Posts about NSF

Rats Show Empathy-driven Behavior

Rats free trapped companions, even when given choice of chocolate instead

The experiments, designed by psychology graduate student and first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal with co-authors Decety and Peggy Mason, placed two rats that normally share a cage into a special test arena. One rat was held in a restrainer device ”” a closed tube with a door that can be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cagemate but not required to take action.

The researchers observed that the free rat acted more agitated when its cagemate was restrained, compared to its activity when the rat was placed in a cage with an empty restrainer. This response offered evidence of an “emotional contagion,” a frequently observed phenomenon in humans and animals in which a subject shares in the fear, distress or even pain suffered by another subject.

While emotional contagion is the simplest form of empathy, the rats”™ subsequent actions clearly comprised active helping behavior, a far more complex expression of empathy. After several daily restraint sessions, the free rat learned how to open the restrainer door and free its cagemate. Though slow to act at first, once the rat discovered the ability to free its companion, it would take action almost immediately upon placement in the test arena.

“We are not training these rats in any way,” Bartal said. “These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We”™re not showing them how to open the door, they don”™t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it”™s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

To control for motivations other than empathy that would lead the rat to free its companion, the researchers conducted further experiments. When a stuffed toy rat was placed in the restrainer, the free rat did not open the door. When opening the restrainer door released his companion into a separate compartment, the free rat continued to nudge open the door, ruling out the reward of social interaction as motivation. The experiments left behavior motivated by empathy as the simplest explanation for the rats”™ behavior.

“There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats,” Bartal said. “In the rat model world, seeing the same behavior repeated over and over basically means that this action is rewarding to the rat.”

As a test of the power of this reward, another experiment was designed to give the free rats a choice: free their companion or feast on chocolate. Two restrainers were placed in the cage with the rat, one containing the cagemate, another containing a pile of chocolate chips. Though the free rat had the option of eating all the chocolate before freeing its companion, the rat was equally likely to open the restrainer containing the cagemate before opening the chocolate container.

“That was very compelling,” said Mason, Professor in Neurobiology. “It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. We were shocked.”

Now that this model of empathic behavior has been established, the researchers are carrying out additional experiments. Because not every rat learned to open the door and free its companion, studies can compare these individuals to look for the biological source of these behavioral differences. Early results suggested that females were more likely to become door openers than males, perhaps reflecting the important role of empathy in motherhood and providing another avenue for study…

Interesting study. My guess is this is the kind of thing those that don’t like science would deride. I believe in the value of science. I believe in the value of learning. I believe that such experiments are what drives science forward. I believe if you want your economy to benefit from investing in science you should be encouraging hundreds and thousands of such experiments. Funding for this study was provided by The National Science Foundation (NSF), and others.

I am thankful that more and more countries are willing to invest in science, especially since the USA is showing an increasing anti-science attitude. I would rather the USA continue to believe in the value of science and other countries looked to increase investments. But, it is much better that other countries increase their interest in science, and willingness to invest in science, to more than make up for the USA’s decisions to reduce the appreciation for science than for the world to just lose do to a decrease in investments in science.

Related: Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantPigeon Solves Box and Banana ProblemStand with ScienceEliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science EducationThe Importance of Science Education

Eliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science Education

Changing American science and engineering education

In exchange for funding for their graduate studies, Kahler and other fellows contribute to the science curriculum in local primary and secondary schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Kahler taught science at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.

He also taught for two summers in India, and in Texas, as part of Duke TIP, the Talent Identification Program, which identifies academically gifted students and provides them with intellectually stimulating opportunities.

Through these teaching experiences in different locations and cultures, Kahler observed several factors that affect the quality of education in American schools. One important factor is the training of teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes expected to teach science without having received an adequate background in the subject.

STEM fellows helped to address this problem by contributing their expertise and by helping to increase the scientific literacy of students and their teachers.

