germs.





Science Buddies' Project Ideas in Medical Biotechnology are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation.
Project Ideas in Microbiology are sponsored by Thermo-Fisher Scientific.

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While "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" is officially celebrated in February, helping girls understand the creative world of engineering is important all year long. If you love to innovate, imagine, build, tinker, solve problems, or make things, engineering might be just the right area for you—or your student!

Too Young to Be an Engineer?
Book coverHave you heard of Becky Schroeder, a teenage inventor who wanted to find a better way to do her homework while waiting in a dark car. Becky's story is one of many inspiring stories about women innovators and engineers you can read in Girls Think of Everything.


Science Kit

Science and Engineering Kits
Looking for a hands-on science activity for a young female engineer? The following science project ideas (some of which have kits in the Science Buddies Store) encourage girls to explore and experiment with an area of science even while allowing room for innovation and creativity.

Do you like chocolate chip cookies? Maybe you make yours using a treasured family recipe, or, like many other people, maybe you use the recipe on the back of the bag of chocolate chips to make "Toll House Cookies." Chocolate chip cookies are a familiar dessert in many households and, arguably, an ingrained part of our culture, but this favorite kind of cookie is really less than a hundred years old!

Chocolate chip cookies are the result of innovation by Ruth Wakefield, one of the proprietors of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. In a hurry one day, legend has it that Ruth cut a few corners to save time while making a batch of chocolate butter drop cookies. Ruth mixed chunks of chocolate into the dough rather than using melted chocolate. The chunks did not completely melt during baking. With that first batch, Ruth spawned a cookie that would delight cookie and chocolate fans of all ages and would lead to Nestlé's development and production of chocolate chips. It's a story worth thinking about the next time you look at your favorite recipe and wonder what would happen if you changed things, tried something different, or otherwise altered your tried and true formula!

Ruth's story highlights ingenuity. She wasn't really looking to invent a completely new kind of cookie. Instead, she was looking for a better (and faster) approach. Once she tasted the results and saw the reaction of her customers to the cookie, she knew she had created something special. Nestlé knew it, too. In the end, Ruth wound up with a lifetime's supply of chocolate, and her recipe lives on with each package of Nestle chocolate chips.

The historical genesis of the chocolate chip cookie is interesting. You might have picked up bits and pieces of Ruth's story from your chocolate chips bag. But what about the origin of windshield wipers? Kevlar®? Liquid Paper®? ScotchguardTM? Paper bags? The computer compiler? Behind each of these discoveries and inventions is the story of a female engineer, scientist, or inventor.


A History of Innovation and Invention by Women

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women,
by Catherine Thimmesh, offers these stories, and many others, for readers of all ages. Chances are good that some of these stories of innovation and invention are ones you have not heard. You may know the product, but you may not know of the woman behind it or "how" the invention came about. Girls Think of Everything does an excellent job spinning tales that are fun to read, offer plenty of wow factor, and combine to paint a powerful and inspiring portrait of women in engineering. What do you think of when you think of an engineer? Girls Think of Everything may challenge your definition of engineers and engineering in a good way!

Some of the discoveries chronicled in Girls Think of Everything started with an accident; others were the result of determined research and development. Some of these inventions were by women working in labs; others were created by women out of necessity or from home. The book, illustrated by Melissa Sweet with engaging illustrations and collages that reinforce the subject matter of each story, invites readers to learn more about women who have made important contributions as inventors, engineers, and scientists. In pages at the front and back of the book, a timeline chronicles inventions and discoveries by women between 3000 B.C. and 1995. It's an impressive look at the role of female innovators, and the book, as a whole, is a wonderful collection for young women. Reading these stories is sure to amaze, inspire, and maybe even propel a future engineer to grab a laboratory notebook and put the steps of the engineering design process in action!


Educating and Supporting Tomorrow's Engineers

Engineers Week, a project of the National Engineers Foundation, and sponsored by companies like Motorola Solutions Foundation, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman, will take place February 17-23, 2013. A collaborative effort, the week encourages the education of students about engineering as a step toward increasing the number of students pursuing engineering degrees. Through community and school activities during this special week, students learn more about engineering and the many kinds of career opportunities that exist. The more models of female scientists and engineers we can provide for students during elementary and middle school, the more young women we can help encourage to explore paths in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. (Note: On the Engineers Week website, teachers can request free kits containing posters, suggested activities, and more, to help promote the week at school.)


Encouraging Female Engineers

February 21, 2013 is "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day." The day is an important part of Engineers Week, but the core concept behind introducing young women to engineering transcends the single day and has become an important cause, year-round, for organizations like Motorola Solutions Foundation. Raising awareness among young women about engineering as a creative, innovative, and collaborative field of study and encouraging and nurturing girls' interest in engineering is important every day, all year long.

The next time you use your windshield wipers on a rainy day, give a thought to Mary Anderson. If you don't know her story, check out Girls Think of Everything. Mary's story is one of many to share with students and family members.

For even more inspiration, watch the "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" video, created by the National Engineers Foundation.


Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.
Motorola Solutions Foundation

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What kind of corn is in your favorite corn chip? Current debate in California surrounds the labeling of genetically modified foods and foods made from genetically engineered crops. Students can get hands-on and learn more about genetically modified organisms with biotechnology science Project Ideas from Science Buddies and Bio-Rad Laboratories.


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(Image: Bigstock)

Debate over the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms has been headline news in the months leading up to this week's election, especially in California where voters are considering Proposition 37. Students can learn more about genetic engineering and modification of foods—and even put favorite foods to the test using gel electrophoresis. They can also plant and grow genetically modified seeds and see how they fare against other seeds.

This week, voters around the country will cast their votes on a variety of local and national issues. In California, one of the hotly contested issues involves the labeling of foods. Proposition 37 seeks to require food companies to clearly note whether or not a product is genetically modified (GM). Currently, in the U.S., product labels do not have to say if a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMO), and foods that contain less than 5% GMO content can be labeled as GMO-free. On the flip side, a high percentage of U.S. crops involved in the production of staple corn- and soy-based ingredients are grown from GM seeds.


The Right to Know?

Proposition 37 and the issue of more transparency when it comes to GM foods has been heavily debated in California, and manufacturers around the country will be watching as voters weigh in on the issue of food labeling. If passed, Proposition 37 will have a widespread impact as companies that sell food to California stores will all need to change labeling practices to meet California regulations. While California is the first U.S. state to petition for GM labeling, many other countries require such labeling, including England, Spain, Italy, Australia, China, Japan, and Russia.


Similar but Different

If you know someone who is a gardener or a farmer, you may know about hybrid plants and crops. Creating a hybrid plant involves taking two varieties of a plant and cross-breeding the two to create a new species—one that may be hardier, for example. Careful cultivation of hybrids and, in some cases, additional levels of cross-breeding, leads to new varieties, types of plants. Chances are that some of the vegetables you eat are of hybrid varieties. For instance, Early Girl tomatoes are a hybrid, as is Yellow Hybrid Sweet Corn. Hybridization and genetic modification may sound similar as both seek to create crops that are "improved" or "better" in some way, but hybridization and genetic modification are different in fundamental ways: while hybridization is limited to moving traits between organisms that can interbreed, genetic modification can also move traits between organisms that could never breed.

A genetically modified organism is one that has been altered in a lab by scientists who directly change the genetic structure. Many kinds of genetic modification are possible, including introducing genetic material from other organisms or modifying an existing gene. GMO research is used to enhance and strengthen crops by giving them qualities that may make them more successful as crops, easier to grow in certain areas, longer lasting once harvested, more nutritional, or a better choice for global populations. Genetic modifications, for example, may include giving crops the ability to fight off insects or resist pesticides, as in the case of Bt-corn. Bt-corn is a type of corn that has been genetically altered so that it contains a gene that serves as a natural insecticide. Rather than farmers having to use insecticides on the crops, the corn contains its own insect-killing gene because of a bacteria-based gene that it now carries as part of its genetic makeup. The gene used in Bt-corn comes from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis and targets certain kinds of insects, not all.

Golden rice is another example of a GM food. The rice is golden in color because it has been genetically modified to contain beta-carotene, which the body converts into nutritionally-important A-vitamins. By increasing the nutritional value of rice, a staple food in some underdeveloped countries, many may benefit from getting the essential vitamin in their diets through a common food.


What's at Issue?

While GMOs are created to address both local and global problems, some worry that GM foods may have unintended health and environmental consequences, including ones that may not be detected or realized right away. Proponents of genetic modification of foods and crops, on the other hand, insist that GMOs are safe. In a recent statement on the issue from its board of directors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) writes "the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." The AAAS statement goes on to note that "contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply."


The Foods You Eat

Even if you are not eating genetically modified corn straight from the field, many products made from corn, including some corn chips and cereals, for example, use Bt-corn. Similarly, high fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, is made from corn. Especially if you eat processed and ready-to-eat foods, chances are good that some of the foods you eat contain GMOs. In most cases, you cannot tell by looking or tasting a food whether or not it has been made using GMOs or GMO byproducts. This is the issue behind Proposition 37. If passed, producers and manufacturers will be required to label foods so that consumers will know whether or not a food contains GMOs. Consumers then will make individual decisions about what foods they buy and eat.

Already consumers make similar decisions about buying organic foods, buying foods with certain kinds of chemicals, dyes, oils, additives, and preservatives. Similarly, mandated labeling has given consumers the ability to monitor and compare the fat, calorie, vitamin, sugar, and protein contents of foods. If GM labeling is added, it will be another level of information consumers have when making choices at the grocery store. Proponents of Proposition 37 argue that consumers have a right to actively make this choice, while opponents argue that there are large economic consequences to labeling, particularly if consumers are not educated about genetically modified foods. "Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers," concludes the AAAS statement.


Making Connections

Regardless of the outcome of next week's election and Proposition 37, understanding what it means for a food to be a GMO, and how that compares to the kind of hybrids that plant biologists create, is important for student scientists. While you can't pick up a bag of chips and do a taste-test to detect GMOs, investigating favorite products and testing for the presence of GMOs is something students interested in biotechnology can pursue. While not a science project for the home kitchen, a student or class with access to a research laboratory with PCR equipment can analyze common foods using the GMO Investigator Kit from the Bio-Rad Biotechnology Explorer Program. For students looking to conduct an individual biotechnology project, the "Genetically Modified Foods*" Abbreviated Project Idea offers a starting point for devising an independent science project on this topic. (Note: a teacher's assistance is required to order from Bio-Rad Laboratories. The GMO Investigator Kit is sold as a classroom kit.)

Students can also experiment firsthand with growing GM seeds. The "May the Best Plant Win! Experiment with Genetically Modified Seeds" Project Idea guides students in growing and observing the interaction between plants that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides and other plants. By planting wild seeds alongside GM seeds, students can investigate what happens when the two types compete for resources.







Science Buddies Project Ideas in Biotechnology Techniques are sponsored by support from Bio-Rad Laboratories and its Biotechnology Explorer program.

Biotechnology Explorer

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Frankenstorm Science: Hurricane Sandy


Students of all ages may be hearing and seeing news about Hurricane Sandy. Even in the aftermath of the storm, talking about hurricanes with your students helps them better understand the science involved.


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(Image: NASA GOES Project)

Students curious about hurricanes like Sandy—or interested in why this week's tropical storm was unusual and how it differed from past storms—can explore further in one of several science fair Project Ideas at Science Buddies.

Hurricane Sandy rose on the tail end of the typical hurricane season, just in time for Halloween, which quickly spawned the freakily apt moniker: Frankenstorm. Sandy uses the 'S' next in line for naming this season's tropical storms, but given the monstrous devastation caused by the storm, 'Frankenstorm' fits. Depending on where you hear it explained or contextualized, the Mary Shelley character allusion comes into play either as a virtue of timing with the one day of the year in which things dark, scary, and otherworldly roam or you may have heard the allusion in tribute to the fact that this storm was made up of different parts—part hurricane, part winter storm. Throw in the influence of the full moon on the 29th, and all the makings were there for an eerie storm of epic proportion. Similar to the storm of 1991, in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy moving onshore, meteorologists were already predicting a 'perfect storm.'


Making Connections

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastating passage through the northeast, images and stories of massive destruction in states like New Jersey tell a frightening tale. As cleanup and recovery efforts continue, classrooms and families watching from afar may find the following Project Ideas helpful as a way to talk more about hurricanes, about the ingredients of a storm, about historical storm cycles, and about questions related to climate change, an angle of the storm that has been raised in numerous articles and news reports in relation to Sandy:

  • Hurricanes and Climate: use historical data to evaluate and compare hurricane seasons.
  • Do Hurricanes Cool the Ocean?: use meteorological and hurricane track data to explore the relationship between a hurricane and the temperature of the surrounding waters.
  • Hurricanes *: Starting point for an independent research project.

A Closer Look

In a research project, John Nelson plotted tropical storms of record since 1851. Documenting 160 years of storms in a single image, the project yielded a fascinating image that shows the composite history and geographic occurrence of hurricanes in the timeframe and, at the same time, resembles a storm.

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Tonight's Blue Moon


You've heard the phrase, "once in a blue moon"? The phrase often refers to something unusual or rare. A "blue moon" doesn't happen every day—or even every year. As the infographic below from Space.com explains, the name of this event has nothing, really, to do with color.

For more information about the history of the "blue moon," see "Last 'blue moon' until 2015 lights up night sky tonight."

View Science Buddies Astronomy Project Ideas.

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The Venus Transit offers a wonderful opportunity for family summer science and an easy DIY science activity—making a pinhole viewer. From parallax to exoplanets, tomorrow's transit raises plenty of talking points for students and their families, but a safe viewing strategy is a must.


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During the Venus Transit, Venus will appear as a dark spot crossing the face of the Sun. Safe viewing is a must, but families can witness this event, which won't happen again until 2117, using a simple pinhole viewer. It's a great opportunity for summer science! Image: Jan Herold, Wikipedia

This afternoon, our family science activity will involve cardboard and aluminum foil as we make a pinhole viewer in hopes of catching tomorrow's Venus Transit. Given the sad-but-true tale of our pinhole tube projector attempt last month for the eclipse, we will be making and trying a shoebox pinhole viewer this time—and hoping for much better results. Having briefly viewed the eclipse through a shoebox viewer another group brought to the top of the hill where we were struggling to catch an image through our makeshift tube projector, we have a good sense of how small our viewing of the Venus Transit will be—and with a transit, unlike an eclipse, Venus will appear only as a small dot as it crosses the surface of the Sun. Still, we're hoping for clear skies and a clear view.


Pinhole Planning

In preparation for the coming transit, I spent time talking with Terik Daly, Staff Scientist at Science Buddies and a doctoral student studying planetary science at Brown University. In part, I wanted to know how off-base we had been with our viewer attempt last month.

After reading through my account of our viewer, Daly confirms, much to my relief, that in theory what we tried should have worked. Something went wrong, but the concept was sound—and we were able to cast the Sun during the afternoon, just not later during the actual eclipse. (I still think the heavy winds at the top of the hill didn't help us—or our taped-together cardboard tubes, which seemed even more flimsy when held up into the wind.) Daly did note that aluminum foil, because it is opaque and highly reflective, might have increased our chances of success.


What's the Big Deal?

The Venus Transit is a 243-year cycle, arriving in pairs, eight years apart, separated by first 121.5 years and then by 105.5 years. The last Venus Transit was on June 8, 2004, making tomorrow's transit the second in this transit cycle. The next Venus Transit won't be until 2117. Those numbers alone are important, but as noted in recent Scientific American coverage of the coming transit, this year's transit will be one of a small handful of transits that have been recorded: "Only six transits have been observed in history: in 1639; 1761 and 1769; 1874 and 1882; and 2004."

Beyond the fact that you may only get one or two chances to see a Venus Transit in your lifetime, the coming transit is a big deal for astronomers. Historically, transits helped astronomers gauge the size of our solar system. "Until the 20th century it was the only way to determine the distance from Earth to the Sun," reports Jay Pasachoff. As Summer Ash explains in a post on Scientific American's Budding Scientist blog, astronomers used the principles of parallax to determine the distance of the Sun from the earth. Using measurements from two viewers at different locations, the distance from the sun can be triangulated. With that measurement in hand, the "distances to all the other planets known at the time could be derived." Based on calculations made during the Venus Transit of 1882, Ash notes, astronomers concluded that the Sun is 93 million miles away.


A Model for Exoplanet Research

According to Daly, transits continue to offer astronomers useful information, particularly because transits can reveal exoplanets. "Transiting is one of the major ways that astronomers detect extrasolar planets," says Daly. "NASA's Kepler mission, for example, has identified over 2300 exoplanet candidates (with 61 confirmed exoplanets) using transit techniques."

The Venus Transit, he explains, offers the general viewer a better understanding of how transits work, which in turn helps explain how astronomers are able to use transits to detect exoplanets near other stars. Those watching the Venus Transit will see a decrease in light from the Sun as Venus crosses in front of it. In the same way, astronomers observe and track the light from other stars. "Decreases in the amount of light detected from a star indicate that something is blocking that light, and if those decreases are periodic, it suggests the object doing the blocking is orbiting the star—a planet," says Daly. "Of course, detecting extrasolar planets is more complicated than that," he adds. But "this transit is a fantastic opportunity to conceptually understand 'transit timing,' an important method of exoplanet detection, the method used by NASA's Kepler spacecraft."


Venus Transit as a Benchmark

In addition to helping demystify the search for—and discovery of—exoplanets, Daly notes that the transit offers additional information about Venus, including more data regarding the composition of Venus' atmosphere. "While we have other ways to study Venus' atmosphere, transits are one of the very few sources of information about the composition of exoplanet atmospheres," explains Daly. "The Venus Transit is a chance for scientists to test their methods for using the light from exoplanet transits to understand the atmosphere of the transiting planet." In other words, studying Venus' atmosphere via the Venus Transit—and comparing that information to other known data—helps astronomers corroborate the approach of drawing conclusions about an exoplanet's atmosphere based on its transit.


Making Connections

Students and families who will be observing the Venus Transit can learn more about how the transit helped astronomers understand our solar system by learning more about how parallax works. The "A Puzzling Parallax" project is an introductory project that can help families better understand the relationship between distance and viewing perspective. For an immediate example, close one eye and hold a pencil out in front of you, lining it up with an option in the distance (a light switch, a tree, etc.). Now switch eyes. This distant object is no longer lined up with the pencil; it will appear to have shifted . This shift based on the difference in viewing perspective is central to parallax. Using hula hoops and a ruler, you and your family can explore further! For a more advanced study of parallax, see "Similar Triangles: Using Parallax to Measure Distance." (The project is more difficult, but the introductory material may be perfect for better understanding the concept of parallax and talking about it with your students.)

In addition to studying parallax, building a pinhole viewer gives you and your family a chance to build a simple scientific apparatus. The following Projects Ideas and resources can springboard some fun exploration of pinhole cameras:


Sources Referenced Above for Additional Reading:

Note: A safe viewing method is required for watching the transit. Do not look directly at the Sun.







Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in the area of Astronomy are sponsored by support from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

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By Kim Mullin

Did you know that our moon is not the only heavenly body to pass between Earth and the Sun? The orbits of both Mercury and Venus infrequently take them on such a path, and on June 5th, you will have your last opportunity of the century to see Venus make this "transit." The next transit of Venus will not occur until 2117!

We call this phenomenon a "transit" because from Earth we can see the planet moving across the face of the Sun. Unlike a solar eclipse, when the moon blocks a large portion of the Sun from our view, a transit appears as a small black dot crossing in front of the Sun because Mercury and Venus are much further away from the Earth than the moon.


Transit Visible from All of North America

The transit of Venus will be visible from all of North America, but as with last month's solar eclipse, you must not view it directly with your eyes. Ask an adult to help you plan a safe way to witness the transit. Sky and Telescope's article about how to safely view a solar eclipse or transit can get you started.

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The map above shows the path of the Venus Transit.
Image: Michael Zeiler / Eclipse-maps.com


Transit of Venus Instrumental to Early Understanding of Our Solar System

18th century astronomers understood that the planets orbited the Sun, but they didn't know how big the solar system was. Then, astronomer Edmond Halley realized that the timing of a transit of Venus could help astronomers answer this question. NASA's "James Cook and the Transit of Venus" article can give you all of the details, but what's important to know is that without the transit of Venus in 1769, we might not have understood the size of our solar system until much later in history.


Just in Case...

If you can't see the century's last transit of Venus, then mark May 9, 2016 on your calendar—that's when Mercury will make its next transit.


See Also

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Gear Up for the Solar Eclipse


By Kim Mullin

Safely viewing a solar eclipse takes special equipment—ask an adult for help now so you are ready!


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Those who see the May 20 annular eclipse will see a ring of sun around a dark center. The above photo of the January 2011 annular eclipse was taken by the Hinode satellite. Image: NASA.

Solar Eclipse to be Visible from Most of North America on May 20

As the Earth makes its rotation on May 20, many people around the world will be in for a treat—a view of a solar eclipse! If you live in North America, be ready to witness this celestial event in the afternoon or early evening... unless you live on the East Coast. The eclipse's path won't include the eastern edge of North America, so residents there will need to visit their favorite science news outlets for pictures.


What Will You See?

A solar eclipse happens when our moon passes between Earth and the
Sun, briefly blocking our view of the Sun. There are three main types
of eclipses: total, partial, and annular. A total eclipse occurs when
the Sun and moon line up exactly, so the moon completely blocks our
view of the Sun. During a total eclipse, we can see the sun's "corona"
(a band of plasma that surrounds the sun) around the edges of the
moon. A partial eclipse occurs when the Sun and moon are not exactly
lined up, so the moon only blocks part of the Sun, temporarily making
the Sun look crescent-shaped. An annular eclipse is when the Sun and
moon are lined up, but the moon appears smaller than the Sun, so a
thin ring of the Sun is visible around the edges of the moon. Think
giant solar doughnut in the sky!

On May 20, lucky viewers, including many in the U.S., will see an annular eclipse, but most sky-watchers will see only a partial eclipse. The image below shows the timing of the eclipse for viewers in various parts of the U.S. and indicates the thin arc of the annular viewing path. You can also check NASA's interactive map to see if you will be able to see the annular eclipse, what some refer to as a solar "ring of fire."

