Posts about learning

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

New Blog with Simple Demonstrations and Scientific Explanations

Try this at home is a new blog by Dr Mark Lorch, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Hull, with instructions for the citizen scientist. This example shows how to move a can with a ballon without touching the can.

The posts include instructions on how to do these simple demonstrations and a nice explanation on the scientific reason for what is going on:

Rubbing the balloon on your hair charges it up with static electricity which makes the balloon negatively charged. When you put the balloon near the can it pushes electrons (which are also negatively charged) to the other side of the can. This makes the side which is nearest the balloon positively charged. Positive charges are attracted to negative charges so the can moves towards the balloon.

It is quite a nice site (especially if you have kids interested in science or are a kid interested in science – no matter how old you are), add it to your RSS reader. Here are some more science blogs you may enjoy.

Related: The DIY Movement Revives Learning by DoingHome Engineering: Building a HovercraftTeaching Through Tinkering

Baboons Learn to Recognize Hundreds of Words

The (Monkey) Business Of Recognizing Words by Jon Hamilton

[Jonathan Grainger, researcher, Aix-Marseille University] says a baboon named Dan learned more than 300 words. “Dan’s our star baboon,” he says. “He’s a high-performing individual, basically. He does well in most tasks.”

But here’s the amazing thing: Dan and the other baboons also learned to tell whether a string of letters they’d never seen before was an English word. That’s something first-graders learn to do when they start reading, but scientists had assumed that children were simply sounding out the letters to decide whether they make sense.

Of course, the baboons couldn’t do this because they’re not learning to read a language they already speak. They had to rely on a part of the brain that can tell whether objects fit a known pattern.

Michael Platt, who directs the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, says he was surprised by what the baboons were able to do.

“I was really looking for holes to poke in this study, but it was very difficult to find any because it was really beautifully done,” he says. “And I think the linchpin here was that the baboons, once they had learned the rule, could generalize to new words that they had not seen before.”

Platt says when you think about it, the finding makes sense, given what’s known about human and animal brains. “Brains are always looking for patterns,” he says. “They are always looking to make some statistical pattern analysis of the features and events that are in the environment. And this would just be one of those.”

Platt says that’s a big departure from the idea that reading is a direct extension of spoken language.

One questions I have, is why the experiment done in France tested wether the Baboons could recognize English words?

Related: Brain Reorganizes As It Learns MathBird Brain ExperimentsHow Humans Got So SmartHow Our Brain Resolves Sight

Citizen Science

Citizen science enters a new era

Another online program, Phylo, is advancing scientists’ knowledge of genetics by making a game out of DNA matching. If areas of genetic sequence are roughly similar between species, it suggests strongly that they could have an important function. Finding them has been beyond the scope of computer algorithms. But earlier this month, researchers published a study where gamers outsmarted the best computers – they made the best possible DNA sequence match between up to eight species at a time.

The potential for regular people contributing to science is great. This has a long history. For most of human history science was done by non-scientists since there were no scientists. Calling is science might be a stretch but to me it was (passing on what health cures worked for various sicknesses, how to use various tools, how to grow crops…). As scientists came into being they were primarily unprofessional – that is they practiced science but were doing so as a hobby, they were not paid and had no requirements to get a PhD or anything.

Today regular people help by collecting data (counting birds, documenting plant growth [time of year], migration data, weather data…) sharing knowledge with scientists who ask, sharing their computer to be used to analyze data, analyzing data (for example, in astronomy hobbyists often make new discoveries) and the latest way people help is through games (that essentially tap human brainpower to analyze data – such as Foldit, which I have posted about previously).

I like the contributions people can make to science but I think the biggest value is the scientific understanding people gain while participating. As Neil Degrasse Tyson says the scientifically literate see a different world.

Cornell University provides an online tool to find opporunities participate in scientific research.

And we shouldn’t forget the amazing science done by students like those honored with Intel Talent Search, though the work those winning the awards do I would lump with science by “real scientists” (I believe now most of those who win are working on projects with university scientists).

Related: Backyard Scientists Aid Research8-10 Year Olds Research Published in Royal Society JournalTeen diagnoses her own disease in science class

Star Stuff: The Universe is In Us

Great statement from Neil DeGrasse Tyson on “what is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe.”

“The atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So when I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us… my atoms came from those stars….”

I think this might well be my thought on the most astounding fact also. Ever since I learned the atoms we are made of were created inside stars it has never ceased to amaze me.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is amazing. I would edit his statement a bit myself, though, to make it:

“The most astounding fact is that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, were created in the crucible of stars that cooked light elements into heavy elements. Those stars went unstable, in their later years: they collapsed and then explored scattering their enriched cores across the galaxy. Those stars made the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. Those ingredients became part of gas clouds that condensed to form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets. And those planets have the ingredients for life. So when I look up at the night sky, I know that my atoms came from the predecessors of the stars I see.”

Related: Scientifically Literate People See a Different WorldTen Things Everyone Should Know About ScienceGravity and the Scientific MethodThe Importance of Science Education

Exploring Eukaryotic Cells

This webcast is packed with information on the makeup and function of eukaryotic cells, which are the type of cells found in animals. It is part of a interesting series of science webcasts by Crash Course. The webcast style might be a bit too hyperactive and flippant for some but the content is quite interesting and the videos they are are of similar style and quality so if you like this one you can subscribe to their channel. They offer quite a few webcasts on science but they also offer webcasts on history.

