o The Frog Blog: August 2011

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Science Gallery @ Electric Picnic

Science Gallery return to the Electric Picnic this year with a brilliant range of activities from explosive chemistry shows, stimulating workshops, and mind-bending events! The gallery's latest exhibition ELEMENTS goes on tour and is sure the wow the festival goers. Also in the mix is the 100% Hammer Free High Strike will challenge the body and IGNITE, an Electric Picnic favourite, to challenge the brain. The Irish Robotics Club also provide some stimulating workshops on robots (obviously) over the two days of the festival. And if your tummy is feeling up to it, why not check out their live dissections!

To find out more about Science Gallery at the Electric Picnic visit their events page. They are sure to be a brilliant addition to Ireland's favourite festival. Click here to find out more about Electric Picnic 2011.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What Kind of Science Programmes Should RTÉ Commission?

Last week the Irish Film & Television Network (IFTN) reported that RTÉ are seeking ideas for science based programming "that focus on the impact science has on contemporary life in Ireland". RTÉ are looking for concepts and formats that "transform scientific understanding of the world into stories that will attract and engage prime-time audiences". This is a welcome development from Montrose, with our national broadcaster practically neglected science based programming over the last number of years, while the BBC have provided some excellent series in that period including items like Professor Brian Cox's "Wonders of the Universe" or Adam Rutherford's wonderful "The Gene Code" on BBC4.

RTÉ seem to be quite open to suggestions on the format of the programmes, which will be aired post watershed, but have clarified that they DO NOT want programmes on "the history of science, biographies of scientist, laboratory life or expositions of scientific concepts". But what kind of programmes should they commission and how should the Irish science communication community get themselves involved in the commissioning process? Submissions through a production company will always be looked on more favourably by RTÉ so should Irish science communicators open up discussions with production companies to discuss formats, topics and ideas? Surely they are the best placed in deciding what will engage the Irish public?

Below I outline my own rough idea of what RTÉ should look to produce - a long term project mixing interviews, news & features. If you have an idea or suggestion, add it as a comment below. I would also be interested to see if science communicators would like to meet up to discuss ideas and how best to put them to RTÉ? Anyone with links to production companies would be most welcome!

Here's my idea: A weekly 45 minute long programme different from anything else on RTÉ. The programme should be presented by a team of four or five scientists / science communicators and possibly one non-scientist. I envisage a mixed format including a science / tech news section, a weekly interview, a weekly feature (on various topics in popular science, visits to places of scientific interest like CERN, NASA, ESA etc), a science education slot (which would provide a animation of video resource for one of the Leaving Certificate science subjects - building up a library of resources over time). The programme should engage the audience using competitions, social media, a website and blog. I think it's important to have a team of presenters as casual discussion and banter would aid the programme's establishment. In essence, it would be similar in structure to BBC "Bang Goes the Theory" but with a slightly older target audience (15 - 40). People who come to mind as possible presenters include Jonathan McCrea (from Newstalk's Future Proof), Ian Brunswick (from Science Gallery), Ellen Byrne (from Dublin City of Science), Marie Boran (from the Internet), Aoife McLysaght (TCD) and Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin (celebrity physicist) to name but a few. I'd love to hear what these folks think or anyone else for that matter?

Whatever format RTÉ eventually go for, it is a welcome shift in policy in relation to science programming and an important development to help attract young people to the sciences. And, with Dublin soon to be crowned European City of Science I am sure that there will be a wealth of funding available to RTÉ and the willing production companies who are commissioned.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

YouTube Saturday - Ocean Giants

The BBC's latest nature documentary follows the adventures of some of the largest and most mysterious animals on our planet - whales and dolphins. Oceans Giants is a three part series which explores the magical world of whales and dolphins, uncovering the secrets of their intimate lives as never before seen. The short clip below is a snippet from episode 1, Giant Lives, which was aired last Sunday. Narrated by Stephen Fry, the series not only gives us an insight into the lives of the whales and dolphins but also into the work of the scientists studying these magical creatures. The series continues tomorrow on BBC One and BBC HD at 9:00pm. For more information on Ocean Giants visit the BBC website.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

New Year, Same Argument: Standards in Science & Maths

Last year I wrote a piece on More Stress Less Success arguing the case for the supposedly poor standards in maths and science in this country and specifically in the leaving certificate. I feel it important to reiterate some of the points made in that post (and some new ones) as the issues seems to reoccur every year and I feel it is unfairly represented in the media - especially in print. 

