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Gay eyeballs

Making gak eyeballs at Walden School

This last week was our final week of Fall Semester at Walden School, and for their final test my chemistry students planned, practiced, and presented chemistry demonstrations to their peers and to Walden’s elementary classes. Altogether five groups of students presented to the elementary school on Wednesday, Dec. 15 and the rest of the student teams presented on Friday, Dec. 17.

I’ve discussed my rationale for doing this in previous posts: that this is an excellent method for generating excitement about STEM in elementary students as they see their older siblings and high school students working with and presenting science. Certainly the younger students were very excited and attentive; they were eager to participate and asked good questions.

Raising hands

Students at Walden School participating in chemistry demonstrations

For me, though, the real reason for doing anything in my classes is always how it will benefit my students. Taking 3-4 days out of our curriculum to practice and present these demonstrations is hard to justify unless it has strong pedagogical advantages. The justification is this: as my students write up their demonstration scripts and outlines, as they practice talking about the science they are presenting, and as they prepare to answer questions from the audience they are thoroughly learning the chemistry behind their demonstrations. They are going beyond hands-on labs to share what they have learned, and that learning will be indelible.

Karlie and Sofia

Karlie and Sofia demonstrate hand warmers

The topics of the demonstrations had to related to the individual element/materials research project of one of the group members, which they are continuing to work on. Here’s what was presented:

Sofia, Karlie, and Jerry demonstrated the principles behind hand warmers by showing the rapid crystallization of sodium thiosulfate crystals that had been heated and then cooled down. They also talked about crystals in general.

Making gak

Mari and Casey help students make gak

Ryan and Casey, with help from Chelise, Lindsey, and Mari, demonstrated how to make gak (a polymer made out of white glue and borax powder). This is an old standby demonstration, and the kids really enjoyed it.

Copper demonstration group

Genny, Rachel, Jared, and Morgan demonstrate copper's properties

Genny, Rachel, Morgan, and Jared demonstrated aspects of copper chemistry. They handed around samples of copper ore (Rachel’s uncle is an engineer at Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah) and showed a methanol version of a flame test (including copper salts). Jared demonstrated the alchemist’s dream reaction: turning copper into gold (actually brass).

Kinesthetic activity

Sid and Sam use a kinesthetic activity to demonstrate magnetic induction

Sam and Sid, with help from Josh, presented the idea of magnetic induction and discussed how modern electrical generators work. Sam actually built her own alternator and induction coil, and Sid presented on his research about the use of wind power to generate electricity. They also created a fun kinesthetic activity to show induction.

Burning magnesium

Karl and Nicona demonstrate burning magnesium

Karl, Nicona, and Tanner presented on the properties of the elements; they did a flame test as well, and demonstrated what magnesium ribbon looks like when burned and how fireworks get their colors. They also had sparklers for each of the students to try out.

Cabbage pH

Sonora, Dallas, and Morgan demonstrate cabbage pH

In class on Friday, the other groups presented their demonstrations. Sonora, Morgan, and Dallas presented the red cabbage pH demonstration that is one of my favorites.

Untarnishing silver

Mari and Holly demonstrate how to un-tarnish silverware

Courtney, Holly, and Mari showed how to untarnish silver using baking soda and aluminum foil. They even included a correctly balanced chemical equation, although we won’t be learning about those until we return in January.

Dry ice group

Libby, Lindsey, and Chelise demonstrate the properties of carbon dioxide

Chelise, Lindsey, and Libby presented the properties of carbon dioxide gas and dry ice. They showed how regular matches go out in carbon dioxide, but that magnesium burns even brighter when placed in carbon dioxide.

Olivia and Jace

Jace and Olivia explain the ingredients of gunpowder

Jace and Olivia talked about gunpowder, how it is made, and why it is dangerous. Jace has experience working with black powder (he has his own muzzle loader – this is Utah, after all) and he created some raw gunpowder, which he burn outside. They also demonstrated the “fire writing” demonstration of drawing on a piece of paper with a saturated solution of potassium nitrate, then touching a wooden splint to the edges of the writing to see it burn letters through the paper.

Josh and Jess

Josh and Jess demonstrate the principle of density with salt solutions

Josh and Jess presented on salt solutions and how they can be used to determine the density of objects. They showed how an egg will sink in pure water but will float in salt water.

We also videotaped as much of the presentations as we could and took quite a few photos; those students that weren’t helping present helped with the photography.