You may wonder why some people will see a partial eclipse and others will see an annular eclipse when everyone is viewing the same Sun and moon. In fact, people on some parts of the globe will not see an eclipse at all on May 20. This is because people in different locations are viewing the Sun and moon at different angles. Think of it this way: you could hide from a friend by crouching behind a sofa, but if your friend started to walk around the sofa, she would see more and more of you the further around she came. Your view of this week's solar eclipse depends on where you live!


IMPORTANT REMINDER: Viewing an Eclipse Can Be Dangerous

Never look at the sun or an eclipse directly with your eyes. Doing so can cause permanent blindness or other severe damage. According to Jane Houston Jones of NASA, "Though only six percent of the sun's surface will be visible at greatest eclipse, it will still be 60,000 times brighter than the full moon and will damage your eyes if you look directly at it." According to experts, you need to "filter out more than 99% of the Sun's light before it reaches your eyes." Even so, from solar-viewing glasses to special telescope filters, or even a "projection" of the eclipse onto another surface, there are safe viewing techniques if you plan ahead. Sky and Telescope's article about how to safely view a solar eclipse can help you understand your options.

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Science and Art: Mutant Sunflowers


Variations in gene expression can lead to anomalies in flowers. Some of Van Gogh's sunflowers were of a mutant variety, and scientists recently tracked down genes that may be responsible.


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When we think of a sunflower, many of us think of a bright yellow flower with a large, dark center, like the one shown above. In Van Gogh's famous serious of sunflower paintings, there are typical sunflowers intermixed with a few mutant ones. These mutant sunflowers posed a puzzle for plant scientists, but recent plant genetics research has uncovered the gene responsible.
Like famous scientists or inventors, many famous artists are most identifiable in popular consciousness for a small number of notable works or biographical facts. Everyone associates Ben Franklin, for example, with kites, electricity, and bifocals. But a study of his life reveals scores of other interesting details, inventions, and associations. Newton? An apple, of course. When you think of Michelangelo, you likely think of the Sistine Chapel, and maybe the Pietà. When you think of Mozart, you certainly hear "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in your head, along with, maybe, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik." Beethoven? Surely "Ode to Joy" becomes your theme song for the day. A scholar or enthusiast in a particular area would certainly know much more about an artist, author, scientist, or historical figure. But the public mind tends to hold onto something bite-sized, something that would fit into a piece of colored pie in the once-popular game of Trivial Pursuit.

Ask someone who Van Gogh was, and you are likely to hear one of two responses: he cut off his ear, or didn't he paint sunflowers? You might also catch an enlightened Starry Night over the Rhone reference, but, in truth, despite thousands of paintings, Van Gogh may be most well-known for his sunflower paintings, a series for which the most characteristic paintings were created in Arles, France in 1888 and 1889. Each painting in the intensely yellow and orange series expressively captures sunflowers in a vase and depicts flowers at various stages of the growth cycle. Though the number of sunflowers varies in the seven sunflower paintings from Arles, several of the paintings are very similar, only minute differences appearing between them.


A Scientific Conundrum

When I first spotted news stories (like this one from Nature) about the "mystery" of Van Gogh's sunflowers being scientifically resolved, I was surprised that there had been a "need" to solve a mystery about genetic ambiguity in a plant that appears in a painting, particularly in a painting from an expressionist painter. As an artist, not a scientist, I wanted to advocate appreciating and respecting the fact that a painter can, and often does, paint something that approximates reality but diverges from it. A painter may paint both what she sees and what she feels, and the combination of those realities, may yield something that doesn't exactly mirror reality. In other words, Van Gogh's painted sunflower doesn't have to look exactly like the sunflower he had in front of him. But, from the angle of science, if the flower Van Gogh painted looks like the one he had in front of him in 1888, the question of the flower's botanical evolution and history is intriguing because some of Van Gogh's flowers are not "typical" sunflowers.


Floral Symmetry

To make sense of what triggered the research—or the association with Van Gogh—I first had to get a better understanding of "why" the sunflowers in the paintings stand out as such anomalies to plant scientists. If you are of the "a sunflower is a sunflower" persuasion, you might look at one of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings and not see anything out of the ordinary. But a botanist immediately spots an interesting problem—not all of the flowers have the large dark center that is characteristic of a sunflower. Understanding the importance of this visual difference requires taking a step backward to look at the organization and symmetry of flowers in general—and the peculiar symmetry of sunflowers.

When it comes to symmetry, most flowers fall into one of two categories and demonstrate either radial symmetry or bilateral symmetry. In a flower with radial symmetry, you can rotate the flower, and the arrangement of petals continues to appear the same. This pattern is seen in "round"-faced flowers like water lilies and buttercups. Bilateral symmetry, on the other hand, occurs when the two sides of a flower (left and right of an imaginary middle line) mirror each other. An orchid is a classic floral example of bilateral symmetry, but it's easy to visualize this arrangement by thinking of the human face, which is symmetrical along a middle line that divides the nose in half. (Turn the face upside down, and you know the orientation is wrong!)

The interesting thing about a sunflower is that it contains both radial and bilateral symmetry. What appear to be "petals" in the outer ring are actually small flowers, or ray florets, which are bilaterally symmetrical. The dark inner ring, on the other hand, is a cluster of radially symmetrical disk florets. The florets in the center will be fertilized during the life-cycle of the flower, filling the center with seeds. So that's a classical sunflower: an outer ring of small infertile flowers surrounding a large center ring of florets that produce seeds. Now, look again at Van Gogh's sunflowers. Some of them, indeed, sport the familiar dark center. But others do not. The "other" flowers are referred to as double-flowered mutants and contain no center array of disk florets. (The opposite is also possible, mutants which contain only the dark disk florets.)

These mutant sunflowers sparked the research of Mark Chapman and colleagues at the University of Georgia. The team recently published results in PLoS Genetics titled "Genetic Analysis of Floral Symmetry in Van Gogh's Sunflowers Reveals Independent Recruitment of CYCLOIDEA Genes in the Asteraceae." The paper reveals their findings that Van Gogh's mutant flowers show a mis-expression of a CYCLOIDEA-like gene (HaCYC2c) responsible for symmetry in sunflowers. Over-expression of the same gene produces an opposite effect and yields tubular-rayed mutant sunflowers. According to Chapman and team's research, the gene responsible for Van Gogh's sunflowers and other "teddy bear" varieties that lack the dark center, appears to have evolved independently of similar genes in other members of the Asteraceae family (to which the sunflower belongs).



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Image from the study published in PLoS Genetics.

"Entire inflorescences (A, C, E) and individual florets (B, D, F) from wildtype (A, B), double-flowered (C, D) and tubular (E, F) sunflower individuals. Florets are arranged left to right from the inner florets to the outer florets. (G) "Sunflowers (Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers)" by Vincent van Gogh (1888) with double-flowered heads pointed out with arrows. Panel G was obtained from Steve Dorrington on flickr (available at http://flic.kr/p/8SsPYb) and is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License."


Making Connections

Students curious about the experimentation and research that enabled Chapman and his team to investigate questions about the development of these mutant sunflowers can learn more by delving into both the basics of genetics and the fundamentals of cross-breeding and hybridization in plant biology. As part of their study, the team reportedly cross-bred a number of varieties of sunflowers to track genes that might be responsible for double-flowering.

To begin understanding the ways in which the gene expression occurs, students can explore Mendelian traits in the "Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits" Project Idea. This project deals with human characteristics, not plant biology, but the study offers an entry point for students to begin exploring principles of heredity and gene expression. Mendel's early research was on peas. Later research cross-breeding varieties of flowers furthered understanding of dominant and recessive genes.


Art and Science

Whether you approach Van Gogh's paintings as purely an observer or as a scientist or an expert in plant biology, you may never look at the sunflowers the same again. And the next time you drive by a local flower stand and see baskets of sunflowers, chances are you'll notice if there are any mutants in the crowd!





Science Buddies Project Ideas in Genetics and Genomics are sponsored by the Life Technologies Foundation.

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Galaxy Games


Astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz are part of an international team that captured exciting first photos of a dwarf galaxy absorbing an even smaller galaxy.

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The photo above, captured by the Suprime-Cam in Hawaii, shows the dwarf galaxy, NGC 4449. In the upper right, a visible stellar stream is all that remains of a smaller galaxy that has been absorbed by NGC 4449. Photo: R. Jay GaBany (Blackbird Observatory), used with permission
When it comes to galaxy growth, it's a classic story of big fish eats little fish... and big fish gets bigger. When two galaxies come into proximity with one another, the smaller one is typically engulfed by the larger one, a process astronomers refer to as "shredding." While it sounds worthy of a classic arcade game, this isn't simply a process of Pac-Man-style chomping. As Dr. Aaron Romanowsky, a research astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explains, when a smaller galaxy is shredded by a larger one, it is not simply absorbed whole. Instead, "it is pulled apart and mixed in with the larger one," says Romanowsky. As a byproduct of the shredding process, the larger galaxy gets "somewhat riled up," he adds.


While astronomers like Romanowsky have witnessed this process of galaxy absorption in larger galaxies, Romanowsky and a team of colleagues led by David Martinez-Delgado, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany, released photos last month that, for the first time, show the process being carried out on a smaller scale. NGC 4449, a dwarf galaxy located 12.5 million light-years from Earth is in the process of eating a smaller dwarf galaxy, and Romanowsky and team have photos to prove it!


A Closer Look


Photos initially taken by R. Jay GaBany showed evidence of a star stream along the outer edges of NGC 4449. This dense band of stars, the "remains" of the smaller galaxy, tipped the team of astronomers off to the fact that they had caught a dwarf galaxy red-handed, in the process of absorbing a smaller one.

Romanowsky and team took follow-up, in-depth long-exposure photos using the Japanese "Subaru" Telescope in Hawaii with the "Suprime-Cam" camera. "This is the most powerful astronomical imager in the world, like a digital camera on steroids," says Romanowsky. The Suprime-Cam lived up to its reputation, and the team laid claim to in-depth photos in which you can see individual stars in the stream. Whereas a typical "night"-mode photo on a point-and-shoot camera might involve an exposure of seconds, astrophotography often involves long exposures of hours. Surprisingly, given the 12.5 million light years in distance, the exposure was relatively short. "In the case of the dwarf-stream, the exposure lasted 8 minutes, which is a 'snapshot' by our standards," says Romanowsky.

The stunning photos created quite a stir among astronomers as they prove, clearly, that the pecking-order dynamic observed between larger galaxies also happens with smaller galaxies. "We have seen large galaxies like our own Milky Way absorbing smaller galaxies, but have not previously seen a small (or 'dwarf') galaxy absorbing a much smaller one," says Romanowsky. "This is important because it is not clear how dwarf galaxies grow, change, and form stars, and we now have evidence that mini-mergers can play a major role."


An Absolute Size-Based Phenomenon?

When asked if there might ever be an exception, if a smaller galaxy "could" take on the lead role and shred a larger galaxy, Romanowsky laughs. "No, that would be like an ant eating an anteater." While the comparison puts galactic things in perspective, Romanowsky admits that "the astronomical world does often defy intuition." Because galaxies are surrounded by "large envelopes of 'dark matter,'" it is possible to envision a scenario in which a smaller galaxy has the upper hand, says Romanowsky.

A galaxy's total mass includes both its visible matter and its dark matter, but the quantity of dark matter surrounding a certain amount of stars is not always the same. A bright galaxy that appears larger based on its visible mass could, in theory, have less total mass than a faint galaxy, suggests Romanowsky, which would bring its gravitational pull to bear on the larger galaxy, instead of the other way around. "It could, in principle, happen that a 'smaller' galaxy appears to be eating a bigger one," says Romanowsky. "That would be really interesting to see because it would help confirm some uncertain ideas about dark matter."

So it is "possible," but maybe not likely that a little galaxy could hold its own—or even win—against a visibly larger galaxy. In general, galaxies get larger by absorbing smaller galaxies, a reality the team's photos last month reinforced.


Cosmic Crumbs?

Romanowsky and team were lucky to catch the merger in progress, before the stellar stream was even further assimilated. But whether a team of astronomers sees a galactic gulp in progress or not, the growth of one galaxy and the extinction of another still happens, which raises a question—can you tell by looking at a galaxy that it has eaten other galaxies? Apparently, you can. Despite the fact that the shredded galaxy gets "absorbed," like the rings on a tree stump that indicate age, there are galactic markers that give astronomers an indication of a galaxy's pattern of growth—and previous meals.

According to Romanowsky, the stars in a galaxy have "distinct fingerprints that can be recognized even after two galaxies appear completely mingled." Identifying and tracking these trace fingerprints within a larger galaxy allows astronomers to chart the history of a galaxy. "This type of galactic forensics work is a major enterprise for studies of our own Milky Way," says Romanowsky, but such investigations are "a lot more difficult in distant galaxies."


Making Connections

Students interested in learning more about astronomy and galaxies, our own and others, may enjoy exploring the following Projects Ideas and related blog posts:





Science Buddies Project Ideas in astronomy are sponsored by generous funding from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

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New Paper Plane Record


A plane designed by John Collins set a new world record last week. Thrown by former football quarterback Joe Ayoob, the plane flew 226 feet, 10 inches in an indoor hangar on the McClellan Air Force Base, breaking the previous record by more than 19 feet!


Paper Planes

Folding paper airplanes is an age-old and ageless pastime. How many planes does the average person fold in a lifetime? How many have you folded? Probably more than you can count!

While not everyone can fold or remember the intricate steps involved in folding a paper crane, most people have, at one time or another, grabbed a sheet of paper and folded an airplane. Whether the plane is a classic design with speed and distance in mind or a stunt or trick plane, there is that moment when you give the bottom edge one last crease, hold it up, and throw it across the room. Like riding a bike, once you know how to fold a paper dart, you'll probably always be able to fold one. But how far can a paper dart fly? What kind of throw works best? How do design variations affect flight? What's the best paper for the longest flight? What size paper should you use? These are all great questions to ask, and they are questions students can explore in fun, flight-based science projects!

Students interested in investigating the aerodynamics of paper airplanes may enjoy the following projects:

Parents/educators: these projects can be great investigations to do with kids at home or after school!

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By Kim Mullin

Sky gazers will find the night skies especially rewarding in coming days.

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Image source: NASA.

Five planets can be viewed at various times without a telescope, but catching them all in the same night is rare! If you're interested in a closer look at Mercury, NASA is holding an online chat on Monday, March 5.

The night sky is offering up a rare show this week: five planets so bright that you can see them with the naked eye! Also for your viewing pleasure, Earth's moon will stay high in the sky several hours before setting, and two of the brightest stars, Sirius and Canopus, will each be at their highest point in the sky during 2012. With a lineup like that, it is a great time to head outdoors and try your hand at astronomy. February 28 through March 7 will offer the best views.


Five Bright Planets Make Their Appearance

It has been eight years since Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have all been visible on the same night, although they won't all appear in the same place or at the same time. Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus all appear shortly (between a half hour and an hour) after sunset, but Saturn keeps late hours, not appearing until midnight. For diagrams and more directions to help you spot these planets, see National Geographic's "See 5 Bright Planets in Night Sky--First Time in 8 Years."


Sirius, Canopus, and the Moon Hang High in the Sky

While you are outside, also look for Sirius and Canopus. They are visible from Earth every night, and Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. Canopus is the next most bright, although to see Canopus you must be at a latitude south of Los Angeles. Both stars will appear higher in the sky this week than at any other time this year. To find them, you may need a guide to the stars, an app like the popular Star Walk, or help from someone with a little experience stargazing.

If you have a set of binoculars, you may also want to take some time to study the moon's surface a little closer. During this period, the moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase. "Gibbous" means that the part we can see is larger than the part we can't see. The moon will also stay high in the sky for several hours before setting.


Discover More at Science Buddies

Our universe is amazing! Explore it with these introductory Science Buddies project ideas:

  • The Moon and the Stars: discover whether or not the phase of the moon affects the number of stars that are visible in the sky.
  • Measuring the Moon: measure how the brightness of the moon changes during different lunar phases.
  • A Puzzling Parallax: explore how "far" away objects in the night sky are by learning more about a visual phenomenon called "parallax."


Science Buddies resources in Astronomy are sponsored by a generous grant from Northrop Grumman Foundation


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Arsenic and Rice



If you think arsenic poisoning is something relegated to the pages of mystery novels, think again. Arsenic may be in foods you routinely eat—but it's undetectable by taste or smell. How much arsenic in your diet is safe?

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Number 33 on the periodic table, arsenic is a naturally-occurring heavy metal—and a much-used poison throughout history. Because it appears in the soil, arsenic may be lingering in foods you and your family frequently eat. Recent research raises questions about arsenic levels in rice products, apple juices, and pear juices. Image source: Wikipedia.
When I spotted a headline in my Facebook stream a few weeks ago that warned of arsenic in food products made with rice, or sweetened with brown rice syrup, I was curious. The NPR headline wasn't alarmist. It was, instead, middle of the road: "Yes, There's Arsenic In Your Rice. But Is That Bad?"

I didn't know it then, but apparently I had missed out on public alarm over similar headline news (and FDA response) last year about arsenic levels in apple juice. The idiom "what you don't know can't hurt you, right?" comes to mind as particularly foolhardy when it comes to health consciousness, and catching wind of potentially dangerous levels of 'poison' in my rice wasn't a comfortable thought. From the indulgence of a comfort food like rice pudding to my favorite short-grain brown rice, good with just about everything (including milk and sugar), to a frequent menu of ethnic foods, often accompanied by rice, the grain has earned 'staple' classification in my vegetarian diet. And, while my kids haven't wholeheartedly jumped on the bean and spinach train of my healthy eating, "rice" is something they've grudgingly adopted as a frequent side dish and part of my attempt to incorporate more whole grains in their diets.

My health-consciousness hackles already raised, as I read the initial report, I got even more icky feeling when I saw that the levels of arsenic in brown rice are reportedly higher, on average, than in the ostensibly less-good-for-you white counterpart. Great, I thought. Here's another instance where many of us have made lifestyle eating changes in the name of whole grain and better health, and suddenly we find out that what we did with the best of intentions can actually be causing unexpected (and unseen) harm.

Further reading told me that while the FDA has established guidelines for the acceptable threshold of arsenic in bottled drinking water, there are no regulations in place for food products—or beverages other than water. I'd read enough. In what has become my typical modus operandi since I began working at Science Buddies, I fired off an email to our Lead Scientist. In part, I wanted to know what a student could do to explore this issue. In part, I wanted her opinion of the issue and the potential health risk.

It was from her response that I realized I'd somehow overlooked the rampant apple juice reports last year. Her response clued me in to the larger spiral of arsenic concern but also gave me the kind of "slow down, be objective, and understand the facts" counsel which you might expect from a scientist. In other words, she put the 'headline' in perspective: Arsenic is in our food chain.


A Dark History

Mystery reader or not, most of us are familiar with the classic whodunit plot that involves poisoning by arsenic. Agatha Christie favored arsenic in her mysteries, along with a host of other poisons, strychnine being the most common, but "Arsenic and Old Lace" may be one of the most famous of arsenic-laden storylines. At the heart of the tale are "two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and 'just a pinch' of cyanide" (Wikipedia).

With arsenic having a prominent and deadly role in such stories, I started looking at arsenic more broadly, trying to make sense of the fact that a known poison was also part of last night's dinner, which I cooked for myself. As I started down the research path before me, a path scattered with arsenic-laced grains of brown rice, I quickly realized that arsenic has a fascinating history, one that gets increasingly insidious, dark, and creepy the farther you look, from its use as a rat poison to its, ostensibly well-earned, nickname, "the inheritance powder."

Digging into the history of arsenic as a choice for mystery writers leads to interesting facts about the availability and early uses of arsenic, and a scan of a list of historical poisonings (alleged and confirmed) shows arsenic popping up a fair number of times. Perusing the Wikipedia entry on arsenic poisoning brings other well-known historical figures to the forefront as possible victims of the secret poison, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

And then, of course, there was Mary Ann Cotton, convicted in 1873 of murdering more than 20 people, including her children, with arsenic. Though not a household name in the way other serial killers have occupied public consciousness, Cotton's tale is frightening and might make you think twice about accepting a drink (or a rice ball) from a friend! One of the most unexpected finds in my jaunt through the history of arsenic poisoning was an article from November 2011 covering a current mystery writer's speculation that Jane Austen, whose cause of death at age 41 remains the subject of much conjecture, may have died of arsenic poisoning.


Hidden Ingredients

Given the history of arsenic and its association with "secret" poisoning, it's certainly discomfiting to realize that arsenic isn't something confined to the intrigues of centuries gone by or the dark and dusty upper recesses of a mystery book protagonist's kitchen cabinets. Instead, arsenic, in trace amounts, may well be sitting on the shelves of many of our cabinets and most of our grocery stores.

In reality, arsenic is a naturally-occurring element in the Earth's crust, number 33 (Arsenum) on the periodic table. From arsenic released by volcanoes to arsenic produced as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, arsenic, in both its organic and inorganic forms, appears worldwide. Studies have shown that animals even need a trace amount of arsenic in their diets. Whether humans also need a bit of arsenic—and how much—has yet to be conclusively determined.


Why Rice?

Part of the problem is that the soil rice is grown in may contain arsenic, both natural and residual, and rice may absorb arsenic more easily than other foods. As for the difference in arsenic levels between brown and white rice, a report in the MinnNews suggests that processing rice may remove some of the inherent arsenic: "The arsenic accumulates in the rice's outer hull and stays there unless the hull is removed (as it is during the processing of white rice)."

While studies are relating the amount of arsenic detected in brown-rice syrup to the limits of arsenic allowed by the FDA in drinking water, whether or not the same thresholds can be considered safe in food has not been determined. Reports, however, like this one in USA Today from December 2011, suggest that even 1/2 a cup of rice a day, may provide too much arsenic for health safety.