Kahler says that NSF GK-12 has a strong, positive impact to change this because it simultaneously improves the educational experience of students in primary and secondary school and trains graduate students to communicate and teach effectively.

Unfortunately, the NSF GK-12 program is no longer in the NSF budget for 2012.

Sadly the USA is choosing to speed money on things that are likely much less worthwhile to our future economic well being. This has been a continuing trend for the last few decades so it is not a surprise that the USA is investing less and less in science and engineering education while other countries are adding substantially to their investments (China, Singapore, Korea, India…).

As I have stated before I think the USA is making a big mistake reducing the investment in science and engineering, especially when so many other countries have figured how how smart such investments are. The USA has enjoyed huge advantages economically from science and engineering leadership and will continue to. But the potential full economic advantages are being reduced by our decisions to turn away from science investment (in education and other ways).

Related: The Importance of Science EducationTop Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

Robots That Start as Babies Master Walking Faster Than Those That Start as Adults

In a first-of-its-kind experiment, Bongard created both simulated and actual robots that, like tadpoles becoming frogs, change their body forms while learning how to walk. And, over generations, his simulated robots also evolved, spending less time in “infant” tadpole-like forms and more time in “adult” four-legged forms.

These evolving populations of robots were able to learn to walk more rapidly than ones with fixed body forms. And, in their final form, the changing robots had developed a more robust gait — better able to deal with, say, being knocked with a stick — than the ones that had learned to walk using upright legs from the beginning.

Bongard”™s research, supported by the National Science Foundation, is part of a wider venture called evolutionary robotics. “We have an engineering goal,” he says “to produce robots as quickly and consistently as possible.” In this experimental case: upright four-legged robots that can move themselves to a light source without falling over.

Using a sophisticated computer simulation, Bongard unleashed a series of synthetic beasts that move about in a 3-dimensional space. “It looks like a modern video game,” he says. Each creature — or, rather, generations of the creatures — then run a software routine, called a genetic algorithm, that experiments with various motions until it develops a slither, shuffle, or walking gait — based on its body plan — that can get it to the light source without tipping over.

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Young Engineers Take LEGO ‘Bots For a Swim

Young Engineers Take LEGO ‘Bots For a Swim

The Stevens Institute of Technology hosts this competition annually on its campus here, gathering students earlier this month from more than 40 middle and high schools to pit their designs against one another in kiddie pools on the banks of the Hudson River. In dozens of such competitions around the world, young people build, program and drive vehicles made of Legos and other more rugged materials. These events are a bid to interest a new generation in careers in engineering and robotics, and they are becoming more sophisticated.

Upping the ante this year, Build IT introduced Lego’s NXT programmable control box. At least one student on each team learned to program the NXT. The programmer determined which of the vehicle’s propellers would spin and in which direction when the driver moved the levers.

Holding up the device, Abigail Symons from Lincoln Park Middle School demonstrated her work. “Those are the controls and those are the touch sensors and this is a rotation sensor,” she said. She had never used such technology before she joined the team.

“I thought I was going to be bad at it because I wasn’t sure if the right motor would go with the right propeller, but in the end I got it so, it was good,” she said.

The Build IT program is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation with further funding by the Motorola Foundation. It is one facet in the NSF’s scheme to entice students into future careers in engineering and other sciences.

Related: Lunacy – FIRST Robotics Challenge 2009Building minds by building robotsLa Vida RobotRobot Fish

Extremophile Hunter

NSF has begun publishing a new web magazine: Science Nation. The inaugural article is Extremophile Hunter

Astrobiologist Richard Hoover really goes to extremes to find living things that thrive where life would seem to be impossible–from the glaciers of the Alaskan Arctic to the ice sheets of Antarctica.

“It may be that when we ultimately get a chance to bring back samples of ice from the polar caps of Mars, we might find biology that looks just like Earth life and it might be that it originated on Earth and was carried to Mars,” said Hoover. “Of course, if it can happen that way, it could have happened the other way. So we may never know the ultimate answer to how did life originate.”