Burning gunpowder

Burning gunpowder

When their demonstrations were done on Wednesday and Friday, my students were excited about what they had done and the feedback they’d gotten from the younger students. They still have to learn some showmanship and presentation skills (which we’ll continue to work on), but based on what I saw and what the elementary teachers reported, the science content was excellent. They and their peers filled out evaluation forms (and I will as well) so that they can improve on their presentations for the next round in January.

Golden pennies

Golden pennies

It was a lot of work to prepare for this. Now my lab room is a mess and I’ll need to take a day during Christmas break to clean up and re-organize (and I think I forgot to throw out the leftover red cabbage pulp that’s in my trash can, so I’d better go clean up tomorrow). But despite the work and the lost time, I’d say these demonstrations were well worth it. As we go through the second semester, the students will present at least twice more, including a final time at a back-to-school night for their parents. We’ll polish the delivery, add more science explanations, create slide shows and videos to supplement their demonstrations, and by the end of the year these will be incredibly well done.

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It’s now 11:05 a.m. on Saturday, March 20 and my presentation at the NSTA Conference in Philadelphia is done. Whew! But more on that later. This post will seem to be off on a strange tangent at first, but I will tie it into science education in the end.

The Shadow Line

The Shadow Line

While riding on the Philadelphia public transportation system last summer (SEPTA) I usually took the 101 surface light rail route to the 69th St. Terminal, then the Market-Frankfurt line to the 5th St. stop in the historic district of Philly. I noticed something then that puzzled me – the main line would always bypass certain stops, such as the stations at 22nd and 19th Streets. I could see there were stations there, and people waiting, and occasionally a trolley car, but there seemed to be no connection to the main line – a complete system that I only got glimpses of. The last few days, I’ve been staying out in Darby and taking the Route 11 trolley/subway to the Juniper Station under City Hall, then walking to the Convention Center. Now I know what that other system was – a completely different sub-subway, a kind of Shadow Line, that runs parallel to the main subway trains for part of its length. It only connects in certain places, such as Juniper Station, which is under the main 13th street station, at 30th St. for University City, etc. Now I am now one of those people I glimpsed last summer, riding the Shadow Line.

Juniper Station

Juniper Station

It occurred to me last night, riding back to the friend’s house where I am staying, that education is like the Philly transportation system. We as teachers are riding the main line train – zooming in and out with our (supposedly) greater knowledge and experience and thinking we know how our students think and where they live, yet we are really only getting glimpses of them in the few places we can actually connect. It is this disconnect that causes most of our problems as teachers (and as a society); we have far too many places where we don’t understand each other, don’t connect, can’t relate, and don’t communicate. Racial strife, the disparity between rich and poor, the digital divide, the generation gap, etc. are all created by the disconnects between individuals and between groups.

Connections

Connections Between Stations

Education is all about building bridges across these gaps, making the connections between their world and ours. If teachers and other adults are on the Main Line, then our students are on the Shadow Line and our classrooms are the stations. Our job as educators is to connect the lines (lives) of our students with our lines (lives) as adults through our classroom stations.

I tend to think of technology as an end-all and be-all of teaching (I”m a techie, after all) but I need to remember that technology is only there to build these bridges and make connections, to give us glimpses into the worlds of our students and their ways of thinking, and as such is no more valuable than any other teaching method or technique. The fundamental thing is learning how to build a community of trust and mutual support and respect in a classroom where students can freely express themselves and learn from each other. Technology can certainly help to do this, but it is only part of a well-constructed and well-taught class. Some of the sessions yesterday reminded me of this fact (especially one by Joan Gallagher-Bolos who teaches an extraordinary chemistry class in Illinois, where students learn to trust and support each other, to speak their minds and make a contribution, as well as learning chemistry). I can only hope The Elements Unearthed project will help build communities of students, in local towns, and across borders. If not so, then just making gee-whiz videos for the Internet is rather pointless.

Yesterday was very much about making connections. I attended sessions taught by, or ran into, many friends and associates from my days in two NASA educational programs, the NASA Explorer Schools program, in which I was a facilitator at JPL for three summers, and teachers in the Solar System Educator Program. It’s been over five years since I’ve seen them, but seeing them again has helped re-ignite my passion as a science teacher and reminded me of the communities of teachers I’ve been part of, renewing the connections I’ve had with these amazing educators. A group of us got together for dinner last night and it was as if I had never left the program; they welcomed me back even if only as a visitor. I am still part of their community, just like I will always be from Deseret, Utah even though I haven’t lived there since 1983. I also spent time meeting and building new connections, finding new ways to collaborate, and new ways to build bridges.

