In 1967, a decade after the launch of Sputnik 1, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson said of satellite technology, “We’ve spent [billions] on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost.”* This was, of course, two years before NASA put a man on the moon and set the new standard for U.S. scientific achievement, but still, Johnson’s statement is striking. Apart from any manned missions or other exploratory endeavors, advances in satellite photography of our own planet made the entire space program financially viable.
When President Johnson made this statement he was, of course, talking about the benefits to military intelligence inherent in satellite technology, but there are other advances in space photography and videography that are, while arguably less noteworthy, no less important. Today, NASA uses a variety of Earth-observing satellite systems. These satellites are not used for military surveillance, but instead are deployed to act as scientific measurement tools to help give us a better understanding of the global environment.
© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
The study of the interaction between the Earth’s systems, otherwise known as Earth system science (ESS), is one of the most complex and fascinating disciplines ever conceived. Technological advancements in satellites provide us with more intricately detailed information than ever about how the cycles of air, land, water, and life interact to define the context within which we live our lives on this planet, and they highlight more than ever the fragility of our ecology.
NOVA’s new special “Earth From Space” captures with striking elegance the dynamic quality of Earth’s many systems. By combining information collected from satellites with state-of-the-art computer models, NOVA’s production team has rendered graphics that are not only scientifically accurate, but also dazzlingly beautiful. The end result is a show that is as aesthetically appealing as it is scientifically informative.
The knowledge gained from our satellites is assorted, precise, vast, and supports the advancement of science that provides us with an important lens through which to understand the most fundamental thing we have: our home. In order to survive and prosper in the future, humans need to know as much as we can about our planet and the way it functions. In order to help, NOVA has produced an Education Collection focused on Earth system science and designed to help educators investigate the various manifestations of ESS with their students.
Sadly, the sobering truth is that in the next decade, the number of Earth observing satellites in NASA’s fleet will go from 20 to fewer than 10. To put it simply, ESS hangs in the balance due to our uncertain economic future. “Earth From Space” makes a compelling case for the support of our satellite systems. These aren’t simply orbiting pieces of space junk. Rather, they give us the perspective necessary to understand our lives in a truly global context.
That, ultimately, is the gift of programs like “Earth From Space.” They serve as a resource to help humanity gain perspective that we so often lack in the day-to-day goings on of existence. NOVA is streaming the program online. If you have a chance, check it out. Earth system science never looked so good.
* DeNooyer, R. (Writer), & Wolfinger, K. (Producer) (2007). Sputnik declassified [Television series episode]. In Apsell, P. S. (Executive Producer), NOVA. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.
The Harvard Science Center is situated across Cambridge Street to the north of Harvard Yard. If you take the elevator to the 8th floor, go through an unmarked door on the left side, and follow the signs up a few flights of stairs, you’ll find yourself inside a room whose walls are vividly painted with astrological figures, and whose ceiling isn’t a ceiling at all, but rather a mechanical dome. This dome belongs to the Landon T. Clay telescope.
Often, when I was in graduate school, my friends and I would gather on weekday evenings when we should have been studying, and instead we would spend a few hours gazing up at the sky. Many of my favorite memories of Harvard are of nights we spent at the Clay. The person who taught me to use the telescope was a girl named Sarah. It’s thanks to her, at least in part, that I spent so many fantastic hours there. It’s ironic then, that if Sarah and I had attended Harvard at a different time in history, she wouldn’t have even been allowed to operate the observatory’s instruments.
We are capable of measuring the distance to stellar bodies thanks to Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Astronomers today still use classification techniques developed by Annie Jump Cannon. Jocelyn Bell discovered the first quasar. Vera Rubin’s observations led to the theory, now widely accepted, of the existence of dark matter. It is undeniable that these women’s work has been instrumental in giving us a more complete understanding of the universe in which we exist. Unfortunately, it is also true that they’ve received an unsettling lack of recognition for their contributions. Leavitt and Cannon did much of their amazing work while serving as “computers,” women whose job it was to perform the arduous task of sorting, analyzing, and classifying stars seen through the telescopes at the Harvard College Observatory. For this work, they received about 25 cents an hour, less than the Harvard secretarial staff at the time. When Rubin first hypothesized the existence of dark matter, she was largely ignored. And when the Nobel Prize was given out for Jocelyn Bell’s quasar discovery, the award actually went to her male thesis advisor.