The Leaving Certificate is a deliberately broad curriculum requiring candidates to study at least six subjects over a two year period. Most study seven while some study eight. This broad curriculum does not suit most individuals and is the exception rather than rule when compared to most other European countries - who generally adopt a more focused curriculum in the senior cycle - for example UK students study a minimum of three subjects at A Levels. This all means that the average leaving cert pupil will spend approximately 45 minutes with each subject per day - five or six lesson periods per week per subject including subjects like maths, physics or chemistry. This simply isn't enough time to reach the standards that we set for ourselves. We need to allocate more class contact time with pupils for all subjects if we are to meet our own high expectations. To do this we need to either increase the school day (Ireland already has one of the longest schools days in Europe) or reduce the number of subjects required at leaving certificate. For me, the latter is the most obvious for a number of reasons. At the moment leaving cert students are seen to make their subject choices based on which subjects are easiest to obtain good grades in - besides aptitude and interest. Reducing the number of subject taught at leaving cert would mean a more focused approach could be taken in the subjects, more class contact time given to each subject, more time for exploring the practical applications of subjects like maths and science in these classes and less pupils picking subjects that they neither have an aptitude for or an interest in. This would also allow the students with a strong aptitude in science and maths to focus on these subjects without having to study subjects that they have no interest or aptitude in.

In Ireland, mathematics is a compulsory subject at leaving certificate. To compare the performance of every Irish student in mathematics to students in other European countries is simply unfair. In the UK, only 30% of A Level students study mathematics this year. While on paper the standards they achieve is very high (around 44% achieve A*'s or A's annually) the A Level system has been undergoing dramatic grade inflation over the past decade. They also have more class contact time due to their more focused curriculum. It must also be remembered that an A grade in Ireland is awarded for scores over 85% while in the UK it's 70%. Granted, there is a high failure rate in maths in Ireland but if the subject was optional these students would choose subjects more suited to their aptitudes.

In Ireland, over 50% of leaving cert students choose a science in their senior cycle. When compared to the UK the figure is around 17%). This figure is mainly down to the numbers of students studying biology while the percentage of students studying chemistry and physics in Ireland is slightly lower than our nearest neighbours. This all comes down to the so called "points race". Students choose seven or eight subjects which they feel will allow them get the most points. Chemistry and physics are known as more difficult subjects so less students choose to study them. The high numbers in biology are down to students requiring at least six subjects and to "keeping their options open" in terms of university choice (it is also perceived as an easy option). Neither outcome is favourable. We have students capable (and possibly interested) in studying physics and chemistry but choosing not to because of the points system. We have students choosing biology who have neither the interest nor aptitude. We need radical reform of the points system to remove these negative outcomes and encourage more students to study the sciences for the right reasons. 

We also need to remove the leaving cert's dependence on the terminal exam. These exams are good are assessing rote learning or the ability to learn off definitions and formulas. They are limited at determining the candidates ability to problem solve or adopt scientific knowledge to practical problems. This is what science is about - it's a process not a collection of facts and figures. At the moments we are in a system which rewards rote learning and memorising facts. We want to teach students to ask questions not answer them. This will mean a change in how we assess our students and will require some form of continuous assessment. The ASTI don't like that word but teachers and their unions need to take as much responsibility for educational reform as politicians should. No longer can we see ourselves as pawns in the process - we are part of the system and the ones best positioned to offer advice and suggestions for our system's urgent reform.

Finally, I can plead to the Irish media adopt just one stance on this issue. Either complain about grade inflation in the leaving cert or poor standards. You can't have it both ways. To say in one article that the number of pupils achieving A's is rising and this needs to be addressed and in another criticise teachers and the DES for poor standards simply won't cut it. Make up your mind on what you want to report on.