Ota Lutz

Ota Lutz of JPL

I”ll post more later today on my presentation. Now I’m going to brave the Exhibitor’s Hall. More connections to make . . .

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Possible game interface for iPad

Mineral Identification App for iPad

Since Apple, Inc. announced the release of the iPad two weeks ago I’ve been reading a lot of comments and blogs about how useful this device might be in education. Some excellent posts are being written on the possibilities. Here’s one: http://www.edutechnophobia.com/2010/02/six-ways-the-ipad-will-transform-education/ I haven’t weighed in on the issue myself yet because I’ve been so busy preparing the first few podcast episodes that I keep promising for this site. But more on them later. As for the iPad, providing they add some capabilities such as USB, Flash support, and multi-tasking, I believe it will be a platform of great benefit to science teachers in the following ways:

1 – Replacing expensive textbooks: All of us who have been classroom teachers know that printed textbooks have become outrageously expensive and in technology and the sciences they are outdated before they even go to print. Yet having a handy source of general information on a subject that is grade-level appropriate and tied to national standards and comes complete with problem sets and review questions, test banks, on-line resources, and all the other associated items is a very valuable resource for teachers. If all of this can be ported to an e-book format and read on the iPad (with added interactive and multimedia touches) then the purchase of an iPad for each student becomes truly economically feasible for schools, especially when you factor in that it also replaces most needs for student computers and graphing calculators and merges all these technologies into one device.

2- On-line Testing: iPads have the capability of simplifying student assessment by making it readily and cheaply available at any time on-line. Teachers, with appropriate application support, will be able to assign and write quizzes, tests (both unit and end-of-year state tests), and other assessment tools which students can answer directly on the iPad and receive instantaneous feedback. Many states, including Utah where I am located, are moving their end-of-year testing away from pencil-and-paper multiple choice tests to on-line testing that can incorporate many forms of questions and be skills-based and well as knowledge-based. For example, a chemistry test could incorporate a virtual lab situation as a test question. Which brings up usage 3:

Interactive periodic table

Interactive Periodic Table App

3 – Virtual Science Labs: With the accelerometer and gestural controls of the iPad, science teachers and curriculum developers can program virtual labs that mimic a student actually picking up and weighing reagents for a chemical reaction, calculating the atomic weights and stoichiometric ratios, observing and analyzing the results (say of a virtual pH titration), and comparing student answers with accepted answers. Although this can’t take the place of hands-on science labs, it could certainly help to prepare the students for the real experience and help remediate students who miss the day of the lab, and reduce costs and disposal concerns. Virtual labs could also be created for Earth science (a virtual mineral field test kit), meteorology (viewing cloud cover, barometric, temperature, relative humidity, and other data and then predicting the weather), physics (lots of possibilities here), and so on.

4 – Student Collaboration: This is my big area right now – getting students to collaborate with each other to discover knowledge and synthesize it by creating their own content for the use of other students, such as this Elements Unearthed project to develop student-created podcasts of history and usage of the chemical elements. Imagine a group of students taking iPads on a field trip to a local watershed to record measurements of the water and soil, plant and animal life, pollutants, etc. and recording all of this data tagged with GPS data, then uploading it to the Internet and making it available to students worldwide. The iPad therefore becomes a remarkable enabling tool for citizen science. Imagine these same students using a wiki page to collaborate on writing up their results, or Google docs, or even sharing an iPad as a group to write up their findings in Pages and as a Keynote presentation, with supporting spreadsheets from Numbers. I have seen some amazing things done in classrooms through my work with NASA and my frequent attendance at science and technology teacher conferences using technologies that are far less capable than the iPad (including PDAs, GPS devices, etc.). Given teacher creativity, the appropriate types of applications, and an enabling technology like the iPad, and the educational possibilities are endless.

5 – iPads as Game Platforms: Games in education? This scares a lot of teachers, but it doesn’t have to. Just talk to the educational people at Apple, Micrsoft, and Sun Microsystems (to name a few) – and I have talked to them – and you’ll be amazed at what’s coming and how it can engage students in education through doing something that’s intrinsically fun. Education doesn’t have to be boring – in fact, it’s much more effective if it is fun. Now we just need to have the imagination to create the educational games and content. I have a few ideas, and I’m trying to talk to some software developers about some apps that would be ideal for the iPad and would help teachers to teach and review concepts in chemistry, physics, and other sciences. My media design students were assigned, as part of their learning of Adobe Director and Lingo programming, to design, create, build, and program a game on such topics as Mars exploration or the history of AM radio. They were simple yet powerful (and fun) games that could easily be ported to the iPad and used by other students. Imagine if we have students create iPad apps for other students . . . now that would be powerful learning, for both the creators and users.

