April 10, 2013 4:33 pm
School kids these days are dealing with all sorts of new pressures—gun violence, fierce competition to get into college, cyber bullying, regular bullying. One of the only parts of school that hasn’t changed much is the material students actually have to learn. But on Tuesday, United States educators unveiled a revamped science curriculum that includes new subjects like climate change and evolution.
Called the Next Generation Science Standards, the curriculum is the first change in science instruction standards since 1996. For context, 1996 was the year that we first sequenced the yeast genome, that scholarly journals went on the world wide web for the first time, and that Dolly the sheep was born. The consortium that created the guidelines has this to say:
Quality science education is based on standards that are rich in content and practice, with aligned curricula, pedagogy, assessment, and teacher preparation and development. It has been nearly 15 years since the National Research Council and the American Association for Advancement in Science produced the seminal documents on which most state standards are based. Since that time, major advances in science and our understanding of how students learn science have taken place and need to be reflected in state standards. The time is right to forge Next Generation Science Standards.
The standards come from a consortium of 26 state governments, and while they aren’t mandatory, they’re strongly recommended. So far 26 states have adopted the standards, while other are sure to resist them. Here’s how the New York Times describes the new guidelines:
The focus would be helping students become more intelligent science consumers by learning how scientific work is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence, and how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.
Leaders of the effort said that teachers may well wind up covering fewer subjects, but digging more deeply into the ones they do cover. In some cases, traditional classes like biology and chemistry may disappear entirely from high schools, replaced by courses that use a case-study method to teach science in a more holistic way.
As a part of that new method of teaching science in action, educators pushed to include evolution and climate change in the curriculum. Which has some people quite unhappy. Already, conservative and religious groups are speaking out against the changes. The group Citizen for Objective Public Education claim that teaching children about the science of evolution and climate change will “take away the right of parents to direct the religious education of their children.”
Others argue that teaching evolution and climate change should be included in a science curriculum because…well, because it’s science. Others claim not teaching the topics would short-change students who might go to college and, introduced to the concepts for the first time, find themselves far behind their peers. Most likely, places where teachers are already voluntarily teaching the two topics will adopt the standards and places where teachers oppose these science lessons will refuse, creating what climate scientists call a positive feedback loop and a country in which only half of the kids will understand that phrase.
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April 10, 2013 10:31 am
The human body is capable of registering five tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. And that last, funny-sounding one, is far more important than you might think. It might even, some food researchers suggest, help correct our crash-course into obesity.
Umami wasn’t even discovered until 1908, by a chemist who went on to patent the famously tasty-yet-dangerous MSG. (“Umami” comes from the Japanese word for “yummy.”) But understanding umami explains a lot of our weird food loves, writes Amy Fleming at the Guardian:
Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelized meat and veg. It is why Marmite is my mate.
It’s not totally clear why we love umami so much. We like sweet things because they’re full of calories. We like salty things because our bodies need salt. Sour and bitter tastes signal danger. But umami seems more complicated. We tend to like it more in cooked or aged foods. It seems to have something to do with the glutamate in a food, but while glutamate often signals protein, it doesn’t always. No one really knows what makes umami so great.
But we do know that we love it. And those who think a lot about how to get people to eat right, have considered using umami to stew people away from obesity-inducing foods and towards healthier ones. Here’s the Guardian again:
Lacing cheap, fattening, non-nutritious foods with MSG to make them irresistible is clearly not responsible, but some argue that glutamate can be used responsibly to good effect. Breslin says one of his key motivations is finding ways through taste research to feed malnourished people. “What you want,” he says “are things that are very tasty that kids will eat, that will go down easy and will help them.” Meanwhile, Professor Margot Gosney, who chairs the Academic and Research Committee of the British Geriatrics Society is “looking into increasing the umami content in hospital food,” to make it more appealing to older people, without overdoing the salt.
Some studies suggest that umami makes us feel fuller, faster. Others say it doesn’t matter at all. And some scientists wonder if umami exists in the first place. Some people argue that it’s a cultural taste. Many Westerners cannot identify it in taste tests, while the Japanese can. Some say that the umami trend was a ploy to fight MSG backlash. So perhaps we should figure out whether it’s even real before we try to fix our diets with it.
