o The Frog Blog: July 2012

Saturday, 14 July 2012

How Not to Save Science Education

I am one of many people who believe that science education, both at primary and secondary level, needs saving. There is an over focus on examinations, rote learning is common place and there is a deficiency of enquiry based teaching strategies. I work in an education system that rewards regurgitation not critical thinking and I am expected to conform to science curricula which do their best to murder the wonder of science. So when I trawled through the ESOF programme a few weeks back and saw a session entitled "Saving Science Education" I knew I had to attend. Sadly, I left disappointed.

It didn't start well. John Meadows, the principal speaker, said they weren't actually going to save science education during this session and he was right. What followed was not the interactive workshop depicted in the blurb, but an outline of a research project, entitled KIDS INN SCIENCE (the double N is deliberate - it stands for innovative apparently). The KIDS INN SCIENCE project aims to highlight successful innovative science teaching strategies from around the world, both formal and informal, that enhance young peoples interest in science and technology. The innovative practices need to be adaptable to other countries and cultures. During their research, the team identified 82 innovative practices, from Europe and Latin America, which focused on three key learning areas: gender issues in science; cultural diversity and inquiry based learning. They then worked with each partner schools (whose selection criteria seemed rather "unscientific") to implement the innovative practices.  

The practices needed to work within normal school time frames, must not require additional resources or specialist equipment and be adaptable to different countries and cultures. However, the researchers did let it slip that they did, in fact, supply the schools with additional resources, specialist equipment and funding to develop the learning strategies. I was disappointed to see that the examples of innovative practices the researchers gave were not that innovative either - the red cabbage indicator experiment (done in every primary and secondary school in the country) was held high as a prime example. A bit odd.

KIDS INN SCIENCE sounds like a lovely project, and I admire the researchers objectives, but in reality nothing new and innovative was brought to the table here. The project lacked a structured approach, I had issues with their evaluation of teaching strategies, they were over focused on the cultural diversity and gender equity learning areas and they didn't seem to foresee issues in senior cycle science where the pressures of examinations is most evident. The project is still under way with results still being collated. The final stagedissemination and sharing of the resources, is also in development. I will be interested in seeing how the researchers present the innovative practices so that other teachers can adapt them. 

Overall, I was disappointed that the real issues in science education were not discussed during the session. There was nothing on curriculum development, developing effective assessment, engaging with scientists, researchers & universities, developing students' critical thinking skills, teacher training or on improving science literacy in young people. What I did learn, however, was that in Ireland we are incredibly lucky to have organisations like Discover Science & Engineering or Discover Primary Science sharing good practice amongst Irish science educators. We are even luckier to have projects like SciFest and the Young Scientists & Technology Exhibition which bring out the best in our science teachers and students. There is far more innovation amongst Irish science educators than I might give them credit for and, for that matter, what I give myself credit for too. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

CERN 'Accelerating Science' Exhibition Coming to Galway

Great news for the west! The head of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, announced earlier today that ‘Accelerating Science’, CERN's flagship travelling exhibition, is coming to Galway this September!! The exhibition aimed at second level students, aged 11 to 18 years, explores the history of the universe and includes a model of the Large Hadron Collider to help young people gain a deeper understanding of how a particle detector works and what happens when particles collide at almost the speed of light. 

In five modules (The History of the Universe, Particle Matter, Mysteries of the Universe, Exploring Matter & A World of Fundamental Research) the 'Accelerating Science' takes visitors on an extraordinary journey. The exhibition comes to Galway with the help of Boston Scientific & the Galway Science & Technology Forum. The exhibition will be hosted by Leisureland, just outside Galway City in Salthill. and will run from September 16th until November 9th. It will be open during the week for schools and to the general public at the weekends. Places can be booked for the exhibition by visiting here and tickets are just €2. Commenting at the launch of ‘Accelerating Science’ at ESOF today Rolf-Dieter Heuer said: 
"The Accelerating Science exhibition shows how experiments at CERN explore the smallest and largest scales of the Universe. It brings the excitement of the research at the LHC to Ireland, and is especially suited for school students from 11-18 years old." 
It sounds like it will be a fantastic exhibition and I certainly will be making my way across the country to visit. For more information and to book your tickets click here.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I, Human - An Exploration Into the Future of Human Kind

My first session at ESOF today was a panel discussion on the challenges facing the future of mankind as we come to understand the biology of the human species, the complex genetics underpinning that biology and, as we make further advances in technology, how computers (oddly) can help clarify what it means to be human.  The panel included Lone Frank, neurobiologist, Brian Christian,computer scientist, poet and philosopher, and Armand Leroi, a geneticist and was chaired expertly by Daniel Glaser from Wellcome Trust