I have much more to say on these issues, and others are already saying many of the same things. I am attaching a .pdf file with more complete examples here:

iPads_in_Science_Education

Meanwhile, the podcast episodes are still coming – I have prepared the full 45-minute version of Dr. Scerri’s interview on the history of the periodic table, which is now ready to export, and will begin editing it according to the scripts I’ve worked out into two 15-minute videos with some great images and animations to go with them (all ready to go). The three episodes on Greek matter theories and two on beryllium mining/refining are also coming but will take more time. I need to have at least 5-6 episodes complete and available by the time I present at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Philadelphia in March.

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Now that I’m healthy again (hooray!) I’m back at work on The Elements Unearthed project preparing to write up a major grant application for the National Science Foundation for their Informal Science Education program. The due date for the application, which must be submitted electronically through their FastLane system, is Nov. 19 but my goal is to have it all done by Saturday the 14th. I had applied for this same solicitation last year and was declined. The reviewers all said that the idea behind this project is worthy and that I should re-apply, but that there were a few weaknesses to my proposal that need to be addressed. One was that my evaluation/assessment plan at the end needed to be better defined and thought through, and another was that I am basically the only administrator of the project. What would to happen to the project if I were to become ill or unable to finish it? My recent bout of kidney stone/influenza had me down for about 3 1/2 weeks, and it’s served to underscore the need to set up strategic partnerships and to share decision-making with others on this project. To that end, I am working to not only set up several additional site visits/projects for this year but to partner these projects with local museums. I am also working to create an Advisory Board consisting of science educators (for content appropriateness), industry leaders (including mining and environmental groups), and marketing/distribution organizations. I won’t say yet who I am trying to get on board, but things are moving forward and by the time I submit the grant application I’ll have worked out several partnerships.

Quality vs. Effort Cuve

Quality vs. Effort

I also hope to have at least the beginning of the Elements Unearthed Podcast set up on iTunes so that the grant reviewers can see examples and because it’s high time we got it up and running. I keep promising it will be soon, but doing the final editing on the MATC student videos is very detailed and time consuming work. I always told my students that the relationship between effort and quality on any project isn’t linear (if you work twice as long you get twice the quality). It’s actually an exponential (or even hyperbolic) curve. In the diagram shown here, most high school students are satisfied with producing a work that is of good quality. After all, that’s what their teachers usually expect for a grade. They are rarely asked to produce a work of excellent quality (which is expected in the professional world). One might think that it only takes a little bit more work to turn a good project into an excellent project, but as the quality level increases, the amount of time and effort becomes steeper. It takes at least as much effort to go from good to excellent as it does to go from start to good, or in other words, if it takes two months to produce a good project, it will take four months to produce an excellent project. Which is why I chronically underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a project. Sometimes students (and adults) get the idea that a project has to be perfect before it is released to the public or declared “done” (I suffer from this perfectionistic attitude all too much myself). Looking at the chart, you can see that the curve becomes infinitely steep as one approaches perfection – in other words, perfection takes an infinite amount of effort and can never be reached. Practically, it means that one can tweak and modify a project forever and still find things that aren’t quite right. The answer is somewhere between good and perfect. To be competitive and to stand out above all the other podcasts out there, our episodes must be excellent. Good isn’t good enough. But eventually I’ll have to let go, say the episodes are finished (though not perfect) and simply send them out to the public. They’re not there yet, but they soon will be (tweak, tweak). I want to have at least three episodes ready before setting up the podcast site at iTunes, simply because I don’t want people to write this off as one of those single-episode podcasts that are all too frequent on iTunes. My goal is that this will be one of the premiere podcast sites for chemistry education, with eventually over 100 episodes about five years from now (and over 20 by May, 2010).