So arsenic surrounds us. It is, as I was warned, a part of our food chain. Even so, arsenic in certain levels is toxic—and arsenic is a known, but undetectable to the consumer, factor in certain foods. In other words, you don't have to be someone's victim to be ingesting a known poison. Think about how many foods are rice-based. Cereals, salads, puddings, and even snacks may be made from rice or contain brown-rice syrup, commonly used as a sweetener. Rice cake anyone? Energy bar? If rice contains arsenic, and it doesn't have to be monitored or regulated, it seems to me we have a problem. Checking ingredients labels won't help. "Arsenic" hasn't been "added." Complicating matters is the fact that not all brown rice or brown rice syrup contain the same levels of arsenic, a reality that seems to beg the question: why isn't it being regulated?


Making Connections

Unfortunately, arsenic detection isn't something students can tackle at home or in a kitchen-based lab. But students can look at the larger picture and take into account that arsenic is a heavy metal, a class that also contains silver, copper, mercury, nickel, cadmium, and chromium, all of which can be toxic in certain environments. The Heavy Metals and Aquatic Environments project lets students investigate the impact of the heavy metal copper (Cu) on an aquatic environment containing snails and plants.

While students can't evaluate the relationship of arsenic and rice—or the impact of arsenic on human biology—as easily, a firsthand investigation of heavy metals and the consequences of increased levels, and of buildup, can help students better understand the unfolding news and research related to arsenic.

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Licorice Root, Please

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Licorice root may help fight cavities and other oral health problems, but most "licorice" candies are actually flavored with anise. Image source: Pikaluc, Wikipedia.

Willing to try a licorice-based toothpaste?

When it comes to candy, certain flavors fall into a category that tends to require a more sophisticated palate. That's my decidedly non-scientific assessment having watched my own kids and their love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with all things "mint," something to which dental-care product developers really should pay more attention since many "kid" pastes still have a bit of mint "bite" to them. After witnessing thousands of mint-related shrieks and mini-rebellions, I've thought about the way our palates change and grow with time. We know this about spinach and brussels sprouts, right? But clearly there are certain flavorings, as well, that we potentially grow into (and out of).

Already there has been a softening to mint. For a while, we dumped strawberry toothpaste and existed harmoniously with a single tube of mint, but it was short-lived. Someday, I have no doubt they may prefer a real candy cane in December to a sickly, sweet and sour, fruit punch flavored one. Someday, I am sure they'll look at me in disbelief when I recount the fit thrown at the dentist when one selected a chocolate toothpaste from the picture-based menu only to realize when it hit the tongue that it was chocolate mint. For now, even mint-flavored dental floss is frowned upon, and in reality, most dental flosses have at least a hint of mint.

Mint isn't the only category of candy flavoring that seemingly grows on one with age. While, personally, I look back fondly on the world of Atomic Fireballs, Hot Tamales, and even Big Red chewing gum, which my grandfather stocked in his shirt pocket, along with Juicy Fruit (I guess I pre-date the sugarless gum industry!), my kids won't come near cinnamon-flavored candies. I doubt they'd cozy up to something ginger-flavored or black-licorice flavored either.

I remember liking black licorice, and as an adult, I can vouch for the goodness of a chocolate-ginger combo, but I can't imagine my kids opting for either over something sweet, sour, and sure-to-turn-the-tongue-bright-blue.

It's too bad, because a toothpaste with a base of licorice root might help safeguard our trips to the dentist's office!


The "Root" of Things

Recent studies have shown that licorice root has benefits for oral health—cavity-fighting benefits. Scientists behind a study in the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Journal of Natural Products cite licorice root as being instrumental in helping fight both tooth decay and gum disease. Licorice root has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for various reasons, and to enhance the properties of other herbal additives, but the recent US-based study focused specifically on the effect of compounds in licorice root on bacteria common to the mouth. According to studies, licoricidin and licorisoflavan A, two compounds found in licorice root, help inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause cavities as well as bacteria related to gum disease.

In reality, however, those looking to take advantage of licorice-laden oral healthcare will need to find their licorice somewhere other than the candy aisle because licorice root is commonly replaced by anise oil in candies. So if you decide to add licorice to your list, be sure and check package labels and ingredients.


Making Connections

Tooth decay is a widespread problem, but it is one that can be helped with both preventive and routine care. According to the CDC, "tooth decay affects more than one-fourth of U.S. children aged 2-5 years and half of those aged 12-15 years." Those are high percentages, as is this startling statistic: "one-fourth of U.S. adults aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth."

Can licorice root make a difference? How safe is licorice root? How much can be taken? For how long? Are there other risks?

These are just a few of the questions researchers have to consider and explore, and there are already warnings accompanying stories about the benefits of licorice root that indicate there are counter-risks related to blood pressure and potassium levels. Licorice root is also a legume, which raises additional considerations for those concerned about gluten. As one might expect, licorice-root Altoids® probably won't suddenly be appearing in the dental health aisle as an end-all solution to oral health.

Further exploration, however, seems prudent, and students can jump in by learning more about the ways in which licorice root interacts with oral bacteria.


Taking it Further

Students interested in designing an independent science project focused on the anti-bacterial properties of a substance like licorice root may find the underpinnings of their project in the The End Zone: Measuring Antimicrobial Effectiveness with Zones of Inhibition Project Idea, adapted to use licorice extract and bacteria cultured from swabbing the inside of the mouth.

As with any bacteria-based project or study, however, it is important for students to fully review and be mindful of SRC guidelines and rules regulating bacteria projects. The Science Buddies Microorganisms Safety Guide offers additional information.


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Find a Feather, Pick It Up?

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The feathers showcased in the photo accompany a recent essay in Audubon Magazine (screenshot above) are breathtaking to look at. But how safe are feathers to pick up?
We're out for a rare walk around one of my favorite spots in the Bay Area, Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. We've fed the geese and practiced our aim as we tried to toss bits of salvaged and saved bread to them and the mallards. We know the gulls will swoop in, loudmouthed and pushy, to steal away our stale but doughy offerings. My youngest has greeted his "friends," the gray coots with their white-spotted foreheads, red eyes, and chartreuse feet. We've stopped and peered up into the trees where the great blue herons nest in the spring months, though we know that despite the weather, it is too early for them. We've shooed away the flock of pigeons that has crowded around in hopes of sharing our bag of bread.


The bags all emptied out, we're heading around the perimeter of the lake, a path that will take us past a small tunnel made of branches and twigs that they can just barely crawl through, across a bridge (see the keystone?), along the lower level of the tiered paths that wind around the small mountain to a beautify city lookout at the top, past the Japanese pagoda and the waterfall, around the boathouse (which no longer sells ice cream treats), and back to the car.

They run ahead, footsteps kicking up dry dirt and rock as they move along the path, pausing now and again to peer at a treasure on the ground, a shiny rock ("a crystal"), a perfect stick, a dandelion, a squirrel jumping away with a foraged scrap, a Steller's jay that has jumped from the ground to a branch above with a loud squawk.

They run ahead as I take photos from behind, of them, of branches, of light on the water.

Lowering my camera, I focus in on what has now captured one's attention.

"Don't pick that up!"

It's a feather.

He pauses and looks up at me, his fingers inches from the feather.

"Don't pick that up. They can carry disease."


Back in the Day

I remember when feathers could be picked up, when feathers were magical and marvelous, when you could run your finger along the edge of a feather and be amazed by the softness. I remember the impossible discovery of a peacock feather.


Many years have intervened between then and now. Many years, two children, and a host of frightening flus that have lingered in public—and parental—consciousness. The residue of those years and those flus has accumulated into a frothy, sticky, mostly unfounded, squeamish sign of my age, one that comes oozing over the sides of the admonishment: "Don't pick that up. It's dirty!"

Needless to say, while we have small collections of rocks, broken shells, shark's teeth, and other treasure we've accumulated through various walks and expeditions, there are no feather collections in our house. Not even one.

All of that came rushing home when I saw a photo by Robert Clark highlighting a feature essay by Thor Hanson in Audubon Magazine. The photo is an 'almost' grid of forty-seven feathers, brightly colored, samples of bird plumage from species of birds I've no doubt never seen. These are not your ordinary, everyday pigeon feathers, the ones I am most tempted to disallow my kids pick up and handle. These are feathers that remind us of the beauty and wonder of birds, the exotic free-flying nature of birds, and the sheer diversity of birds. But this is a reminder from a new angle. Feathers.

The photo is a stunning visual entrée into an equally captivating essay underscoring the beauty, novelty, and incomparable nature of features. No matter what your relationship with birds, or whether or not you would or would not have picked up (or let your children pick up) a feather on the street yesterday, Hanson's high-flying essay on feathers may sweep you away. Hanson's essay weaves together the scientific and the aesthetic, the personal and the historic, the pragmatic and the mystical, and emerges as a beautiful and inspiring exposé on feathers, a distinguishing feature of birds, one that is unique to birds, one at which you may not have stopped before to marvel or think about too deeply. After reading this essay, I think you will. I think you'll pick up a favorite blanket or winter vest and think differently about the realities of feathers. You might even look up a photo of a golden-crowned kinglet so that you can have an image to pair with Hanson's story of a night spent in sub-zero weather—and the realities of the small golden-crowned kinglet sleeping somewhere in the open air, relying on its feathers alone for warmth.


Making Connections

"On any given day, up to four hundred billion individual birds may be found flying, soaring, swimming, hopping, or otherwise flitting above the earth. That's more than 50 birds for every human being, 800 birds per dog, and at least a half-million birds for every living elephant. It's about four times the number of McDonald's hamburgers that have ever been sold. Like the robin, each of those birds maintains an intricate coat of feathers—roughly one thousand on a ruby-throated hummingbird to more than twenty-five thousand for a tundra swan. Lined up end on end, the feathers of the world would stretch past the moon and past the sun to some more distant celestial body." ~ Thor Hanson

Hanson's essay is thought-provoking and eye-opening, and for students with an interest in birds, or even an interest in paleontology, there is plenty of potential for inspiring and inspired science projects that may find a launching point in an essay on feathers. One path students might follow involves considering the question: where did feathers come from? And why do birds, alone, have them? A project looking at the history of feather formation will take students back to the age of dinosaurs. That's right, scientists now label birds as a living form of dinosaur, a fact students can investigate further in the "BLAST into the Past to Identify T. Rex's Closest Living Relative" genomics Project Idea.


A Shift in Perspective

After reading "The Multiple Miracles of Bird Feathers," I found myself wondering about the weight of "don't touch that" fear I've somehow picked up along the way, part of the baggage of socially-induced paranoia that many parents carry around, especially when and if we are too busy to stop, question, and get the facts. If faced with the kinds of delicate, diverse, exotic, breathtaking, and mesmerizing feathers shown in the Clark's photo, I doubt I could insist we leave the feather where it lay. That's why we carry anti-bacterial hand gel, right? But can I let go of my concern about the ordinary feathers we're more likely to discover in our regular outdoor excursions? After all, while there is a wonderful plethora of natural terrain in and around the Bay Area, we're still in a city. Hawks perch on the streetlights in front of my house and nest in the trees out back, but there are also thousands upon thousands of pigeons and starlings and blackbirds, even in the parking lots of the grocery stores.

Questioning my own concern, I talked with our Lead Staff Scientist, someone who has gotten used to the fact that I approach many of my science stories from a non-scientific starting point. I didn't simply ask are feathers safe. Instead, I asked, how feasible is it for students to do a project in which they investigate either the kinds of bacteria that might linger on bird feathers collected in a local area or what approach one might take to best ensure the safety of bird feathers if one wanted to collect them. (Before I asked, I did a quick search engine search and read just enough to know that, most likely, the parental baggage I was carrying around was unjustified, far-fetched, and should be shelved—in favor of a rekindling of the magic, beauty, and scientifically-amazing properties of feathers.)

Our lead staff scientist confirmed that while it's "possible" to get a disease from bird feathers, the probability is very slim. Still, there is a question that can be asked, and so there are projects that can be designed and procedures that can be put in place to explore how "safe" found feathers might be. Is a parent who says, "Don't touch!" right—or just over-protective?


Putting Feathers to the Test

There are three kinds of health hazards that can be carried on a feather: parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Of the three classes of possible health problems one might trace back to feathers, culturing bacteria from feathers and analyzing the bacteria colonies that grow is the most likely course of investigation for student research. Students interested in developing an experimental procedure that could be used for a microbiology-based study of feathers might find the procedure used in the Germ Invasion Project Idea a helpful starting point. Is exposure to UV light a helpful strategy?


Safety Considerations and Guidelines

Because there are many rules, regulations, and safety guidelines that have to be followed for student science investigations that deal with microorganisms, devising an independent course of study examining microorganisms and feathers requires careful attention to safety guidelines, awareness of any local fair rules, as well as ISEF regulations, and may require the supervision of a teacher or mentor or access to a specific kind of lab. In addition, your project may require pre-approval from fair officials.

For more information about safety considerations when working with bacteria, and about related ISEF rules and regulations, visit the Microorganisms Safety Guide and the Projects Involving Potentially Hazardous Biological Agents resource.




Science Buddies Genetics and Genomics Project Ideas are sponsored by a generous grant from Life Technologies Foundation. The Germ Invasion Project Idea was developed by Laurie Usinger, Bio-Rad Laboratories. Bio-Rad Laboratories sponsors the Biotechnology Techniques Interest Area at Science Buddies.

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A Wolf Story in California




Wolf



News of a lone wolf roaming through California made SF Gate headlines today. The gray wolf's movements are being monitored, but according to reports, the nearest companion is hundreds of miles away—the other direction. Why is this wolf wandering alone—and away from the nearest known female (and the potential of creating a pack)?

Students interested in patterns of animal movement—or wolf behavior—can learn more by using available radio telemetry wolf movement data to better understand animal movement patterns in the Where, Oh Where, Do the Wild Wolves Wander? zoology Project Idea.

How far will a wolf travel in a single year? Explore historical data to find out!

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Pavegen's research into green technology, sustainable energy sources, and clean, renewable energy alternatives led to the development of Pavegen tiles—and an exploration of the potential offered by kinetic energy harvesting. Image: Pavegen, used with permission.
The 2012 Olympic Games are being held in London, England, this summer. It's an event for which athletes spend years preparing and training. For competitors, the quest to bring home the gold is a driving force, but for environmental scientists and engineers like those who work at Pavegen, the 2012 Summer Olympics are a chance to shine a global light on the power and potential of renewable energy—one footstep at a time. Pavegen has been monitoring test installations of its tiles locally, including at a Kent-based school, but the world will be watching as a small number of tiles capture the kinetic energy of thousands of passing footsteps during the Olympic Games and convert that energy to electricity.


A Bright Idea

For those who walk over a Pavegen tile, there is the potential for an immediate moment of awareness—my step just created a tiny bit of electric energy. That moment is reinforced by the fact that each tile contains a "luminaire," an embedded light which glows when it is walked across, a process that uses a small amount of the energy generated by each step. The walker sees the glow and becomes a conscious part of—and participant in—the process of renewable energy generation. According to Pavegen, the power harnessed by the tiles is suitable for off-grid power applications like street-lighting and signage.


Making a Difference

The success of the tiles, both in capturing, converting, storing, and re-deploying the power created by passersby, and in generating increased public awareness of the process, will play out along with the games. If Olympics visitors and pedestrians are aware of the potential power of their steps, will they take more steps? Will children race back and forth across the tiles to help rack up just a bit more stored power? It remains to be seen, but the concept is undeniably engaging. It's exciting. It's forward-thinking. It's creative. It's a real-world application of "community" applied to a real-world problem. And the idea is cool--both in the abstract and in the physical design. Even in prototype, these tiles have the kind of look-and-feel that may win people over as an appreciation of design aesthetics and environmental consciousness come together.

The idea of these tiles opens up avenue upon avenue of "what if" thinking. If the tiles work—and if they can be produced cost effectively—it would seem there are an infinite number of possible applications. Think how many public spaces receive millions of footfalls each day as people move throughout their days. As Pavegen notes on their website, "up to 52,000 people per hour pass through busy train stations," and "the average person takes around 200 million steps in their lifetime." That's a lot of kinetic energy that currently dissipates into nothing. If Pavegen's tiles pan out, those footsteps could help change the way cities and communities think about powering lower-level applications. Even those not willing to walk a few feet out of their way to make an environmental contribution may end up a part of a larger alternative energy solution—intentionally or not!


Looking Ahead

It's an exciting technology, and one I'll be watching both at the summer games and after. With my increasing awareness that my desk-based work keeps me far more sedentary than even the 10,000 "steps" a day recommended for a healthy lifestyle, the potential of an energy source that both encourages and acknowledges public involvement looks very compelling.


Making Connections

Students can get a head start on the debut of these tiles at this year's Summer Olympics by spending time exploring the properties and principles of kinetic energy. How can it be collected? How can it be transferred or converted? How can the new energy be stored?

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas pave the way for students looking to "step" into this area of science and research:


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Looking Back: Science in 2011


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A look back at science news from 2011 opens up exciting angles for student research and investigation.
Despite the exacting nature of "science" and the scientist's quest for cut and dried, statistically sound results, science is constantly changing. There are always new questions being asked and new answers being found, engineered, or developed. New research, new findings, new accidents, and new discoveries happen every day. This spirit of "what if" and "what next" and "why not" makes science exciting—and continues to push our understanding of the world around us (and the world we can invent, design, or engineer).

Here are a few of the science stories and headlines from 2011 that stood out for Science Buddies staff members—and ways students can explore the science behind the stories that made some of last year's top science headlines.


We can't wait to see what 2012 brings—and what connections students can make and explore in their in-class, at-home, and science fair projects!

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Dr. Mohamed Babu, India, turned thirsty garden ants into a cool series of photos and an interesting hands-on look at color sense and insects.

You've heard of being caught red-handed? The brightly colored abdomens of the bugs in a series of photos taken by Dr. Mohamed Babu (Mysore, India) leave little doubt as to which colors of sugared water the translucent-bellied ants in his garden had been sipping. Reportedly, his wife noticed that the ants turned white when they sucked up some spilled milk, which gave him the idea for this colorful garden science experiment—and photo opportunity.

The images of the 'technicolor' ants are striking, but there's plenty of room here for further student exploration! The photos Dr. Babu took, and his observations as to which colors the ants clearly preferred, leave a colorful trail for student research into color-preference among animals and insects.


Color Sense: Aesthetics or Survival?

In the wild, 'color' provides a lot of information. Some colors are perceived to indicate something safe. Other colors signal danger or poison. Some species, in fact, have certain colorful exteriors that warn others away: don't eat that brightly colored frog, it is poisonous! And when a blue-tongued skink sticks out its tongue, predators perceive "danger" and run away! (Keep in mind that most animals and insects don't see color the same way humans do, but they still process "color" information.)


Making Connections

Students intrigued by the way the ants' bodies visibly soaked up the color in Dr. Babu's photos, might experiment with local ants to see if they have similarly translucent body parts. (Or try a variety of "clear" mite.) Or, as part of a controlled exploration, students might replicate the process Dr. Babu used to see if local ants demonstrate similar color preference. His ants, for example, notably preferred two of the four colors of sugared water he made available.

Other science projects that could be explored for a color-sense science project include:

  • Do Milkweed Bugs Show a Color Preference for Egg-Laying Sites?: The brightly colored exterior of a milkweed bug may warn predators that it "tastes" bad because of the toxic sap it slurps from milkweed plants. In this project, students explore whether or not the color of the milkweed plant matters to the bugs when they select a site for egg-laying.
  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences: If you feed hummingbirds, or know someone who does, you probably know that there is a specific color commonly used for kitchen-brewed, sugary hummingbird food. Is the color alone enough to make a hummingbird choose one solution over another? In this project, students ask, "what is more important... the color of the solution or the amount of sugar it contains?"
  • Perfect Plating: Which Food Presentation Technique is Best?*: Humans, too, evaluate food based on color. We know, for example, that plates of food that contain green or orange are likely to be more nutrient-packed than plates of food that are all white. But even beyond our knowledge of vitamins, we may "respond" to foods based on color. This cooking and food science project encourages exploration of how "presentation" affects response to food. While this project looks at what might be considered "serious" cooking, if you are around small children, you might ask... does changing the color of the food change the chance that they'll eat it?


A 'Closer' Look
If colored ants don't give you the creepy crawlies, you might enjoy seeing this wonderful series of seriously zoomed-in insect photos by Stephen Gschmeissner!


(Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of zoology are sponsored by Medtronic Foundation.)

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Screenshot from the Row to the Pole website for Day Thirteen of their multi-week row to the magnetic North Pole.


The "Day Thirteen" update on the Row to the Pole website reads: "The crew fight against turbulence during a 20 hour row..."

When the part-sledge, part-boat vessel pushed off on less than two weeks ago from Resolute Bay in Canada, four hundred and fifty miles of ice-riddled water stood between the six-man crew of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition and the magnetic North Pole. If successful, the journey, which will take between four and six weeks of rigorous, sometimes almost round-the-clock, rowing, will be the first time the magnetic marker is reached by boat, an eye-opening testament to the melting that has occurred in the ice cap.


The Spirit of Adventure

For Jock Wishart, a seasoned explorer and leader of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition, the challenge of "getting there by boat" after finishing his second trip to the North Pole was just too tempting—and possible today in a way it would not have been a decade ago.

In 1988, Wishart circumnavigated the globe by boat, traveling seventy four days on the Cable and Wireless Adventurer and breaking the previous world record for circumnavigation in a powered vessel by more than seven days. (Wishart's record has since been beaten.) In 1996, Wishart co-founded of the 1996 'The Ultimate Challenge' and subsequently organized the biennial land-based Polar Race. He's no stranger to arctic terrain, and he embraced the idea of navigating massive ice formations and racing against the coming freeze to reach the magnetic pole by boat. Reveling in the challenge of a new spin on his past arctic expeditions, the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition was born.

According to Wishart, the changes in the ice—and in available water in which to row—is dramatic, which makes the Row to the Pole quest possible. The change in quantity of free and accessible water where once there was solid ice also makes the expedition one with an environmental undertow. According to Wishart, the trip will shine another light on climate change, one from there in the middle of water that was once ice surrounding entry to the North Pole, a location at one time considered ice-locked.