So, to conclude, we need to:
  • Remove the points system as it currently stands and radically reform how students are chosen for university entry.
  • Reduce the number of subjects studied for the leaving certificate to four.
  • Make maths optional allowing the syllabus to expand.
  • Make our assessment procedures less exam focused.
  • Teachers need to take responsibility for educational reform too and become more proactive in this regard.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

St. Columba's College Pupils Excel in Science & Maths

The Leaving Certificate Results are out and the usual discussions have begun on the declining standards of science and maths (see today's Irish Times). Yet the pupils of St. Columba's College in Dublin continue to excel in the sciences, breaking new records in Physics and Biology. The 'Class of 2011' have obtained a staggering average point score of 448 per candidate (33% of candidates scored 500 points or more, 55% of candidates scored 450 points or more and 78% of candidates scored 400 points or more). But in the face of continued media frenzy on declining standards in maths and science, the pupils of St. Columba's seem to break the mould.

In Maths, 44% of all pupils sat the exam at Higher Level (14% nationally). Of those 25% obtained an A grade (13% nationally), 54% obtained a B grade (35%) with the remaining pupils achieving a C grade (i.e. no pupils obtained lower than a C grade). The Ordinary Level pupils had equal success, with all obtaining A's, B's or C's - an astounding achievement. 32% of pupils at Ordinary Level obtained an A grade, 39% obtaining B's with the remainder obtaining a C grade - all miles above national standards. Only 5% of pupils sat Maths at Foundation Level (10% nationally) and all obtained A's or B's.

82% of pupils in St. Columba's sat a science exam in this year's exams. In Physics, all pupils sat the exam at Higher Level with a staggering 57% of pupils achieving an A grade (just over 20% nationally), 36% achieving B grades (around 25% nationally) and the remaining 7% achieving a C grade. These figures are hugely impressive and way beyond national standards.

In Biology, all pupils sat the exam at Higher Level (75% nationally) with a monstrous 44% achieving an A grade (just over 15% nationally), 24% obtaining a B grade and the remainder achieving a C grade. Again, no pupils obtained lower than a Higher Level C grade.

In Chemistry, all pupils again sat at Higher Level with 30% of pupils achieving an A grade (nearly 22% nationally), 38% achieving a B grade and the remainder obtaining a C grade.

In Agricultural Science, 93% of pupils sat the exam at Higher Level (80% nationally) with 8% of those obtaining an A grade (13% nationally), 62% obtaining a B grade (24% nationally) and 15% achieving a C grade - slightly lower than previous years.

Overall, the results indicate that the decline in the standard of maths and science certainly isn't evident amongst the pupils of St. Columba's College. The Frog Blog team (i.e. the science teachers here at St. Columba's College) would like to offer our congratulations to them on their excellent results (especially in the sciences!) and wish them luck in all their future endeavours. Indeed, we extend those sentiments to everyone who received their Leaving Certificate results today. For a further breakdown of the overall results of the St. Columba's 'Class of 2011' visit the college news site.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Science Calling - Light Science: Optogenetics

By now you should all be familiar with Science Calling, Maria Daly's brilliant weekly science blog. Each Friday, Maria provides another nugget of science wonder with her posts crafted expertly on a wide range of science topics. Maria's enthusiasm for science communication is evident in each of her posts and I look forward eagerly to seeing what she will come up with next! To date, Maria has provided some extremely enjoyable, easy to read and informative pieces - often taking a simple topic unrelated to science and revealing the wonder within. Some of my favourite posts to date include 'Nature's Hybrids', 'The Science of Irish Proverbs', 'Irish Americans: Invasive Wildlife Abroad' and 'My Favourite Virus'. Her latest post, 'Light Science: Optogenetics' is another brilliantly constructed piece of science writing - describing the breakthroughs emerging from a new technique of neuroscience. The new post is reproduced below, with Maria's permission of course.

