Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Video of the Week: Science (and Math) on Ice

Tonight the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils will suit up and hit the ice for the first game of the National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup Finals. The players probably won't be thinking about Newton's Laws of Motion while being checked against the glass or how they make use of kinetic and potential energy to launch that 160 kilometer per hour slapshot, but a hockey game is a fast and furious demonstration of many of the key concepts of physics.

In fact, a careful observer can see physics, statistics, geometry, and biology all at work in the rink. Even if you're not a hockey fan, the speed, power, and reaction time of NHL players is undeniably impressive, and the Science of NHL Hockey video series from the National Science Foundation and NBC Learn offers a view you can't get from the nosebleed seats. We're crowning the segment entitled "Work, Energy, and Power" our video of the week, but they are all worth a watch.

For more videos from the Science of NHL Hockey series, visit the NSF's Science360 Network.

For ideas from the National Science Teachers Association about how to incorporate these videos into lesson plans for high school and junior high students, visit NBC Learn. (Scroll down, select a lesson plan, and then click on full-screen mode to read the document.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Image of the Week: Solar Eclipse Dazzles

This past Sunday, observers in and parts of Southeast Asia and North America witnessed an annular solar eclipse--an arrangement in which the moon shades out most but not all of the sun, leaving a bright ring around the dark lunar form. Although Earth-bound viewers couldn't look at the eclipse directly with naked eyes, the Hinode spacecraft snapped some dazzling shots, including the one below. Hinode, a joint venture between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is cruising in low-Earth orbit to help scientists study the sun's magnetic field and energy releases.

A picture of the annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012, captured by the Hinode spacecraft.
Image Courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

To see more images of the eclipse and the wild shadows it created, visit the 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse Group on Flickr.

Then tell us: did you witness the eclipse? Where were you, and how did you view it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Video: Virtual Tour of Vesta Asteroid with Data from NASA's Dawn Spacecraft

Call it a giant asteroid. Call is a planetoid. Scientists call it Vesta--a 300 mile wide celestial body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that, in some ways, bares a striking resemblance to a rocky planet like Earth. NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Vesta since July 2011 collecting data and taking photographs.

Last week, scientists released a bevy of images and information about Vesta, including data confirming that Vesta is indeed structured like a planet with an iron core and that it separated into layers (crust, mantle, etc.) as it formed. (For more information about the structure of our own planet, see our module on Earth's Structure.) Vesta's topography is also quite varied, exhibiting landslides, craters, and a mountain twice the height of Mt. Everest. Using data from Dawn, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory created this ethereal virtual tour of Vesta's surface.

Video Courtesy: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology

For more information, check out NASA's Dawn news page or some of the widespread media coverage from the New York Times, Nature, and the LA Times, among others.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Next Generation Science Standards Open for Public Comment through June 1

Among other things, the Next Generation Science
Standards aim to emphasize the process and practice of
science.   Photo Courtesy: Argonne National Laboratory (CC)
Today, a draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released for a three-week public comment period. The new Standards are based on the National Research Council’s (NRC) Framework for K–12 Science Education and are the first update since the original National Science Education Standards were released in 1996.

Among other things, the new Standards are intended to place a broader emphasis on the process and practice of the scientific enterprise. This is highlighted by the fact that the very first Dimension of the Framework on which the Standards are based is entitled Practices, and is meant to describe how scientists work. This is an ambitious and long-overdue goal, and we are excited to see more emphasis placed on it.

Over the past decades, science education has migrated away from teaching about science and has migrated towards conveying facts and figures. As Bruce Alberts, editor of the journal Science has said, “Rather than learning how to think scientifically, students are generally being told about science and asked to remember facts.”

There are many reasons proposed to explain this migration—an emphasis on standardized test performance, lack of specialized teacher preparation, etc. But probably the most reasonable of these explanations is the fact that science textbooks fail to describe the scientific process and instead present science as a series of facts and predetermined endpoints.

In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published almost 50 years ago today, Thomas Kuhn wrote:
Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. …Yet the textbook-driven tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed.

To educate students about science, we need to present the discipline as it is practiced, not as a series of inevitable facts discovered by fate.

In 2006, we began an initiative to develop a series of modules that expressly describe the Process of Science. This initiative—possibly better described as an ongoing journey—has been both incredibly rewarding and at times slightly maddening. As the core authors of the Process content, Anne Egger and I have invested thousands of hours into researching these ideas, writing about them, editing, rewriting, and eventually launching these to the public.

Writing some of these modules was relatively straightforward. For example, there is an extensive literature underscoring the concept of Scientific Ethics, and there are well defined ideas about how a scientific Experiment differs from a Comparative study. However, there is less written about many other core ideas underscoring scientific practice such as how and why individual scientists collaborate, how subjectivity affects data interpretation, and how error and uncertainty in data are quantified and expressed. Still other concepts that need explaining, such as “What is the Scientific Method?” or “How does scientific knowledge differ from other types of knowledge?” are sometimes defined by scientists in the same way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”

In fact, Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar once said, “Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he adopts an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare.”

We hope that the Next Generation Science Standards will help catalyze a shift back towards teaching about science as it is practiced. In the meantime, please join us in reviewing the new Standards and submitting comments to make sure they emphasize the practices used by scientists.  Comments are due by June 1.

Need help getting started?  The National Science Teachers Association has created a “study guide” for organizing a group discussion, including questions to consider for each section of the new standards (see page 11).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Has a teacher changed your life? Say 'thank you' during Teacher Appreciation Week

It's Teacher Appreciation Week. Take a moment to thank
a teacher who influenced you.
Photo Courtesy: Flickr User James Boyd (CC)
William Butler Yeats, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, once said that "Education is not filling a pail, but lighting a fire." Learning from a teacher who approaches education this way truly is a gift that can change a student's entire life.

For me, that gift came during junior high school in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson. A husband-wife math power-couple, the Nelsons taught math and coached the after school MATHCOUNTS program at my tiny junior high school in the dusty tip of southern Nevada. They were such inspired and tireless teachers that we thought it was fun to stay after school for an extra hour and half every day and work math problems. We even had Saturday marathon sessions a couple of times--not exactly the kind of thing you expect to see junior high kids volunteering for, but we did.

In the classroom and at competitions, we were a team. It was us against the math problems, and the more we trained, the better equipped we were to battle the equations and untangle the word problems. After those two years, I never saw math, myself, or my education in the same way. The experience that empowered me to see myself as someone who was good at math. Someone who could study math or science--who could be a doctor or an engineer--if I that was what I wanted.

I have had many excellent teachers over the years, from elementary school to college. And I owe each one of them a huge "thank you."

This week (May 7th through the 11th) is Teacher Appreciation Week, and tomorrow (May 8th) is National Teacher Day. So as the school year winds down and students everywhere prepare for finals and graduations, it's a great time to pause and thank those educators--past and present--who have made a difference.

At the least, they have guided students through a year of learning. And at the most, they have lit a fire, inspiring students to think differently about their subjects and themselves. Either way, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

So why not send your teacher (or your child's teacher) a note--a simple thank you for doing the difficult work of teaching? Educators need inspiration as much as students, and knowing that they are appreciated can make a world of difference. If you want to recognize an educator publicly, tell us the story of how they inspired you in the comments below.

Or visit the National Education Association's Teacher Thank-You Project to see the virtual mural of thank-you notes and add your own.

If you are an educator, thank you. Even if it takes years for your students to realize it, you are making a difference.  As Henry Adams said, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."