Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Using Science to Teach English Grammar and Reading

It was a wonderful day when President Obama announced the National Math and Science Initiative, drawing attention to the reality that American students are lagging behind many first-world countries in math and science. It did none of us any good to ignore the fact that we ranked 19 out of 31 in math, and 14 out of 31 in science in the last assessment from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So it has been great to see an emphasis in school systems across the country on increasing scientific and math literacy.

However, another important statistic seems to have been lost in all of these education changes. American students also ranked 15 out of 31 in reading -- an important part of the "scientific literacy" concept. Unfortunately, as the extensive budgets cuts in the education system nationally begin to take hold, preserving math and science has taken precedence over almost everything else. Including reading.

That is why it was heartening, recently, to receive an email from Dr. Roma Kriauciuniene at Vilnius University in Lithuania. While not working in the US school system, Dr. Kriauciuniene's classroom activities have taken "scientific literacy" to a whole new level. Using our Visionlearning module on States of Matter, she has devised a complete lesson on English grammar and comprehension.

In the lesson, students are asked (before reading the module) to define certain key words out of context, matching them to their Lithuanian translations. Other parts of the lesson include identifying the correct verb tense (in context), filling in the blanks, inserting omitted prepositions, and identifying proper headings for specific paragraphs.

What we love about Dr. Kriauciuniene's lesson is its interdisciplinary approach. She is teaching reading in general, English vocabulary and grammar, and science all at the same time. For those of us working in the US, building lessons like this could be an excellent way of helping our students bridge the language and literacy gaps that contribute to low science and math scores. (It might also help some of the English classes survive budget cuts...)

Do you use Visionlearning modules in a unique way? We would love to hear about it. Send us an email, or post a note on our Facebook page.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Now, where did I park the car again?

The workings of the human brain, particularly memory storage, have been a fascination of scientists and laypeople alike for centuries. For many of us with spotty memories, improving retention has been a somewhat Holy Grail -- we know there's a way. There has to be. But what is it? What could we possibly do to increase our ability to remember?

In the March 17 issue of Nature, scientists from Duke University Medical Center help to answer this question. It's about synapses in the brain and the length of time they occur. According to the authors, the length of the biochemical signaling process determines the strength of the connection in the brain, and leads to long-term memory storage. The researchers have found "a cascade of signaling molecules that allows a usually very brief signal to last for tens of minutes, providing the brain framework for stronger connections (synapses) that can summon a memory for a period of months or even years."

This discovery is likely to have significant bearing on the research into Alzheimer's disease, autism, and other conditions of the brain. For more information about the research, visit

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Need a Virtual Nerd?

There are times when even the most math-savvy of us can't figure out how to solve a problem. Other times, we struggle to grasp math concepts that are important to our research and studies. Now the folks at Quantile have brought us Math@Home to get us through.

Math@Home is the most recent addition to the Virtual Nerd system and was created to provide assistance to students struggling in math. While it's catered toward students in K through 12, it can be helpful to students of all ages and grades. Parents can create an account for children, specifying the state they live in to make sure the tutoring coincides with state curriculum, or students can create accounts for themselves. It allows you to enter textbook titles, then provides resources to augment the in-class learning (including instructional videos). The system also allows for quantile measurement, so you can track learning progress.

Have you used Virtual Nerd or Math@Home? Let us know your thoughts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who are you calling a hagfish?

Myxine glutinosa: the name (almost) says it all. The Atlantic Hagfish is well known for its ability to excrete a sticky, glutinous substance from its skin -- hence its more widely known moniker, "slime eel." The hagfish can excrete enough of this strong, fibrous slime at one time to fill a milk jug, giving it excellent protection against predators. (Imagine trying to wipe a gallon of super glue off your gills.)

But it seems the skin of the hagfish isn't just about excreting. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada have recently learned that absorption is going on, too. More specifically, as the hagfish burrows into a carcass to feed, it takes in nutrients through its mouth AND through its skin and gills. Who would have thought?

While this has been seen in invertebrate fishes, it's the first documentation of such an system in an animal so close to modern fishes and invertebrates (hagfish have a notochord, not an actual backbone). This reseasrch isn't just about nutrients, however. As a sea creature, hagfish also have to deal with saline levels (which can affect cell osmosis) and temperature changes. How their skin can handle these, as well as nutrient transfer, could lead to some interesting and important applications.

This "nasty creature of the sea" might not be so nasty after all! Read more about this new discovery here.