It was a fascinating discussion, which touched on many areas including the "self" concept, eugenics, artificial intelligence, brain physiology, futurism, human rights and more. I was intrigued particularly with the notion of the "self" and how our brain physiology seems to suggest that we have little control over who we are and what we do. This touched a nerve and got me thinking about humanistic teachings and psychotherapies, principles which forms the basis of most counsellors and psychotherapists work. Humanism and humanistic psychotherapies, under pinned by the work of Maslow & Rogers, has its basis in existentialism, in our species ability to be self aware and in having choice. I got the opportunity to put the question to the panel and to speak with Lone Frank afterwards about the conflict between self and humanistic therapies quest for self awareness. She spoke of a need to move from humanistic therapies to cognitive - behavioural therapies, "looking at who you are not and how can you change it". Lone also believes that narcotics will play a more central role in even our most basic therapeutic needs in the future, even psychedelic drugs like LSD. Brian Christian believes that computer therapy may play a larger role in psychotherapy and Lore agreed, "as long people give up the idea that it is essential to sit across from another human being". In reality, the other human being is an empathic voice and whether a computer can be empathetic is be be seen. Some research has been carried out on the effectiveness of computer therapy, with positive results in young people in particular.

Getting up early and making my way right across the city for this session was no mean task, but I am so glad I made the effort to attend. It was a fascinating yet challenging session, bringing questions of my own existence and the value of humanity to mind. I am now looking forward to reading Brian's book, The Most Human Human - What Artficicial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive.

Image Credit: Brian Christian

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Michael D, Hoffman, the Jiggs Boson & Mini Burgers! ESOF Kicks Off in Style!

The Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF), Europe's largest general science meeting, blasted off in style this evening at Dublin's Convention Centre. Delegates were treated to an entertaining and uplifting opening ceremony which was officially opened by our wonderful President Michael D Higgins.

Michael D spoke passionately, gracefully and with a splash of poetry to lift the spirits of the thousands of people in attendance. Our President spoke of Ireland's "reputation for creativity, for originality and for our unique and imaginative view of the world", yet noted that when one thinks of this reputation the figures of Joyce, Heaney or Friel are often held high as prime examples. Yet Michael D cited the need to link this reputation for creativity, originality and imaginative thinking with our citizen's numerous scientific achievements such as Bell’s Theorem, the development of fibre optics, the splitting of the atom or the Beaufort Scale to name but a few. President Higgins spoke also of the need to create further links between the arts and science, noting that the "connecting discourse for science, technology, society and culture is indeed a pervading theme throughout this conference". He concluded by reminding everyone of the ethical responsibility that comes with scientific and technological advances, calling for a "globalisation of ethics". He highlighted the future challenge to provide food for the growing world population, while maintaining biodiversity and protecting our environment.
"In this way we can build a promising future underpinned by a solid foundation of excellent science and technological innovation informed by a contemporary ethic founded on a justice drawing on the need of the many rather than the speculative adventures of the few."
President Higgins' rousing speech was followed by contributions from Professor Patrick Cunningham - Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn - European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Richard Bruton - Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Enric Banda, - President of Euroscience. These four speakers seemed to speak from the same hymn sheet, quoting a need for investment in scientific research and its role in European economic recovery and growth. Science communicator and comedian Dara O'Briain pulled all the strings in a smooth organised event yet he couldn't avoid mentioning the Irish fondness for the pub!

Thus followed an entertaining interlude of music, dance and bodhrán inspired audience participation from the Rhythm Corporation. The twitter machine lit up, with the uilleann pipe and bodhrán players receiving numerous compliments on the active social networking site. The Science Gallery's Shaun O'Boyle masterfully punned the performance the "Jiggs Boson" at the "Large Bodhrán Collider".

It was a tough act to follow but the first keynote speaker of the conference, Nobel Laureate Jules Hoffmann, was well up to the task. Hoffmann spoke of his award winning research on the function of the "Toll" gene in fruit fly innate immunity and how these genes act in humans and other mammals too. It was incredibly interesting and engaging, although I should have brushed up on my immunology notes from college this morning to fully appreciate the man's genius. He concluded on a personal note, one shared by TCD Professor of Immunology Luke O'Neill (who introduced Hoffmann) at the recent Irish Science Teachers' Association Conference back in April. Hoffman, and O'Neill, spoke of the a blissful time in science when research was "driven by curiosity" not by the need to find applications in industry or medicine. He urged policy makers and funding bodies to treat basic research and applied research with the same principles. Just because the research doesn't have any immediate applications, doesn't mean it will not in the future. This was particularly interesting as it would appear that Science Foundation Ireland, Ireland's leading academic funding body, has been told my government to focus on applied research in their recent allocation of funding. I hope the politicians present took heed of Hoffmann's views.

