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Hands-on STEM activities challenge students to define problems and determine solutions

It’s a system I’ve seen in eco-education that seems to be a growing trend in education — partnering with organizations to inspire and challenge students by giving them an opportunity to use math, science, and engineering skills to solve real-world problems.

A partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Griffin-Spalding County School system called “AMP-IT-UP”, is using a novel approach to encourage student creativity, and make these important courses come alive.

The new courses integrate basic science and math content with hands-on engineering design and construction. The idea is to get youngsters to think about engineering concepts by using math and science as they design and build projects — often for a specific “client.”  The project also monitors the students’ performance, collecting data to try to determine what the students learn, and whether the program is succeeding in engaging them.

For the AMP-IT-UP program, students will be challenged to defend their decisions and ideas with science and math.  The program plans to give them access to equipment such as 3-D printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters.

“These classes build upon traditional classes where kids actually made things, such as making wooden boxes in what we used to call ‘wood shop,’ but with the addition of math, science and engineering design,” says Marion Usselman, an associate director for federal outreach and research of the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Tech and co-principal investigator and program director of the AMP-IT-UP.  “The emphasis in AMP-IT-UP is on students learning to define a problem–an engineering challenge–and then constructing a prototype and collecting data to find out whether the design works. They then change things based on the data.”

“What we are looking at is getting all students engaged in the act of making things, which allows them to have a better contextualization of math and science,” says Jeff Rosen, co-principal investigator for implementation and partnerships for AMP-IT-UP and a program director for robotics and engineering at CEISMC. “The whole idea of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is great, but the object is not to just do advanced math and science. It’s really about doing it all simultaneously, so you can get a true solid understanding of how everything works together.”

AMP-IT-UP is among the more than 100 currently active projects supported by NSF’s Math and Science Partnership (MSP), which has funded about 180 partnership-projects with local school districts since 2002.  For more on this project, check the link below.


Science Newsfeed: Protecting National Park Soundscapes

America’s national parks provide a wealth of experiences to millions of people every year. What visitors see—landscapes, wildlife, cultural activities—often lingers in memory for life. And what they hear adds a dimension that sight alone cannot provide. Natural sounds can dramatically enhance visitors’ experience of many aspects of park environments. In some settings, such as the expanses of Yellowstone National Park, they can even be the best way to enjoy wildlife, because animals can be heard at much greater distances than they can be seen. Sounds can also be a natural complement to natural scenes, whether the rush of water over a rocky streambed or a ranger’s explanation of a park’s history. In other settings, such as the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, sounds are the main reason for visiting a park.

The acoustical environment is also important to the well-being of the parks themselves. Many species of wildlife depend on their hearing to find prey or avoid predators. If they cannot hear, their survival is jeopardized—and the parks where they live may in turn lose part of their natural heritage. For all these reasons it is important to be aware of noise (defined as unwanted sound, and in this case usually generated by humans or machinery), which can degrade the acoustical environment, or soundscape, of parks. Just as smog smudges the visual horizon, noise obscures the listening horizon for both visitors and wildlife. This is especially true in places, such as remote wilderness areas, where extremely low sound levels are common. The National Park Service (NPS) has determined that park facilities, operations, and maintenance activities produce a substantial portion of noise in national parks and thus recognizes the need to provide park managers with guidance for protecting the natural soundscape from such noise. Therefore, the focus of the workshop was to define what park managers can do to control noise from facilities, operations, and maintenance, and not on issues such as the effects of noise on wildlife, noise metrics, and related topics.

To aid in this effort, NPS joined with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and with the US Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to hold a workshop to examine the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s array of parks. Entitled “Protecting National Park Soundscapes: Best Available Technologies and Practices for Reducing Park- Generated Noise,” the workshop took place October 3-4, 2012, at NPS’s Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. Protecting National Park Soundscapes is a summary of the workshop.


Science Newsfeed: What Happened to Dinosaurs’ Predecessors After Earth’s Largest Extinction 252 Million Years Ago?