An Extreme Trip

A 'row' of this magnitude and in these conditions is one full of possible pitfalls and unforeseen challenges. During early stages of the journey, the crew is logging fourteen or more hours a day in the boat—and consuming a reported 5,000-7,000 calories a day to keep up with the demands of the trip. While the crew spends most of the day on the boat and on the water, they have pulled ashore to stretch out and make camp, a night's sleep interrupted at least once by polar bears.

The crew recently posted to their blog that they are mid-way through the trip, having logged more than two hundred and thirty miles and reaching Penny Straits, a section of the trip predicted to be particularly tricky in terms of navigating dense ice—and potential bottleneck. The logged entry, however, notes that the passage was less of a challenge than expected, only 30% ice coverage, a density dramatically lower than the ice reports they'd reviewed.

Making Connections

The challenge of the expedition, in and of itself, may fuel the small crew through the weeks of rowing—along with many, many pounds of dehydrated food packs. For the onboard BBS photographer who plans to make a documentary of the expedition, the soul of the journey may lie in recording and capturing the day-to-day moments of row—the challenges, victories, team dynamics, and rigors of the journey.

The six-man crew also includes an oceanographer who is collecting data and samples throughout the journey, information that will be helpful for future studies and research into climate change and may help scientists better understand the shape of the ongoing changes in polar regions. The multi-week journey offers an amazing opportunity to gather firsthand information related to climate change and environmental and geo sciences.

Students interested in following the expedition and cheering from cozy and warmer sidelines can still get hands-on with some of the science surrounding the voyage.

  • Polar Puzzle: Will Ice Melting at the North or South Poles Cause Sea Levels to Rise?: The increased free water (versus ice) enabling the Row to the Pole is directly related to the melting of the ice caps. In this ocean sciences project, students can explore the relationship between climate change and sea levels.
  • Making It Shipshape: Hull Design and Hydrodynamics: The design of the boat being used in the Row to the Pole expedition is critical to its potential success and involved collaboration between a boat designer and a sledge expert. Students curious about hydrodynamics can explore the relationship between boat design and drag in this project.
  • Geomagnetism*: The Row to the Pole is specifically heading to the "magnetic" North Pole. Students curious about the distinction between the magnetic North Pole and the geographic "North Pole" can explore geomagnetism and devise an independent project using the questions in this Abbreviated Project Idea as a starting point. ( For those curious, the pole position, charted in 1966, maps to these coordinates: 78°35.7N 104°11.9W / 78.595°N 104.1983°W.)


Further Research

For additional coverage of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition, check the following sources and articles:

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An Herbicide Goes Awry


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Eastern White Pines are among the types of conifers included in recent reports of widespread tree loss that may be linked to the commercial herbicide IImprelis. Image: Wikipedia.

Sometimes, becoming more environmentally-friendly is a one-step-forwards, two-steps-backwards process, a reality that can be both frustrating and costly, despite good intentions. In the case of recent widespread reports of dying conifers like Norway Spruces and White Pines, the "cost" of using an approved and environmentally-conscious herbicide may be measured out in tree loss.

Tree problems around the country have been linked to the use of an herbicide called Imprelis. Manufactured by DuPont and sold for commercial use by landscapers, Imprelis was released onto the market last October in the U.S. (excepting New York and California) with a "conditional" seal of approval from the Environmental Protection Agency. The herbicide, which contains a single active ingredient, is marketed by DuPont as an environmentally-friendly approach to treating a common gardener's gremlin—broadleaf weeds like dandelion and clover.

Unfortunately, despite all the testing prior to its release, the effects of Imprelis are not limited to pesky weeds. Approximately six months after landscapers began using the product, some varieties of conifers (plants that produce seed cones, like pine trees), have been turning up in various states of decline, from browning to outright dying. Tree owners and landscapers alike are up in arms over the unforeseen problem, and landscapers have been put in the position of replacing and paying for lost trees.


Up a Tree

According to the New York Times' coverage of the story, "Imprelis went through about 400 trials, including tests on conifers, and performed without problems, according to experts at DuPont and at the EPA." It sounds like a lot of testing, but even so, the article notes that while the EPA approved the product, the 23 months of review they conducted before giving their "conditional" thumbs up wasn't enough to conclusively determine the product safe.

Investigations into the cause of the tree problems is ongoing, and there are suggestions that problems could be related to methods of application, quantity, the preparation of the herbicide for use, or even the effects of the herbicide coming into contact with other products. Getting to the root of the problem could take a long time—and a lot of research.

While DuPont has reportedly suggested that many of these trees may return to health, the sad reality for affected tree-owners right now is what seemed like an environmentally-conscious choice...has turned out to be a bad one.


Making Connections

For students, the fate of conifers and other trees with shallow root systems that have come into contact with Imprelis offers a real-world look at both the importance and the challenge of testing&madash;and the need to test in a variety of conditions. Change one variable, and the entire outcome can change, a reality that can make it difficult to know for sure that a new chemical is safe for a specific use and safe over time and with repeated use.

For gardeners, landscapers, and those interested in plant biology, exploring issues of plant survival and heartiness also involves understanding what "else" is in the area and what impact plants or other agents in the soil have upon one another.

The following two Project Ideas allow students to conduct investigations that can be revealing in terms of plant health. These projects may also offer insight into the kinds of investigatory work that will be involved in trying to determine why Imprelis turned out to be detrimental to conifers—when it had appeared to be safe.


(Note: Imprelis labeling and instructional information contains warnings about proper disposal of clippings from treated areas. Clippings are not safe for compost.)


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womens soccer.png Photo: Screenshot from FIFA headline coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup outcome.


The U.S. Women's Soccer Team didn't win in the finals of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup on Sunday against Japan, but for women's "football" fans, getting to the finals was an excellent show for the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking leaders. Fans of the team, including those with roommate connections like our own Product Design Engineer, were buoyed last week when then U.S. topped France to earn a coveted spot in the finals for the first time since 1999.

The U.S. team lost the tight match with Japan 3-1 after a penalty-kick shootout. Despite the loss, two of the women's team were singled out for individual contributions. AbbyWambach was named the second-best player in the World Cup and awarded the Silver Ball. She also took home the Bronze Boot, her four goals positioning her as the third leading scorer in the games and setting a U.S. record for career world cup goals. Teammate Hope Solo took home the Golden Glove as top goalkeeper and the Bronze Ball for third-best player.

For fans of the sport, there are plenty of soccer science angles to explore! With a bit of research and planning, you might turn a head-butt into a winning science project. Or, you might just find the science you need to perfect your own kicking angles in one of these sports science projects:

(Soccer not your sport? You can find other exciting sports-related project ideas in the Sports Science area of our Project Ideas directory.)

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"Standing Up" for Your Health


The choice between standing and sitting might be as important as choosing to eat better or exercise more.

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(Image originally excerpted from the larger infographic series created by Medical Billing And Coding. Update 1/2/14: Image source no longer available at original URL.)

Are you sitting down as you read this?

Maybe you shouldn't be. Maybe you should stand up while you finish reading this post. In fact, I stopped in drafting this piece... to stand up. It's true. It seemed wrong to sit down while writing a piece about the power of standing up! So I stood up. But then I couldn't easily reach my keyboard to type. I'm industrious, however... so I scrounged around my office space and found a box that seemed about the right height and a large plastic lid I could put on top of the box so that I had ample room for my keyboard and mouse. So here I am, standing up... typing. Granted, my monitor is a bit too low in this scenario. I may have to look into elevating it. A stack of already-read or just-in-case reference books might just do the trick.

So why am I standing up?

Because recent reports suggest that all that "sitting" we do in a regular day could be shortening our lives in measurable—and frightening—ways. At the very least, sitting down for six or more hours a day reportedly increases the risk of heart attack by more than 50%.

An infographic that has been making rounds on the Internet recently might have you think twice about how much time you spend sitting at a desk, on the couch, in restaurants, in a car, at a computer, or just hanging out with friends. We all know the phrase couch potato, but when you weigh the statistics in the series of images that make up the "Sitting is Killing You" campaign, you might find the scales tipping in favor of... standing up.

Still sitting?

You're not alone. The stats suggest that on average, we sit more than 9 hours a day.


The Nitty Gritty on Sitting Down

The infographic puts a grim face on the numbers, but if you poke around, you'll turn up other stories of people who now stand up (when they used to sit down). For example, in an article in a popular men's magazine, the staff admitted that they, too, are standing up more because the studies done comparing sitting and standing... are staggering. Here's how one writer summarized the findings: "it doesn't matter how much you exercise or how well you eat. If you sit most of the day, your risk of leaving this world clutching your chest—whether you're a man or women—as much as doubles."

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Click the image above to view the full infographic from Medical Billing And Coding. Update 1/2/14: Image source no longer available at original URL; link removed.


Standing in a Sit-Down World

Converting a sit-down mentality to a stand-up one involves some obvious changes but also might require a bit of creative thinking. For example, many office jobs (including mine) involve sitting most of the workday at a desk. The stand-up alternative takes the shape of "standup desks," apparently already popular in many health-conscious offices. But chucking the office chair and standing up for six or more hours a day? Doesn't it make your feet/legs/back hurt? Doesn't the floor beneath you, the shoes you wear, and even the ergonomics of how your computer monitor and keyboard is positioned relative to your height, all suddenly come into play as variables that before were minimized by sitting down? Doesn't posture become a new and different problem? What happens if you stand with your legs this way or that way?

There are definitely new elements to explore and avenues to research. Still... maybe you should stand up. At least stand up and walk down the hall. Taking more breaks, in fact, and just getting up and moving around before you return to your desk and chair might be a good starting point—even if you aren't ready to chuck the chair.


From the Couch

How much time do you spend sitting in a desk at school? Watching tv? Playing handheld video games? Do you sit down in the coffee shop or bakery? Have you ever thought about standing at the taller "counter" instead of using the chair?
Go on. Add it all up and then factor in the reality that it's summer, and despite the extra opportunity that gives you to be outdoors and exploring favorite pastimes or sports, you might find that you sit down even more with summer's slower-paced, kick-back schedule.

So what can you do?

You might start by figuring out "what" you spend your "sitting" time doing. Can you stand up and do the same thing? Talk on the phone? Check. Play mobile games? Check. Eat lunch? Check. Read your newest manga? Check. You might be surprised to discover that when you really think about it, you can stand up and do many of the things you enjoy. (I'm surprised that I'm still standing here as I type this blog post!)

You might even be able to make a compelling case for playing Wii a bit more than playing your handheld device, particularly if, like most of us, you stand up while you play your Wii games. (Tip: don't sit down when it's not your turn. Just stand to the side.)


Making Connections

When I first saw a write-up about sitting down in Mashable and then studied the infographic series, it seemed to me like there might be room in this issue for interesting and health-conscious student-based inquiry.

After looking over the series of poster-style graphics, our lead staff scientist, Sandra, confirmed that even without dealing with mortality, there are angles that might be explored in student science investigations. For example:

  • One of the graphics talks about the "angle" of the body during sitting and how sitting at various angles exerts different levels of force on the spine. A student could explore this by building a biomechanical model for testing, similar to the model of the knee at the heart of the Deep Knee Bends: Measuring Knee Stress with a Mechanical Model project.

  • Track individual movements over a period of time by keeping a journal that documents how much time you normally "sit" or "stand" over a 2-week period. Use a stop watch and start timing your sitting intervals each day, giving yourself not only a look at how much time you spend sitting doing certain kinds of on-your-rear activities, but also how much cumulative time you spend letting your butt muscles coast. (Tip: look up gluteal amnesia.) After analyzing your patterns and your own numbers, spend time brainstorming simple (and low-cost or no-cost) changes you can make to increase the amount of time you spend standing. Then put those changes in place over two weeks, again tracking your time spent sitting.

  • Conduct a similar tracking experiment with people of varying ages, in varying situations, or among your peers. Could you get a group of teachers to participate tracking time spent sitting and standing? Can you follow up your data tracking by having participants evaluate how they "felt" (both physically and emotionally) during the weeks in which they were making more deliberate "stand up" choices? Are there changes that can be implemented schoolwide, for instance, that could help build better "stand up" behaviors and a more health-conscious approach? (Think about it... everyone wants students off the couch at home but puts them in chairs for much of the day at school.)

  • Think about the power of a "visual" approach to presenting materials like this. Is it more effective than presenting data in a written or oral report? Taking this kind of data and turning it into a video or computer application is another approach you might consider. Using a programming environment like Scratch, how might you create an interactive display of materials designed to encourage people to "stand up"? For a similar project that takes heart-health as a premise for developing a Scratch application, see the Save a Life! Teach Hands-OnlyTM CPR project.


Surprisingly Easy

I'm going to sit down now. Did I feel strange standing up typing this piece? A bit. Was I really aware of how it felt to be "standing"? Yes. Did I wonder about posture, about shifting my weight one way and another, about whether standing with feet apart or even spread might be better or worse? Yes. Was I comfortable standing? It wasn't bad, really. Did my makeshift keyboard platform work? Yes. Could my stand up system use some tweaking? Yes. (The large plastic lid I was using wasn't totally enough space to make my mouse easy to use next to the keyboard). Did the monitor being low cause a problem? It was better once I realized it has a tilt mechanism, so I was able to swivel it "up," which gave me a better angle on the screen. Did I sort of "get used to standing up" during the span of time it took to draft this piece? Absolutely. Total time spent standing that I would otherwise have spent sitting... around an hour. Will I stand up again? You bet!

Will you?



(Science Buddies projects in the area of Human Health and Biology are sponsored by Medtronic Foundation.
Projects in Computer Science are sponsored by Symantec, and projects in the area of Video and Computer Games are sponsored by AMD.)

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How's the water?


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SODIS water disinfection uses PET bottles and the power of the sun over time. Image Source: SODIS Eawag, Wikipedia)

The answer depends on a number of variables, including where you are, especially if you are considering taking a drink. As Sarah Flaherty, a 9th grader at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario, discovered, purification strategies can be inexpensively enhanced by the strategic use of common materials. According to Sarah's science project, "Simplifying SODIS: Reduction of UV-impeding Turbidity through Macroscopic Filtration," an everyday T-shirt might offer a practical solution for eliminating excessive turbidity in water, a condition that can cause problems for solar water disinfection (SODIS).

In developing and rural areas, SODIS puts the power of the sun—and time—to work and offers an accessible and low-cost approach to improving the safety of local drinking water. The effectiveness of SODIS, however, decreases when the water is "cloudy"—or turbid.


Global Perspective

Taking inspiration from a family member who works for UNICEF, Sarah's project was an investigation seeking to improve SODIS-based water disinfection. Targeting the problem of turbidity, Sarah designed a filter that can be used to counteract the cloudiness of water. Her solution aimed to use readily available resources, like a T-shirt, and to create an enhancement that would increase effectiveness without significantly altering the cost of SODIS purification.

Sarah won a silver merit award at the 2011 Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair (BASEF), held this year in Hamilton, Ontario, and went on to participate in the 2011 Intel ISEF where she won Google's Secret Change Agent Special Award, an award that recognizes a project that has the potential to create positive impact in the student's neighborhood and/or on a global scale.


Making Connections

The quality of drinking water is directly related to the spread of disease. For example, outbreaks of cholera are often linked to contaminated water supply. According to the World Health Organization, 1.8 million people die each year from diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera), a statistic that the WHO estimates can be significantly reduced by water purification. Safer water and smart and affordable purification practices are key.

Students can investigate water purification in the following projects:


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From the Field: Nora Volkow


Yesterday, the New York Times ran an in-depth profile of Nora Volkow, the neuroscientist in charge of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the accompanying video, Volkow talks about the psychology and physiology behind addiction.

According to Volkow, the impulse that drives one person to buy a chocolate bar from a bucket sitting at a checkout counter, even when she doesn't really want a chocolate bar, may be similar to the way an addict returns time and again to a substance, behavior, or activity even when he knows he shouldn't, really doesn't want to, or has vowed to steer clear. Good intentions aside, breaking patterns of addiction can be extremely difficult, and when it comes to substance addiction, the substance affects the dopamine levels in the brain—a high that addicts want to repeat.

Increased dopamine levels, alone, however, don't explain addiction. One time, in and of itself, doesn't create addiction. According to the New York Times article, researchers suggest that genetics play a role, as do changes in the brain that result from patterns of addiction.


Making Connections

If you are interested in human psychology, physiology, or neuroscience, you can use a bag of marshmallows, a bell, and a group of friends to explore similar issues of human behavior in the Enjoy It Now... Or Enjoy It Later? Understanding Delayed Gratification, project. Would you rather have one marshmallow now or two in 15 minutes? You might think you want two. But can you hold out? Don't like marshmallows? Substitute a favorite treat and put it to the test.


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Zombie Preparedness

| 1 Comment

Zombies.

Are you ready?

Get A Kit,    Make A Plan, Be Prepared. emergency.cdc.gov
You can get your own "zombie preparedness" badge on the CDC website.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a guide on how to prepare for a zombie attack. That's right, the government agency put together a set of "emergency preparedness" tips for a "zombie apocalypse," an all-out mass infiltration of zombies. If you missed the article, you should probably go, right now, read it and bone up on what you need to do to protect yourself, friends, and family from crowds of rotting, brain-hungry, walking dead.


As you review the suggestions for preparing for a zombie attack, take some notes. Go ahead, put them in your lab notebook so you will know where they are if and/when the time comes and you need to do a hasty review. (It is vampires, by the way, that are said to be repelled by garlic. Garlic may or may not have an effect on zombies.) Once you're done filling your brain (zombie delicacy that it is) with zombie facts and emergency preparation suggestions, head back here to finish up. We'll wait.


Making Connections
Okay, now that you know what to do in the even that zombies come meandering down your street, arms outstretched, collective monotone cries of "brains" or "feed me" filling the air, make another note at the top of the notes you took.

In your best zombified handwriting, write: Also for Pandemics and Natural Disasters.

That's right. The preparedness strategies you need in the event something in the doughnuts from the local bakery goes to everyone's brains and causes rampant zombification mutation are some of the same strategies you need in the event of natural disasters, mass illnesses or viral outbreak, or other widespread epidemics or threats.


Strong Winds

All of this extra awareness of how to avoid, evade, and survive a zombie attack is especially helpful this week because May 22-28 is National Hurricane Preparedness week. The 6-month hurricane season along the Atlantic Basin begins June 1. Scientists are predicting that the 2011 season will be a particularly bad one, so FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working hard to raise awareness and encourage people to be proactive in preparing ahead of time—before the winds and storms hit.

Knowing what you now know about getting ready for a zombie attack (including what you should have on hand and what plans should be in place), you are hopefully in better shape to help your family, friends, and community get ready for the coming hurricane season, too.


Finding the Science

Chances that you'll be in a position to study zombies for a school fair or project seem slim. But there are plenty of angles you can take to further explore hurricanes or other meteorological events, including:


Be Prepared

You might also find some useful information in our previous post on Campground Science. As our lead staff scientist pointed out when I asked her about zombie attacks, in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, survival may depend on some solid camping-savvy skills. And, eventually, you might want a hot shower if you can find enough clean water. Luckily, camp science can help you with the water situation—and with s'mores!


Looking Ahead

Zombies on the horizon or not, if you are interested in thinking through how to help plan either before or after an emergency, you may want to learn more about careers in Emergency Management.

[Updated 10/31/2013: original CDC blog post has been relocated/removed. Link removed. Some CDC content now appears here: http://emergency.cdc.gov/socialmedia/zombies.asp]


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Exploring the science behind what we see and what we think we see. It's not always the same thing!


When you watch the animation above, focus on the white dot in the center. As the surrounding dots begin to spin, do they seem to stop changing colors until the spinning ends? In fact, they continue to change, but the motion of the overall outer ring makes it appear that they stop blinking until the ring stops spinning. If you watch it again and focus on the outer ring, you will see that the colored dots continue to blink and shift color even when the ring spins.

This animation recently won the seventh annual "Best Visual Illusion of the Year" contest , organized by the Neural Correlate Society and associated with the annual Vision Sciences Society meeting. The winning illusion by Jordan Suchow and George Alvarez, a Harvard graduate student and assistant professor of psychology, respectively, is titled "Silencing awareness of change by background motion." It's a simple title for a sensory perception that may also seem simple. But what's simple about the fact that we can think we are seeing something we are not? Nothing!

From studying visual illusions, and the ways in which the brain controls what we perceive, scientists learn more about sensory perception, about the brain, and about vision.


The Science of Visual Illusion

Research in visual illusion and sensory perception involves psychology, physiology, and neuroscience of vision and image processing. Students who are interested in these fields or who simply enjoy the "wow" factor of visual illusions can get more hands-on with the following science projects:


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Sleight of Eye
The image above lets you quickly test a non-animated visual illusion. To give it a try, look first at the airplane image. Do you see that the two halves are differently colored? Now, stare at the dot between the blue and yellow rectangles for 20 seconds. Then shift your gaze to the dot in the airplane image. How do the two halves appear now? As you continue to watch, the effect will disappear. (See full project.)

Taking it Farther


To view the other 2011 winning illusions (as well as winners from previous years), visit the Best Illusion Contest of the Year website.

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AAAS / Science logo
The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) is awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science.


When you hear the word "spore," what comes to mind? Single-celled, self-replicating organisms? The whacky creatures in a popular video game? Something that grows and adapts? Something that spreads? Depending on the context, a "spore" might fit any of those descriptions. And with the encouragement of Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources, students can experiment with spores--or with slime molds or the use of water as a renewable energy source or patterns of bird migration or ocean acidification or chloroplast sequencing. They can even pinpoint the center of the Milky Way!


As founder and president Kenneth Hess notes, "every year, ten million K-12 students in North America must complete a science project." The hardest part of the process for many of those students is selecting a project. At Science Buddies, students can choose from over a 1000 projects in over 30 areas of science. From genomics to ocean and environmental sciences, students can access exciting free Project Ideas on the Science Buddies website, many of which enable them to follow in the footsteps of today's cutting-edge researchers, exploring new and developing science techniques, procedures, and questions.