Today, of course, women in sciences enjoy more opportunities and credit for their work, but sadly, peek in on many science buildings across the country, and you’ll find far more men than women populating the classrooms and laboratories. Further, the NSF has found, through its research into the professional science and engineering sector, that a pronounced gender gap still exists.
Recognizing this gender gap, many scientists and professional organizations have increasingly been working to support and build community for women in their ranks. One such organization is the American Physical Society, which supports the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). The annual event includes 6 member institutions (Caltech, Colorado School of Mines, Cornell, U. of Central Florida, UI Urbana-Champaign, and UT Austin) representing various regions of the country. Students are invited to attend, and sponsors pay for attendees’ room and board during the weekend of the event. Those in attendance (mostly female undergrads) get to experience a professional conference firsthand, and are introduced to women of stature in the physics community. The generalization that “science and math are for boys” while “language arts and humanities are for girls” is not in evidence at these conferences. Students leave with a renewed spirit and confidence, knowing that they’re capable of achieving great things in their chosen field, despite what the stereotypes might suggest. With any luck, one, or perhaps several of those students will follow in the footsteps of a Leavitt, a Cannon, a Rubin, or a Bell, and our society will once again have a woman to thank for helping us to understand just that much more about science.
Right now, this moment, as I type, off the top of my head, I can count at least 7 devices in my cubicle that require electrical energy in order to function. That’s not counting our office’s overhead lighting system, the heating, or any of the other building-wide stuff. I’m just talking about things I can pick up. My laptop, its external monitor, my phone, my other phone, the lamps that I use at night to keep my space bright and work-friendly, the coffeemaker that keeps me bright and work-friendly…every one of these things requires electricity, and I use each of them every day, for hours. Often, I use energy without even thinking about it. The bills are paid, and services keep coming, seemingly limitless in supply.
The truth, however, isn’t nearly so idyllic. In the United States, we burn more than 100,000 tons of coal and nearly 800,000 barrels of oil every hour of every day in order to meet our energy needs. Coal and oil are fossil fuels, and they are anything but limitless. What’s more, their conversion into usable energy pollutes our environment and is a contributing factor of climate change. Our energy needs only continue to rise as our society becomes more and more reliant on electrical devices, so one sometimes wonders why technologies like Sweden’s Lillgrund Wind Farm or the SEGS solar arrays in California haven’t been leveraged effectively to solve our energy problems.
With NOVA’s Energy Lab, students learn just how complicated our energy crisis is despite the development of new tools. Through a series of video modules, students hear just how energy is defined, and about how we convert energy from various sources into the kinds of power we need in our daily lives. Students explore the promise of renewable energies like wind and solar, but they also learn about the challenges associated with using those renewables on a larger scale.
Once students have wrapped their minds around the contexts of today’s energy landscape, they jump into the online lab space and learn firsthand how complex the battle for clean renewable energy is. The Energy Lab’s Research Challenge charges students with the task of building efficient new energy infrastructures for cities across the U.S. Students use real scientific data gathered from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to organize systems using renewable sources. There’s added incentive in this lab, as students compete with others to see whose designs can, given cost constraints, produce the most power.
As with all NOVA Labs, the Energy Lab includes an Educator Guide that can help you think of ways to use the Labs as a productive part of your classroom experience. NOVA Education has also produced a webinar to help walk teachers through the online resource.
All in all, the Energy Lab is a great opportunity for students to use tools provided by NOVA to learn through experience about the challenges of energy production and consumption. Far from being a service taken for granted on a daily basis, NOVA’s Energy Lab helps put energy usage in the foreground for future professionals, a space in which it will need to remain if those future professionals are to solve our looming energy challenges.
I honestly don’t remember too much from elementary school, and most of what I can recollect is ill-defined and hazy. There is one experience, though, that I can recall with what seems, at least to me, to be impressive detail.
On a bright day in May of 1994, I was in the third grade, and my teacher, Mr. Nelson, had our class construct a few pinhole cameras. We knew not, back then, what pinhole cameras were, but we knew about disposable cameras (remember those?), and I can recall, for the first part of the lesson, feeling perplexed. The shoeboxes, which served as camera bodies, were quite a bit bigger than Kodak cameras, and I just couldn’t understand why we would make something so big. Still, dutifully, the students constructed five of these contraptions, then trooped outside onto the scorching blacktop. As we gathered around Mr. Nelson, he said, with the excitement characteristic of so many elementary school teachers, “There’s going to be a solar eclipse today!”