Press Release 13-076
What Happened to Dinosaurs’ Predecessors After Earth’s Largest Extinction 252 Million Years Ago?

Fossil-hunting expeditions to Tanzania, Zambia and Antarctica provide new insights

Graphic illustration showing an artist depiction os Asilisaurus

After the ancient extinction, some animals, like Asilisaurus, had more restricted ranges.
Credit and Larger Version

April 29, 2013

Predecessors to dinosaurs missed the race to fill habitats emptied when nine out of 10 species disappeared during Earth’s largest mass extinction 252 million years ago.

Or did they?

That thinking was based on fossil records from sites in South Africa and southwest Russia.

It turns out, however, that scientists may have been looking in the wrong places.

Newly discovered fossils from 10 million years after the mass extinction reveal a lineage of animals thought to have led to dinosaurs in Tanzania and Zambia.

That’s still millions of years before dinosaur relatives were seen in the fossil record elsewhere on Earth.

“The fossil record from the Karoo of South Africa, for example, is a good representation of four-legged land animals across southern Pangea before the extinction,” says Christian Sidor, a paleontologist at the University of Washington.

Pangea was a landmass in which all the world’s continents were once joined together. Southern Pangea was made up of what is today Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia and India.

“After the extinction,” says Sidor, “animals weren’t as uniformly and widely distributed as before. We had to go looking in some fairly unorthodox places.”

Sidor is the lead author of a paper reporting the findings; it appears in this week’s issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The insights come from seven fossil-hunting expeditions in Tanzania, Zambia and Antarctica funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additional work involved combing through existing fossil collections.

“These scientists have identified an outcome of mass extinctions–that species ecologically marginalized before the extinction may be ‘freed up’ to experience evolutionary bursts then dominate after the extinction,” says H. Richard Lane, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

The researchers created two “snapshots” of four-legged animals about five million years before, and again about 10 million years after, the extinction 252 million years ago.

Prior to the extinction, for example, the pig-sized Dicynodon--said to resemble a fat lizard with a short tail and turtle’s head–was a dominant plant-eating species across southern Pangea.

After the mass extinction, Dicynodon disappeared. Related species were so greatly decreased in number that newly emerging herbivores could then compete with them.

“Groups that did well before the extinction didn’t necessarily do well afterward,” Sidor says.

The snapshot of life 10 million years after the extinction reveals that, among other things, archosaurs roamed in Tanzanian and Zambian basins, but weren’t distributed across southern Pangea as had been the pattern for four-legged animals before the extinction.

Archosaurs, whose living relatives are birds and crocodilians, are of interest to scientists because it’s thought that they led to animals like Asilisaurus, a dinosaur-like animal, and Nyasasaurus parringtoni, a dog-sized creature with a five-foot-long tail that could be the earliest dinosaur.

“Early archosaurs being found mainly in Tanzania is an example of how fragmented animal communities became after the extinction,” Sidor says.

A new framework for analyzing biogeographic patterns from species distributions, developed by paper co-author Daril Vilhena of University of Washington, provided a way to discern the complex recovery.

It revealed that before the extinction, 35 percent of four-legged species were found in two or more of the five areas studied.

Some species’ ranges stretched 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers), encompassing the Tanzanian and South African basins.

Ten million years after the extinction, there was clear geographic clustering. Just seven percent of species were found in two or more regions.

The technique–a new way to statistically consider how connected or isolated species are from each other–could be useful to other paleontologists and to modern-day biogeographers, Sidor says.

Beginning in the early 2000s, he and his co-authors conducted expeditions to collect fossils from sites in Tanzania that hadn’t been visited since the 1960s, and in Zambia where there had been little work since the 1980s.

Two expeditions to Antarctica provided additional finds, as did efforts to look at museum fossils that had not been fully documented or named.

The fossils turned out to hold a treasure trove of information, the scientists say, on life some 250 million years ago.