For the last ten years, Science Buddies has been seeding interest in, and excitement for, science and furthering science literacy both in classroom settings and at home. This process of providing tools to support science literacy and to encourage students to explore areas of science they might not have considered has been part of Science Buddies' approach since its inception, and Science Buddies' offerings have continued to grow and evolve. Student by student, teacher by teacher, parent by parent, and researcher by researcher, the Science Buddies community has spread.


Today, Science awarded Science Buddies a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, an award created to recognize "the best online materials in science education." "We want to recognize innovators in science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science.


"We're extremely honored to be recognized by such a prestigious publication that represents the entire scientific community," says Hess. "It provides tremendous validation for our efforts to advance science education and literacy."


And with recognition, science literacy spreads and spreads again and again and again. It's a replication process worth celebrating.

Science Buddies is honored to be named a SPORE recipient.

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Earth Day: Staff Picks!


As I wrote my blog essay in celebration of Earth Day, I found myself in unexpectedly bug-laden territory, without a compost bin, wind turbine, or reusable food container in sight. But Earth Day is about all of those things. It's about taking a moment to recognize what's around us, to take stock of where we are, and to consider ways in which we can make changes, big and small, that can make an impact on the environment. It's about conservation and awareness. Do you turn off the water while you brush your teeth?

I asked members of the Science Buddies team to pick their favorite Project Idea for Earth Day from the Science Buddies Project Ideas Directory. Here's what they chose:










    MarisaMarisa: The Big Dig

    Test how biodegradable different materials are, from paper products to different kinds of bags and other everyday items.








    PeggyPeggy: Swimming in Acid: Understanding Ocean Acidification
    Many scientists are concerned that the increased absorption of carbon dioxide is causing them to become more acidic. What impact does that have on the marine life? In this ocean science fair project, you will demonstrate ocean acidification and investigate the effect on the shells of marine life.
















    DebbieDebbie: Growing a Soil Menagerie
    Make a mini biosphere (Winogradsky Column) to test the response of soil microorganisms to environmental changes in a closed system.







    SandraSandra: "Earth Day is about stopping to take the time to appreciate the outdoors and making sure that we humans are living in a way that allows future generations to do the same. Does that mean we're going to abandon our cars and turn off our electricity? Realistically speaking, I can't imagine doing that! Finding ways to solve environmental problems while maintaining our lifestyles seems more realistic. Here are two Project Ideas that I think allow us to start evaluating and tackling some of those environmental problems:"

  • Do Your Storm Drains Keep the Ocean Trash Free?
    Test models of local grated storm drain inlets to determine if they are designed in a manner that keeps plastic litter from entering your community's stormwater drainage system. If not, design a new model!

  • Water to Fuel to Water: The Fuel Cycle of the Future
    Follow in the footsteps of MIT researchers as you examine water's usefulness as a renewable energy source by observing how efficient a cobalt-based catalyst can be at helping to form molecular oxygen.


(Thank you to our partners and sponsors whose support helps up continue to produce environmentally-aware science and engineering projects and materials for K-12 students, teachers, and families.)


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Earth Day: Turn Over a New Log


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"Beetle collection at the Melbourne Museum, Australia," Wikipedia In celebration of Earth day, take a colorful entomological look at biodiversity by browsing Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley.

When it comes to things that creep, crawl, or fly, I'm of the squeamish variety, and I well remember a high school science class assignment that involved finding and mounting fifty different insects. My "ick" is seemingly instinctive, but I also remember being enchanted by variations of beetles and the coloration and patterning in them and other hard-shell insects. As an adult, I tend to stick with the "ick", but spend an hour outdoors with a group of elementary school students, and it is hard to remain unmoved by their natural curiosity and fearlessness, by their wide-eyed embrace of the world around them, of things that lurk in corners and under logs, rocks, or piles of leaves. I may not embrace the slime left by a snail in one's palm, but that snails appear all along the hedges in the morning dew or after the rain... is worth noting. The way isopods navigate a hodgepodge obstacle course of blocks and pencils... is cause for excitement. Ladybugs, worms, spiders, ant colonies, stick bugs, beetles, butterflies... there's a lot to explore at ground-level.

In thinking about Earth Day this year, I thought about a profile of Dr. Edward O. Wilson (by James Gorman) that I read in New York Times Science. The piece begins with a description of Wilson, an entomologist and zoologist, on his hands and knees scrambling through the leaves near historic Walden Pond. The essay goes on to depict Wilson as brimming with an irrepressible zest for what Gorman terms the "micro wilderness"— the "wilderness" that can be found when one stoops down and really looks at what's happening on the ground.

There is an old saying that you are never more than a few feet from a spider, whether you see glistening woven signs of them bridging the corners of a windowsill or door jamb or not. For Wilson, the bio-diversity that can be observed a few centimeters below the ground is an endless source of wonder, and the number of creatures in even a square foot of wilderness can tally in the tens of thousands.


A Big-Screen Example

The essay on Wilson came to mind recently when I watched Avatar. I was the only one in my house that hadn't seen it, and I finally watched it, in part, because of an essay I read by another New York Times Science science writer, Carol Yoon. In "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream," Yoon practically swoons over Avatar and the intensely-colored, very blue, lush, and "flowing" world of Pandora. Her review of the blockbuster hit is from the perspective of a scientist, maybe one that has often been cynical of big-screen representations of science and scientists. According to Yoon, Avatar got it right.

"When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: "Yes! That's exactly what it's like!"

Watching the movie, it is almost impossible not to catch one's breath at the natural world that's been enlarged, given shape, color, luminosity, and a clearly visualized interconnectedness with both the indigenous Na'vi people and other flora and fauna. There are many, many "that's almost like x" or "that reminds me of" moments as you watch the characters traverse and interact with Pandora, and every viewer probably has a different favorite. From plants that curl up at touch to jellyfish-like organisms to the bioluminescence of the ground when it's walked across, Pandora is visually captivating. The quiet moments of natural exploration and revelation in the movie are mesmerizing. And, if Yoon is right, it's exactly the kind of pop culture representation that can both satisfy scientists and make a general viewing audience stop and think.


Earth Day, Once More

For someone who self-describes as squeamish, maybe it's unusual how profound I found the essay on Wilson. Similarly, I love Yoon's giddy response to Avatar, and her elucidation of all the ways in which, for her, Avatar's Pandora does a wonderful job taking what we know and turning it into something mystical and compelling.

Inspired by their stories, I wonder if the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day might be to trek out into the woods, turn over a log, and really look to see the "wildlife" in motion. That there would almost certainly be birds to hear and maybe glimpse would be a bonus. And if you're lucky enough to spot a frog or a salamander, great. Take a notebook, write down what you see, make a quick sketch or two, and enjoy time spent appreciating, observing, and learning about the Earth right under your feet and maybe just beyond the mainstream road in your neighborhood.


A Focused Approach

The following projects can help you and your students turn renewed awareness and appreciation of what's underfoot into a stepping stone for scientific exploration:


Making Connections

For other ideas on talking about biodiversity with students, ones old enough to watch Avatar, check the "Nature's Call: Drawing Inspiration From 'Avatar' to Study and Create Organisms" teacher's guide from NYT's The Learning Network.

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The da Vinci Way


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Sample page from journals of Leonardo da Vinci. Image: public domain.
Born on April 15, 1452: Leonardo daVinci, a "total package" when it comes to the quest for knowledge. Students learning the importance of a lab notebook might find inspiration in da Vinci's famed journals. The notebooks contain over ten thousand illustrated pages, written in mirror cursive, in which da Vinci recorded daily observations, including science and engineering schematics.


See our "Lab Notebooks" blog entry for helpful tips and tricks compiled from staff scientists at Science Buddies.


What do your science notebooks look like? Do you have a picture to share? We'd love to see!

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Celebrate the History of Space Flight


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Screenshot from First Orbit (the movie), created by FirstOrbit.org.

Today marks the 50 year anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's 108-minute, first human in space, orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. It's a big day in the history of space exploration and flight!

To join in the celebration, make a bit of "space" in your day for some space history!

  • Make contact.

    Students (or classes) interested in space studies can try and make contact with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). Our HAMing It Up with the Astronauts* project can help get them started.

  • Explore liftoff.
    Students can learn more about the power behind liftoff when they use an online NASA simulator to design an ion engine, part of a propulsion system which is replacing the standard chemical propulsion system.


  • Think big.

    Students can explore a range of astro-related science projects in the Science Buddies Project Ideas Directory.


  • Look ahead.

    Explore a space- and astronomy-related careers, including Aerospace Engineer and Astronomer.


  • Tune in.

    Don't miss First Orbit, a free hour-and-a-half YouTube video that weaves together original footage and new footage from the ISS to recreate, in real time, that first flight. Class popcorn party anyone?

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Programming a Logo



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With over 40,000 versions, MIT Media Lab's new logo is computer-driven design. You can see some of the permutations of the algorithmic logo in this video.
As anyone interested in (or who dabbles in) computer programming knows, computer programs can be written to perform an infinite array of 'make-life-easier' or 'help-pass-the-time' tasks. Having spent more hours than I should probably admit carefully choosing my launch direction and pull-back strength and sending cute little chubby (albeit 'Angry') birds hurtling toward structures made from wood, concrete, and glass, I've again found myself poking around here and there for information on programming for this overwhelmingly successful and perfect for "gotta have it" apps platform.


I've taken turns with my kids playing countless games we've installed, and even as I join the quest to best the top score, when it's not my turn, I marvel at these apps, knowing that the footprint (the size of each app) is small, and yet the functionality and visual display is compelling (and, okay, addictive... have you played Fruit Ninja?). I think about the explosion of the app market, especially given the relatively standard low per-app price point. I wonder... how hard is it? I wonder... can I get my students (who unwaveringly want to be video game designers) started designing and coding by lifting the hood on a gadget they already love?

(Reality: we've got a few years before they're ready for Objective-C.) Still, with so many cool platforms available, it's an exciting time for students just beginning to explore programming, and for many of these platforms, visual design and the sophistication of the graphics is given top billing.


A Logo with 40,000 Versions

As much as I love the nuts and bolts (or bits and bytes) that bring about savvy programming that we front-end users can enjoy, I love good design even more, whether it's classic, cutting-edge, postmodern or just knock-your-socks-off innovative.

When I saw mention of MIT Media Lab's new logo, I found an innovative blending of design and technology. Logos are typically finite marks. They are created to be "the" visual mark for a company or brand and are intended to be produced in certain colors at certain sizes. Branding is important, and businesses can get pretty stuffy about rules regarding the use of their logo. That MIT Media Lab's new mark may appear in any of 40,000 permutations, which involves twelve color combinations, is mind-boggling—and way cool.

The new logo has a few basic parameters: each iteration uses three colors and three spotlights. The size, color, and orientation of those spotlights, however, vary for each unique version of the logo. Everyone at MIT Media Lab will have his or her "own" version of the logo. And no two people will have exactly the same version. The logo is as edgy and geeky as the group it represents because the permutations of the brand are based on an algorithm which can spit out the multitude of versions.


A Programmatic Approach to Design

The creation of the MIT Media Lab logo uses an open source programming language called Process. While Process is unique in its focus on visual and graphical manipulations, students can begin creating and exploring their own image-oriented applications--and algorithms--using MIT's Scratch programming environment.

The Science Buddies Scratch User Guide walks you through the installation and can help you get started with your first program.

If you think the story behind the new MIT Media Lab logo is cool, you might explore the visual side of Scratch by putting the math in place and investigating fractals in the Scratch environment. (There are plenty of examples in the Scratch gallery). You can find out more about fractals in the Exploring Fractals project idea.

We'd love to see what you create!


(Science Buddies projects in the area of computer science are sponsored by Symantec. Projects in the area of video and computer games are sponsored by AMD.)

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The President's comments aside, if the big screen is more your game than the Super Bowl, and if you go starry-eyed over the red-carpet, then you might have been watching last week as Natalie Portman (making style lists for her purple dress, as well) took home the golden statue for her lead role in Black Swan, a thriller with an obsessed ballerina, and a production of the classic Swan Lake, at its dark heart.


You may not have seen Black Swan (rated R), but you probably know Portman's name... or maybe you know her better as Queen Amidala from the new Star Wars trilogy. Amazingly, she was still a high school student when she took on the role of Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I, which hit the screen in 1997. Star Wars, however, was not her first big screen role. Moving from stage to film, she made her movies debut at age 13, and by the age of 14 was working on a string of movies: Heat, Beautiful Girls, Everyone Says I Love You, and Mars Attacks! Since then, her list of credits includes at least a movie a year over the last ten years.


Well-Rounded Success

While her Hollywood success is amazing (she's only 29), there's a lot more to Portman than a worth-the-price-of-popcorn-and-admission screen presence.

Following her Oscar win, an article appeared in New York Times Science spotlighting Portman's decidedly and impressively academic and science-minded side. As a straight-A high school student, she was a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious, and highly competitive, national science competition.


At the time, Portman was interested in alternative energy sources, specifically the process of transforming waste products into hydrogen or ethanol fuels. At the heart of her research were simple methods for demonstrating that the reactions being studied were producing hydrogen, which could be used as an alternative fuel source. In a paper she published on her work titled, "A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar," she puts forth a familiar call to action: there is a need for "bioprocesses whereby biomass and the biodegradable content of municipal wastes can be converted to useful forms of energy" that can replace fossil fuels like oil. In the paper, she demonstrates that "common sugar glucose can be used to produce hydrogen using two enzymes, glucose dehydrogenase and hydrogenase." She also advocates that this kind of research can and should be explored in high school labs—that it is easy enough and uses readily accessible materials, making it a good way to emphasize environmental and biotechnology issues and areas of study, and helping give students a hands-on introduction to enzyme-catalyzed reactions.


A Lead Role

Students who are interested in environmental issues and the processes involved in producing biofuels might try and replicate Portman's study. Or, students can investigate alternative energy production in one of these Science Buddies projects:


A Big Screen Look at the Intel STS

The Whiz Kids documentary about the Intel STS will be shown on PBS in April!



(Science Buddies projects in the area of biotechnology are sponsored by Bio-Rad and its Biotechnology Explorer program.)

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pH Concerns for Hungarian Farmers

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The after-effects of Hungary's red mud disaster are still unknown. Concerns over the coming year's crops are high. (Image source: WHO/Roger Aertgeerts)
Last October, we watched as "red sludge" (or "red mud," as it has come to be known) poured across Hungary, flooding local waterways and flowing steadily toward the Danube. Emergency crews raced to minimize the impact of the highly alkaline waste by dumping large quantities of plaster and vinegar into the water.


Almost six months later, scientists are still trying to assess the damage, both long-term and immediate, caused by the red mud, which contains both toxic metals and radioactive elements. From studies on the pulmonary effects of inhaling red mud dust to studies of the soil the sludge flowed over, there are many questions that remain unanswered.

Studies have suggested that the presence of large quantities of heavy metals (like nickel) left in the wake of red mud could have an impact upon the micro fauna of the soil that might take many years to resolve or reverse. Toxic metals, however, may be only part of the post-disaster problem for agriculture in Hungary.


The pH of Planting

Recent studies suggest that an immediate challenge for farmers will be dealing with soil that might be considered super alkaline. As Science Daily reported, "Red mud is about one million times more alkaline than a neutral material."

Couple the extreme alkalinity with the fact that Hungarian farmlands were covered in up to 4 inches of sludge, and it's clear that farmers whose livelihoods depend upon local crops like corn and alfalfa have a right to be concerned. Whether the crops will be safe to eat remains a big question. But farmers also have to ask, "will the crops grow?" Will they grow at all? Will growth cycles change? Will the yield differ from a pre-red mud season?

One solution scientists have explored to help lower the pH levels of the soil is the addition of gypsum. We'll be watching as the agricultural story unfolds. But students can observe these issues firsthand with a series of plant biology projects that puts real-world environmental disaster relief onto their windowsills or into their backyard garden:

  • To monitor the effects of pH on germination, students can modify the core experimental procedure used in the Radiant Radish Seeds project. Using varying amounts of baking soda mixed with water, students can test pH levels and study the effects of alkalinity on germination.
  • To explore plant growth in relation to pH levels, students can add hydrated lime to samples of soil to increase the alkalinity. The Measuring Plant Growth resource offers suggestions for tracking and monitoring growth.
  • To explore processes for helping to reduce pH levels in soil, students can create alkaline soil (adding hydrated lime, for example) and then experiment with various additives, including gypsum, to see what solutions are possible, how much of a substance it takes to make a measurable difference in pH, and what the cost factor might be when considered on a large scale, like a farm.


For all of these projects, a pH soil testing kit, available at garden stores or at Amazon.com, will be useful.

(Research and development of Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of plant biology are supported by the Monsanto Fund.)

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A Video View of the Elements


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The deadline has passed for entering the Chemical Heritage Foundation's "It's Elemental" video contest, but voting is underway!

In recognition of the2011 International Year of Chemistry, the Chemical Heritage Foundation invited students to submit videos about the elements of the periodic table. Click an element from the chart to see the videos students created—and to learn more about a specific element. You'll find video coverage of familiar and favorite elements, like Hydrogen, Helium, Tungsten, and Phosphorous, but you'll also get a fresh on-the-screen look at elements that might be less familiar, like Tantalum, Cesium, and Rubidium.

Be sure and "vote" for the ones you like!


Be a Part of the International Year of Chemistry

The theme of the 2011 IYC is: "Chemistry—our life, our future." Now is a perfect time to explore Science Buddies' chemistry Project Ideas.


Parents: There are many chemistry project ideas in the Science Buddies directory of Project Ideas that can be done at home as a family project! You can explore our list of suggest "at home" projects here. Here are a few sample projects that you can have fun doing with your students: Cabbage Chemistry, Bubble-ology, and A Soluble Separation Solution.

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What is... Watson?


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What would you have made Watson "look like"? Check out IBM's video coverage of what was involved in giving Watson both a "face" and a "voice" for the Jeopardy! Competition.
"I'll take "Artificial Intelligence" for $1000, please."


Jeopardy! fans will be tuning in February 14-16 to see IBM's computer contestant, Watson, face off against the brain-power, trivia recall, and quick (thumb) reflexes of two of Jeopardy's all-time top winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak with 74 consecutive wins. Rutter, on the other hand, holds the record for the most winnings, more than $3.2 million.

These two champions will compete against... the world of artificial intelligence and a computer named Watson.


AI Déjà vu?

If you're a chess buff, this whole scenario might sound familiar, minus Alex Trebek. In 1997, another IBM computer, Deep Blue, took on Garry Kasparov, a world chess champion. The computer won.

Teaching a computer to play chess, however, and teaching a computer to understand the kinds of word-play and linguistic subtleties that are often involved in figuring out Jeopardy questions may be like comparing apples and oranges. A computer can draw upon all its data regarding chess moves and strategies and games played in the past in order to plan its next move. But while Watson is loaded up with a "world" of data (millions of pages of facts about every imaginable topic), Watson may or may not "get the joke" or be able to sift through all that information to offer the "right" succinct answer in the form of a question.

Don't be fooled by the fact that the on-screen virtual contestant will be represented by a digital image "standing" behind the middle podium between Jennings and Rutter. Watson's got serious data power behind it—a backstage block of computers that reportedly occupy the space of about ten refrigerators. (Watson will not be connected to the Internet, however. All three contestants will play with "what they know.")

We'll be watching to see how the past champs measure up against Watson.
It could, indeed, be a true "Daily Double" for artificial intelligence!


Game On

While programming a computer to test a Sudoku solution is a good introduction to programming, is fun, and is useful, it's not the same as teaching a computer to think for itself. The Artificial Intelligence: Teaching the Computer to Play Tic-Tac-Toe Science Buddies Project Idea lets you put a toe in the water in terms of teaching a computer to play games. And, luckily, there's no money at stake! (Difficulty: 6-8)


Read more pre-match coverage:


Interested in who and what was involved in building and teaching Watson? Find out more about the computer software engineer career path.




(Science Buddies Computer Science projects are sponsored by Symantec.)

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State of the Union address, Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Are you tuning in to the Super Bowl? Are you participating in your school's science fair? Both are exciting. One can change the future.


Students in the middle of experiments and trials and data analysis for their science projects may or may not have been listening earlier this week when President Obama delivered the State of the Union address. But there were four students on hand and sitting with the First Lady when President Obama said, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

On the First Lady's guest list for the evening were four outstanding students, including:


  • a high school junior who won first place at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with her work on a photosensitizer for photodynamic therapy (PDT), a cancer drug
  • a high school junior who leads a team that participated in the global Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition, an investigation into better fuel efficiency
  • a college freshman who was part of a high school team that designed a motorized chair for physical therapy patients, which led them to win a grant from Lemelson-MIT Program's InventTeams initiative

  • a high school freshman whose team won the National Science Bowl for its solar car design

Those students heard firsthand the President praise science education and scientific achievement. But the President was talking to the country as a whole—to students and parents and educators and everyone else—when he drew a parallel between science fair and Super Bowl winners.

At Science Buddies, we agree that the value of scientific inquiry, of the spirit to test and understand and explore, needs to be celebrated.

Right now, many schools in the U.S. are in the middle of "science fair season." There will be many winners, and yet there will be many, many more "participants"—students who, as part of a class or just because they wanted to, took part in a local or school science fair. We think it's important to celebrate and support all of those students—each and every student who conducted an experiment, who studied the scientific method, who asked a question about how something works or what makes something happen, who sat down to formulate a hypothesis, and who then put their research to the test with an experiment. Whether the hypothesis was proven or not, participating matters and is worth celebrating.



Students: Remind your parents that science projects are important! It's important for your parents to get involved and to make science a part of your family's "quality" time. We've even got project suggestions for your family to do together!

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Desks Piled High, and Lizards for Lunch



Potential Scientific Discovery "Piled" Up on Desks and Tucked Away in Cabinets

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Wikimedia Commons: Photographer: François MEY; Herbarium: Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle


Herbaria refers to collections of dried plant specimens. These specimens are often mounted and then filed away. Oxford's herbaria, for example, contains approximately a million specimens. In any herbaria, it is common to find some samples that have not yet been identified.

According to Dr. Robert Scotland of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences, "Many people think that discovering new species is primarily about expeditions to exotic locations and collecting new specimens, but the truth is that thousands of new plant species are lying unidentified in cupboards, drawers and cabinets around the world."