Almost every lecturer in college talked about new discoveries in science and the importance it is to keep up to date. In the past few weeks the rapid advancement of science has become very apparent to me as I attempted to catch up with what I have missed since graduating. Optogenetics has recently emerged in neuroscience and was named Method of the Year by Nature in 2010. The more I read about this technique, the more exciting it becomes. Time to delve into the world of scientific methods! The story begins in 1971 when a light activated protein called bacteriorhodopsin was discovered. Other microbial opsins were subsequently found and studied. Research in a lab in Stanford published in 2005 showed that opsins enabled cells to be controlled by beams of light. Importantly, they did not need to add any other components or chemicals to the cells to enable this. The term “optogenetics” was coined and this method is now being used by over 800 labs around the world. The study of the brain and psychological diseases has mainly been completed by using electrodes or drugs to stimulate specific areas. These are not very accurate as electrodes stimulate other brain areas and drugs are very slow acting. Optogenetics works in a new more specific way. Opsin genes are inserted into the desired cells using molecular engineering. Opsin containing cells can be controlled by scientists at the same speed and precision as occurs naturally in the body. This is important when conducting experiments as they are more true to life. This video from MIT gives a good overview of how optogenetics works.

YouTube Saturday - Beautiful Elements

This week's YouTube Saturday video is produced by the Periodic Table of Videos team and features friend of the Frog Blog Ian Brunswick. Ian is the Events and Communications Manager at Trinity's wonderful Science Gallery (and a regular contributor to Newstalk's Future Proof weekly science radio show) and the video sees him bring us all on a tour of their latest exhibition ELEMENTS. Ian's enthusiasm and passion for the artwork on display in the gallery is very evident in this video, as he describes some of the unique exhibitions pieces which feature the elements Mercury, Iron, Gold, Platinum, Uranium, Calcium, Carbon, Silicon and others. ELEMENTS runs until the September 23rd and is free to attend.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

YouTube Saturday - The Fizzics of Guinness

This excellent short video from Sixty Symbols (a brilliant collection of curious and quirky physics and astronomy based videos from the same people who bring us "Periodic Table of Videos") explains the unusual properties of "the black stuff" - our very own Guinness. Entitled "The Fizzics of Guinness" the video takes a closer look at the infamous stouts head and at the behaviour of its bubbles (which move downwards as well as upwards). Enjoy!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Juno Bound for Jupiter

Later this afternoon, NASA will launch the Juno Space Probe on a mission to explore the largest planet in the solar system - Jupiter. Juno will be launched from Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket. The journey will take 5 years as the probe must travel over 2800 million kilometres to reach its target. When it arrives it will orbit the gas giant thirty three times, as speeds of over 160,000kph (making it the fastest man-made object ever) before hurtling itself into the enormous planet. On board are eight instruments designed to study various aspects of the planet - including its phenomenal magnetic field - and try to figure out how the planet formed over 4.5 billion years ago.  NASA also hope to find out more about the composition of Jupiter's core and about the violent weather patterns on its surface. When the mission is complete, Juno will be directed to crash into the planet - avoiding the possibility of it crashing into one of its many moons - including Europa which could potentially sustain life. The video describes what Juno will do and meets some of the scientists behind the mission. Ian Sample has a great piece in the Guardian Newspaper about Juno's mission too

NASA Discovers Salt Water on Mars

NASA has unveiled its strongest evidence for the existence of flowing salt water on the surface of Mars. It has been over ten years since water was first confirmed on the red planet but it was believed to be found only under the surface and at the poles - frozen all year round. But new images taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter describe show dark, finger-like groves in the planet's surface believed to be flowing water from mountain slopes. The features appear in late spring and fade in the winter. As mentioned already, the water is thought to be salty, as the Martian surface is very salty, with the saltiness lowering the freezing temperature of the water, allowing it to exist in environments where pure water might boil or freeze. The Martian surface is so salty though that any water on its surface would probably to too briny to sustain life, as we know it anyway. But there are many forms of extremophile bacteria that are able to withstand the toughest of conditions on Earth and similar organisms could have evolved to survive the harsh salty conditions - possibly even able to "hibernate" during the winter months. Discovery News has more information on this exciting astro-biological development. Click here for the original paper, published in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

One Moon or Two?