It was there that for the first time, my classmates and I looked safely at the sun by peering through the viewfinders of our newly constructed cameras. Of course, in our youthful ignorance, we’d tried before to look at the sun with our naked eyes. I vaguely recall something about a double-dog-dare. But we’d never been able to inspect the sun in such detail as we did that day. That little piece of technology, a re-purposed shoebox, helped us to learn more about solar science and direct observation than we ever had before.
Some eighteen years later, technology has advanced in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and through the magic of the internet, students have access to a few more tools than they did all those years ago in California, circa 1994. The new “Sun Lab” from NOVA Labs is such a tool.
For the Sun Lab’s “Boot Camp”, NOVA has produced 3 media modules, with each module containing 3 short educational videos. With topics like “Sun 101,” “Space Weather,” and “Technology & Discovery,” students can watch the videos to learn the basics of the sun, how we study it, and why our relationship with our home star is so important. At the end of each video, students answer questions to check for understanding.
After gleaning the basics from the 9 short videos, students jump right into the online lab space, using the innovative platform to access the same tools and images that professional scientists use to conduct groundbreaking solar research. Students learn about the solar cycle and our place in it, learn to predict future solar storms, and can even develop and conduct their own solar research project.
The lab includes an Educator Guide that can help you implement the programming in a variety of ways in your classroom. The guide also outlines the ways in which the lab’s content has been designed to align with the Next Generation Science Standards. You can find everything you need to make the Sun Lab a successful part of your classroom experience at the NOVA Labs page.
The last thing that I remember hearing Mr. Nelson say that afternoon in 1994 was that another eclipse wouldn’t be visible from California until 2012. At the time, the year 2012 seemed unbearably, impossibly far away. I tried, for a few moments, to imagine the future, and probably had a far away look in my eyes. I think Mr. Nelson must have seen it, because the next thing he said was, “Maybe some of you will become scientists, and you’ll study that eclipse just like you’re studying this one.”
I didn’t become a scientist exactly, but with the Sun Lab, I’m able to use modern technology to learn and be inspired in just the same way we used to use those shoebox pinhole cameras. If you’re a teacher, check out the Sun Lab, show it to your students, and see if they can’t be inspired to envision a seemingly impossible future, made real by the relentless pursuit of knowledge, the advancement of technology, and also, I suppose, by the simple passage of time.
How do you get from 80s teen star Molly Ringwald to The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers in 6 moves or less? Read on.
In February of 1985, Universal Studios released John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. In the official trailer, one can hear Don LaFontaine, the pre-eminent voiceover artist of the age, say, “A Brain, a Beauty, a Jock, a Rebel, and a Recluse. Before this day is over, they’ll break the rules, bare their souls, take some chances, and touch each other in a way they never dreamed possible!” The piece is considered a hallmark in the teen film genre, and dozens of movies about young people have followed Hughes’ basic formula: at the beginning, the characters’ identities are rigid. By the end, the protagonists realize a degree of flexibility, and they’re all better for it. The end.
The simple truth, however, is that it’s rarely so easy as a Saturday in detention to free anyone from the bounds of social expectation. For younger students, this can result in far-reaching educational consequences. If the stereotypes hold, “the Brain” becomes the scientist, “the Jock” becomes either the professional athlete or the armchair quarterback, and their corresponding identities influence their educational choices throughout life.
Movies are rarely like real life, but stereotypes about what a scientist is “supposed to be” influence young people all the time. Thus, we encounter realities such as the achievement gap between boys and girls in STEM. The stereotype is that science is for boys (because, perhaps, most famous scientists are men), so at about grade 8, gender starts to become a significant predictor of test scores. Girls score, on average, lower than boys on standardized science tests across the country1, and the eventual consequence is a professional scientific community that lacks equal gender representation.
© WGBH Educational Foundation
In the Emmy-nominated second season of the NOVA web series, The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers, we follow in the footsteps of John Hughes, and show that identity isn’t so static as it may, at first, appear. NOVA presents 32 new profiles of individuals who pursue their passion for science and engineering while at the same time demonstrating a natural zest for life that the public rarely gets a chance to see. From a lab scientist who spends her weekends as a professional wrestler to a theoretical physicist who loves to figure skate, to a biochemist who has also, in fact, been a beauty queen, Secret Life sheds light on the fact that scientists and engineers, rather than conforming to a single stereotype, are as varied in their interests as the students on a school campus.
