Category Archives: Science News

Hanging Out with Andy Revkin

“How do we head through nine billion people by around 2050 without really screwing up too much?”

Andy Revkin writes the DotEarth blog for the New York Times, and has been writing about the environment for almost thirty years. His topics are diverse (and his Twitter stream rich with links) and connected to much of what our students have chosen to explore in our current Environmental Sciences unit in Grade 10 (MYP5).*

He very kindly agreed to G+ Hangout with some students before school, to discuss science writing in general and how he masters his craft on the environment beat. We learned a lot from Andy, and loved his assertion that he is not a ‘doom and gloom’ writer, but that the environment is different, and more complex than we first thought.

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Here are links to some of the ideas & issues he mentioned in the chat:

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Andy chatting with the early arrivals on G+ Hangouts.

*As part of our current Grade 10 Environmental Science unit, students have broken into groups depending on their interests and IBDP Sciences choices. They have designed their own unit content, though assessment types are common – a lab they design, a test we’ll write based on their chosen assessment statements and a piece of science writing. I’ll dedicate a whole post to how the unit worked once we’re done.

For the science writing task, students are asked to find real-life articles, case-studies or stimulus materials that will provide a context for some of their content. We showed them some models, of great science writing, but I realised my Twitter lists were light on environment writers.

A quick tweet (and some follow-up emails) fixed all that:

Thanks again to Andy for chatting to us – it was a great opportunity to talk to a real pro.

It is also evidence, once again, that Twitter can be an amazing tool for classes and professional development.

IB Science Weekly Magazine – Get involved!

IB Science Weekly Magazine - do you want to be a news spotter?

IB Science Weekly Magazine – do you want to be a news spotter?

I kept seeing these paper.li posts in Twitter, so after a quick exhange with Adrienne Amichetti (@amichetti) decided to give it a go. There are lots of paper.lis out there, especially it seems in the ed-tech world. It was quick and easy to set up, though a bit of a fiddle to work out how posts were categorised and filtered (still not sure how it works).

The aim of this project is to provide a weekly publication which pulls in the current science and education news, for use in MYP, DP and PYP classrooms. 

If you would like to get involved and be an IB Science or Science Education news spotter, please head on over to Twitter and let me know. If you see some worthy news, simply tweet it with a link and a description, along with the hashtag #IBSciWeekly. The paper.li elves will see it and it should appear in the finished product. I will be able to curate the posts as they are published each week. If you think that everything you (or someone you recommend) is gold, I can include their Twitter handle or blog url as a source.

The details:

  • Address: http://tinyurl.com/IBSciWeekly
  • Hashtags: #IBSciWeekly, #MYP, #IBDP, #IBBio, #IBChem, #IBPhysics
  • Published: Weekly, on a Tuesday (I think)
  • NewsSpotters: IB Teachers and Students

Of course, things are bound to go wrong at first! I would love to find a way to share the editing jobs.

And here is a lovely video of a murmuration of starlings:

 

Save the Panda? Group research, database and discussion task.

This task is based on Chris Packham’s comments on Panda conservation and is intended to give students an insight into conservation issues and use of the IUCN Red List database. Here is a quick news clip with him defending his comments, and the activity is embedded below.

By the end of this session, students should be able to:

  • Distinguish between keystone and flagship species, with examples of each
  • Access and use the IUCN Red List database
  • Appreciate that threats to one species often threaten other species in the same area
  • Discuss the benefits of whole-ecosystem conservation
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Once this is complete, watch one of these TED Talks on active conservation management techniques and their successes. Conservation really is inspiration!

Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish

John Kasaona: How rhino poachers became caretakers

Willie Smits: How we regrew a rainforest

Wow!

Hunting for the Higgs

Do you know what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider right now? Let’s have a look in their canteen…

Or perhaps we’d better check out the news…

Find out more about the search for the Higgs boson (and what it all means) on this week’s Guardian Science Podcast.

Here’s an explanation of the Higgs field:

And this is where the Higgs field and the boson fit into the Standard Model:

Brian Schmidt – Nobel Prize Winner 2011

A double-pow of awesome in this video. Derek Muller, of Veritasium, interviews Brian Schmidt, one of the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”.

At first they thought the Universe should be slowing down in its expansion, but their data told them otherwise. So how will the universe end?