Our moon was likely formed around 4 billion years ago when a planet, approximately the size of Mars, collided with a newly forming Earth. The resultant debris coalesced (or came together) forming the Moon. However, a new theory suggests Earth once had two moons. The new theory incorporates the "global impact theory" but tries to explain the unusual geographical features of our moon - as it currently exists. When we look up at the moon we always see the same side - a relatively flat and heavily cratered surface - while the far side of the moon is very different - with huge mountain ranges towering 3km towards the edge of space. This observation baffled scientists for years but the new theory tries to explain the moon's unusual split personality. Put forward by two researchers, Erik Asphaug & Martin Jutzi from the University of California Santa Cruz, the theory suggests the mountainous side of the moon was caused by a smaller satellite, roughly one thirtieth of the mass of the existing moon, colliding slowly with its larger cousin. The scientists used computer simulations of an impact between the Moon and a smaller companion to study the dynamics of the collision and track the evolution and distribution of lunar material in its aftermath. The results were consistent with the Moon's current geology. For more information on this new theory visit the BBC Science website.

How Vampire Bats Detect Blood

New research, published recently in Nature, has revealed the secrets of how vampire bats detect the heat signature of their prey. The Common Vampire Bat, Desmodus rotundus, need to feed on the blood every night in order to survive. The bats feed only in complete darkness, usually preferring to feed on sleeping mammals. Once detected, they climb atop their unsuspecting victim and look for the sweet spot - the area where blood is closest to the skin and easily accessed. To to this they use their heat-adapted nerves in their upper lip and nose to detect blood up to 20cm under their prey's flesh. Vampire bats are one of only a number of animals that can detect heat (infra-red) and are the only mammals (all the other are snakes). The new study reveals the gene responsible for the vampire bats ability to detect the blood - a modified version of a gene called TRPV1. In humans TRPV1 causes a burning sensation when exposed to temperatures over 43 degrees C and when we eat foods like chillies or mustard. But in vampire bats, the gene has been altered slightly allowing the bat detect temperatures closer to 30 degrees C - hence allowing the bat detect the temperature of blood within a 20cm range. When feeding, the bats saliva has an anticoagulant which prevents the blood from clotting (incidentally scientists have developed anti-clotting drugs from the vampire bats saliva). Ed Yong has more detail on this extremely interesting finding in his wonderful blog 'Not Exactly Rocket Science'. The short video below, from National Geographic, shows vampire bats feeding on a sleeping pigs.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Space Shuttle Time Lapse

NASA have released a fantastic time lapse video of the Space Shuttles Discovery and Atlantis during their final missions to the ISS. The video has three parts: the first two feature Space Shuttle Discovery, while docked to the ISS, captured during STS 131 during April 2010. You can see Discovery move from the night side of the Earth to the daytime (Look our for the Aurora Borealis in the background) and, taken a few days later, the Shuttle emerging from darkness over the Canadian Rockies, traversing the United States southeast towards Florida. The final part sees the Sun rises behind space shuttle Atlantis in this time-lapse sequence taken last month on one of the last days of the historic final mission of the shuttle program.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Herschel Spots Oxygen in Space

Scientists working with the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory have, for the first time, detected free molecular oxygen in space. For decades, scientists have been puzzled by the lack of free oxygen in space, only finding the life giving gas in compounds like water or carbon dioxide. Oxygen is the third most abundant element in space, after hydrogen and helium, yet it's molecular form (two oxygen atoms bonded together) has eluded scientists in previous investigations. The international team of scientists used Herschel’s HIFI far - infrared instrument and targeted a star forming section of the constellation of Orion. The team analysed the constellation using three different infrared frequencies with the search proving successful, finding one molecule of oxygen for every million hydrogen molecules in Orion (10 times more than what was expected). The results of the research is to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. For more information visit the ESA website.