Check in soon with Secret Life to find a teacher blog that will provide tips on how to use the series shorts as a part of lesson planning and unit development. We want to encourage teachers to use Secret Life in their classrooms to let students in on all those awesome secrets that make the lives of scientists so rich, diverse, and fulfilling.
Also, remember to be on the lookout for Secret Life’s “Questions from Kids” videos, wherein students get to ask our profiled scientists questions about what it’s really like to live a day in the life of a researcher, teacher, or other science professional.
Use Secret Life in your classrooms, and maybe…just maybe…your students will learn more about themselves than they ever thought possible, and they won’t even need to sit in detention with Molly Ringwald to do it.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, right near the MIT campus, there’s a great little bar called “Miracle of Science.” It’s as if someone took everything from my science-outreach-filled dreams and made it a reality. Each delicious dish served up by the kitchen has a corresponding chemical symbol, and the menu looks, for the most part, like a periodic table. The veggie burger, for instance, has the symbol “Vb,” and can be found in the second column, where, as it happens, the alkaline earth metals would be in a real periodic table. I love this place. It’s like concentrated nerdiness mixed with good food and drink, and in my life, there’s not much sweeter, particularly given that one of my main outreach projects is an informal education model known as the “Science Café.”
While Miracle of Science uses clever themes to build its menu and décor, their periodic table, unfortunately, can’t hold a candle to the power and majesty of the real one. The true, Mendeleev periodic table, in all its form and glory, teaches us an incredible amount about the world we live in. It shows us not only that ours is a world comprised of constituent elements, that those elements fall into families, and that each member of a family shares characteristics with its relatives, but (and here’s the kicker), it also gives us clues as to why elements behave the way they do. Learning to read the periodic table is like learning to read music. It represents not just the individual chemical substances that make up our world, but the nature of the relationships between them. If you know how the elements relate to each other, you can use them, like notes on a staff, to create what some might call harmony.
NOVA’s series, Hunting The Elements (funded, in part, by the Department of Energy), is about understanding those harmonies and how they make up the chemical roots of our world. Host David Pogue takes us on a journey where we investigate some of our most familiar substances, and learn how the theoretical basis of the periodic table can be applied to them. We learn about gold, salt, plant fertilizer, and more. Through it all, we stay close to Mendeleev’s chart, and learn how it serves as a guide to explain much about the daily processes we take for granted.
© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
At The Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, scientists are working hard to design ways to bring these every day discoveries about the elements into classrooms. Iron Science Teacher, an event series organized by The Exploratorium, borrows from the format of the famous cult TV series Iron Chef, and challenges its competitors (who are all instructors at the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute) to produce, on the fly, an interactive science lesson that will engage learners’ curiosity and interest in a STEM-related topic. The lessons themselves are based on a “secret ingredient” which changes with every new episode. NOVA Education sponsored the last Iron Science Teacher presentation to be held at the Palace of Fine Arts Exploratorium location, and chose, as its secret ingredient, any one, or more, of the 92 naturally occurring elements.
The contestants took five minutes to devise a lesson. Using things like pocket change, a box of cornflakes, or plastic flatware, they worked hard to use materials that would allow their lessons to translate easily into classroom demos.
After the “construction phase,” the contestants presented their work to an audience comprised of museum visitors, some of them children, and some of them attendees and alumni of the Teacher Institute.
With the presentations complete, the audience voted on who they thought built the most fun and informative lesson. To find out who won, you’ll have to log on to Iron Science Teacher’s website at www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/ and have a look. While you’re there, have a little fun investigating the resources made available by The Exploratorium, including webcasts of past events, as well as links to the Exploratorium Teacher Institute.
Also, please have a look at NOVA’s Hunting The Elements Education Collection. There, you’ll find a carefully curated space devoted to the most relevant online resources related to NOVA programming, designed specifically for use by teachers. Take some time to explore, and don’t hesitate to reach out to NOVA for guidance, to comment, or simply to connect. We look forward to hearing from you, and to helping you use NOVA to its highest potential.
In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grade 8 in science found that only 65% of students performed at or above basic, which denotes just “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.1” Interim Director of the National Science Teachers Association Gerry Wheeler stated that the scores were “simply unacceptable.2”
While many factors contribute to performance observed in students, a particular factor is student perception of science as encouraged by popular culture. Simply put, science education, as portrayed in popular media, is far from exciting.