In the meantime, I have prepared a final video of an episode I created last year to explain this project and its rationale. I have already uploaded the video in two parts to YouTube (just search for “Elements Unearthed” and I’m sure you’ll find them, but here are the links:   Part A:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA_lwqDm-TI and Part B:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jOyJosYVOE). I am attaching the two parts here for you to look at as well. They explain more what the project is, why we are doing it (our four major reasons and objectives), and give theoretical and philosophical justifications. I have created a series of animations and have many quotes from experts and recent studies about why projects like this one are essential for keeping the U. S. at the forefront of STEM education, and why utilizing citizen scientists and historians can open up the quantity and quality of science done in this country, and why using student teams is critical for this project from the perspective of educational theory. Please watch them and make comments back. I have set up a new e-mail address specifically for this project. It is:  elementsunearthed@gmail.com. I hope to hear from you soon.

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   Last week I wrote about the need for and purposes of our project. This week let’s discuss our approach of training community teams to create the content of this project and why this will be beneficial. 

 

   One purpose of The Elements Unearthed project is to train teams consisting of students and community members how to document the history and chemical processes of mines, refineries, and plants in their neighborhoods. Through on-site visits and on-line training resources, they will learn how to set up and use cameras, lights, and microphones; how to write preliminary and final scripts and storyboards; and how to film interviews and site visits, then edit the footage into a series of podcast episodes for use on the iTunes Store, YouTube, this blog, and elsewhere. They will also use desktop publishing software to write well-designed PDF files that can be downloaded and printed. Not only will our audience (primarily high school and college chemistry students) benefit by viewing and using the video, audio, and PDF files the teams create, but the team members will also benefit. They become experts in their subjects; as they learn the science and engineering well enough to pass it on to others through self-created, engaging content, they become the scientists, teachers, and historians themselves as well as learning valuable digital media skills.

 

Team Composition and Informal Science Education:

 

   This project has aspects of both formal and informal science education; although we expect most of our teams to be centered around high school science classes where a mentoring teacher provides the impetus for the project, we want this to be much more than just another class assignment. In order to help the teams reach beyond what is easily knowable at their schools, and to ensure depth and accuracy, we will require that each team include someone from their community who is an expert at their chosen subject. This person could be a scientist or engineer at a local mine or refinery, an historian or museum docent with historical knowledge about the community, a local artisan who understands and uses materials in a workshop setting, or a citizen scientist who has gained experience with a local environmental concern. These community members will be referred to as Subject Matter Experts.

 

   Altogether an ideal team would consist of about four or five students from a local high school or community college, hopefully with a good mixture of course experience (history, art, multimedia, science, etc.). These students will have specific assignments, such as one student being responsible for writing the script, another planning the video shoot, another capturing and transcribing the footage, another creating B-roll images and animations, etc. All of them will be cross-trained in each other’s areas of specialty as well, but each area needs to have someone in charge. In addition, these students will be mentored by an instructor who will act as the primary point of contact. Finally, at least one Subject Matter Expert must be actively involved in reviewing the script and final video and helping with tours and interviews. Since most of the training, coordinating, planning, filming, and editing will be done outside of school hours and will involve more than just formal teachers and students, and since our podcasts will be available outside regular school curricula to anyone at any time, we feel this project qualifies well under the heading of Informal Science Education.

 

Student-Created Content:

 

   Having students build meaning by creating content for themselves and others has excellent benefits for knowledge retention and integration. The students who create these videos will learn a great deal about their topics in a manner that will be unforgettable. Students will take ownership in what they learn and have pride in accomplishment by creating professional-quality videos that are also factually accurate. They and their mentor teachers will develop the knowledge base and equipment and software skills needed to pass on what they learn to more students who can document other subjects in their communities. To take the old saying one step further:

 

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; train him how to teach others how to fish and you feed a village forever.

 

Or, as one of our students pointed out somewhat tongue in cheek:

 

Build a man a fire and you keep him warm for an hour; catch a man on fire and you keep him warm for the rest of his life; catch a village on fire and you won’t have to worry about keeping anyone warm . . .

 

By turning students into experts and having them teach others, they learn the skills of data collection, interpretation, analysis, and synthesis. They learn how to be historians using direct first-person interviews. They become informed producers instead of consumers of content, actively instead of passively engaged in learning. We don’t just hand them a fish or build them a fire, we turn into the instruments to feed and light up an entire community.