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April 9, 2013 1:05 pm
Two years ago, the BBC’s Frozen Planet captured one of Antarctica’s most intriguing wonders—the brinicle. A slow-creeping “ice finger of death,” a brinicle forms when super-salty water is extruded into the ocean from the ice rafting on the surface. As the cold salt water sinks, it causes the surrounding ocean waters “to freeze in an icy sheath.” In the video captured by the Frozen Planet team, you’re introduced to the brinicle as a threat to life, a plodding tendril of deathly cold. But new research led by the University of Grenada’s Julian Cartwright paints the brinicle in a new light—as a bringer of life rather than a destroyer.
In the study, the scientists discuss the process that drives the salt out of the floating sea ice—the source of brine forms the brinicle. They suggest that this process sets up many of the conditions that are thought to be needed for the formation of life—the steps that took the original primordial soup and turned it to real biological life.
“The origin of life is often proposed to have occurred in a hot environment, like the one found in hydrothermal vents,” the scientists write.
It is proposed that chemical-garden processes are involved in the mechanism. But there is a different school of thought that presents sea ice as a promoter of the emergence of the ﬁrst life. Brine rejection in sea ice produces all the conditions that are considered necessary for life to appear.
Brine extrusion causes chemicals to be concentrated, and the ice acts as a surface on which chemical reactions can take place. The sudden switch from brine to ice to sea water causes gradients in acidity and other factors that can drive chemical reactions. MIT’s Technology Review:
Cartwright and co’s most interesting observation is that brinicles also create chemical gradients, electric potentials and membranes–all the conditions necessary for the formation of life.
Exactly the same conditions occur at hydrothermal vents which have been the focus of attention for many biologists wanting to better understand how life might have formed.
“What’s more,” says MIT, “brinicles could well be ubiquitous on ocean bearing planets and moons such as Europa, where they might play equally interesting roles.”
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April 5, 2013 10:16 am
We’re all unique snowflakes, as evidenced by our fingerprints. But our prints and DNA are not the only features individualized to each of us. New research shows that our breath, too, can be used as an unique identifying feature, thanks to the varying assemblies of internal microbes that inhabit our bodies.
To discover these unique “breathprints,” ScienceNOW reports, scientists recruited volunteers to blow into a mass spectrometer, a machine often used in chemistry to separate chemical components of different samples. Within seconds, the mass spectrometer spit out results for each person. These breathprints not only vary between individuals, the researchers found, but also change throughout the day within individuals in reflection of shifting chemical reactions within the body. But a unique core signature always underlies a person’s breath, to the point that it could be used to identify the individual participants in the study.
In the future, breathprints could become the new urine tests, the researchers think. Breathprints couple be a more surefire way to tease out drugs a person may be taking, or to find out whether an athlete is doping, bringing a new meaning to the term “bad breath.”
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March 28, 2013 12:38 pm
Over the past couple decades paleontologists have come to realize that many dinosaurs bore colorful coats of feathers, rather than just the drab leathery hides with which we’re all familiar. Animals like Archaeopteryx, an ancient species that existed in that weird space between dinosaur and modern birds, showed early evidence of fossil feathers, and over time that evidence base grew and grew.
During these early days, artists’ renditions of what these increasingly-feathered dinosaurs looked like were filled with a healthy dose of speculation, but in 2010, much of that guessing was stripped away. Three years ago, says National Geographic, scientists unveiled a technique to accurately reproduce the colors of dinosaurs’ feathers. Then, the race was on, as species after species had their colors reproduced.
But, says Ed Yong in Nature, paleontologists’ palette may have been wrong all along. To make the color reproductions, scientists look at the shape, size and distribution of tiny pigment-bearing organs found in the fossil feathers. A new study led by Maria McNamara, however, discovered that fossilization changes these organs, squishing them over time.
“McNamara and her colleagues mimicked the process of fossilization by placing modern bird feathers in an autoclave — a machine that sterilizes lab equipment with 250 times atmospheric pressure and temperatures of 200–250 °C. “A brief spell in an autoclave can reasonably simulate the effects of temperature and pressure during burial over millions of years,” she says.
The changed shape means a changed color, and the understanding that coloring reproduced from fossilized feathers may be not quite right. By understanding the pressures and temperatures that affected the fossil, however, McNamara thinks we might be able to reverse-engineer the dinosaurs’ true colors.
Jakob Vinther, a scientist who led the boom in dinosaur-color research, says Yong, doesn’t seem too fussed by the new study. He says the difference in coloration wouldn’t be that noticeable: ‘“It could have an effect if we [eventually] want to discriminate between a reddish-brown and a slightly less reddish-brown, but we’re not near those sorts of assessments,’ he says.”
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