Other co-authors of the paper are Adam Huttenlocker, Brandon Peecook, Sterling Nesbitt and Linda Tsuji from University of Washington; Kenneth Angielczyk of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago; Roger Smith of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town; and Sébastien Steyer from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The project was also funded by the National Geographic Society, Evolving Earth Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the Field Museum/IDP Inc. African Partners Program, and the National Research Council of South Africa.


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The Stress of Being Ginseng: A Science newsfeed article

On World Environment Day and Every Day, the Stress of Being Ginseng

Common medicinal plant of deciduous forests under siege

Painting of the herb American ginseng

The unassuming herb American ginseng, hidden in cool woodlands.
Credit and Larger Version

June 5, 2013

This article is the sixth in a series on NSF’s Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) awards. Visit parts one, two, three, four, and five.

We entered a vale at 5 o’clock, then crossed a run and rode along a rich level for several miles, and under the delightful protection of very tall trees that brought us to a creek…where we lodged surrounded by ginseng.

John Bartram, 1751, Travels from Pensilvania to Onandaga, Oswego and Lake Ontario in Canada

Being surrounded by ginseng–a low-growing green-leafed herb of North American forests–may have been common in 1751, but today? Ginseng is under siege.

Biologist James McGraw of West Virginia University should know. Today on World Environment Day, and indeed every day, McGraw says that we can learn much about the environment around us from one small plant.

Funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) grant, McGraw and colleagues peer into the lives of more than 4,000 individual ginseng plants each year to see how they’re faring.

“These understory plants are subject to all manner of [environmental] stresses,” says McGraw. “After a while, you begin to wonder why there are any left.”

Facing a panoply of threats

First, he says, there’s harvesting for medicinal uses, “which is widespread and often illegally or at least unethically done. Then we have our four-footed friends–white-tailed deer–which eat a significant number of plants every year.”

The plants’ next challenge is the growth of invasive species such as multiflora rose and garlic mustard, which compete with ginseng.

The effects of global warming, including summers with heat waves and droughts, add to the burden for these plants of cooler climes. “Ginseng is also affected by ice storms, late frosts and hurricane flooding,” says McGraw.

Then these Indiana Joneses of the plant world must survive what McGraw refers to as “natural pests:” insects defoliators and fungal pathogens.

Last–but definitely not least–is us.

“We’re just beginning to understand what humans are doing to the forests where ginseng thrives: timbering, suppressing natural fires, mining, clearing land for housing developments, the list goes on and on,” says McGraw.

The persistence of a slow-growing and valuable medicinal plant “despite all this,” he says, “is a testament to the resilience of nature–and to the stewardship of those land-owners who care about protecting biodiversity in their forests.”

Species in an extinction vortex

Tigers, elephants and ginseng all share a common feature, says Saran Twombly, director of NSF’s LTREB program.

“These dwindling populations face increasing threats that trap them in an extinction vortex,” Twombly says.

“McGraw’s research relies on long-term data to identify the factors threatening populations of this important forest plant. The results show the knife-edge that separates healthy and unhealthy populations.”

The NSF LTREB award “has been critical to our understanding of the ‘big picture’ of ginseng conservation,” says McGraw.

He and colleagues work on one species of ginseng, Panax quinquefolius L., American ginseng. This member of the ginseng family, whose genus name Panax means “all heal” in Greek, hides deep in eastern deciduous woodlands.

The plant was historically found in rich, cool hardwood forests–from southern Quebec and Ontario south to northern Georgia, and west as far as Minnesota, eastern Oklahoma and northern Louisiana.

“Ginseng populations vary from frequent to uncommon to rare across the landscape,” says McGraw, “but they’re almost always small, usually fewer than 300 plants.”

Medicinal plant for the ages

The species has long been valued for its medicinal qualities, especially by Asian cultures. They’ve integrated American ginseng into traditional medicinal practices as a complement to native Asian ginseng species.

In Asia, ginseng is considered an adaptogen–it enhances overall energy levels.

“In western medicine, ginseng has exhibited anti-cancer properties in cell cultures,” says McGraw. “It’s also shown beneficial effects on blood sugar and obesity, as well as on enhancing the immune system for prevention of colds and flu.”

