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Items for students and others, interested in learning about science and engineering and the application of science in our lives. Most posts are included here.
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Items for students and others, interested in learning about science and engineering and the application of science in our lives. We post many of the general interest items here.

Working as a Software Developer

For most of my career I have been focused on management improvement – helping organizations improve results. Technology plays a big role in that and along the way I found myself becoming a programer for a while; and then a software development program manager. This is a good post on working as a software developer:

reading code is a very important skill. Before a program can be modified, you need to understand what it does, and how it does it. Only then can new functionality be added so it fits in with the existing structure, and without breaking anything. Reading and understanding a program can be a major effort, and one sign of a well-designed program is that it is relatively straight-forward to modify it.

Write for people first, computer second. The code you write will be read many times in the future (by you, or another developer). The computer doesn’t care how the code is written, so make it as easy as possible to understand for the next person that has to read it. A corollary to this is: don’t be too clever. It’s better to be clear than to be clever.

When there is a compelling need to write for the computer first and people second make sure to document that code well. For example, some code that is extremely dense and complex and confusing but greatly enhances the efficiency of a critical area of code.

I recently wrote a book, Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. There are many great things about a career in software development. It certainly is also challenging and not for someone looking for the easiest career but I have seem a higher percentage of happy software developers than I have seen in any other discipline.

Related: How To Become A Software Engineer/ProgrammerThe Software Developer Labor MarketAvoiding Tragedy of the Commons for Software DevelopmentPreparing Computer Science Students for JobsHiring the Best Fit For Your Company in an Inefficient Job MarketWant to be a Computer Game Programmer?What Graduates Should Know About an IT Career

Promoting Innovation in Sierra Leone

Another inspirational kid that shows that the potential for human good is much greater than the talking heads and politicians that litter the TV screen so often.

In the video Kelvin says, “That is my aim: to Promote Innovation in Seira Leone, among young people.” See another video as Kelvin explains his homemade battery.

Support these young engineers in Sierra Leone via innovate Salone.

Related: Inspirational Engineer Build Windmill Using TrashSupporting the Natural Curiosity of KidsWhat Kids can Learn If Given a ChanceI was Interviewed About Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering

Arduino Introduction Video Tutorial

Arduino is a very cool open source programable hardware engineering initiative. It is great for kids and adults who like to learn and create electronic devices. The Arduino Starter Kit is a great education gift for those interested in such things.

The video explains how to build a basic circuit with the Arduino board, and how to use each of the basic components such as LEDs, switches, and resistors. See more videos on related topics. Massimo Banzi, the co-creator and CEO of Arduino, and seen in the videos, also has a book: Getting Started with Arduino.

Related: Schematics of Electronic CircuitsEZ-Builder Robot Control Software

Solar Powered Water Jug to Purify Drinking Water

Deepika Kurup, a 14-year-old New York student, won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention of a solar-powered water jug that changes dirty water into purified drinking water. She won the top prize of $25,000.

During “the 5 minutes of my presentation 15 children have died from lack of clean drinking water.”

I am thankful we have kids like this to create solutions for us that will make the world a better place. We rely on hundreds of thousands of such people to use science and engineering methods to benefit society.

Related: Strawjet: Invention of the YearCheap Drinking Water From SeawaterWater and Electricity for AllThanksgiving, Appropriately (power of capitalism and people to provide long term increases in standards of living)

Great Webcast Explaining the Digestive Systems

You will learn things like why it is so important to chew your food well (increase the surface area for enzymes to get at the food). Our bodies also have adapted to provide a huge surface area for the digestive system to work; the small intestine alone has a surface area of 250 square meters (larger than the size of most apartments). Your small intestine is 4.5 to 10.5 meters long.

Related: Staphylococcal Food PoisoningEnergy Efficiency of DigestionTracking the Ecosystem Within UsWaste from Gut Bacteria Helps Host Control Weight

Physical Activity for Adults: Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a Year

Obviously health care doesn’t only mean sickness treatment. Avoiding sickness is much better than treating it. Sadly we spend far too little energy on creating health and far too much on treating sickness.

Physical activity guidelines for adults (follow link for more details and guidelines for others) from the UK National Health Service

To stay healthy, adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and should do:

  • At least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, or
  • 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as running or a game of singles tennis every week
  • and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

Sedentary lifestyle can kill

one in three adults worldwide fails to do the recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity per week. In the UK two out of three adults don’t manage it.

So rather than stressing the health benefits of exercise, the Lancet researchers have opted to show the harm caused by inactivity. They estimate lack of exercise is responsible for about 5.3m deaths a year – about the same number as smoking.

This is based on estimates of the impact on inactivity on coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and two specfic cancers – breast and bowel – where lack of exercise is a major risk factor.

Related: Today, Most Deaths Caused by Lifetime of InactionStudy Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as SmokingCan Just A Few Minutes of Exercise a Day Prevent Diabetes?An Apple a Day is Good Advice

Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy

Worldwide, we estimate that physical inactivity causes 6% (ranging from 3·2% in southeast Asia to 7·8% in the eastern Mediterranean region) of the burden of disease from coronary heart disease, 7% (3·9—9·6) of type 2 diabetes, 10% (5·6—14·1) of breast cancer, and 10% (5·7—13·8) of colon cancer. Inactivity causes 9% (range 5·1—12·5) of premature mortality, or more than 5·3 million of the 57 million deaths that occurred worldwide in 2008. If inactivity were not eliminated, but decreased instead by 10% or 25%, more than 533 000 and more than 1·3 million deaths, respectively, could be averted every year. We estimated that elimination of physical inactivity would increase the life expectancy of the world’s population by 0·68 (range 0·41—0·95) years.