Finally, you are probably wondering about the mini-burgers! Well, all I will say is YUM and that they cost me a good seat in the auditorium! 

ESOF continues tomorrow and I'm looking forward to a busy day of workshops, lectures and panel discussions (particularly an interview with James Watson). Check out the ESOF website to catch a video of tonight's opening ceremony and for live feeds of selected keynote addresses. Bye for now!

Image credit: RTÉ

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

ESOF 2012 - Can You Feel The Buzz?

It's less than 24 hours to the opening ceremony of Europe's largest general science meeting - the Euroscience Open Forum or ESOF. Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past year, you will of course know that this year's event takes place in Dublin (at the Convention Centre) and the city has relabelled itself a 'City of Science'. To coincide with the conference, there is also a week long Festival of Science taking place on the streets of the capital and, to a lesser extent, in some towns and cities around the country.

However, it is the conference itself which has me very excited. As a teacher in a seven boarding school, I don't get out much! This is particularly the case when it comes to science conferences, lectures, panel discussions and workshops. For such a massive event to be taking place in Dublin, it offers a chance for my inner geek to go wild. And wild it will go. I plan on spending most of the next five days in the Convention Centre, soaking up the best that Irish and European science has to offer. The line-up is incredibly impressive, with speakers and events focusing on a range of topics, such as science careers, education, communicating science, science culture, science engagement, policy, the climate and medicine & health. I'll be blogging from the conference so look out for reports on my favourite speakers and the workshops which grabbed my attention. If you are attending I would recommend using the personalised schedule on the ESOF website (that's mine below) which allows you plan your few days and keep track of where you are supposed to be. I'm particularly looking forward to Jules Hoffman on European research on immune diseases, an interview with James Watson, Marcus du Sautoy on the secret mathematicians, Craig Ventor on what is life?, Brian Greene on the state of String Theory, Rolf-Dieter Heuer on the Large Hadron Collider and Jocelyn Bell Burnell on why we are star dust!

It's going to be a frantic fun few days! See you there!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

YouTube Saturday - The Evolution of the Moon

This is one of my favourite YouTube Saturday videos for a long while and it comes from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. The Moon was likely formed when a planet, roughly the size of Mars, collided with the early Earth around 4.5 billion years ago (Here's a previous YouTube Saturday post showing how the moon was formed). The resultant debris coalesced, underwent rampant volcanism and was bombarded by craters to form its current, seemingly sleepy, current state. The video was made using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a nifty robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the moon just 50km above the surface. Its mission is to map the lunar surface paying particular attention to the polar regions and a search for water in the permanently shaded regions of our moon's surface. The LRO is also responsible for targeting potential landing zones for future missions to the Moon. The LRO took this cool picture of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module too! The video is available in numerous formats on the Goddard Multimedia website.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Science in the City Festival Kicks Off!

Dublin's Convention Centre hosts the Euroscience Open Forum next week and to celebrate the city is hosting a ten day festival of science! Science in the City kicks off tomorrow and brings together a wide community of cultural institutions, organisations and individuals who are passionate about showcasing the best of science, arts and culture in Ireland. The festival will host a range of events for all and will showcase the joy of discovery, and wonder of science through creative channels. 