After ginseng was discovered in North America, the market quickly became profitable enough to fuel intense wild harvesting, eventually reaching an industrial scale.

“Ginseng shares a part of early American history,” says McGraw. “Its roots–the most sought-after parts–were first exported to Asia from the United States in the early 1700s.”

In one typical year (1841), more than 290,000 kilograms of dry ginseng roots were shipped from North America to the Asian continent.

“Although average root size was larger in the 1800s than it is today,” says McGraw, “even a conservative estimate suggests that this represents at least 64 million roots.”

Ginseng at the forefront

Harvest of the plant has continued apace, he says, particularly in the Appalachian region, where the sale of ginseng still supplements household incomes.

Ecologists began studying ginseng because of its value as a wild-harvested species, and its decrease in abundance after decades of harvesting.

Now, however, ginseng has become an important model species–a sensitive indicator of the effects of global and regional environmental change on deciduous forests.

“The prominence of American ginseng has led to its use as a ‘phytometer’ [a gauge] to better understand how change is affecting lesser-known plant species in eastern North America,” says McGraw.

The data in his project come from 30 ginseng populations in seven states. “Our study populations are in habitats from suburban woodlots to rich, old-growth forests,” McGraw says.

In a paper published this year in the Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences, McGraw and co-authors state that the Asian market has made ginseng North America’s most important harvested wild medicinal plant over the past two centuries.

That status prompted a listing on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II. All species on Appendix II are susceptible to extinction in the absence of trade controls.

Most states with ginseng populations are converging on a uniform start date for harvesting–Sept. 1. “That allows time after harvest for planting ripe seeds that will lead to recovery of the plants,” McGraw says.

Since forests are, for the most part, open to everyone, ginseng will continue to be harvested as long as there is immediate profit to be made, scientists believe.

Successful sustainability in such open access habitats, they say, depends on management of the resource by those who actively harvest it.

Sustainability and ginseng

McGraw and colleagues’ research shows that ginseng harvesters willing to employ a stewardship strategy gain the most benefit by harvesting when seeds are ripe, usually in autumn months, then planting the seeds to ensure high germination rates.

September is a summertime away. But in northeastern forests, ginseng leaves have already unfurled.

“Now they face a gamut of environmental challenges,” says McGraw. “They’re rooted in place, left with whatever nature–or more likely humans–dish out. If we want ginseng to be part of the future landscape, we had best tread very carefully.”

“Ginseng is not everywhere common,” wrote Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm in 1749. “Sometimes you may search the woods for several miles without finding a single plant. Round Montreal they formerly grew in abundance, but there is not a single plant to be found, so they have been rooted out.”

By three centuries later, northeastern forests may be empty–at least of an unassuming and “all healing” herb named ginseng.

Related Websites
NSF LTREB Project: Wild Ginseng Conservation:
NSF Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability Programs:
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Long-Term Environmental Research:
NSF Publication: Discoveries in Sustainability:


Science Newsfeed: Interim Report of the Committee on Geographic Variation in Health Care Spending and Promotion of High-Value Health Care: Preliminary Committee Observations

Interim Report of the Committee on Geographic Variation in Health Care Spending and Promotion of High-Value Health Care: Preliminary Committee Observations is designed to provide the committee’s preliminary observations for the 113th Congress as it considers further Medicare reform. This report contains only key preliminary observations related primarily to the committee’s commissioned analyses of Medicare Parts A (Hospital Insurance program), B (Supplementary Medical Insurance program) and D (outpatient prescription drug benefit), complemented by other empirical investigations. It does not contain any observations related to the committee’s commissioned analyses of the commercial insurer population, Medicare Advantage, or Medicaid, which will be presented in the committee’s final report after completion of quality-control activities.

This interim report excludes conclusions or recommendations related to the committee’s consideration of the geographic value index or other payment reforms designed to promote highvalue care. Additional analyses are forthcoming, which will influence the committee’s deliberations. These analyses include an exploration of how Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage) and commercial spending, utilization, and quality vary compared with, and possibly are influenced by, Medicare Parts A and B spending, utilization, and quality. The committee also is assessing potential biases that may be inherent to Medicare and commercial claims-based measures of health status. Based on this new evidence and continued review of the literature, the committee will confirm the accuracy of the observations presented in this interim report and develop final conclusions and recommendations, which will be published in the committee’s final report.