Citizen Science: Use Your Smart Phone to Help Scientists

10 Ways You Can Use Your Smartphone to Advance Science by Matt Soniak

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along.

The Indicator Bats Program (iBats), a joint project of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and The Bat Conservation Trust, got its start with a couple of researchers working in Transylvania (of course) in 2006. The idea of the project is to identify and monitor bat populations around the world by the ultrasonic echo-location calls they use to navigate and find prey.

The goal of Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is pretty ambitious: “build the go-to platform for documenting all the world’s organisms.” Their app has two modes. “Spottings” lets you take photos of plants and animals you see, categorize and describe them and then submit the data for viewing on NOAH’s website and use by researchers for population and distribution studies.

Invasive plants and animals can crowd out natives, compete with them for food sources and alter the fire ecology of an ecosystem, disrupting its natural balance. Researchers and programmers from UCLA, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia have teamed up to create the What’s Invasive citizen science program and smartphone app. Volunteers can use the app to look up lists of the top invasive species in their area, created by National Park Service rangers and biologists. If they spot a plant or animal from the list, they submit a geo-tagged observation, with optional picture and text notes, so that scientists can locate, identify, study try to remove the species.

Great stuff.

Related: Backyard Scientists Aid ResearchCellphone MicroscopeThe Great Sunflower Project

Science PhD Job Market in 2012

The too-big-to-fail-bank crisis continues to produce huge economic pain throughout the economy. Science PhDs are not immune, though they are faring much better than others.

U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there

Since 2000, U.S. drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs, according to an analysis by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In the latest closure, Roche last month announced it is shuttering its storied Nutley, N.J., campus — where Valium was invented — and shedding another 1,000 research jobs.

Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists now stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent, according to the American Chemical Society, which has 164,000 members. For young chemists, the picture is much worse. Just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011, according to a recent ACS survey.

Two groups seem to be doing better than other scientists: physicists and physicians. The unemployment rate among those two groups hovers around 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys from NSF and other groups. Physicists end up working in many technical fields — and some go to Wall Street — while the demand for doctors continues to climb as the U.S. population grows and ages.

But for the much larger pool of biologists and chemists, “It’s a particularly difficult time right now,” Stephan said.

From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.

The current overall USA unemployment rate is 8.2%.

The current economy doesn’t provide for nearly guaranteed success. The 1960’s, in the USA, might have come close; but that was a very rare situation where the richest country ever was at the prime of economic might (and even added on top of that science was seen as key to promote continued economic success). Today, like everyone else (except trust fund babies), scientists and engineers have to make their way in the difficult economy: and that should be expected to be the case in the coming decades.

Right now, physicians continue to do very well but the huge problems in the USA health system (we pay double what other rich countries do for not better outcomes) make that a far from a certain career. They likely will continue to do very well, financially, just not as well as they have been used to.

Science and engineering education prepare people well for economic success but it is not sufficient to guarantee the easy life. Just like everyone else, the ability to adapt to current market conditions is important in the current economic climate – and will likely continue to be hugely important going forward.

The reason to get a undergraduate or graduate science or engineering education is because you are interested in science and engineering. The economic prospects are likely to continue to be above average (compared to other education choices) but those choosing this path should do so because they are interested. It makes sense to me to factor in how your economic prospects will be influenced by your choices but no matter what choices are made a career is going to take hard work and likely many frustrations and obstacles. But hopefully a career will provide much more joy than hardship.

Related: Career Prospect for Engineers Continues to Look PositiveAnother Survey Shows Engineering Degree Results in the Highest PayThe Software Developer Labor Market

Special Summer Fun Issue of Make Magazine

Make is really is a wonderful way to find ideas. Some people have the imagination to come up with all sorts of projects to try, I don’t. But Make takes care of that for you and provides really interesting ideas for things to try out yourself.

The summer fun guide includes over 50 projects for kids of all ages.

Related: Book on Adventures in MakingAwesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeThe DIY Movement Revives Learning by Doing

Today, Most Deaths Caused by Lifetime of Action or Inaction

Chart of the Leading Causes of Death in 1900 and 2010

Our instincts lead us to fear the unknown and immediate threats (probably so we can be ready to run – or maybe fight). But today the biggest risks to an untimely dealt are not lions, other people out to get us, or even just random infection. We have to adapt to the new risks by taking action to eat healthfully and exercise, in the same way we we have evolved to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry beast.

Today the largest causes of death are heart disease and cancer (which account for more than 60% of the deaths causes by the top 10 leading causes of death). The next leading causes are non-infectious airways diseases, cerebrovascular diseases and accidents. Alzheimer’s, diabetes, nephropathies, pneumonia or influenza and suicide make of the rest of the top 10 leading causes.

In 1900 Pneumonia or influenza and tuberculosis took as many lives (per 100,000 people) and cancer and heart disease take today. We have done well decreasing the incidents of death (fewer deaths per 100,000) by greatly reducing and nearly eliminating some causes of death (the 2 leading causes from 1900 are good examples).

Continue reading

Good Chemistry: A Love Song for Ionic Bonds

Song and video by 10th grade student, Eli Cirino, for extra credit in his chemistry class.

An ionic bond is a type of chemical bond formed through an electrostatic attraction between two oppositely charged ions. Ionic bonds are formed between a cation, which is usually a metal, and an anion, which is usually a nonmetal.

An ionic bond is considered a bond where the ionic character is greater than the covalent character (ionic bonds cannot exist on their own, they must have a covalent bond present also).

Related: Protein Synthesis: 1971 VideoCooking with Chemistry: Hard CandyThe Chemistry of Hair Coloring

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