There is truly an innovative and jam-packed programme of science themed events for all the family on offer: including photographic and art exhibitions; several theatre pieces; film festivals; tours, trails and treasure hunts; science buskers; large-scale interactive installations; experiments; public talks; debates and workshops. Some of the highlights include:
  • July 5th to 14th - UCD Imagine Film Festival - an exciting programme of events and screenings at dynamic locations throughout the city.
  • July 5th to 8th - IFI Family Festival - An Irish Animation Trail throughout 3 cinemas at IFI to raise young people’s awareness of the process of animation itself, encouraging them to ask questions such as: How is it done? Who are the animators? What technology do they use?
  • July 8th - Science, Art and Submarines - What happens when an artist plays with science? And hangs it in a museum? And an art expert walks into it? And falls over? Who picks it all up and how exactly does a hoover work? These and other questions will be thrown up in the air at IMMA on Sunday 8th July. 
  • July 10th - FameLab Science Olympics -   11 young scientists from all over Europe compete in a hectic science communication competition - with each delivering a short 3-minute pieces on science and sports – expect to hear anything from fuzzy logic in football to how the brain recognizes the body of the sprinter is moving.
  • July 12th - What is Life? - A 21st century perspective - Dr. J. Craig Venter, a leading scientist renowned for his contributions to genomic research, will participate in one of the greatest science events in the 21st Century when he delivers a lecture titled “What is Life? - A 21st century perspective” The lecture will update the Irish event that inspired the discovery of the structure of DNA. 
  • July 13th - Dara O’ Briain presents The Age of ReasonDara Ó Briain and a panel of thinkers take sometimes a humorous journey through logic, reason and scientific thinking to see how their use solved problems in the past. 
  • July 12th & 13th - Mini-ESOF: This event features NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and scientist Dr. Eric Karsenti who will give young people the opportunity to hear about their work. The events are kindly hosted by law firm Matheson Ormsby Prentice as part of their MOP Giving Programme. 
  • July 14th - The Dublin Mini Maker Faire - an independent day-long community event where all kinds of “makers” get together to showcase their work. Science Gallery will be host to Dublin’s first ever Mini Maker Faire on Saturday 14th July. 
  • July 14th · Icarus at the Edge of Time - A futuristic reimagining of the classic Greek myth set in outer space, about a boy who challenges the awesome power of a black hole. Icarus is adapted by physicist and founder of the World Science Festival Brian Greene and Tony-Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang from Greene’s young people’s book of the same title, and features an original orchestral score by Philip Glass, performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Coorey, narrated by actor Louis Lovett and a film directed by innovative, cutting-edge British filmmakers Al+Al. 
  • July 7th to 22nd - Big Science Weekends - Ever wondered how we breathe? How our bodies fight infection? How food gives our body energy? How we grow? Find out the answers to these questions and more while engaging in some fun, educational and occasionally gooey experiments, as we explore the “Science of Life” at Imaginosity. www.imaginosity.ie
There is simply a brilliant range of activities on offer and there is something for everybody. Get yourself to the city and experience the magic of science! For the full Science in the City programme click here or visit www.dublinscience2012.ie

Image Credit: Imaginosity

The Princely Frog

We all know the story of the frog turning into a prince, right? Well this little fella didn't even need to be kissed! Scientists in Ecuador have discovered a previously unknown species of frog and have named it after Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. The colourful stream frog, with the official title Hyloscirtus princecharlesi, was one of two 'new' species (along with  Hyloscirtus cryptico) discovered in the highly endangered clouds forests in Ecuador four years ago.  The naming honour was in recognition of the royal's work in the preservation of such tropical forests, including his efforts to mobilize political and financial support for a program to compensate developing countries for conserving their rainforests. Charles met Coloma earlier today at a workshop in Britain. 

The princely frog is certainly in danger though. It's habitat, montane forest streams, is particularly affected by the chytrid epidemic that has killed untold numbers of amphibians globally and driven dozens of species to extinction since the early 1980s.

Full details of the discovery is available with open access in the journal Zootaxa.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

CERN Scientists Discover New Particle

Early this morning, the physicists working at CERN's Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) confirmed that a new particle has been found during their recent experiments.  The CMS team recorded a "bump" in their data which points to a new particle with a mass of 125.3 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) - about 133 times heavier than a protons. However, further tests are needed before it can be confirmed as the elusive Higgs Boson or 'God Particle' as it has been nicknamed but the way the particle decays suggests it is definitely a boson. The CMS scientists revealed that their results are so accurate that there is only a one-in-two million chance that the "bump" was not created by the Higgs Boson yet, unbelievably, that is actually below CERN's normal standard for confirmation of new particles.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson won't affect our everyday lives, but it does fill an important gap in the Standard Model, the theory that describes the twelve building blocks of our universe and the four forces that govern them. The Higgs Boson was an important feature of the theory and the missing piece that allows  particles have mass. It's existence was first theorised by Dr. Peter Higgs nearly 50 years ago but it has eluded scientists since then. It's discovery would confirm the validity of the Standard Model, but still does little to explain how dark matter comprises over 96% of our universe or how gravity works. Further tests are planned to see how this new particle behaves. According to CERN director general Rolf Heuer, who visits Dublin in a couple of weeks,
"The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle's properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe."
It's an exciting time for physicists and one of the most important achievements since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Below is how the discovery was announced at CERN this morning. To find out more about the Higgs Boson and how it works, visit the BBC Science website Higgs Q & A page

On a side note, I tweeted this morning that the Higgs discovery won't cause any of the Leaving Certificate Physics textbooks to be rewritten as, sadly, there is no mention of particle physics on the proposed new syllabus. Ah well!