Some of the structures he has imaged from these meteorites are intriguing, bearing striking similarities to bacteria here on Earth. Could these be the fossilized remains of extraterrestial life?

“I am convinced that what I am finding in the carbonaceous meteorites are in many cases biological in nature, and I think they are indigenous and not terrestrial contaminants,” said Hoover.

It is a highly controversial interpretation. “We have for a long time thought that all life, as we know it, originated on Earth. And there isn’t any life anywhere else,” he said. “That’s an idea, it’s a hypothesis, it’s a totally unproven hypothesis.”

Related: TardigradesWhat is an Extremophile?Light-harvesting Bacterium Discovered in Yellowstone

Iron-breathing Species Isolated in Antarctic for Millions of Years

Graphic showing environment of Antarctic subglacial microbesGraphic of Blood Falls showing microbial community environment in the Antarctic by Zina Deretsky at NSF)

A reservoir of briny liquid buried deep beneath an Antarctic glacier supports hardy microbes that have lived in isolation for millions of years, researchers report this week. The discovery of life in a place where cold, darkness, and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive comes from a team led by researchers at Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

Despite their profound isolation, the microbes are remarkably similar to species found in modern marine environments, suggesting that the organisms now under the glacier are the remnants of a larger population that once occupied an open fjord or sea.

“It’s a bit like finding a forest that nobody has seen for 1.5 million years,” says Ann Pearson, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Intriguingly, the species living there are similar to contemporary organisms, and yet quite different — a result, no doubt, of having lived in such an inhospitable environment for so long.”

“This briny pond is a unique sort of time capsule from a period in Earth’s history,” says lead author Jill Mikucki, now a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth and visiting fellow at Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding and its Institute of Arctic Studies. “I don’t know of any other environment quite like this on Earth.”

Chemical analysis of effluent from the inaccessible subglacial pool suggests that its inhabitants have eked out a living by breathing iron leached from bedrock with the help of a sulfur catalyst. Lacking any light to support photosynthesis, the microbes have presumably survived by feeding on the organic matter trapped with them when the massive Taylor Glacier sealed off their habitat an estimated 1.5 to 2 million years ago.
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Fellowship Winners Announced

Several science and engineering fellowships and scholarships have announced winners recently:

From the NSF GRFP site:

Due to the complexity of the current budget situation, the 2009 GRFP awards will be announced in installments based on fields of study and other factors. The first installment is now available on FastLane. Awardees, as well as Applicants not recommended for funding, have been notified by email. Recipients of Honorable Mention and any additional Fellowship award offers will be forthcoming. Applicant ratings sheets will be available after all award announcements have been made. We thank you for your patience.

Find out more about these and other science and engineering fellowships and scholarships. Also see: How to Win a Graduate FellowshipNSF Graduate Research Fellows 2008

Billions for Science in Stimulus Bill

Science wins big in US economic plan

Democratic leadership in the US House of Representatives unveiled on Thursday an $825 billion economic stimulus bill that includes tens of billions of dollars in new funding for basic research, science infrastructure and clean-energy initiatives.

House appropriators would pump $3 billion into the National Science Foundation (NSF), $2 billion into the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1.9 billion into the Department of Energy and $1.5 billion into university research facilities. Much of that money would be directed toward science infrastructure like renovating buildings or laboratories, but the NSF and NIH would receive $2 billion and $1.5 billion respectively that could be used to pay for thousands of basic research grants that have already been approved but for which there was previously not enough money.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. And short term spikes in funding are problematic for numerous reasons. But I have long argued for the value of investing in science and engineering excellence for long term economic benefit. I am worried the government will fail to provide adequate strategic thought to investments.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the USA: Watch the entire I Have a Dream Speech.