In December, Science Daily ran an article with the headline, "35,000 New Species 'sitting in Cupboards.'" The 35,000 species under the microscope of that article account for approximately half of the species of flowering plants that scientists estimate have yet to be described and cataloged.

There are 70,000 species of plants—flowering ones—that haven't been tackled by scientists, but that we know exist and, as the article suggests, half of them are probably sitting on a desk somewhere or in a jar or maybe even pressed between the pages of an old dictionary. The report goes on to suggest that it can take 30-40 years between the time a new specimen is collected and the time it gets fully processed and described and included in the list of known species.

That's a staggering time delay! Think about it, the specimen collected by one scientist and shelved for later study may not be found or picked up again until years later—and by someone else!


Ordering the Daily Special
The problem plant scientists face, and the fact that plant specimens may be among the most documented of organisms (compared, for example, to insects), helps to explain how an undocumented species of lizard, Leiolepis ngovantrii, was on the menu—daily— in Vietnam last year without scientists even being aware that "lunch" for many diners at local restaurants was actually what amounts to a scientific delicacy—a new species of lizard, and not only that, but an all-female species that reproduces by cloning.

The story, reported by CNN in November, is worth reading. That by the time scientists arrived on the scene, a "mishap" in the kitchen had resulted in the current tank of lizards being grilled for lunch underscores how easy it can be to overlook (or eat) something new without even realizing its value to the scientific community.

The scientists who had rushed to Vietnam to investigate the lizards did, apparently, get to have lunch and found out that, contrary to popular wisdom, not everything tastes like chicken!


The Tip of the Biodiversity Iceberg
What these stories underscore is the fact that what we know is most likely far less than there still is to know in terms of identifying and measuring the biodiversity that surrounds us. There are millions of species still to be tracked and described and cataloged by researchers in all areas of science.

A recently-completed international Census of Marine Life took a decade to complete, but at the end, the census resulted in a list of 190,000 species of marine life, including approximately 6000 potentially new species. Based on the data collected, scientists involved estimate there may be at least a million marine species throughout the oceans, and at least tens of millions of types of marine microbes.

There's a lot of work to be done, and a lot of room for emerging scientists. Just remember, tracking biodiversity doesn't always mean a trip to an exotic location. Sometimes, it means simply looking around!


Look Around: The Next New Species May Be in Your Own Backyard
Students can begin investigating issues related to biodiversity with projects like these from the Science Buddies library of free Project Ideas:



Science Buddies Project Ideas in the areas of microbiology and zoology are sponsored by The Abbott Fund.

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DNA-Based Crime Prevention

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Depending on where you live, you may find that even local corner stores have sections that are kept under lock and key. Over-the-counter drugs and even toys often end up under "please ask for assistance" supervision. It can be frustrating to have to get a clerk to help you get your cold medicine, batteries, or the newest pack of trading cards, but it makes sense. From surveillance technologies to exploding ink security tags to simple lock-and-key access, businesses are doing what they can to protect their goods and their customers—and to help cut down on incidences of petty theft.


A Scientific Approach

In the Netherlands, local businesses have adopted a crime-prevention system that puts science on the front line of both deterrence and tracking. Fast food restaurants like McDonalds are among the businesses that have installed DNA mist systems. When activated, the system silently alerts police to criminal activity and "marks" the thief with an invisible mist of DNA. Businesses using the system post signs that indicate the presence of DNA systems: "You Steal, You're Marked."

This mist, visible only under ultraviolet light, is so fine that someone being sprayed may not even realize that he or she has been "marked." The mist, however, contains DNA markers that link it to the specific location of the spray system—making it possible to link a criminal to a specific crime based on DNA markers. If apprehended, a simple UV wand may reveal the tell-tale mist. A suspect's presence at a crime location can then be confirmed by matching the mist DNA to its unique location.

For the science-minded—or the armchair detective—the mist-based system raises questions and many "what-ifs." What if the thief goes straight to a public bathroom and changes clothes? What if the thief takes a shower? What if a bunch of bystanders are sprayed? What if the spray doesn't adhere to certain substances or kinds of clothing? There are plenty of questions, any of which you could turn into the beginnings of an independent science project, but reports suggest that businesses using the DNA mist systems have seen a decrease in criminal activity. In part, authorities suggest, the success of the DNA mist system is that its presence alone works as a deterrent.


Why DNA?

DNA mist systems are in use in a handful of European countries, and media coverage suggests they may appear in the US soon. Reading about this system brings up one obvious question: why use DNA? Why not use some other synthetic chemical? The answer lies in the versatility and configurability of DNA. Not only is it inexpensive to make large quantities of synthetic DNA, but DNA can be "programmed" to contain an unlimited number of unique tags. Every store in a city could have a unique mist-system with DNA markers that could lead the police straight to their door if a suspect showed up covered in mist linked to their location. This kind of widespread site-specific and distinct crime marker wouldn't necessarily be possible with other chemicals. Plus, forensics labs are also accustomed to handling and analyzing DNA. The systems are already in place to read and evaluate DNA.

And would-be criminals know it, which increases the power of the warning: "You Steal, You're Marked."


Understanding DNA

Students interested in DNA and curious about the properties of DNA, and the infinite customization possible with DNA's 4 base pairs, can get an introduction to understanding DNA fragments in this Science Buddies project idea:


Students with access to a lab—and more time— can take their exploration a bit further in this project idea:

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Bitter is Better for Bronchial Tubes

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Do you wrinkle up your nose at the taste of something bitter? That's partly what your taste buds do—help warn your body against something that is bitter and could be poisonous.

While your tongue may or may not like the bitter taste of foods like radishes and dandelion greens, your lungs might react differently! A team of researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins recently discovered that the lungs have "taste receptors" (like the ones on your tongue). That was a surprise, but the bigger surprise was that rather than contracting and withdrawing from bitter substances, the lungs appear to respond positively to bitter substances—the airways expand and open up, which makes it easier to breathe.


An Accidental and Surprising Discovery

Scientific discovery doesn't always go as planned. In fact, discovery often involves following the trail of experimental results even if they lead away from the initial experiments—or fail to support initial hypotheses.

Researchers were studying the human lung muscle receptors responsible for regulating how our airways contract and relax when they realized that taste may not be all in the mouth. When the team of researchers realized they had stumbled upon a strange scenario—taste buds in the lungs—they could have thought their data was wrong. They could have just shrugged and continued with their initial course of research. After all, taste buds were not what they were looking for! They could have just assumed the presence of taste receptors was an odd and unimportant artifact of human evolution....but instead, they investigated.


A Wrong Hypothesis

The team continued experimenting and testing, hoping to determine how taste receptors in the lungs "work." Further experiments confirmed that the taste receptors are receptors for bitter substances, just like the receptors found on the human tongue.

It is thought that bitter taste receptors on the tongue evolved as part of the body's self-defense system against harmful or poisonous substances, many of which have a bitter taste. If you taste something bitter, you are more likely to spit it out and, as a byproduct, save yourself from being poisoned.

Initial guesses were that the taste receptors in the lungs would respond to "bitter" in the same way the tongue does... with a shiver and a shake! Speculation was that the presence of these "bitter" receptors in the lungs was again related to self-defense. Researchers guessed that when confronted by a bitter substance, the receptors would react and cause the airways to constrict, thus letting in less potentially contaminated air.

But they were wrong.

The taste receptors behaved exactly the opposite of what researchers expected. The presence of the reactors does, indeed, seem related to the body's self-defense mechanisms. But instead, of constricting the airways, bitter substances caused the lung muscles to relax the airways, increasing the air flow.

Understanding "why" the taste receptors work differently in the lungs compared to on the tongue required formulating a new hypothesis, their original one regarding the behavior of the taste receptors already disproven. The researchers now believe that the bitter taste receptors are present in the lungs because they can help detect bacteria that cause lung infections like pneumonia.

Bacteria often secrete compounds that are "bitter." If the taste receptors in the lungs sense these bitter compounds, they may give orders to help open up the airways, helping the patient breathe more easily—and potentially helping the patient survive the infection. This is the direction their research is taking as they track down how "taste" in the lungs really works.


A Result that May Help Millions Breath Better

Will eating extra bitter foods help you fight off an illness? Probably not. But this research may help open up new possibilities in the development of better and more effective asthma medications.

The team's findings were certainly unexpected, but now that the bitter taste receptors have been identified and their behavior tracked, drug companies can use these findings to develop asthma drugs that will target these receptors, thus allowing asthma patients to breath more easily during an asthma attack.


Student Research

Students interested in exploring questions related to taste receptors or breathing can tackle projects like the ones listed below from the Science Buddies Project Ideas directory.

Projects related to taste receptors:


Projects related to lungs and breathing:

(Medtronic is the sponsor of Science Buddies projects in the area of Health and Human Biology)

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Cholera Season

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Smallpox, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, cholera... These may be health problems you know best from history class—or even from novels in your literature class. In a world in which super-bugs lurk on the medical fringe and new viruses like H1N1 and SARS have threatened to explode to pandemic proportions, it's sometimes easy to discount diseases, viruses, and bacteria that have proven epidemic in the past.

But many of these bugs from "long ago" haven't ever completely disappeared. A bit of research on health crises through the years shows a number of repeat offenders, outbreaks that have returned on an epidemic scale, time and again and around the world.

For example, high incidence of Cholera showed up in 2007 and 2008 in Vietnam, and in both India and Iraq in 2007. In recent months, cholera has reared its head in mass numbers, sweeping through both Haiti and Nigeria.


Can You Catch It?

An infection that attacks the small intestine, cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholera. Luckily, cholera is not an airborne disease—unless picked up and spread by a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane. The disease is transmitted primarily through contaminated water or food, and in impoverished conditions, poor sanitary conditions and inferior (or nonexistent) sewage removal systems contribute to the spread and risk.


What's in the Water?

Water is an essential staple for life. But the water we drink and use day to day has to be safe. If it isn't purified, water may contain compounds we don't want to drink (like salt or toxic elements like lead), or it may contain pathogens, like the bacteria that causes cholera.

To learn more about testing and purifying water, check the following Science Buddies project ideas:

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Nuts and Bolts:


The study of Circadian Rhythms is called chronobiology.

It's not about bugs! "Cicadas" are the insects that come back periodically—every 13 or 17 years in the case of some species. But the bugs (often called locusts) are not related to circadian rhythm.

The term "circadian" stems from the Latin "circa" (which means "around") and "diem" (which means "day").

Thirty-three workers were rescued recently after being trapped under ground when a mine collapsed in Chile in August. The workers were trapped 2,300 feet beneath the surface for 69 days—a very, very long time to be without natural light!

While engineers worked on a rescue solution, rescuers above ground were able to rig systems to get required staples to the miners: food, vitamins, reading material, a portable music player (that was shuttled up and down to be charged). The trapped group was even able to watch a football game projected onto a cave wall. What couldn't be passed down, however, was sunlight. While there were some portable light sources available, being without natural light for such a long time poses many potential health hazards because our bodies depend on an awareness of natural light to keep our "internal clock" regulated.

This internal clock is related to "circadian rhythm" which tells our bodies when to "do" certain things each day. At the most basic level, our bodies are trained to sleep when it's dark and be up and about in the light. Almost all living things, even microbes, show evidence of circadian rhythm, and this rhythm controls a huge number of physical, mental, and behavioral processes, changes, and fluctuations, including things like body temperature, bowel movements, sleep, and the ability to stabilize one's emotional mood.


Far-Reaching Implications

The trapped miners faced an extended period of circadian rhythm disruption, but this is an area of study that has impact for astronauts, airline pilots (who often fly across multiple time zones) and even workers who routinely work a night-shift, as well.
To begin exploring the presence and impact of circadian rhythms, take a look at these Science Buddies project ideas:


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If you consider FM-radio a bit old-school compared to your portable MP3 stash, it may be time to think again—with a look to the sky.

200px-International_Space_Station_after_undocking_of_STS-132.jpgNot only is it possible to see the International Space Station with the naked eye, it's also possible to make unofficial radio contact—from home or school! The ISS is equipped with its own HAM radio setup, enabling classes and interested amateur radio operators to talk to someone in space via radio. Tracking the ISS and attempting to make contact yourself would make a great independent science project. And if you get through—talk about bragging rights with your friends!

Have you ever experimented with radio broadcasting? Ever used a CB-radio? Ever picked up a set of walkie talkies and used them with friends or family? Ever considered pulling on headphones and talking to someone on the space station from your bedroom or office or tree house? It sounds almost like something that belongs in a graphic novel or spy story, but it's absolutely possible to send out a radio call to the International Space Station (ISS) and have a free-floating astronaut—a scientist aboard the ISS who is working on one of a variety of ISS-based research projects—answer you. That's because the space station is fully equipped with its own ISS HAM radio station.


Hard or Not?

How hard is it to contact the ISS with basically an antenna? According to HAM radio operators, successfully reaching the space station may be more luck than a function of superior equipment—which makes it a fun challenge for a student with an industrious engineering spirit, a lot of patience, and a willingness to play the odds.
There are several logistics involved in making contact with the ISS.

  • Altitude: First of all is the fact that the ISS flies at a variable altitude of approximately 240 miles above the surface of the earth. To put that into perspective, a standard commercial plane (the kind you fly to Grandma's) flies somewhere between 25,000 and 37,000 feet—so an altitude of 5-7 miles.

  • Speed: The ISS travels somewhere in the range of 17,000 miles an hour. So when it passes overhead, it's going to do so quickly!

  • Duration: Because the ISS moves so quickly, its orbit is relatively short. Its near-circular orbit takes about an hour-and-a-half, which means it orbits almost 16 times a day. That means you have a number of available windows for making contact!

  • Astronauts are Busy! Astronauts aboard the ISS have busy schedules (including several hours of mandatory exercise a day), so it might be hit or miss to catch someone at the HAM radio.

If you're interested in seeing if you can make contact, you'll first need to put your equipment in place. The National Association for Amateur Radio lists the following equipment as the baseline: "a 2-meter FM transceiver and 25-100 watts of output power. A circularly polarized crossed-Yagi antenna capable of being pointed in both azimuth (N-S-E-W) and elevation (degrees above the horizon) is desirable."
Once your radio is working, and you've gotten a license (required for amateur radio operators), you'll have to keep your eye on the ISS so that you'll be able to predict when it will be passing over your area. There may only be a few minutes of a "window" as it passes over, so you'll need to be ready. But since it orbits once every 93 minutes, you'll have time for a snack and a walk around the block before your next attempt!

To begin tracking the ISS, try one of these sites:


Nuts and Bolts

If you're interested in the nuts and bolts of broadcasting and electronics, Science Buddies has two projects that can help you get started building AM radios:

Radio Contact for Schools

In addition to impromptu radio contact with the ISS, it is also possible for schools to schedule contact. To find out more about the ARISS program, visit: http://www.arrl.org/amateur-radio-on-the-international-space-station. (See also: ISS Astronaut Creating Ham Radio Buzz, Taking Science to Students".)


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Red Sludge: What is It?


According to The Associated Press coverage of the Hungarian spill, "red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil."

When a reservoir collapsed last week in Hungary, an estimated at 35 million cubic feet of toxic waste rushed into neighboring waterways and headed for the Danube, the second-longest river in Europe. The red sludge, a waste product from a factory that produces aluminum, destroyed many homes in Kolontar, a small nearby village, and wiped out aquatic life in local rivers and streams. As the sludge headed south for the Danube, turning waterways red as it passed through, officials were watching for dead fish.


Emergency Chemistry
In a race against the flow of sludge, scientists turned to chemistry fundamentals—acids and bases. To minimize the impact of the sludge on fish in the waters, scientists needed to lower the pH levels of the sludge (and of the Danube overall once the sludge reached it). In an attempt to counteract and neutralize the highly alkaline waste, emergency teams dumped quantities of plaster and vinegar (acetic acid) into the water.

With the sheer volume of the Danube working in its favor to help disperse the concentration of the sludge, the plaster and vinegar successfully helped lower the pH levels, diminishing the risk of further immediate environmental damage and neutralizing the sludge's impact on the Danube.


Staying Neutral
For students interested in exploring pH testing (and acidity), the following project ideas offer an inside look:

To experiment with the science involved in water quality control and testing, explore these project ideas:

To find out more about the kinds of science- and engineering-based careers that deal with an emergency situation of this kind, check these career profiles:


[Editor's Note: This post was edited after its initial posting due to an error discovered by a reader. We erroneously referred to the sludge as "acidic" rather than "alkaline" -- which doesn't make pH sense given that vinegar was used as a counter-balance to lower the pH of the sludge. We apologize for any confusion our oversight caused.]

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Nobel: Palladium as a Catalyst



Key Terms:


  • Synthesis: forming or building a more complex substance or compound from elements or simpler compounds.

  • Palladium: a chemical element with the chemical symbol Pd

  • Catalyst: a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without being affected by the reaction


The 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for their development of a procedure for "palladium-catalyzed cross coupling," an organic chemistry process which enables the synthesis of large carbon-based molecules. Life on Earth is carbon-based, so carbon is seemingly everywhere, but because individual carbon atoms are so stable, it isn't always easy to hook them together. When carbon atoms are hooked together, however, new things are possible. For example, many medicines depend upon the synthesis of carbon atoms, and electronics and materials like plastics often involve carbon-based materials.

What Heck, Negishi, and Suzuki did is develop processes for using palladium atoms as a catalyst. Carbon atoms meet on a palladium atom, and then are so close together that chemical reactions are possible.


The Role of a Catalyst

In "palladium-catalyzed cross coupling," palladium acts as a catalyst. It "encourages" and "enables" a reaction between individual carbon atoms. Catalysts are used to start or facilitate all kinds of chemical reactions, from manufacturing processes to chemical reactions that occur in our own bodies.

The following science project ideas let you explore the importance of catalysts:


The Full Story

To read more about Heck, Negishi, and Suzuki's Nobel-winning work in organic chemistry, see this ScienceDaily article.


Don't Miss

Read our other posts about the 2010 Nobel Prizes: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2010/10/nobel-news-and-student-projects-to-explore-part-1.php

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Nobel: The Wonders of Graphene


The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, a team of researchers from the University of Manchester. Using ordinary tape, Geim and Novoselov managed to extract a flake of graphene from a piece of graphite like that found in a regular pencil. Graphene is a form of carbon, which makes it sound fairly ordinary. But graphene has proven to be a wonder-material. At only one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest known material and also the strongest. It's harder than diamond, another form of carbon, and has impressive properties as a conductor of electricity and heat. It's almost see-through, and yet it's incredibly dense. It seems, in this case, that a #2 pencil may have been hiding unknown answers all along!

What state is it?

At the core, Geim and Novoselov's work with graphene highlights the fact that when you change the shape or state of molecules in a substance, you also potentially change its properties. The state of water, for example, has everything to do with its properties—How hard is it? How fluid is it? How dense is it? The answers depend on the state of the H20. Even though liquid water, solid water (ice), and gaseous water (steam) are all comprised of the same molecules, their properties differ.

To extend and sweeten this study, you can explore the physical properties of chocolate in Temper, Temper, Temper! The Science of Tempering Chocolate (Difficulty 6). Or, with hammer in hand, pound out the details and observe how the properties of metal are directly related to its shape in the It's Hard Work to Work Harden! Learn How to Make Metals Stronger project (Difficulty 5-6).


The Full Story

To read more about the history of Geim and Novoselov's work with graphene, see this ScienceDaily article.


Don't Miss

Read our other posts about the 2010 Nobel Prizes: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2010/10/nobel-news-and-student-projects-to-explore-part-1.php

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Nobel: In Vitro Fertilization


The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded yesterday to Robert G. Edwards, a pioneer in in vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy. Edwards' research and conviction that infertility could be treated, dates back to the 1950s. After years of experimenting with the fertilization of human eggs cells outside of the body, Edwards' efforts came to fruition in 1978 when Louise Brown, the first "test tube" baby, was born.


Student Study

Spearheading IVF practices and the knowledge bank from which thousands of babies have been born using IVF, one of Robert Edward's groundbreaking studies involved in-depth research into the conditions that allowed fertilization (the transfer of DNA from sperm to egg) to occur. Better understanding this process as it relates specifically to humans (and as it differs, as he discovered, from rabbits, which had been the subject of early fertilization research), paved the way for successful out-of-body human egg fertilization.

Like the transfer of DNA from sperm to egg, bacteria also transfer DNA to one another. Since bacteria are single-celled organisms, however, the process is called transformation (rather than fertilization). Students curious about the mechanics of fertilization can explore the ways in which transformation occurs, and the various conditions that positively or negatively impact the process, in Bacterial Transformation Efficiency (Difficulty: 8-10).


The Full Story

To read more about Edwards and the history of IVF research, this ScienceDaily article offers an excellent starting point.


Don't Miss

Read our other posts about the 2010 Nobel Prizes: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2010/10/nobel-news-and-student-projects-to-explore-part-1.php

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It's Nobel Prize time! This week, Nobel Prizes will be announced in the following areas:

  • Physiology or Medicine
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Peace Prize
  • The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

To help students, classes, and families talk about the Nobel winners in the sciences--and to contextualize the kinds of research, discovery, innovation, and advancement reflected by the winners--we will be highlighting relevant Science Buddies project ideas, where possible, to give students a chance to explore and research similar topics. In some cases, project ideas highlight a different angle or veer in a different direction, taking an approach that is applicable to advanced school study, high-school lab settings, and science fair guidelines, but we hope to give high-achieving students a foothold into areas of study singled out by Nobel prizes this year.


Science Buddies' Coverage of the 2010 Nobel Prizes

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New Exoplanet Discovered

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This week, a team of astronomers at the Keck Observatory announced the discovery of Gliese 581g, a planet orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf star twenty light years away (and part of the constellation Libra). Gliese 581g is one of six planets that have been detected around this star, but it is the first that seems to "fit" the requirements for life, which led Steven Vogt to term it the "Goldilocks planet."

Vogt, one of the leads on the team that discovered Gliese 581g, is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the Science Buddies Advisory Board.

