Focusing Our Energy On…well, Energy!

Climate change and Appalachia. I know, I know. You’re probably sick of hearing me talk about it. I’ve blogged about it on many different occasions, but this time I actually want to share some tangible teaching devices to help us talk climate change and the energy sector.

A couple weeks ago I was visiting one of my all-time favorite blog, Science League of America, and came across the Energy Literacy Principles.

As their blog post puts it: The Energy Literacy Principles were developed by a consortium of thirteen governmental organizations, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health & Human Services. All these groups are interested in energy because it affects every aspect of our lives and involves everything from the environment and national security to food and even public health.

I can’t imagine anything more fitting for Appalachia. Energy defines a huge chunk of our economy. It defines our history, our politics and possibly our future. Our education standards echo this as well, which might be the scariest thing of all.

Energy literacy plays directly into climate change literacy. Our energy choices influence how people alter the climate. Principle 5—“Energy decisions are influenced by economic, political, environmental, and social factors”—gets to the heart of this idea. In West Virginia, there used to be a $2,000 tax credit for new solar projects, but the state legislature did away with it in 2014. In fact, West Virginia has an Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and does not actually require a minimum contribution from renewable energy!

How can we expect to teach energy literacy when we’re silent about energy sources?

The NCSE put it best when they said, “energy and climate are inextricably linked. The principles are a good first step, but how we use them to educate others about the connections between energy and climate is up to us.”

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What it Means to be STEM Literate

You can read, right? You’re literate? It’s a silly question, I know. If you couldn’t read, you probably wouldn’t be on my blog! We sometimes take literacy for granted. Even our worst rank school systems produce students who can read a newspaper or blog. Are we as confident about our science literacy? Do we even know how to measure it?

Now, this is far from my first blog post on this subject. but I felt that it warranted a second visit, especially since some new material has recently surfaced on the subject!

Emily Calandrelli gave a TEDx talk just a few months ago on the subject of STEM literacy, and the video of the presentation was just uploaded to YouTube last week. If you aren’t familiar with TEDx, Emily, or STEM, allow me to fill you in.

First, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and topics can range from science to business to poetry to history. A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with the community.

Emily Calandrelli is a West Virginia native (I KNOW!) and WVU with a masters degree from MIT in in Aeronautics & Astronautics and Technology & Policy. She’s also the producer and host of a pretty amazing show, Xploration Outer Space. Emily is passionate about lots of things, like the space program, science policy, women in STEM and yes, STEM literacy.

If you aren’t familiar with STEM, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We often refer to STEM industry, such as scientist or engineer, STEM education, such as math and computer classes and STEM literacy, or the ability to understand and apply concepts from science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Emily’s talk is 16 minutes long, but packed full of insight into the importance of STEM literacy.

A few months ago I blogged about this topic and shared some of my favorite tweets from planetary scientist, writer and public speaker, Emily Lakdawalla.

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Her tweets get right to the point of the importance of science literacy and summarize the points Emily makes in her talk.

Appalachia’s economy, politics, history, geography and livelihood rely on the materials we can pull from the earth. While my GEO 101 course taught me the intricacies behind the making of coal, it failed to tell me why I should care. I learned about what a water table was, but it didn’t tell me how hydraulic fracturing could endanger it, or what happens when it dries up.

As it turns out, though, physicists, journalists, geologists, historians, engineers and athletes all need energy and water, and therefore must recognize the need for science and art and learn how to effectively utilize the collision of the two. Educators at all levels, elementary through college, must tackle this problem head-on. You don’t have to absolutely love every academic field out there, and it’s ok to be better at one over another, but students have to recognize how important literacy on all levels really is.

What’s your college degree or area of employment? How did classes outside of that area affect you? Tweet at me or comment below to join in on the conversation. Also I encourage you to following Emily on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about all things STEM.

Brontosaurus: The Long Lost Ninth Planet

Earlier this week, many of us got the validation our childhood self needed. The dinosaur, Brontosaurus, is back (maybe?)!

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If you aren’t familiar with the brontosaurus’s tragic story, it goes a little something like this: Paleontologists discover a new species of dinosaur that they call an Apatosaurus. In another part of the world at nearly the same time, scientists discover an almost identical skeleton, but they call it a Brontosaurus. By the early 1900s scientists realized that the proposed differences between these two animals were subtle, and since Apatosaurus was named first, it is the correct name.

You’re probably most familiar with the brontosaur affectionately known as Little Foot. What did they call his species on the show?  Simply “Long Necks.”

So why talk about this on a science communication blog? One of my favorite Twitter accounts, David Shiffman, summed it up nicely.

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Why are we obsessed with arguing back against science?  Why are scientists never allowed to change their position on something? And why do we group Pluto and the Brontosaurus into one big “bring back science of the good ol’ days” issue?

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Seriously…Skeptics Blog, The Press Telegram News, NPR and TIME all put out pieces this week on what can only be called “Brontosaurus: The Ninth Planet.”

They all raise valid questions, though. Why do we need science to stay the same? Surly we’re capable of of life where Little Foot is an Apatosaurus and our mother served us nachos instead of nine pizzas! I wish I could tell you there was some scientific reasoning for our reluctancy to change, but there isn’t, at least not yet.

Robert Krulwich summed it up best when he said:

“People don’t want their eternalities to change. They hate that. But, in the end, science has to win. There are 5 year olds all over the world now growing up with Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, but not that other guy, the one with the name of Mickey Mouse’s pet dog. In fifty years, Pluto may be just a dog again.

That’s how it goes.”

So are you ready to live and let go? Will you accept Little Foot for who he is, no matter what that might be? What about Pluto? Will you teach your kids about the long lost ninth planet? Please don’t, by the way. You’re part of the problem. Are you ready to accept a world where discovery sometimes means adjusting our science text books? I know I am, and I believe in you.

No Playing Video Games Until You Finish Your Video Games!

Love ’em or hate ’em, video games are here to stay.

While video games often get a bad rap for being violent, mindless or expensive, they’ve recently shown that they can be part of education as well.

Educators and parents are turning more towards video games as part of their daily studies to help teach reading, math, science and even computer programing. Just take the West Virginia Science Bowl for example!  During the breaks in between trivia, students had the opportunity to code their own programs to help them design structures in Minecraft.

High school students write code for the game Minecraft at the WV State Science Bowl

High school students write code for the game Minecraft at the WV State Science Bowl.  Photo via WVSB

Now, Minecraft itself is still a great tool to get students thinking about engineering, even if you aren’t coding. If you’ve never seen Minecraft, the whole point of the game is the build structures using the game’s signature block motif. Below is a video how how to build within the game.

And here are some of the amazing things people have built:

Science has plenty of its own video games as well, though. My favorite example is definitely Kerbal Space Program. According the the game’s website, “[Kerbal] is a game where the players create and manage their own space program. Build spacecraft, fly them, and try to help the Kerbals to fulfill their ultimate mission of conquering space.”

It’s an amazing game that utilizes physics and space travel so realistically that NASA even partnered with Kerbal to help design a future mission to an astroid! It’s so realistic, in fact, that failure often happens more than success, which is a great lesson for any future STEM student.

Now it’s not secret that I love video games, so I’m obviously a little bit biased when it comes to encouraging people to engage with them. I’m not the only one encouraging this, though.

Although the research is still new, there have been studies that show video games have the ability to improve learning, with some limitations of course.

So what are your thoughts on video games?  Do you play them, or do you encourage your children to play them?  What other STEM games have you encountered?