Friday, August 27, 2010

New Module Live at

It's taken some time, but we are thrilled to announce that the third module in our DNA sequence, DNA III: The Replication of DNA, is now live on the Visionlearning website.

This new module expands on the replication process introduced in the previous modules, emphasizing the developments that took place to allow its discovery. Not only does it explore the physical mechanisms that initiate replication, but also the individuals and circumstances that contributed to the scientific process. We are very proud to offer this new module at the start of the school year. It can be incorporated into classes covering everything from biology to genetics to the history and process of discovery.

Please let us know your thoughts on this new material, and suggest topical areas you think would help us round out this sequence.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Maybe Sun Ra Really DID Come From Another Planet...

Hunting exoplanets is a relatively new activity: scientists have really only been doing so successfully for the last 15 years. In that short time their success has been impressive, though – 450 have already been catalogued. Now, a new discovery could help astronomers understand more about the formation of solar systems and potentially lead to discoveries of life on other planets.

Exoplanets (or extra solar planets) are simply planets that exist outside of our solar system. Most of the time these exoplanets are “giants,” about the size of Jupiter, and occur by themselves or with one other planet. The discovery being considered for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, though, shows seven exoplanets orbiting the star HD 10180, one of which is very close in size to Earth.

Hunting exoplanets is not an easy activity, to say the least. Unable to see the planets against the glare of the star they orbit, scientists use telescopes and highly sensitive devices to measure the star’s “wobble.” By observing the movement of a star over time, it is possible to determine the gravitational forces working on it and, as a result, the potential planets orbiting it. (The larger the exoplanet, the more gravitational pull, which explains why most of the systems discovered contain planets much larger than our own.) Other detection techniques are also used in conjunction to further identify size and composition. This is not an easy task when you consider how far away they are! HD 10180 is approximately 100 light years away from Earth.

As more and more exoplanets are discovered, scientists are becoming confident that planets and systems like our own exist. Now, if only someone could figure out a way of getting us there in less than 100 years…

Friday, August 20, 2010

Need Help With Your Genetics Homework?

The Nature Publishing Group has created a new, free learning resource for the public called Scitable.

While still in its infant stage, it looks to be a promising general resource discussing topics such as animal behavior and physiological ecology. At present, most of the work centers on Genetics and Ecology, but as time goes on the site should expand to include a wide variety of other STEM-related topics. The content is primarily for the undergraduate level,  in both content and readability.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Publication of The Process of Science

We've had a lot of requests to make content available in book form, and are happy to announce that, as of today, our collection of 'process' modules are available in a beautiful new paperback through

As many of us already realize, learning about the content of science without learning about the process of science is like trying to learn a foreign language with a dictionary. You can memorize a lot of vocabulary words and you might even be able to get by by asking directions or buying milk in the store. But without a sense of the nature and structure of the language, you will never be able to read a novel or have a conversation. Similarly, in science you may learn all of the facts about circulation in the atmosphere and the chemistry of greenhouse gases, but you will likely not understand why scientists have different ideas about the future effects of climate change. Without an awareness of how scientists gather and analyze their data, how they form hypotheses, and how they communicate those ideas to other scientists, you are missing the most important component of science -- how we know what we know.

This book offers a series of modules that explore the dynamic process of science, helping readers to better understand our surroundings and place in the universe. It is not meant to represent a specific discipline in science, but rather an umbrella for all scientific disciplines. We are very excited to be able to offer this material in printed form and look forward to your feedback!

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Fascinating Learning Opportunity for Us All

In 1968, construction began on the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Wiscasset, Maine. Part of this construction involved building a dam on the Lower Montsweag Brook, creating a mile-long reservoir to serve as a backup freshwater supply. There was much controversy surrounding the project, as the dam created an insurmountable barrier to many fishes that migrate from salt to fresh water for spawning, and flooded out important edge areas along the brook. There were also concerns about contamination from the plant's outflow. Safety issues forced the power plant shut down in 1996, leaving the dam behind.

An interesting new endeavor by the Chewonki Foundation, however, has folks in the region very excited. Chewonki purchased the property in 2008 in a settlement between the state and Maine Yankee's owners, and has been soliciting bids from contractors to remove the structure. But they're not simply coming in, taking the dam away, and leaving it at that. Instead, it's becoming an important community research project.

Volunteers in Wiscasset, including the local school children, have been collecting data from the area. This is part of a long-term monitoring project to see, as Don Hudson (former foundation president) says, "what nature does when the obstacles are removed from the environment." The data on water and soil quality, fish populations, and vegetation will be reported on a website dedicated to the project for all to see.