Hybrid Hearts: Stem Cell Transplants 2.0

“Can we use stem cells to make a new heart/eye/lung/liver etc?”

This is the predictable and perennial question that comes up from at least one student when we are looking at stem cells, genetic engineering, cell differentiation and transplanting. Until now, the answer has (perhaps in an oversimplified way) been ‘no’.

We can use stem cell transplants to treat lymphoma. Recently a young woman had a trachea transplant based on stem cell technology. Skin grafts from a patient’s own cultured cells are also possible, as are stem cell-based bladders. However, these are all rather simple technologies.

To treat lymphoma, bone marrow cells are replaced, and are all the same. The trachea transplant was a pre-existing trachea simply coated in the patient’s stem cells to prevent immune rejection. Skin transplants are basically sheets of epidermis that cover a wound, yet do not have the intricate functions of original skin: temperature regulation, secretion, senses. The bladder is a bag.

The challenge with using stem cells to transplant a more complex organ, such as a heart, is that it is not a simple sheet made of one type of cell. It is complex 3D structure, with a range of cells performing specific tasks within the organ. These cells have differentiated to perform their functions: cardiomyocytes (beating cells), vascular endothelial cells (smooth internal surfaces) and smooth muscle cells (blood vessel walls).

How can we get the stem cells to become the right type of cell, in the right position?

The answer to this question could be the key to opening up new doors in the search for viable transplantable organs in medicine, and bears much in common with the trachea case. It also marks a return to form for the NewScientist YouTube channel, who have this short clip of the new hearts in action:

A full article to accompany the footage is here.

In a nutshell:

Decellularised pig heart: the scaffold (NewScientist)

Decellularised pig heart: the scaffold (NewScientist)

1. Find a suitable transplant organ, such as a pig’s heart.

2. Strip of all cells and DNA, using a detergent. Only the collagen ‘scaffold’ remains, as in the image of the decellularised heart to the right.

3. Coat the scaffold with the recipient’s stem cells.

4. Ensure that the blood supply is adequate and will provide the right signals for differentiation.

What is amazing in this case is how the cells ‘knew’ what specialised cells to become. The leader of the research group, Dr. Doris Taylor, puts it down to the mechanical stimulus of the pressure of the blood in the vessels and chambers and chemical signals from growth factors and peptides that remained on the stripped heart structure.

They even went as far as replacing a healthy rat’s heart with one of these new hybrid hearts. The rat survived for the trial, but she says they need to focus on producing more muscular hearts in order to ensure long-term survival of transplant recipients.

Food for thought:

Read the whole article and some of the links within it. Discuss these questions:

1. What are the potential uses for this kind of transplant technology?

2. What are the current limitations of this method and how might they be overcome?

3. What are the ethical issues related to using hybrid (pig-human) organs in medical transplants? How would you feel if you were the patient?

4. Who are the various stakeholders in this technology and what are their viewpoints?

Useful Sources:

Dr Doris Taylor’s research page from the University of Minnesota

NewScientist Article: Hybrid hearts could solve transplant problem

BioAlive stem cells links and resources

Can stem cells repair a damaged heart? from the NIH

Research reveals how stem cells build a heart, from Harvard news.

Why is Science Important?

The most important question any science teacher should ask themself – because if we don’t have a good answer, what are we doing in the classroom? I heard about this after listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. Alom Shaha, a science teacher and film-maker, went into the pod to promote and discuss his project: Why is Science Important?

The result of his efforts is a website full of great answers to the question, along with a 30-minute film.

Watch the full film here:
Why is Science Important? from Alom Shaha on Vimeo.

Or if your connection can’t hack it, it’s broken into chunks here:

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So… Why is Science important?

Tonga Boom! Undersea volcano erupts off Tonga

Imagine being on a fishing boat making a holiday video and then the whole ocean explodes around you. Well that’s not exactly what happened, but it would be a good story…

According to the Global Volcanism Program, this volcano started to erupt on the 16th or 17th March and has been going since. This video shows a team of scientists who took their boat out to the site to capture footage and record local and wide-spread changes. Apparently, no-one has been hurt by the volcano.

To see some aerial photos of the volcano, with coordinates, visit the ASTER volcano archive.

Click on the image below for some great photos from the Guardian.