 

Science Education Content Creation now

Science Education Content Creation now

Science Education Content Creation:

 

   If we were to chart the amount of science education content produced on a vertical axis and the number of people engaged in producing that content on a horizontal axis, we find an interesting distribution called a Pareto curve, having a steep drop off on the left trailing off to a long shallow curve that never entirely reaches zero on the right. Currently, most content for science education is produced by a few professional curriculum designers and publishers. Some college courses are created with a professor contributing expertise and an outline of topics then handing the course design over to the college’s Instructional Design department to build the curricular pieces and content. Occasionally a high school teacher might act as a co-author or reviewer of a textbook, yet the vast majority of curriculum, lesson plans, tests, and texts are still created by professionals with years of training. Yet a long tail exists of semi-professionals and amateurs, including teachers and students and even experts in the general public who can contribute content that is equally valid (and much richer in subject matter and variety) than the professionals. If this tail could be tapped, the total content available would drastically increase, as shown by the area under the curve in the second diagram.

Science Education Content Creation - Expanded

Science Education Content Creation - Expanded

 

   By providing more choices and sources for information on chemicals and the elements through generating our own video podcasts, we hope to enrich the education of science students and the general public and make this information more accessible (and less expensive) than it is now. We will use podcasting as our format because it encourages and motivates students to become producers instead of consumers of content without having to worry about publishers, agents, textbook costs, shelf space, and other barriers to access created by the economics of scarcity of our current situation. On-line publishing allows virtually free storage and distribution without limits to the variety of content that can be displayed. There are no shelves to allocate, no exorbitant publishing costs. This pushes the available content down into the long tail and increases choice; anyone anywhere at any time can access and view our podcasts – all they need are an internet connection and a computer or mp3 player capable of playing the videos. Video also allows for deeper information transmission through a visual and audio medium rather than what audio or print alone can do.

  

   The major issue will be whether or not teams of students and subject matter experts can build professional quality videos and written documents that will be technically solid, compelling, and appealing as well as accurate. Our early trials at Mountainland Applied Technology College indicate that it can be done. When amateurs get involved and empowered to create their own content, we see a broadening of the range of quality that is produced. Although there is certainly a great deal of low quality content, there is also the potential for creating materials that are of higher quality than what is done “professionally.” On the chart shown, this is represented by the lines indicating the range of quality. When content is produced professionally it is done by teams of writers and designers and approved by committees and written for the lowest common denominator. Textbooks may be generally of good quality, but they are never great. You wouldn’t read one for fun because it is well written or so gripping that you can’t put it down. Textbooks take so long to write and publish that their content is already obsolete by the time they make it to schools. Yet content produced by individuals and small teams has the potential to be gripping and relevant and topical. It also has the potential to be awful. Our challenge is to provide the training necessary to ensure the former.

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   There are four reasons why The Elements Unearthed project is needed. The first is for our own self-protection. The second is to protect our heritage and history. The third is to protect our future. The fourth is to protect our country’s standing as the leader in science and engineering innovation.

 

1.)    Our own self-protection:

   Our lives are impacted by chemicals, materials, and the elements every day, yet too many people are ignorant of the extent to which we interact with the elements. Let me give three examples.

 

    A – In the summer of 1978, residents of the small town of Deseret in west central Utah were alarmed to find out that high levels of arsenic had been discovered in their drinking water, at over three times the EPA allowable limit. Each house in the town had  an individual well dug down to an aquifer 186 feet below ground and it was this level that had become contaminated.

Arsenic article in Millard County Chronicle

Arsenic article in Millard County Chronicle

No one knew where the arsenic had come from or how long it had been there. Extensive tests were given to the townspeople. I went through those tests myself, and they were quite uncomfortable – especially the nerve conductivity tests! The original medical study was published in 1982, with inconclusive results. A longitudinal study of mortality rates of people in the area was published in 1998 and showed a correlation between arsenic exposure and increased incidence of hypertensive heart disease, nephritis and other kidney problems, and prostate cancer. My own grandfather, who had lived in Deseret all of his life, died of prostate cancer, possibly as a result of arsenic exposure.

 

  

    B – In one week in December, 1996, three separate incidents occurred in Utah that involved toxic chemical spills. The first was a railroad car carrying diesel fuel that spilled its load and caught on fire. The second was an 18 wheeler traveling north on Interstate 15 that blew over in a gust of wind just north of the town of Nephi. It was carrying sodium azide for use in car airbags, and when rainwater mixed with the spilled azide, it burst into flames that were so hot that it burnt a hole down through the roadbed and sent a plume of gray smoke toward the town of Mona. Residents were evacuated and traffic on I-15 was diverted 30 miles out of its way onto an alternate road. The next morning another 18 wheeler spun out on slick surfaces on that alternate route and overturned, spilling its load of sulfur dioxide pellets. Traffic was again diverted onto yet another alternate route over 50 miles out of its way. I was living in Nephi at that time and had to travel these alternate routes to get to work. In Utah they called this HazMat Hell Week.