The project is being lauded by many throughout the region, with the hope that it will serve as a model for other endeavors. At the very least, the project will provide an information base for how nature restores equilibrium to an aquatic area after disturbance. Deconstruction is expected to begin in September of this year and be completed before winter.

For more on the effects of dam construction on the environment and community, click here. For comprehensive research studies on dams in China and the Czech Republic, see study 1 and study 2.

Image copyright Liz Noffsinger

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It's Nice to Be Appreciated!

As a free resource for educators, students, and the general public, we spend a lot of time thinking of the best ways to get you the information you need. In the last year or so, we've turned our attention to better using new media, like this blog and the creation of apps. It's been exciting to see how many of you have downloaded our Visionlearning glossary app, which keeps the resource always at your fingertips. Now, we're even getting some accolades!

This last week, our glossary app was listed as one of the top 25 apps for engineers. Scientia Blogger has found that our app is a fabulous reference tool, up there with NASA, Popular Science, and Unit Converter Pro. We thank them for their recognition. You can download our app for free from iTunes.

On a side note, Visionlearning is considering creating another app. This one would take all of the old and new quiz items associated with our modules and make them available for i-devices. we'd love to hear from you as to whether you'd find something like this useful. Drop us a line at to share your ideas.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Imagine Science Film Festival -- Time is Running Out!

Have you been working on a film that is grounded in science? Does it have a compelling narrative and characters? Then now may be your chance to win big!

The Image Science Film Festival taking place in NYC is accepting submissions until August 15th. In addition to having your film shown to a wide viewing audience, additional prizes include the $2,500 Nature Scientific Merit Award and the $1,000 Nature Audience Award.

The festival takes place October 15th to the 22nd. For more information on submission procedures, or to get tickets, go to the ISFF website.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Scientific Ethics in the Spotlight Once More

A full review of three clinical trials being run at Duke University has recently begun after the integrity of individuals involved in the project was called into question. The trials involve assigning treatment methods to cancer patients based on the sensitivity of their cancer to certain drugs, and are an outflow from the discoveries of cancer researcher Anil Potti and cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins (both from Duke).

What began as a question of accurate data recording and reporting methods has since turned into allegations of resume padding on the part of Potti. While the investigation of both Potti and the science behind his various projects continues, it reminds us how even the rigorous peer review process we've come to know and love so well is not foolproof.

Potti and Nevins have had numerous articles and studies published in prominent journals. Only in the last few years, however, did anyone come to question the work being presented. This came as a direct result of biostatisticians Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes' inability to replicate the results.  The work of Potti and Nevins identifies particular signatures associated with cancer cell lines, and identifies the treatments that those cancers are most responsive to. However, according to Baggerly and Coombes, these signatures have been incredibly difficult to replicate and discussions with Potti and Nevins yielded little help. As Baggerly's frustrations grew, so did his need to find out what was really going on...which has cracked a large can of worms.

We await the results of the investigation into both the clinical trial and the researcher in question, and will keep an open mind. But in the meantime, it's a good idea to remember that even with the best of intentions, playing with numbers and facts will always come back to haunt. For more on the peer review process and working with data, visit the Visionlearning website. For more on this investigation, click here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Rare Opportunity to See Auroras

This week there is a rare opportunity for people living in the northern regions of the US to see the spectacular light show, aurora borealis. (Those living toward the South Pole, particularly in New Zealand and southern Australia, may likewise have the chance to see the aurora australis.)

Typically, we see these curtains and arcs of light near the winter and spring equinoxes, when the air is less dense and the weather is clear. The closer you are to the poles, the more likely your chance of getting a viewing. But this week, people living in the northern regions of the US, from Maine to Michigan, and in Canada should have the opportunity to see a pretty exciting summer light show out of season, courtesy of Mother Nature.

This opportunity is the result of a series of sun storms that flared on Sunday. The storms have sent waves of plasma toward earth, which should arrive late Tuesday night and into Wednesday. This plasma is not anything to be concerned about -- it is what we call "solar wind" and is simply a gas of free electrons and positive ions. These electrons and ions enter earth's atmosphere and begin the process of colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, creating a geomagnetic storm.

The color visible in the sky is dependent on the interaction. The ionization and excitation of oxygen atoms tends to produce brownish-red and green waves of light; nitrogen tends to create blue or red. (For more on the ionization process, see our module Atomic Theory II.) The best chance you'll have of seeing the lights is to get as far away from human light sources, like cities, and into the countryside. The map on the right, courtesy of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, gives an idea of who is most likely to be able to see the aurora as it occurs.

If you have an opportunity to see the show, please let us know what it was like! Even better, share your photos!