A spectacular cloud of ash and steam

A spectacular cloud of ash and steam

As you can see, the plume of ash and steam is huge. A line from the AP states “the eruption does not pose any danger to islanders at this stage, and there have been no reports of fish or other animals being affected” – other than by the great big explosion, then.

To learn more about volcanoes in general, visit the Science Education Resource Centre’s Volcano visualisation library. For more about how underwater volcanoes are monitored, check out this flash animation from NeMO Net, from NOAA.

For another good article on vocanoes, click on the image below to see what Wired.com has to say

Mt Cleveland erupting, as seen from space

Mt Cleveland erupting, as seen from space

Facebook gives you cancer and infantilises the population. Ahem.

“There is no evidence because it would be hard to prove…” Aduh.

BadScience hero Ben Goldacre and Jeremy Paxman take on Baroness Greenfield, The Daily Mail (always a good target) and Aric Sigman in this interview from Newsnight. For a bit of background this is all a response to this story from the Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1149207/How-using-Facebook-raise-risk-cancer.html

If you’re in my class, the page you need to comment on is here.

The Daily Mail reports  Sigman is claiming (without any real evidence) that time on the computer takes you away from real people. This makes you isolated and lonely and means you are not producing the right hormones and your genes will act up – potentially leading to cancer, immune problems and impaired mental function. That’s a far reach for a newspaper article to be making, but these kind of shock headlines sell papers, or get more traffic on their website.

In this debate we see the importance of peer-reviewed research before making public claims. We see that correlation does not necessarily imply causality and we see that poor reporting of sensitive issues can lead to gross misunderstandings. If we remember, the Daily Mail was central in the reporting of the MMR vaccine scare.

When you watch this interview and read the article, can you think of responses to these questions?

- Are there parts of Sigman and Greenfield’s claims that might sound plausible?

- What kind of evidence would you want to see to support these claims?

- What is the significance of Goldacre’s comment “… you can make anything look dangerous if you are selective in which evidence you quote” ?

- Sigman makes a comment “The paper weas supposed to be a one-sided provocative feature article for The Biologist to make people think more carefully about where society is going.” How does he feel about the media attention that his words have attracted outside this publication?

- Central to Sigman’s claims were that internet use increases social isolation. He had no peer-reviewed work after 1998 to support this, yet Goldacre pointed out all these references that suggest otherwise.

- Sigman tries to re-state ‘social networking’ as a phrase meant for real-life interactions between people rather than internet-based interactions. How has his interpretation of the term led to confusion in the wider public? Who do you think is responsible for this confusion and how could it be rectified?

- Sigman tries to distance himself from the headlines and the conjectures of Greenfield and returns to his concern that internet use is having a direct and negative impact ont the lives of children. Take this opportunity to discuss the benefits and potential negative impacts of the internet with regard to childhood use.

- Goldacre makes a comment that it woudl be bad for research to prioritse what research is done based on the headlines in the newspapers. Do you agree/ disagree? Why?

- How do you think the precautionary principle might relate to the decisions parents make based on this issue?

How would you like to see this story develop? What further research would convince you of the harms or otherwise this debate?

Nature’s YouTube Channel (and some others)

On the heels of the NewScientist YouTube channel we have the offering from Nature. Where NewScientist provides a news-style clip of current Science headlines, Nature’s YouTube channel takes the approach of a video background to articles published in their journal. So far they have ten videos, though they provide useful background to articles such as the Antikythera mechanism, whale evolution and this one on sequencing the platypus genome:

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It’s an encouraging trend to see these journals reach out into internet video publishing – cheap, easy and a great starting place for students getting involved in science. Let’s hope Nature can keep their channel going longer than ScientificAmerican, who started strongly but seem to have given up.

Of course, the bees knees of YouTube channels so far are NationalGeographic, with 847 videos to date. Here’s a gratuitous Great White clip:

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JoVE

JoVE

Another great channel (though not on YouTube) is the Journal of Visualised Experiments – actually publishing scientific research papers as videos. A good idea, and some really effective videos – especially for letting us see what is going on in the experiment or operation.  Unfortunately, their videos can’t be embedded, so get yourself on over there and have  a look.

Now comes the question of citing online videos in your work – and here is the answer! (pdf)

Other ‘tube’ resources worth a look are DNAtube and TeacherTube.

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