Want to Understand Drought? Follow the Water!

Water is a precious resource many take for granted until there is too little or too much. Scientists and engineers have positioned instruments at the Susquehanna Shale Hills Observatory at Pennsylvania State University to learn much more about the water cycle there. It is one of six Critical Zone Observatories in the United States.

“What we’re trying to do is build experimental test beds across the United States and we’re also working with several European Critical Zone Observatory test beds, to understand the cycle of water in detail,” says Chris Duffy, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Duffy and his team are documenting the flow of water at the forested Shale Hills watershed from rain and snow through plants, soil and rock–from “bedrock to boundary layer.”

“We have very sophisticated sensors at Shale Hills,” explains Duffy. “We use things like laser precipitation monitors. They’re infrared lasers that measure droplets; in fact, [they] tell us the type and amount of rainfall, whether it’s rain or snow or sleet, and allow us to get accurate numbers on the incoming rainfall.”

Little water can escape unnoticed. Instruments poised atop a tall tower at Shale Hills measure water as it evaporates. “Water vapor that’s leaving the watershed and going into the atmosphere is captured by those sensors,” says Ken Davis, a professor of meteorology at Penn State.

Davis points to two of the many instruments attached to the tall structure. “One measures the wind and temperature, and the other measures water vapor and carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. We actually measure all the individual updrafts and downdrafts of air as they leave the surface and then come down from the upper atmosphere. Understanding how the earth processes water is important for drought and flood forecasting,” explains Davis.

The team is also perfecting a way to fingerprint the water from individual storm events by using natural tracers to identify the pathways of storm water through the watershed. This has helped the researchers determine that in an average year, most of the annual water supply in streams actually comes from winter snow rather than summer rainfall.

“What we’re using is oxygen-18 and deuterium, two isotopes of water. Both are components of water molecules,” says Duffy. “By taking samples to the laboratory and making these measurements, we are able to trace this signature from rainfall to vegetation to soil water to stream flow and determine how long the water spent in the watershed.”

Another device called a sap flow sensor, attached to trees, measures the rate water moves through the wood of the tree and up to the leaves. It’s no surprise that plants are huge water guzzlers.

“Usually, it’s the largest fraction of water that leaves this watershed,” says David Eissenstat, professor of woody plant physiology at Penn State. “When you’re working with trees, it’s hard to measure all the water being transpired from water vapor in the air.”

That is why researchers like Katie Gaines will climb trees to collect leaves and branches to sleuth out sources of water trees use.

“We climb up and we get these branch samples. We put them into vials and seal them up so that we can take them back to the lab, take the water out of them to get an idea where the water in the tree actually came from,” explains Gaines. The researchers do this to measure how deep roots of plants and trees go to meet their water demands.

Geology plays a big part. The type of soil and rock under the observatory determines how much of the water will flow into streams and how much will seep into an underground basin.

“We measure the moisture content that’s stored in the soil at different depths and at different times of the year so we’ll know how the soil will respond to the rainfall,” says soil scientist and hydrologist Henry Lin. “We want to know how much water is retained in the soil to support plant growth and groundwater and how much might run down the hill to the stream.”

The scientists also have instruments within the soil to measure how the water changes throughout its journey. Hydrogeologist Kamini Singha says they want to answer a number of questions as they follow the flow of water through soil and rock. “How long does it take for water to migrate through the system? Does it have a chance to clean itself as it moves? Is it picking up material as it goes? So, some understanding of what water does in the subsurface is important to all of us,” she says.

Duffy says a key goal is to understand the water cycle well enough to help planners better predict the impact of floods, droughts and reliability of water supplies because “global change and global warming is accelerating climate effects, increasing rainfall in some areas and increasing drought impacts in other areas.”