Goldilocks is "a well-worn analogy," said Vogt, "but in this case it fits. We had planets on both sides of the habitable zone—one too hot and one too cold—and now we have one in the middle that's just right."

Similar in size to the Earth, Gliese 851g is orbiting in the "habitable zone" around the star, a distance not too close and not too far away—a distance where liquid water could be found. Astronomers describe the planet as "potentially habitable," and one media account of the news included this headline: "Odds of Alien Life on Newly Spotted Exoplanet are '100 Percent' Says Its Discover."

According to reports, Gliese 581g has a nearly circular orbit of almost 37 days and a mass 3 to 4 times that of the Earth. According to Vogt, the increased mass potentially indicates that Gliese 581g has a rocky terrain—and enough gravity to anchor an atmosphere. The planet does not rotate, however, as the Earth does. Instead, it is "tidally locked" to the star. This means that one side of the planet is always in daylight and one side is always in darkness. This might also mean that the likelihood of life on the planet sits somewhere in the middle.


The Powerful Keck

Astronomers deem the discovery of Gliese 581g as "fast," but time and distance are relative when it comes to astronomy and astrophysics. The news of Gliese 581g emerges based on 11 years of observations at the Keck Observatory by a team of astronomers led by Vogt (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Paul Butler (Carnegie Institution of Washington D.C.).

Using the Keck's HIRES spectrometer, the team was monitoring changes in the radial velocity of Gliese 581, changes that can indicate the presence of an orbiting planet. The process is time consuming. "It's really hard to detect a planet like this," Vogt said. "Every time we measure the radial velocity, that's an evening on the telescope, and it took more than 200 observations with a precision of about 1.6 meters per second to detect this planet."


The team's radial velocity observations were balanced by night-to-night "brightness measurements" conducted by team members using robotic telescopes at Tennessee State University. The brightness studies offered a way to ensure the radio velocity changes were indicative of a new planet and not due to other star activity.
The Keck Observatory sits at the top of Hawaii's dormant Mauna Kea volcano where the twin Keck telescopes offer astronomers an unparalleled precision view into distant space. Standing over eight stories tall, and with primary mirrors that are 10 meters in diameter, these are the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes.


Student Exploration

Students interested in exploring the use of sophisticated astronomy equipment to make observations may find the following Science Buddies project ideas illuminating:


Or, to really get down to the nitty-gritty of what's involved, start from the ground up and build your own telescope (Difficulty: 9-10).




Official Keck announcement: http://keckobservatory.org/news/keck_observatory_discovers_the_first_goldilocks_exoplanet/

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Turning the Titanic

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Over fifteen hundred people died when the "unsinkable" Titantic sank in 1912, just days into the passenger steamship's first trip from Southampton, England to New York City. Collision with an iceberg undisputedly
caused the tragedy, but recent news has raised the possibility that human error also played a role in the accident.

Suspicions and possibilities floated to the surface last week as news sources reported on Louise Patten's claim that her grandfather, Charles Lightoller, second officer on the Titanic's only trip, claimed to have had reports from the captain and first officer that a steering mistake had turned the ship into the iceberg rather than away from it. The mistake, if indeed it happened that way, may be attributed to a change in steering systems at that time, a move away from the "tiller" system (where you push right to go left and vice versa) to a system more like modern cars—you turn the way you want to go.

While Patten reportedly told his wife his account of what happened after the tragedy, he never revealed the possibility of human error in his meetings with investigators. Most likely, the truth will never be known for certain. But the news offers ground for speculation, and it's at the heart of a new novel by Patten.

The following projects might be smooth sailing for those interested in hydrodynamics and curious about events that may have coincided to down the famed ship:

Have an interest in ships? Check out our career information on Ship and Boat Captains



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A Sweet Sequence: The Cocoa Genome


cacao-pod-250.jpg

Cocoa beans in a cocoa pod. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service.

Cocoa is the key ingredient in chocolate, and while it may seem like the candy display at your local store is never at risk of running on empty, the U. S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) reports that "worldwide demand for cacao now exceeds production." Adding to the problem is the fact that cocoa farmers face a large number of environmental risks each year. Fungal diseases and pests that target cacao trees can cause widespread damage, destroying seed-bearing pods and contributing to hundreds of millions of dollars of lost sales each year. Drought, too, is responsible for the loss of cocoa crops each year.

Working Together

In 2008, the USDA-ARS, the Mars food company, and IBM announced collaborative plans to work on sequencing the cocoa genome, a project predicted to help more than 6.5 million farmers worldwide&emdash;and help pave the way for a more sustainable cocoa industry.

While the US chocolate industry weighs in at a hefty $17.3 billion a year, the economic reach of chocolate is worldwide. Labeled one of the top ten global agriculture commodities, 70% of the world's cocoa is farmed in Africa, where the cocoa industry is an important economic industry.

The hope is that sequencing the cocoa genome will allow targeted breeding of cocoa plants, enabling cocoa farmers to raise healthier crops with higher yields. This kind of breeding may also enable the development of crops that are more resistant to environmental changes and more pest and disease resistant.


Ahead of Schedule

The preliminary release of the cocoa genome sequence was announced last week, three years ahead of expectations. The sequence is called the Theobroma cacao Matina 1-6 genome sequence (referred to as Matina 1-6) and contains 1782 "supercontigs," the first ten of which account for approximately 92% of the genome. Work continues to sequence the complete genome, but the preliminary release involves 35,000 genes.

In addition to USDA-ARS, Mars, and IBM, National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR), Clemson University, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Indiana University, and Washington State University were involved in the researching and sequencing of Matina 1-6.

The gene sequence is freely available to the public at: http://www.cacaogenomedb.org/


Genomics at Work

With the public availability of Matina1-6, chocolate-loving students with an interest in genomics can join the investigation and build a science project around the search for specific types of resistance in genes. For example, students could predict which cacao pathogens the Matina 1-6 cacao plant is resistant to based on the genome sequence. One place to start might be to do background research on common threats to the cacao plant—fungi and other pathogens that commonly attack cacao. Then search for genes in other plants that are known to convey resistance to those pathogens. Examining Matinal 1-6 for similar genes would allow students to make predictions about resistance.

Those looking for an introduction to genomics will find science project ideas in the Science Buddies genetics & genomics section.

And, for those who like their chocolate unsequenced:


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Perseids meteor from 2007
A Perseid meteor striking in 2007. Source: Wikipedia, Mila Zinkova

I read about the Perseid meteor shower in the newspaper the morning of August 12—the day the annual meteor shower was predicted to peak. The Science Mom in me flagged the event, but even so, I thought to myself, "I'm not sure I want the kids to miss their bedtime again."

Over the summer, it is so easy to not enforce bedtimes, and I have lately fallen into the sliding bedtime trap, the kids growing crankier by the day as they get less and less sleep. (Possible science experiment: is it my imagination or is it true that most kids wake up at pretty much the same time regardless of when they went to bed?)

I didn't think about the meteor shower again until dark had fallen. Just as I was trying to muster up the will to enforce bedtime, I heard my husband suggest to the kids, "Hey, let's go outside and look for shooting stars."

The cat out of the bag, the kids started begging me to stop working (filling out mountains of school registration forms) and come outside. I said the familiar "be there in a minute." Many minutes later, my daughter came running in the house, full of excitement. "Mommy, Mommy, you have to come out NOW. We just saw a meteor!" How can you say no to that?

Putting the school forms aside, I grabbed some blankets (welcome reinforcements) and headed out to the best spot on our property for a good view of the Eastern sky without tree interference: our driveway. The four of us laid together in our driveway, staring up into the moonless, clear night sky. It was a very peaceful family moment.

As we lay there gazing at the stars, my husband explained what he knew about the meter shower. He didn't mention that it is called the Perseid meteor shower or that it comes every August as Earth passes through the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet. I didn't offer that information either. Instead, we quietly gazed up at the sky, waiting and waiting. Dad explained what a meteor is. I pointed out the Milky Way. My son asked, "Why do they call it milky?" My daughter answered, "Look at it. See how the sky looks milky there? That's why."

I thought to myself, "Wow, this is worth the ignored bedtime." There we were together as a family, gazing up at the stars. No tickets, no travel, no planning. Just a couple of sleeping bags, a clear night, and the possibility of something spectacular.

When my son announced that he was tired and wanted to go to bed, I escorted him in, leaving my husband and daughter to wait for more meteors. I hadn't seen any, but I was too tired to go back out after my son was in bed. In the morning, the report was excellent: dad and daughter bonded while sharing the sight of half a dozen decent meteors!

~ Courtney, "Science Mom"

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Soccer Ball Science

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20100614130710!Jabulani.jpg The "Adidas Jabulani" is the official match ball for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Image source: Wikipedia, RoyFocker 12.
A World Cup Debate

Away on vacation last week, I was admittedly only vaguely aware that the World Cup was getting ready to start. With soccer kids in the house, I did "know" it was World Cup time, but in the actual passing of days, we were busy trying to get kites in the air, exploring the impact of wind on the trajectory of air-pumped rockets, and throwing Nerf football. The opening game and the fact that world football was taking center stage on sports TV slipped by.


Then I saw an email alerting me to the controversy brewing over the design of the official 2010 World Cup "ball." Though I caught some World Cup footage near the end of my trip, I am just now catching up with major media coverage for the scoop on the disputed "ball" that took Adidas 5 years to design. There's interesting sports science here for those with an eye on spin, ball flight, and even the impact of altitude. (This year's World Cup is in South Africa at an elevation of more than 5000 feet!)


A New Design

Forty years ago, Adidas introduced the Telstar, the now-familiar black and white hexagon-patterned ball. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was the first one to be televised live, and the black and white ball showed up well on screen.

The two-toned design caused a stir in 1970, but this year's design has goalies, in particular, scratching their heads as balls reportedly "move" differently than expected.

The ball, named Jabulani (which means "celebrate" in Zulu), has been hailed as the "roundest" ball ever. The ball is not, however, the smoothest ever. Despite its eight spherically molded pieces, the Jabulani sports numerous small "ridges" on its surface, a design feature that may be adding an element of surprise to just where the ball will go.

When the ball was unveiled last fall, the New York Times reported Adidas' claims that the ball's cutting-edge Grip'n'Groove technology offers "a perfect grip under all conditions" and that the smooth surface increases accuracy.

Those kicking, heading, and blocking balls at the World Cup apparently see things differently.


Ball Science

To wrap your head around the science that may be underfoot with the Jabulani's performance—and the factors that affect a ball in play—check these Science Buddies Sports Science projects:

For more on the science playing out in this year's World Cup, see World Cup: How Altitude Could Cause Players to Overshoot.

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Oil Spill and Wildlife

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2010-04-30-220px-oiled_bird.jpg
Duck covered in oil from a 2007 spill. Image: Mila Zinkova, Wikipedia.

A massive oil spill off of the Gulf of Mexico has had environmentalists watching the winds in hopes that the oil wouldn't wash ashore. The weather, unfortunately, is failing to cooperate. Winds have sped the slick towards land, and predicted storms over the next several days will further hamper cleanup efforts. According to the New York Times, Louisiana has already declared a state of emergency.

The oil spill threatens the habitats and health of many coastal species, including birds and fish. This map details the area and highlights several species that are particularly at risk.

The following Science Buddies science project ideas can help students understand the damaging repercussions of an oil spill on local wildlife - and the logistical challenges of cleaning up:

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Earth Day: Polar Caps


As you observe Earth Day 2010 today, it's the perfect time to talk with students of all ages about conservation, recycling, and the importance of being good caretakers for the Earth. The following newly released Science Buddies science project can help students understand the issues surrounding global warming and the ice caps. These caps may seem far away, but melting due to climate change may have significant impact on the size of oceans. The trickle-down problem is the increased risk of flooding for those living at sea-level in coastal regions.

In this project, students make simple models of the ice caps from clay. Add ice, and you've got a hands-on—and easy to monitor, measure, and observe—global experiment underway.

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Ash Air


Eruptions this week of a volcano that sits beneath a glacier in Iceland forced the evacuation of local residents who were in the path of the meltwater run-off from the glacier as surface melting occurred in response to the energy and temperature underground. As reported by guardian.uk.co, the floods arrived shortly after the initial eruptions, and the plume of ash blotted out the sky.

Carried by winds, the ash wreaked havoc this week for international airports. British airports were completely shut down, and thousands of flights were canceled due to volcanic matter in the air.

Ash in the air isn't wholly a visibility issue, however, for the air transportation industry. Instead, the risk becomes one of mechanics. Ash that is sucked into an aircraft could cause engine damage or electrical problems.

CNN's coverage of air transportation delays caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull includes sideline highlights of several historical air emergencies caused by ash.


Volcanic Activity
The following science projects help contextualize volcanic activity and offer ways to relate eruptions to other geo-sciences.


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Whether you're an amateur astronomer or just one to look out the window at night from time to time and notice a particularly bright moon, it's been a year of big sightings in the night sky.

The year kicked of with a "Blue Moon" on New Year's Eve. Then last week there was a rare chance to see Mars near the moon—an opportunity that won't come again for another two years!

For the next few days, there's another evening sky opportunity you don't want to miss. If you've got clear skies and an unobstructed view to the West, you can see Mercury and Venus both in the hour right after sunset.

The image below shows the location of the two planets on April 4-8, an hour after sunset. For more information about how to locate the planets and how to pinpoint them on April 2-4, check this Sky and Telescope story.

040210-nightsky-300x503.png

Good luck! If you catch sight of them, let us know!

Image courtesy of Sky and Telescope magazine.

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In the Wake of Shake

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While smaller US earthquakes made recent news, like the 6.5 magnitude shake in Northern California that was felt up into central Oregon, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti yesterday, has brought earthquakes into the foreground of national news and media reports - and thus in the awareness of students.


According to reports, the quake in Haiti, an area where earthquakes are not common, was the strongest in 200 years. The world map of earthquakes in the last 7 days on the USGS site shows four earthquakes in the Haiti area, including a 5.3 magnitude shake this morning. While the extent of the damage has not yet been determined, the immediate and visible effects indicate that the quakes were devastating to the small Caribbean country.

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can help students and classes talk about both the geology of earthquakes as well as civil engineering and the kinds of considerations that go into designing stronger and more earthquake-resistant structures.

Geology of Earthquakes:

Structural Engineering:

Note: The "Set Your Table for a Sweet and Sticky Shake" project contains a video clip of Courtney Corda, Science Buddies Vice President and "Science Mom" performing the experiment on an episode of "View from the Bay."

For other projects in these areas, please browse our Civil Engineering and Geology interest areas. Our Geology Area of Interest is sponsored by a grant from Chevron.

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Calling All Computer-Savvy Girls!


The November 15 deadline for the 2010 NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is approaching.

All US high school girls in grades 9-12 (excluding previous winners) are invited to apply. Awardees receive both cash and technology prizes.

For more information and complete application details, visit http://www.ncwit.org/award.

The annual NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is organized by the National Center for Women & Information Technology and is sponsored by Bank of America. Thanks to support from the Motorola Foundation, applicants in Texas, Illinois, and Florida will also be considered for Affiliate Awards.

To find out more about NCWIT and the Aspirations in Computing award, watch the 2009 NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing ceremony video.

Science Buddies offers a number of high-tech science fair project ideas. Check out our list of projects in computer science, sponsored by Symantec, and our list of projects in video and computer gaming, sponsored by the AMD Foundation.

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LCROSS Hits



The above video is from NASA's coverage of the LCROSS impact the morning of October 9, 2009.

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Earth Science Week: Climate

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Earth Week 2009 Logo
This week, we'll be looking skyward as we await the impact of the LCROSS satellite and hope for sight of the plume on the morning of October 9. But next week, our attentions will spiral back to Earth for "Earth Science Week 2009," October 11-17. Organized by the American Geological Institute and sponsored by a range of geoscience organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, the National Park Service, and the AAPG Foundation, the annual "Earth Science Week" aims to promote geosciences and to educate students, teachers, and families about the importance of being stewards of the Earth.

The theme for "Earth Science Week 2009" is "Understanding Climate." From daily NASA videos to a webcast in which oceanographers talk about their careers, "Earth Science Week 2009" promises a diverse array of Earth-centered activities and information.

The following Science Buddies' short-term science fair project ideas may prove useful as cornerstones for climate-related discussions and in-class projects with your students that tie in with Earth Science Week:

There are three contests students can enter as part of Earth Science Week 2009: a photography contest, a visual arts contest for K-5, and an essay contest for grades 6-9. For more information and specific contest rules and deadlines, please visit the Earth Science Week website.

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Countdown to LCROSS Impact



10 Days and Counting!

The countdown is on! LCROSS' projected lunar impact will occur on October 9, 2009 at 11:30 UT (7:30 a.m. EDT, 4:30 a.m. PDT), +/- 30 minutes.



If you've been tracking the LCROSS Mission, you know that the craft entered its third and final orbit of the Earth several weeks ago. Despite an unexpected fuel consumption problem in August that resulted in round-the-clock monitoring by the LCROSS Earth-based team, LCROSS has remained on track and stable. NASA recently formally announced that Cabeus A, the permanently shadowed polar crater, is the target site for impact in this search and discovery mission. The mission is now in its final days before the much-anticipated lunar impact on October 9.

According to NASA, "LCROSS will search for water ice by sending its spent upper-stage Centaur rocket to impact the permanently shadowed polar crater. The satellite will fly into the plume of dust left by the impact and measure the properties before also colliding with the lunar surface."

The plume generated by the impact is expected to be visible for only 2-5 minutes, but because it will be visible with mid-range telescopes, 10-to-12 inches and larger, NASA expects many backyard astronomers will be training scopes on the Moon on October 9. For those without the necessary equipment, there are LCROSS "Impact Parties" being organized around the country, and many observatories are holding special viewing sessions.

Viewing a scheduled and planned "crash" into the moon is (most likely) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Today's K-12 students weren't around for the last appearance of Halley's Comet (visible only once every 75-76 years), but they're in range for LCROSS. To see if there is an event near you, check this list of LCROSS Public Events.

If you are planning to watch with your own equipment or have questions about what equipment is required, be sure and check out NASA's guide for "Amateur Observations," a compilation of information designed for the casual observer.

For those involved in organizing an Impact Party or for those planning to talk about LCROSS and the coming impact with students, NASA has put together an Impact Party Toolkit that contains background information as well as resources related to each stage of the mission.

Resources for educators, include the following:


If you are talking with K-1 students about LCROSS, craters, and the Moon, don't miss Science Buddies' "Craters and Meteorites" project idea which gives students an immediate and hands-on look at the concept of impact craters and the relationship between the size and mass of a meteor and the resulting crater.

For more information on LCROSS and suggested materials for fourth grade and beyond, check our initial entry on the LCROSS mission.


The LCROSS spacecraft was designed and built by Northrop Grumman, sponsor of Science Buddies' Aerodynamics Interest Area

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 Earth from 93000 feet. Long Island in the background.
"Earth" as photographed by Project Icarus' weather-balloon-toted camera at 93000 feet. (Photo used with permission. http://space.1337arts.com/)

A recent CNN story highlights the spirit of ingenuity and determination that pushes the envelope of science and, in this case, the financial realities of space photography. Oliver Yeh, an MIT student, has a reputation among friends for being a "free thinker," but as Project Icarus proved, he's also got the science to put behind his big concept (and low budget) ideas.

With past scientific escapades like floating down-river on a raft of plastic bottles to his credit, Yeh reportedly didn't get a lot of support when he first sought out a partner to help with his newest project. But he didn't turn back. His idea was to launch a low-cost camera into near-space using bare-bones equipment: a weather balloon, a digital camera, a cell phone (for GPS tracking), hand warmers (to keep the phone battery from freezing), and a Styrofoam cooler (to protect the camera). Add in a small parachute for the drift back to Earth and a note taped to the outside of the cooler offering a reward for return of the assemblage if found, and Project Icarus was ready for near-space. After much planning, much calculating, and many "what if's," the team launched their balloon-toting camera on September 2, on a barebones budget that rang in at $148.

The story of the project reads like a good episode of a storm-chasers' program as the duo camped out the night before the launch and then waited... and waited... hoping for a signal that would let them know the camera had landed in one piece and not in a body of water. It's good reading. It's good science. And, as Project Icarus makes clear - space photography isn't solely in the purview of NASA.

The summary of the project in CNN's report makes the team's objectives and methods sound fairly straightforward. They planned to float a helium-filled weather balloon into the atmosphere. They predicted air pressure would cause the balloon to pop at approximately 17 miles up, and then the apparatus would parachute back to the ground. Throughout the flight, the cooler-encased and open-source programmed camera would snap photos every five seconds, recording the journey into "near-space." And, of course, the phone's GPS would let them track the launch and then find the gear once it touched down again.

Though it sounds like there were moments of doubt as the hours after the launch passed, things worked out as planned. The equipment was successfully located via GPS and retrieved, and the camera was full of striking photos. (The beauty of the near-space photos led them to set up the 1337arts website, which focuses on the intersection between art and science.)

In their own documentation of the project, the successful flight, and the surprisingly high-quality photographs from near-space, Yeh talks about the importance of a project like this as a touchstone for revitalizing interest in science among high school students. By demonstrating that it's possible to turn ordinary equipment into something out of this world, Yeh hopes to inspire a younger audience and their teachers.

Not surprisingly, reports of their successful flight spread quickly through Internet streams, and the team has been quick to warn that launching things into the atmosphere requires FAA approval.

While your students may not be launching to near-space anytime soon, Science Buddies has several relevant science fair project ideas which can let students begin to explore the kinds of concepts and parameters Yeh and his teammate thought through, strategized, and hypothesized in the months before the launch.


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From Science Teacher to Astronaut


Last spring, Science Buddies announced in a teacher newsletter that applications were being accepted for Northrop Grumman Foundation's Weightless Flights of Discovery Program. Last week, the 30 teachers selected for the "zero-gravity" flight, a flight that normally runs around 5K per person, were announced. We were excited to see Erin Moore among the teachers listed. Erin, an eighth grade teacher at Lincoln Avenue School in Illinois, says she applied after hearing about the program from Science Buddies.