 

   C – Growing up in western Utah in the early 1960s, I was exposed to fallout blown downwind from the nuclear testing in Nevada. Since my family milked its own cow that was kept in a pasture behind our house, the cow ate alfalfa that was contaminated by radioactive iodine-133 from these tests, which was concentrated in the cow’s milk. I have been told that I should have my thyroid gland checked regularly in case I develop thyroid cancer as a result of this fallout.

 

   These are just three of many examples of how chemicals and materials have influenced my own life. Millions of tons of chemicals move across our highways and over our rail system each year. People store potentially dangerous chemicals in their own homes without much understanding of what they are used for or how to handle them safely. Water and food can become contaminated. We need to understand how chemicals work and where they come from if we are to keep ourselves safe. The Elements Unearthed proposes to provide the information that people need on the hazards and uses of chemicals and materials.

 

 2.)    To save history:

    Human history is tied directly into how well we have understood and used the material world we live in. Epochs of our history are named after advances in materials science, including the Stone Age, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Elements Unearthed project intends to dig up the story of how our history and the discovery of the elements have been dependent on each other. Much of the history of the United States has been influenced directly or indirectly by materials and chemicals, by mines and miners, with such events as the Spanish conquest of the western United States, the California Gold Rush, the Comstock Lode in Nevada, the coal mines of West Virginia, the steel mills of Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Pikes Peak rush in Colorado, and the Klondike Rush in Alaska all adding to our national character.

 

   Yet much of this history is being lost, as mines close and the miners that worked in them die away. Virtually gone are the days of panning for gold or hard rock mining with pick and shovel. Old mine sites are being closed and covered for safety and environmental reasons, and this part of our history is in danger of being lost forever. Our project is needed to preserve this history and tell these stories.

Headframe at the San Francisco Mine, Utah

Headframe at the San Francisco Mine, Utah

 

3.)    To protect the future:

    As we face tough choices now and in the near future regarding how we use our resources, generate our energy, transport, feed, and clothe our population, and improve our environment, we must have an informed public that can support and vote for the policies that will protect our increasingly fragile world. Resource depletion, environmental degradation, energy consumption, and global warming are daily headline news, and national leadership and public awareness must begin to focus on these issues. Decisions must be made now; we cannot continue to “kick the can” down to future generations. Education and public awareness must focus on accurate, unbiased information, and our project intends to provide that information in various formats and locations that are free and easy to access by the public at large and particularly by high school and college students and their teachers. The solution to this problem of an informed populace lies in education, both formal and informal, and that is the main purpose of our project.

 

4.)    To protect the U. S. economy:

   The U. S. economy has been the envy of the world for decades. Although it is still very strong, many experts are beginning to see signs that we may not be as competitive in the near future as we have been in the past. The major driver of our current strong economy has been innovations made in the computer industry over the last 30 years, coupled with new technologies that computer control and automation have brought us. Yet to maintain our economy in the future, we must continue to innovate and there are doubts that we will be able to do so, especially as the world economy becomes more globalized and competitive. One of the largest danger signs has been a decline in students prepared to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

 

PISA Science Data, 2006

PISA Science Data, 2006

  

   In 2006, 15 year old students in 57 countries around the world were tested on their science literacy by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The average score was set to be 500 out of a total possible score of 1000. The results have been summarized in this chart by region. In science literacy, students in East Asia, Canada, the South Pacific, Scandinavia, and Western Europe all scored significantly higher than students in the United States, who scored 489 or below average. Overall ranking of United States students was 29th out of 57. Students in Russia and Southwest Europe scored slightly below students in the United States with average scores of 479 each. Students in Southeast Europe, South and Central America, and the Middle East on average scored worse than students in the United States.

http://nces.ed.gov/Surveys/PISA/ 

  The 2006 exam also tested for math literacy and found U. S. students to be 35th out of 57 with an average score of 474 compared to 538 for East Asian countries, 527 for Canada, 512 for Scandinavia, and 510 for Western Europe. Only Southwest Europe, Southeast Europe, South/Central America, and the Middle East regions scored worse that the United States.

PISA Math Test 2006

PISA Math Test 2006

 

 

   These scores show that we are not doing well at preparing the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. A full 30% of incoming freshmen must take remedial science and math classes just to meet college general education requirements, let alone have the background skills needed for technical majors. In addition to poor preparation and knowledge, fewer students choose to enter STEM professions, with enrollments in science and engineering programs at colleges declining and graduate programs having to look to foreign students to fill their ranks.

