Seasonal Natures

Reports earlier this week of the first snowfall in parts of Colorado came bundled for me with a somewhat jolting reminder of something I have thus far left undone. (Yep, I can almost hear my mother, if not my co-workers, laughing.) Funny how Mother Nature has a pesky way of doing that to all mammals, hibernating and otherwise.

In tribute to summer’s last gasp and stockpiling memories to last you all winter, I come bearing humble gifts — additional photographs from Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder and the 2014 edition of G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. Because Carolyn truly outdid herself in the way of great photos, I had decided back in July to reserve all floral-related ones for a special album I would post at a later date in order to showcase the more geoscience-specific ones in the previous blog entry. Seems like I blinked and it became September, but hopefully, the better late than never adage applies.

As Carolyn says, the mountain wildflowers (in this case, seen in places ranging from Silver and Yankee Boy Basins near Ouray to the ghost town of Animas Forks northeast of Silverton) were nothing short of stupendous — “everything from mountain bluebells and columbines to different colors of paintbrush, violets, delphiniums, stonecrop, pink elephants and etc. They painted the landscape in broad swaths of color. It is amazing that such loveliness can spring from such a hostile environment, even from just rubble.”

For those who might not want take a tourist’s (albeit a scientist’s) word for it, resident Colorado author Kathy Lynn Harris confirms Carolyn’s scientific analysis in a recent blog entry of her own. To borrow from Kathy’s fantastically picturesque words, “It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.”

I can almost smell the heaven! But enough of my procrastinating — go enjoy your own vicarious walk already, courtesy of another successful collaboration between Mother Nature and science.

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

Earth to Teachers

As one of the rotating images within its website header teases, what has 72 feet, covers 3,000 miles in 16 days, can earn 3 graduate hours of credit, and is more fun than summer vacation when you were a kid?

The answer is G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. As the ultimate in immersive summer extravaganzas, the two-week camp sets off for a variety of sites across Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, teaching the principles of geology in the field by allowing participants to explore and experience first-hand the processes and environments of planet Earth from past to present.

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder serves as one of G-Camp’s instructors. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, she taught earth science in Texas public schools for 30 years, earning Texas Earth Science Teacher of the Year honors in 1986. This past year, she returned to the classroom, teaching introductory geology courses at Texas A&M in addition to her duties with CMSE, which include serving as director of the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative for Science.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto's Point, Colorado.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto’s Point, Colorado.

“Once you have taken a field trip with a geologist, you are hooked for life,” Carolyn says. “That’s what happened to me on my first one with Dr. Mel Schroeder back in 1974, and I continue to love learning about geology and sharing that love with others, both through the classes and workshops that I teach and by informal means as well.”

Consider this your two-part vicarious pictorial education, courtesy of Carolyn and G-Camp 2014! While you’re waiting for Part 2, feel free to stop and smell/see the flowers Carolyn experienced along the way and/or follow the group on Facebook for bonus pictures and information, if not points.

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

Derivative Bee

Tuesday night was the Math Department’s second annual Derivative Bee, as well as my first visit to the event as a faculty volunteer.

TAMU Math Derivative Bee 11/12/2013

Students participate in two categories. Category U is for students currently taking differential calculus (Math 131, 151 and 171). Category G is for students who have completed differential calculus (Math 152, 172 or higher).

In the first round, students are issued clickers and have 3-5 minutes to choose the correct multiple choice answer to a differentiation question. There wasn’t a lot for the faculty volunteers to do at this point, so I thought I’d play along. I was confident of my advantage; this isn’t the first time I’ve taught calculus. And I have those three magic little letters (Ph.D.) following my name.

It didn’t take long for me to get a little attitude adjustment. Question 1 was to evaluate

\dfrac{d}{dx}\left[\dfrac{(x+2)(2x+3)}{x}\right]

Since I don’t like using the quotient rule, I changed it to a product

\frac{d}{dx}\left[(x+2)(2x+3)x^{-1}\right]

and promptly made a distribution mistake in the multiple iterations of the product rule required to evaluate the derivative.

What I should have done in the first place was to FOIL out the product and divide through by the x in the denominator

\frac{d}{dx}\left[\dfrac{2x^2 + 7x + 6}{x}\right] = \frac{d}{dx} \left[2x + 7 + \frac{6}{x}\right] = 2 - \frac{6}{x^2}

which is just oodles easier.

Another problem I got schooled on: find the derivative of

\frac{d}{dx}\sqrt{x\sqrt{x\sqrt{x}}}

Me? I love the chain rule, and the first thing I did was apply it incorrectly, not realizing that all those embedded square roots were also multiplied together and that the product rule is required, too! Fortunately, I caught my mistake and corrected it — with a not insubstantial amount of sweat. I was all proud of myself until one of the other instructors showed us the easy way to do the problem usingthe rules of exponentials.

\frac{d}{dx}\sqrt{x\sqrt{x\sqrt{x}}} = \frac{d}{dx}(x(x(x)^{\tiny 1/2})^{\tiny 1/2})^{\tiny1/2} = \frac{d}{dx} (x^{\tiny 1/2}x^{\tiny 1/4}x^{\tiny 1/8}) =  \frac{d}{dx} (x^{\tiny7/8}) = \frac{7}{8}x^{\tiny -1/8}

which is an easy problem to solve!

This old dog learned a few tricks tonight. Including renewed respect for my colleagues and students. We have some smart people here at Texas A&M.

Why I Ask Why

I read the other day that the average 4-year-old asks 437 questions a day.

As a mother of three young children (the youngest being a 3-year-old whom I’d consider advanced for his age, if not so much in potty training, then in this department), I can identify. As a journalist who works day in and day out with scientists who poke, probe and ponder for a living, I can also appreciate.

photoSo much value in simple curiosity and in being persistent enough to follow this innate gift to its fruition, whether the outcome ends up being success, failure or something in between. In recognizing and relating to the beauty in the build-up. The end game in the before, during and after insight. The process in and of the pursuit. The long-term possibility, even in the face of setbacks or sidetracks.

In so many ways, scientists and journalists have a lot in common. Both seek to raise awareness and convey information, ideally answers and solutions. In both worlds, accuracy is paramount – or should be. In absence of it, the product/audience is cheated, as is the profession.

Years ago, I got the opportunity to sit in on a PBS interview with 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient Dudley Herschbach, who recounted being asked by a fifth grader whether he thought scientists were made or born. Dr. Herschbach’s answer? “I’m sure scientists are born just like everyone else; however, the difference is, they’re not unmade. Every little kid is a natural scientist because they’re naturally curious. They also want to understand things they see, so they ask lots of ‘why?’ questions. That’s what science is.”

Dr. Herschbach went on to describe research as child’s play, equating it to the way a child first learns a language: “A child isn’t worried about getting the words right or wrong, so they just imitate and they play and they experiment and they learn. That’s the way you need to do science.”

GeniusOut of the mouths of babes, not to mention a Nobel laureate: The world depends on 4-year-olds asking questions. And on us retaining our inner 4-year-old. Well, maybe minus that back-talking part! I bet even Dr. Herschbach’s mother would agree.