The flight, operated by Zero Gravity Corp., will take place later this week. Science Buddies asked Erin if she would be willing to share her experience with teachers around the country via the Science Buddies' blog. These flights are designed to provide teachers with cutting-edge science and an experience that can change their lives -- and the lives of their students. We expected to get a post-flight summary, but Erin has already found that news of the flight has had an impact on her teaching -- and taken hold of her students' imaginations.

Here's what Erin has to say as she navigates the "buzz" of excitement -- and misunderstanding -- that has surrounded her since the announcement of the upcoming flight.

Erin Moore, Science Teacher
Erin Moore, eighth grade science teacher, will soon have a "weightless" experience of a lifetime to share with her students.


So there was a media blitz this week. Last Friday, out of nowhere, reporters were asking to interview me... several. I entertained reporter after reporter. Thank goodness it was a half day. I drew diagrams on my board, taught about how weightlessness happens, demoed Newton's laws. In general, I was being a teacher.

By Monday, the papers were running the story. I was third page news. Then something strange happened. By Monday evening, my story was in the Tribune and the Sun Times. There was a blurb on ABC 7 and in two local papers. Mothers of the staff were calling their daughters asking if the reports were talking about my school, "is this one of yours?"

Tuesday, the principal made a nice speech over the intercom and asked the school to congratulate me. It was touching. By the afternoon, someone had taped the newspaper stories and clippings onto my door.

In a matter of days, I have entered this strange land of minor celebrity. I am not the science teacher any more. Now I am the astronaut.

4th graders are walking by me and breaking into huge smiles. Their eyes light up with wonder. "Mrs. Moore, congratulations. Will you tell us what it is like to go into outer space?"

This stirs a conflict inside of me between allowing the kids to think something that inspires them but is wrong, or to teach.

As a science teacher it is important to me that kids understand, really important. I teach about how computers work. I teach spectrometry. I am always explaining that science is not just about making this stuff up. I believe when we can show them, they can understand! Every year I promise my students they will leave my classroom understanding how the power makes the power and how it travels. I promise they will learn and understand every part of what happens when they turn on a light switch.

But now I am conflicted about the line between inspiration and truth.

I tried to explain to two of my former students that I am not going into space. Instead, I am going to be weightless. "Oh." The light in their eyes went out.

Too many times my students are disappointed by life. They feel let down and lied to. So do I smile and nod my head, passing along inspiration messages... knowing that I am not going into space but that I serve as a hope. Or do I try to sit down and draw parabolas to get students to understand. Do I take the magic away but return the power of knowledge to them?

For now, my solution is based on time. The flight is coming quickly. When possible I will explain. Until then, it's a thumbs up, a big smile, and my best effort to remind students that the world IS wonderful, and so is life.



Northrop Grumman's Weightless Flights of Discovery

A cooperative effort between Northrop Grumman, sponsor of Science Buddies' Aerodynamics Interest Area, and ZERO-G, the Weightless Flights of Discovery program began in 2006. Almost 250 teachers participated that first year, a number that almost doubled in 2007.




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Cleaner Coasts


The 25th Annual California Coastal Cleanup Day is this Saturday, September 19, 2009. Part of the California Coastal Commission's Adopt-a-Beach initiative, California Coastal Cleanup Day encourages volunteers of all ages to head to the beach to help protect the marine environment. Last year, more than 70,000 people joined together on Coastal Cleanup Day to gather more than 1,600,000 pounds of trash and recyclable materials strewn along beaches and waterways throughout California.

Group efforts like California Coastal Cleanup Day or International Coastal Cleanup Day (organized by the Ocean Conservancy and also on September 19 this year) underscore the importance of social responsibility and foster awareness of the fragile nature of marine habitats. When families and classes join together to take a stand in protecting our natural resources, student experience firsthand the value of volunteerism -- and the realities of coastal trash. According to the California Coastal Commission, "over 800,000 Californians have removed more than 13 million pounds of debris" from the state's coast since the first cleanup day in 1985.

The following Science Buddies' science fair project ideas explore trash-related concepts, from biodegradability and composting to recycling and the use of trash as an energy source.

To learn more about the dangers of plastic ocean debris, watch "Synthetic Sea," a video produced by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

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From Storyboard to Computer Design


For today's students, the leap from playing video games to programming video games isn't necessarily a big one. Even elementary school students who enjoy filling some down-time with a favorite game can begin exploring the logic and sequencing involved in designing a video game.

Before sitting down at a computer, encourage your students to work on mapping out a storyboard as they think through the premise (or plot) of their game. Who are the main characters? What is the goal? What kinds of problems will be encountered? What skills do you need to win?

Answering these questions is an important first step and gives the game designer a chance to think about the concept of game levels or stages and the need to develop traps, challenges, and objectives for each level -- as well as the need to build in ways for main characters to successfully handle each situation. This stage in the development also encourages solid grounding in "process-oriented thinking." It's easy to envision A, D, and Z, but what steps happen in between? If a storyboard for a video game ends up looking like a massive flow-chart filled with conditional if-then statements (if this happens, then this will happen), chances are they are on the right path - and they are demonstrating the kinds of detail-oriented and conditions-based thinking necessary for computer programming.

Storyboarding gets the ball rolling, but the magic lies in working with software that enables the designer to begin bringing the story (and the game) to life.

As a parent or teacher watching a student's first steps in game design, it can be eye-opening to see the cycle of development as it unfolds. Having grown up with first-wave Atari systems and having spent time learning to program on a Commodore 64 system in my own pre-teen days, my history with video games is one steeped in games like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede, and other "vintage" games.

When I saw the game my 8-year-old designed as part of a week-long LEGO camp this summer, I was amazed to see familiar principles from those early games peeking through, as well as features and concepts he's absorbed from games he's played on the LEGO site (e.g. JunkBot and WorldBuilders) and from his own experience with hand-held games.

With computers already an established part of the routine for many students and in many classrooms and learning environments, working with video game programming software can be viewed as an extension of computer literacy efforts and can increase a student's familiarity with technology as well as result in a project (and product) that she enjoys, is invested in, and is proud of. When it comes to introducing students to computers, there is room to do more than simply have them cut and paste digital stickers or use a "paint bucket" in a graphics program or learn to type a report in word processing software. For some, the grasp of digital storytelling and the programming that lies beneath it is innate, and with GUI-based game design software like Scratch from MIT, there's ample room for students to experiment.

For those interested in programming but not in gaming, working with LEGO Mindstorms can provide introductory grounding in principles of programming, circuitry, timing, and robotics. Maybe your class will end up with a small bot that can help clean pencils up from the tables and floors!

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can get you and your students started:

If you have high-school-aged girls interested in computer programming, video game design, digital design, or another computer-related field, be sure and check out the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. National winners will receive a $500 cash award, a laptop, and a trip to the awards ceremony.

The application period runs from September 15 to November 1, 2009. For more information on the award or the NCWIT, please visit: www.ncwit.org.

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A New Name for 112


Element 112 on Periodic TableWhen you're an element - even a "super-heavy" one - getting an official name and spot on the Periodic Table isn't easy. A chemical element, Element 112 was first fusion-created more than a decade ago but only recently found a spot on the table. It was originally known as eka-mercury but has since been going by the temporary name "Ununbium" with a symbol of UuB. The scientists who discovered Unumbium have proposed to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) that it be officially named Copernicium, after Nicolaus Copernicus, with a symbol of Cp.

(Copernicus, of course, first developed a heliocentric view of the universe, positing the sun at the center rather than the Earth and thus changing the face of astronomy.)

Final approval of the name will take approximately six months, which gives you plenty of time to peruse the system of naming the IUAPC follows when assigning temporary names which they refer to as " Systematic element names."

For more on the history of Element 112 and its 107-111 precursors, see this article from the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8093374.stm

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Singing On Key or Off Key

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                Michael Jackson, 1984
Michael Jackson, 1984, Wikimedia Commons

If you can remember the first time the Moon Walk was performed on stage (and I don't mean anything related to Neil Armstrong) and know the words to "Billie Jean," "Thriller" and "Beat It" even if you haven't heard them in years, you might be of a certain age. Or not. Often hailed as the King of Pop, Michael Jackson's popularity spanned many decades. His death in June took the music industry and fans by surprise, and in the days following, you may have heard Michael Jackson music played over and over again on radio and TV stations.

While Michael Jackson was a persona from the time he was young, his success can be attributed to more than simply stage presence and personality. Michael Jackson was a musical genius.

You know a Michael Jackson song when you hear it because you know the "sound" of him. All of us "make" sound with our voices. All of can "sing," but as we know from watching outtakes from American Idol try-outs... not all of us can sing "well" and few of us have perfect pitch.

Have you ever thought about how it all works? Have you wondered what variables influence pitch and range?

These Science Buddies' science fair project ideas take a look at the mechanics of sound and pitch:

Maybe there is a reason you can't tell a musical A from a C!


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A Twist on Heart "Beat"



CNN Health reported last week on a woman who saved her husband's life by using the rhythm and pacing of the Bee Gees 1977 classic "Staying Alive" as a metronome for performing CPR. With no prior CPR training, she kept the song in her head and performed chest compressions for 15 minutes until the paramedics arrived.

Statistics show that 95% of people who suffer cardiac arrest die before reaching the hospital.
Rapid chest compressions, however, can make a difference, as the woman learned from the American Heart Association's (AHA) public service announcement she heard when she called 911 that day.
The AHA's Hands-Only CPR campaign is designed to raise awareness that chest compressions can save lives. The compressions, however, need to be at a certain speed, faster than many people may realize.

As always, being informed is critical and can mean the difference between life and death. For more information about Hands-On CPR, check the Hands-Only CPR FAQs.

The following Science Buddies' science fair project ideas help students gain a better understanding of the heart and its rhythms:


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LCROSS: Crashing Craters


         
LCROSS simulated drawing
Image of LCROSS separation from Centaur during lunar approach. Image created for NASA and the LCROSS mission by Northrop Grumman, sponsor of Science Buddies' Aerodynamics Interest Area.

If everything goes as scheduled, the countdown to liftoff between June 17 and June 20 will mean NASA has launched a rocket intended to crash into the Moon — on purpose. The goal of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission is to confirm the existence (or non-existence) of water ice on the Moon.

LCROSS is being aimed at an existing crater at the Moon's South Pole. Because the crater is in permanent shadows, researchers believe it may be cold enough to have frozen ice.

The rocket won't make contact for approximately four months. Those interested in monitoring the approach can follow the countdown clock on the NASA LCROSS site. In the interim, the Science Buddies' Craters and Meteorites project idea provides background information and gives students of all ages a concrete way to observe the formation of craters and the ways in which the size and density of the approaching object (e.g., meteor or LCROSS rocket) impacts the resulting size of the crater. (Note: This project can be done with students as young as preschool!)

According to NASA, when LCROSS's Centaur upper stage rocket makes impact, it may be possible to view the plume created when the rocket hits. The impact will potentially throw "tons of debris and potentially water ice and vapor above the lunar surface." Specialized instruments will analyze the contents of the plume, looking specifically for water (ice and vapor), hydrocarbons and hydrated materials.

NASA expects that the plume may be visible from Earth for astronomers using amateur-grade telescopes with apertures as small as 10-12 inches. Amateur astronomers who are interested in officially logging their observations and contributing to the project can find out more at: http://groups.google.com/group/lcross_observation.

With several months between launch and impact, there's plenty of time to get the necessary gear in place. Ambitious students might even want to build their own telescope using Science Buddies' abbreviated Build Your Own Telescope project idea. (Note: If you or your students pursue this project, make sure the mirrors used are at least 12 inches in diameter.)

For additional hands-on activities that tie in with principles of science and astronomy related to the LCROSS mission, check out the following PBS Kids' Design Squad activities for students age 9-12 (4th grade and up):


  • Build an air-powered rocket designed to hit a distant target in Launch It

  • Create a safe and cushioned astronaut landing zone in Touch Down

  • Configure a paper cup so it can travel a line and drop a marble onto a target in On Target


The LCROSS spacecraft was designed and built by Northrop Grumman. The LCROSS payload, which weighs in just under 28 pounds and contains nine science instruments, was developed by NASA Ames Research Center, which will be managing and monitoring the mission.

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47-Million-Year-Old Fossil


Last month, CNN and National Geographic reported on a 47-million-year-old fossil discovered in the Messel Pit in Germany, in 1983. The fossil, described as small-cat sized, was of something that has been pinpointed as a predecessor of humans and primates, an animal they've determined would have grown to the size of a lemur. Though the initial discovery happened more than two decades ago, the fossil has been privately held. Last month's report in PLosOne followed two years of intensive forensics study on the primate fossil led by Dr. Jorn Hurum, Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo.

For many students, two years of intensive analysis may sound like a long time to study a set of bones. These bones, of course, are 47-million years old, and the circumstances of their discovery initially masked the fact that the fossil represents a critical splitting point in the evolutionary chain.

To introduce classes and students with a paleontology, genomics, or forensics bent to the concepts and processes involved in evaluating such fossils, check out these Science Buddies science fair project ideas:

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The Science of Bridges


   Golden Gate Bridge
May 27, 1937 marked the initial celebrations of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, a project that was started in January of 1933 and cost more than 35 million dollars. (Source: Wikipedia)

A popular Magic School Bus episode involves making a bridge out of materials found in the bathroom in order to cross the bathtub, in which an alligator is lurking. DragonFly TV has on online episode called the "Bridge Building Club" which follows a middle-school team's efforts at designing and testing a balsa wood bridge.

Understanding bridge design and the structural principles involved starts young. Connected building blocks stacked vertically make a tower. But the same connected stack stretched side to side between two elevated objects creates a bridge. Getting started is easy. Making it structurally sound is more complicated. How wide can it be? Will it sag? Will it break apart? Can it bear weight?

For hands-on fun with bridges and an introduction to structural design, check out the following Science Buddies science fair project ideas:

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Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Driving to my son's preschool this week, I spotted a bird on a wire as it lifted up into the air, wings fluttering, and then settled back down. Seeing the white patches in the outspread wings and knowing this was a bird I hadn't seen before, I pulled over to take a closer look with the binocular we keep in the car for precisely that... bird watching. When I rolled down my window, I was amazed by the amount of noise the bird was generating. We are familiar with the piercing call of the European Starlings, and we know the cat-like sound of the Red-Shoulder Hawks that frequent our back yard. Both the sharp single note and the trill of the White-Crowned Sparrow are ubiquitous in our area. This, however, was no ordinary bird song. Instead, after five or six repeats of a sound or call, the bird would lift back up into the air again, fluttering, and then return to the wire to make a new series of calls. Fascinated, we watched for a bit, uncertain whether the activity was typical or in response to something that had happened that morning. Over the next three days, however, the bird was there on the wire each morning when we rounded the corner on our way to school, and each morning we witnessed the same hustle of activity and cycling of bird sounds.

As it turns out, the behavior of mockingbirds made the news recently. Results of a University of Florida study suggest that Mockingbirds have the ability to recognize specific humans who "threaten" their nests after only sixty seconds of contact. While one mockingbird may look to us just like another, mockingbirds differentiate between humans. In response to humans they consider a threat or associate with a previous threat, they may fly around, issue warning calls, or even swoop down and graze heads.

The study provides fertile ground for hypothesizing about the survival of birds in urban societies.

With late spring and early summer months often being good for backyard birding, it's a good time of year for classes and students to keep nature journals, make notes and record observations on bird behavior, and even put the scientific method into play. Science Buddies has several science fair project ideas for those interested in birds.


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The Power of Forensics



Popular prime time TV like CSI (in all its variations) shows have imbued forensics labs with glamour and intrigue, but beyond the lights, camera, and action of the stories we see unfold on TV, the world of real-life forensics offers drama all its own. Advancements in forensics science in the last several years has transformed the way evidence is treated, evaluated, and taken into account during investigations.

As happened just this month with Paul House, there have been many trial verdicts reversed and people exonerated of crimes based on newly available methods of testing. House, who had been on death row for 22 years, was released this month and cleared of all charges. As reported by CNN, according to Peter Neufeld, co-director of The Innocence Project, in the last three years, "substantial additional DNA testing and further investigation" proved House's innocence.

Twenty years ago, DNA testing wasn't available. Today, it is often the turning point between proving guilt and innocence.

The following Science Buddies' Science Fair Project Ideas offer a look at what's involved and the chance to turn a local school lab into a forensics lab. Crank up a playlist of CSI theme songs, starting with the well-known "Who are You" by the Who, and bring on the intrigue.


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Gearing Up for Pedal Power


The month of May is national "Bike to Work" month, and this week the League of American Bicyclists is encouraging people to leave their cars parked and get on a bike for the morning commute to work or to school!

The environmental and energy benefits of a pedal-powered commute are obvious, and you might save a few dollars when you puts your pedals to work instead of your engine. There is, of course, a bit of a trade-off in terms of speed. You'll need to allow a little extra time, depending on how far you need to go.

If you want to figure out a strategy for maximum speed (keeping safety in mind!), then you need to dig deep into gears and the impact of gear ratios on speed. There's a reason your bike has multiple gear and speed settings!

The Science Buddies science fair project "Jack and Jill Went Up a Hill and Came Biking Down After" helps uncover the relationship between gears and speed.

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saturnrings.jpgThe May 11 successful launch of the space shuttle Atlantis marks NASA's fifth repair trip to the Hubble Space Telescope. This trip is listed as Atlantis's final servicing trip for Hubble, and slated repairs and upgrades include installation of the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which will enable observation of "light put out by extremely faint, far-away quasars and see how that light changes as it passes through the intervening gas between distant galaxies."

The Hubble's wide-field camera will also be replaced as part of this mission.

According to NASA, "the new Wide Field Camera 3 will allow Hubble to take large-scale, extremely clear and detailed pictures over a very wide range of colors. At ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths the WFC3 represents a dramatic improvement in capability over all previous Hubble cameras."

High-powered telescopes and cameras like the ones that are part of the Hubble Space Telescope have enabled images that allow more fine-tuned observation of things like the composition of the rings of Saturn.

The "What Makes the Rings of Saturn?" Science Buddies science fair project idea is geared toward K-1 students and classrooms and shows photos both from the Hubble and from Voyager 2. In what becomes a hands-on project that merges art and science, young scientists get to simulate the composition of Saturn's rings and evaluate the ways in which composition affects appearance.

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With news of H1N1 flu, more commonly known as "swine flu," spreading like wild fire through the fibers of every communication and networking stream we use day to day, levels of fear and panic about this strain of influenza are on the increase, arguably with good reason. On Thursday, April 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the swine flu to level 5 on the pandemic alert scale. In response to this assertion that a pandemic outbreak is "imminent," school systems and school communities are passing along warnings to families and teachers, face masks are hot commodities, and the general sense of anxiety over each and every sniffle and sneeze is on the rise.

Taking precautions outlined by the Centers for Disease Control is smart. In addition to following standard practices for the prevention of spreading germs -- frequent hand washing, for example -- you need to be aware of the symptoms of swine flu, which unfortunately are similar to most typical strains of influenza.

Arming yourself with reliable information and knowing the facts is important. One of the key misconceptions of swine flu is the fear that you can "catch it" from eating pork or pork products. The Wall Street Journal reported that the price of "cash hogs" has fallen dramatically with swine flu in the news. The fear, based on the name, is that eating pork increases your risk. The Centers for Disease Control, however, confirms that swine flu is not transmitted through food. Snopes, a familiar source for differentiating fact from fiction in stories that circulate on the web and via email, also has a list of answers to twenty top questions about swine flu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hosted a webcast today, April 30, to answer questions and provide more information about swine flu.

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Renewable Energy


PG&E recently asked the state of California to approve plans to turn to space-based solar systems as a source of clean energy. With plans for the satellite which would relay the solar energy to be designed and completed by Solaren Corp by 2016, it sounds far off, but, as reported by Scientific American, the promises of such a near-constant source of renewable energy are abundant.

Analysis of renewable energy sources takes center-stage in the Science Buddies science fair project idea: Free Lunch? Can Solar Energy Systems Pay for Themselves with Utility Bill Savings?. Additional Science Buddies information on renewable energy can be found in this abbreviated project idea: Renewable Energy Sources.


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Swine Flu: BLASTing viruses

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No matter what you open, turn on, or tune into, chances are you'll catch a headline about swine flu. The outbreak can be tracked at HealthMap or with their newly launched Twitter stream, which, according to Discovery News, was created in response to swine flu to enable more frequent updates than the hourly ones on the official HealthMap website.

A respiratory illness once limited to pigs, with occasional transmission to humans, the strain of swine flu that has appeared today and in cases throughout Mexico and the United States is unusual because it is capable of being spread from human to human. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this current swine flu has been sequenced and identified as part of the H1N1 family of influenza viruses. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the pandemic alert level for swine flu at phase 4, which indicates "sustained human-to-human transmission." Stages 5 and 6 represent pandemic levels of widespread transmission.

Scientists are currently hard at work to develop a vaccine, and the WHO has sequenced the flue strain. However, as reported by Scientific American, the process of developing a vaccine could take months

Understanding what goes into isolating, identifying, and developing treatments for a virus, involves understanding the genetics of different virus strains. The Science Buddies BLASTing Flu viruses is an advanced computer-based science fair project idea that looks at the composition of viral strains and uses the Influenza Sequence Database and Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST), a powerful Web-based tool for sequence alignment.

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DNA Day!


In celebration of the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003, today is National DNA Day. The following Science Buddies project ideas offer an excellent point of entry for DNA discussions and an introduction of relevant concepts.

  • Do-It-Yourself DNA
    Design a DNA Extraction Kit and use it to purify DNA from strawberries
  • Extracting Onion DNA
    Extract DNA from onion in sufficient quantity to be seen and spooled.
  • A Magnetic Primer Designer
    Test how matches and mismatches affect the ability of primers to stick to the DNA that is copied during Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) .

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There's a very cool slideshow on the Discovery Channel site in recognition of Earth Day 2009. The collection of photos that make up the "On Earth Day, a Bird's-Eye View" slideshow are beautifully done and are accompanied by explanatory text that highlight the impact of climate change -- from dust storms to floods to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The imagery is amazing - and certainly good for classroom sharing.

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