Indeed, when Bella and Edward first converse in the movie adaptation of the initial Twilight installment, they’re in a biology class, and have been charged with the task of separating and labeling the phases of mitosis. The teacher, in a valiant attempt to motivate the students to complete the arduous assignment, offers up a gag prize. The class can be heard groaning and booing. In the first draft of the script, Melissa Rosenberg writes about the students’ apathy and the teacher’s disappointment at their lackluster attitudes. By the final cut, the tongue-in-cheek teacher seems resigned to the understanding that he won’t be able to maintain his students’ interest, and that, if anything, they just need to go through the motions. Against this backdrop, the budding chemistry (no pun intended) between the two leads takes center stage. You can almost hear Kristen Stewart’s character thinking, “This science stuff is so boring, but oh, man, is that vampire hot!”
Granted, teen romance is the center of the Twilight story, and biology class is most certainly not, but the fact remains that young people today are rarely presented with reasons to be excited and curious about science rather than apathetic and dismissive of it. One need only look so far as the “scientist stereotype” to see how science, as a practice, is generally perceived. Scientists are painted as eccentric, kooky, and generally too smart for their own good. The Simpsons’ Professor Frink is a highly educated, bespectacled, buck-toothed man who, despite his many efforts, often only makes crises worse. Doctor Emmett Brown, from the film Back to the Future, is another character that embodies the scientist stereotype perfectly. While he is brilliant, he is also eccentric and irresponsible, having squandered his family’s fortune, made deals with crime lords, and invented a time machine that is responsible for the “almost” destruction of the entire universe as 1985 knows it.
Teens’ understanding of real scientists is also sorely lacking. While most young people recognize the name of Albert Einstein, and perhaps even his most famous equation, e=mc2, few understand what it means, and how integral it has been to our understanding of the universe. Rather, when discussing Einstein, people often highlight his social ineptitudes and his “mad scientist” persona, exemplified by the famous photograph of him sticking out his tongue for the camera.
So how do we resolve this issue? How can we encourage a reimagining of how science is perceived and understood by teens such that they are inspired rather than discouraged? Of course, we must strive, as professionals, to make the classroom a productive space, and to ensure that students are getting the most out of that precious little time they spend on applied science learning. But beyond that, we need to make science an accessible discipline. Rather than presenting science as a set of mundane tasks to be completed, we should show science as it truly is: a many-faceted, dynamic, evolving area of human endeavor.
In California, Art and Alfia Wallace have started the Marin Science Seminar, targeting students in the San Rafael school district and using the Science Café model to help answer students’ questions about science and the people who practice it.
In New Mexico, Project Director Michelle Hall is using the Science Café model to work with teens in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Española/Pojoaque, and Los Alamos. The program is specifically intended for, and run by, high schoolers. Young people in each of the four participating cities volunteer their time to help organize and hold events that keep the program exciting and relevant.
One of the salient benefits of these programs is that they provide participating teens the opportunity to experience scientific discourse not colored by stereotypes and character-driven facades. Rather, teens are exposed to real science, real scientists, and are encouraged to explore how science truly relates to daily life. Furthermore, Science Café attendees can also, if they so choose, take up leadership roles. The potential positive outcomes of such participation are so great for young people that it’s a wonder more Science Café teen programs have yet to pop up in the network.
Sciencecafes.org, produced by NOVA scienceNOW and overseen by NOVA Education, hosts a national network of more than 275 Science Cafés. In our capacity as Science Café organizers and supporters, we are often asked how an adult learning model such as that of the Science Café community can be translated to serve effectively for a different demographic set. How complicated it must be, people think, to take something designed for adults and make it accessible to teens. Truly though, it’s not quite so difficult as some might suppose. One of the strengths of the Science Café model is that it is flexible, and can be molded to whatever parameters the organizer deems necessary for the café’s success. Models such as the two series mentioned above are living proof of the potential power of that flexibility.
We want to do our part to encourage the creation and expansion of such programs. If you have interest in starting a program for teens, or if you know of a program near you that could use the support of the Science Café network, or even if you want to share with us a success story having to do with a great café experience, please visit sciencecafes.org, and contact us at email@example.com. We will be happy to provide you with as many resources as possible to help make your program a success.