Archives for the month of: April, 2013

From Popular Science:  A newly invented “nanosponge,” sheathed in armor made of red blood cells, can safely remove a wide range of toxins from the bloodstream. Scientists at the University of California-San Diego inoculated some mice with their nanosponge, and then gave the animals otherwise lethal doses of a toxin–and the mice survived.

This is especially interesting because a nanosponge can work on entire classes of toxins. Most antidotes or treatments against venom, bioweapons or bacteria are targeted to counteract a specific molecular structure, so they can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution; this nanosponge can. Scientists led by Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at UCSD, worked with a class of proteins known as pore-forming toxins, which work just the way they sound: By ripping a hole in a cell membrane. These toxins are found in snake venom, sea anemones, and even bacteria like the dreaded drug-resistant Staph aureus. The proteins come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all work in a similar way.

From Ars Technica: Researchers have managed to turn indigestible cellulose into starch, a process that could render billions of tons of agricultural waste into food and fuel. Plants grow more than 160 billion tons of cellulose—the material that makes up the walls of plant cells—every year, but only a tiny fraction of that is useful to humans in the crops we grow. This is frustrating, as cellulose is made up of glucose chains that are almost, but not quite, the same as those that make up the starch that constitutes 20 to 40 percent of most peoples’ daily calorie intake. With the world’s population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050, working out how to alter cellulose glucose into something more practical could be vital for preventing starvation. There’s also an extra benefit in that some could be used for biofuels.

From New York Times Dealbook: When Julia Geist was asked to draw a picture of a computer scientist last year, the 16-year-old sketched a businessman wearing glasses and a tie. Looking around at her classmates’ drawings, she saw similar depictions of men. Now, Ms. Geist said, “I see a computer scientist could be anyone” — including herself. Her new perspective is a victory for Girls Who Code. As part of an eight-week program with the Manhattan-based nonprofit group, Ms. Geist and 19 other high school girls learned software programming, public speaking, product development and other skills to prepare them for jobs in the technology industry. Girls Who Code is among the recent crop of programs intended to close the gender gap in tech by intervening early, when young women are deciding what they want to study. With names like Hackbright Academy, Girl Develop It, Black Girls Code and Girls Teaching Girls to Code, these groups try to present a more exciting image of computer science.

digital columnFrom USA Today: President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year issued what has become known as the “digital mandate,” challenging schools to adopt digital technology by 2017. While the first year of the mandate saw educators adopting digital solutions, there are still thousands of schools across the country, which have yet to make the shift. Washington has provided compelling arguments for digital learning, but the true impetus to accelerate the digital transition should be those who are impacted most – students. Nationwide, the ways students learn are undergoing a fundamental transformation fueled by a generation of children who use digital media to learn everything from beginning phonics to biophysics. Students no longer want to look at a static drawing of a strand of DNA when they can virtually explore the inside of an interactive digital rendering of DNA to decode its scientific mysteries. Instead of forcing them to adapt to old, singularly focused methods, schools must adapt to the multiple ways in which today’s students want and need to learn.

From Education Week: A flurry of good news appeared on the high school front this winter. Graduation rates were at their highest mark in nearly 40 years, record numbers of students were taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, and more high schools than ever were offering college credit through dual-enrollment programs. On top of all that, President Barack Obama applauded high school redesign efforts in his State of the Union address and encouraged districts to look to successful models for inspiration. Last week, he followed up with a request in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal for a new, $300 million competitive-grant program. Recognition is widespread that high schools need to change to engage students and prepare them for the workforce of the future. That push goes back decades, but now momentum is accelerating, and talk is not of reform, but redesign.

obamaFrom Christian Science Monitor: With his budget proposal Wednesday, President Obama signaled once again that education – from early childhood all the way through college and career training – is a priority investment. Education advocates have their chance to cheer now, but they know that many of their hopes may be dashed by a Congress that’s holding the purse strings tight. The Department of Education would receive $71.2 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal year 2014. Mr. Obama’s signature education proposal – Preschool for All – would cost $75 billion over 10 years, to be funded by a tax hike on cigarettes. The federal government would partner with states to expand high-quality preschool to all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds (children below 200 percent of the poverty level). Some of the funding would also support younger children and encourage expansion of full-day kindergarten.

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From The New York Times: When Yaser S. Abu-Mostafa, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the California Institute of Technology, began promoting his online course on machine learning, one person he turned to was Caltech’s dean of admissions. Dr. Abu-Mostafa believed that prospective Caltech students would benefit from learning what it actually takes to be an engineer — something that high schools, on the whole, fail to teach adequately. National Science Foundation statistics lend credence to his worries: while one in 10 students in the United States enter college with the intention of majoring in engineering, nearly half of those students fail to complete their degree requirements. Caltech admissions officials agreed wholeheartedly, and promptly sent out an e-mail blast to applicants suggesting Dr. Abu-Mostafa’s course, Learning From Data, on iTunes U.

From Edutopia: Recently I witnessed two expert panels discussing critical issues for our educational system — on the same day. The first one was on implementing the Common Core for English-language learners; the second was on how games offer an exciting new frontier for student learning and engagement. I was struck by two things: 1) How neither community of experts mentioned the other, and 2) how these two “movements” urgently need to work together. They need each other. Twenty-first century implementation of the Common Core State Standards should strive for a much higher level of student engagement and choice. The best learning games can help accomplish this, whether it’s learning about proteins through FoldIt, algebra with DragonBox, programming and game design via Gamestar Mechanic, or science, math, health and social studies with BrainPop.

From Technology Review: A plan to map the activity of entire brain regions down to the level of individual neurons got its official nod from the White House on Tuesday when President Obama announced his budget will request $100 million in funding for the project in 2014. The brain activity map project, now officially dubbed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, will be a sprawling project requiring scientists and engineers to develop new technologies that can record activity from millions or even billions of neurons simultaneously. Obama said that the initiative could help researchers understand and perhaps even cure diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s, autism and stroke, and it could help veterans with cope with amputations, paralysis or post-traumatic stress disorder. The BRAIN project, like all basic research, will also drive economic growth and create new, if as-yet-unimaginable jobs, he said.

computers made ofFrom Wired: Everybody knows a computer is a machine made of metal and plastic, with microchip cores turning streams of electrons into digital reality. A century from now, though, computers could look quite different. They might be made from neurons and chemical baths, from bacterial colonies and pure light, unrecognizable to our old-fashioned 21st century eyes. Far-fetched? A little bit. But a computer is just a tool for manipulating information. That’s not a task wedded to some particular material form. After all, the first computers were people, and many people alive today knew a time when fingernail-sized transistors, each representing a single bit of information, were a great improvement on unreliable vacuum tubes.