 

   Many U. S. businesses that rely on a steady stream of STEM graduates are already finding it difficult to recruit enough adequately prepared people. For example, NASA hired many aerospace, civil engineering, and materials science graduates during the 1960s and ‘70s. Now almost 40% of NASA’s technical workforce is set to retire in the next 15-20 years, and there are not enough U. S. students in the education pipeline to fulfill the coming shortage, nor is NASA allowed to hire many foreign graduates for national security reasons. In the past, shortages in technical fields could be made up by hiring non-American graduates, but now with security restrictions and new jobs being created in their homelands as a result of globalization, many of these foreign recruits are no longer available. 

 

   Some businesses are taking matters into their own hands by supporting programs that would help to train their future recruits, such as direct grants to schools, challenge competitions, or teacher professional development programs. NASA has created the NASA Explorer Schools (NES) program to train teams of teachers and administrators from schools and to provide direct grant support to improve their science and technological infrastructure.

 

NASA Educator Workshop at JPL, 2002

NASA Educator Workshop at JPL, 2002

  

   As mentioned in my previous post, I have had the privilege of participating in this program, first as a teacher, then as an Educator Facilitator to help lead and plan the workshops at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Each year, five teams of five teachers and administrators visit JPL for a week-long workshop. They tour the facilities, meet the scientists and engineers that are designing, building, and running the space probes, learn of NASA’s educational programs through the Education and Public Outreach coordinators for each mission, then work as a team to plan how they will incorporate these experiences into their curriculum. NASA personnel then work with the schools over a three-year period to promote systemic change in the hopes of inspiring the next generation of explorers, scientists, and engineers.

 

   Our project will encourage students to pursue careers in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science by showing firsthand what scientists do, how problems are solved by engineering, and how creative, challenging, and rewarding these careers can be.

 

   Below is an Enhanced Audio podcast episode describing our project in more detail. Next week we will have additional information and statistics about why this project is so important, as well as a video podcast describing the entire rationale of The Elements Unearthed.

  

ep-a01 Overview of Project [Enhanced Audio]

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Introduction Audio [m4a]

Fractal cover image
Fractal cover image

   The Elements Unearthed: Our Discovery and Usage of the Chemical Elements is a project developed by David V. Black and his students at Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) in Orem, Utah. Our objective is to document the history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements and important industrial materials. Teams of students are visiting mine sites, refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, museums, and artisan workshops to interview scientists, engineers, historians, and other experts and to tour and videotape the sites. The video interviews, photos, and background research are being compiled into audio and video podcasts and written PDF files that will be posted at this Blog and made available on YouTube, the Apple iTunes Store, and other podcast aggregate sites.

   These podcast episodes will be a step in the right direction to preserve the history of mining and chemical refining; to provide accurate information about how chemicals are made and used (including safety precautions to observe); to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and to ensure that the general public is well informed on vital issues such as resource depletion and environmental degradation in order to make sound decisions in the future. We intend that students, teachers, and the public will make free use of these podcast episodes.

   We hope to add you, our audience, as collaborators on this project. We need your help to test and critique the podcast episodes and provide us with feedback on what we’ve done right and what we still need to improve. We will provide a downloadable PDF evaluation form that you can fill out and return to us, as well as post comments on this Blog. We also hope that you will consider forming a team in your own community to document how the elements are used there. We are working on grant applications in the hope of securing funding to turn this into a national project, with teams from all states documenting the history and uses of the elements.

   In future posts, we will talk about who we are, what our goals are in detail, our rationale for creating this project, and our intended timeline for completion as well as how you can help out and get involved. We will also display podcast episodes that our student teams have already created and report our ongoing progress for new episodes. As they are complete, these episodes will be posted here for your feedback before they are uploaded to the broader aggregate sites.

   Please feel free to post comments related to this project including any questions you may have. If you wish to contact me directly, please e-mail me at:  dblack@mlatc.edu. You can also snail-mail me at: David V. Black, Mountainland Applied Technology College, 987 South Geneva Rd., Orem, UT  84058. I have attached a PDF version of our Feedback Questionnaire at the bottom of this post, which you can download, fill out, and return to us at the address above. We look forward to collaborating with you!

   Thank you for your interest in this project!

David V. Black

Feedback Questionnaire [pdf]

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