Related: Science and Engineering in Global EconomicsEngineering the Future EconomyThe Future is EngineeringChina and USA Basic Science ResearchTapping America’s Potential

NSF Funding for Engineering Education, Curriculum, and Infrastructure

The Innovations in Engineering Education, Curriculum, and Infrastructure (IEECI) program supports research which addresses four aspects of engineering education: (1) how students best learn the ideas, principles, and practices to become creative and innovative engineers, and how this learning is measured (2) how application of cyberlearning resources of networked computing and communication, interactive visualization capabilities, and well designed user interfaces can be used to develop easily transportable tools and systems with low barriers to adoption which significantly improve learning, (3) integration of sustainability into engineering education, and (4) future directions of U.S. engineering doctoral programs.

Two types of awards will be supported: Expansion Projects (approximately 10 grants are anticipated) will only be available for area (1), Innovations in Teaching and Learning. Exploratory Projects (25-30 grants are anticipated) will be available in areas (2-4).

Anticipated Funding Amount: The total anticipated funding in fiscal year 2009 is $8,500,000. Expansion Projects will be funded at a level of up to $400,000. Exploratory Projects will be funded at a level up to $150,000, but exploratory projects involving multiple universities may apply for grants up to $200,000.

Full proposals are due by 11 March 2009.

Related: $92 Million for Engineering Research CentersWorldwide Science and Engineering Doctoral Degree DataNSF Graduate Research Fellows 2008House Testimony on Engineering EducationWebcast: Engineering Education in the 21st Century

$92 Million for Engineering Research Centers

photo of Alex Huabg

NSF Launches Third Generation of Engineering Research Centers with Awards Totaling $92.5 Million. Each of the 5 sites will receive will use $18.5 million over five-years. Each center has international university partners and partners in industry.

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), based at Iowa State University, seeks to transform the existing petrochemical-based chemical industry to one based on renewable materials.

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems, based at North Carolina State University, will conduct research to transform the nation’s power grid into an efficient network that integrates alternative energy generation and new storage methods with existing power sources.

The NSF ERC for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN), based at the University of Arizona, will conduct research to create transformative technologies for optical access networks that offer dramatically improved performance and expanded capabilities.

The NSF ERC for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials, based at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, aims to transform current medial and surgical treatments by creating “smart” implants for craniofacial, dental, orthopedic and cardiovascular interventions.

The NSF Smart Lighting ERC, based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, aims to create new solid-state lighting technologies to enable rapid biological imaging, novel modes of communication, efficient displays and safer transportation.

Photo: Alex Huang will lead direct the research of ways to integrate renewable energy sources into the nation’s power grid at North Carolina State University.

Related: $75 Million for 5 New Engineering Research CentersNSF Awards $50 Million for Collaborative Plant Biology ProjectPresidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineersposts related to the United States National Science Foundation

$12.5 Million NSF For Educating High School Engineering Teachers

$12.5 Million National Science Foundation Grant

The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences and College of Education have been awarded $12.5 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to prepare educators to teach engineering to Texas high-school students.

The UTeachEngineering program targets future and current teachers, providing multiple avenues to prepare them to teach high school engineering. University faculty will use half of the five-year grant funding for course development, lab development and salaries. The other half of the grant will provide stipends, scholarships and fellowships to students and teachers working toward engineering teaching certification.

Current teachers will benefit from two curricula developed through the grant: a six-week Engineering Summer Institute for Teachers and a UTeach Master of Arts in Science and Engineering Education, which takes place over three summers. The curriculum for prospective teachers will target undergraduate students in engineering and the natural sciences, and lead to a bachelor’s degree in a scientific or engineering field as well as dual teaching certification in science and engineering. Addressing the need for trained engineering teachers is especially crucial in Texas because of a new law that requires high school graduates starting in 2011 to complete four years of science. One year can be a course in engineering.

Related: Engineering Resources for K-12 TeachersLeadership Initiatives for Teaching and TechnologyEducation Resources for Science and EngineeringIoannis Miaoulis on k-12 Engineering EducationAlumni Return to Redesign High School Engineering Classes

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