Related: Plants, Unikonts, Excavates and SARsHow Cells AgeMidichloria mitochondrii

Numeracy: The Educational Gift That Keeps on Giving

I like numbers. I always have. This is just luck, I think. I see, how helpful it is to have a good understanding of numbers. Failing to develop a facility with numbers results in many bad decisions, it seems to me.

A new article published in closed anti-science way, sadly (so no link), examines how people who are numerate (like literate but for number—understand) process information differently so that they ultimately make more informed decisions. Cancer risks. Investment alternatives. Calories. Numbers are everywhere in daily life, and they figure into all sorts of decisions.

People who are numerate are more comfortable thinking about numbers and are less influenced by other information, says Ellen Peters of Ohio State University (sadly Ohio State allows research by staff paid by them to be unavailable to the public – sad), the author of the new paper. For example, in one of Peters’s studies, students were asked to rate undergraduates who received what looked like different test scores. Numerate people were more likely to see a person who got 74% correct and a person who got 26% incorrect as equivalent, while people who were less numerate thought people were doing better if their score was given in terms of a percent correct.

People make decisions based on this sort of information all the time. For example, “A lot of people take medications,” Peters says. Every drug has benefits and potential risks, and those can be presented in different ways. “You can talk about the 10 percent of the population that gets the side effect or the 90 percent that does not.” How you talk about it will influence how dangerous the drug seems to be, particularly among people who are less numerate.

Other research has shown that only less numerate people respond differently to something that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening than something that has a 1 percent chance of happening. The less numerate see more risk in the 1 in 100 chance—even though these numbers are exactly the same.

“In general, people who are numerate are better able to bring consistent meaning to numbers and to make better decisions,” Peters says. “It suggests that courses in math and statistics may be the educational gift that keeps on giving.”

Related: full press releaseBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Data Doesn’t Lie, But People Can be FooledUnderstanding Data: Simpson’s Paradoxapplied statistics is not about proving a theorem, it’s about being curious about thingsEncouraging Curiosity in KidsDangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of DataCompounding is the Most Powerful Force in the Universe

Memory is Stored by Turning on Genes in Neurons (to Alter Connection Between Neurons)

I find these kind of stories so interesting. I really have so little understanding of genes. I knew memory had something to do with altering connections between neurons. I had no idea that required turning on many genes in those neurons. Life really is amazing.

Neuroscientists identify a master controller of memory

When you experience a new event, your brain encodes a memory of it by altering the connections between neurons. This requires turning on many genes in those neurons.

Lin and her colleagues found that Npas4 turns on a series of other genes that modify the brain’s internal wiring by adjusting the strength of synapses, or connections between neurons. “This is a gene that can connect from experience to the eventual changing of the circuit,” says [Yingxi] Lin

So far, the researchers have identified only a few of the genes regulated by Npas4, but they suspect there could be hundreds more. Npas4 is a transcription factor, meaning it controls the copying of other genes into messenger RNA — the genetic material that carries protein-building instructions from the nucleus to the rest of the cell. The MIT experiments showed that Npas4 binds to the activation sites of specific genes and directs an enzyme called RNA polymerase II to start copying them.

“Npas4 is providing this instructive signal,” Ramamoorthi says. “It’s telling the polymerase to land at certain genes, and without it, the polymerase doesn’t know where to go. It’s just floating around in the nucleus.”

When the researchers knocked out the gene for Npas4, they found that mice could not remember their fearful conditioning. They also found that this effect could be produced by knocking out the gene just in the CA3 region of the hippocampus. Knocking it out in other parts of the hippocampus, however, had no effect.

One of the things I aim to do in 2012 is read a few more books on biology and genes. I find it incredible what are genes actually are doing to allow us to live our lives. And I am also very ignorant on the whole area. So hopefully I can have some fun next year learning about it.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeAntigen Shift in Influenza Viruses8 Percent of the Human Genome is Old Virus GenesBrain Reorganizes As It Learns Math

Brian Cox – Lecture on Science and Quantum Mechanics

Brian Cox gave a wonderful lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This is one more great thing the internet makes possible: have great fun while you learn. Enjoy.

With the help of Jonathan Ross, Simon Pegg, Sarah Millican and James May, Brian shows how diamonds – the hardest material in nature – are made up of nothingness; how things can be in an infinite number of places at once; why everything we see or touch in the universe exists; and how a diamond in the heart of London is in communication with the largest diamond in the cosmos.

Related: Quantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple Podcasts by Hana BetheBrian Cox Particle Physics WebcastPhysicists Observe New Property of Matter

Christian Science Monitor Scientific Literacy Quiz

This is a nice science quiz that you should learn from while taking it (unless you are extremely knowledgeable already and know every answer).

It is multiple choice, and even on some I got right, I wasn’t completely sure between two choices for example (What is the heaviest noble gas?). I managed to guess pretty well but also missed a couple.

It has one hugely annoying usability failure: after answering the question it loads a new page with the right answer and you have to click again to get the next question. Doing this for 50 questions is extremely tiresome and pointless. They correct answer could be shown at the top and also show the next question.

Some questions in the quiz:

  1. Newton’s First Law of Motion describes what phenomenon?
  2. What word, which comes from a Greek term meaning “good kernel,” describes an organism whose cells contain chromosomes inside a nucleus bounded by a membrane, as distinguished from bacterial forms of life?
  3. DNA contains adenine, cytosine, guanine, and what other nucleotide base, which is not found in RNA? (I had no idea on this one)
  4. What term describes the single initial cell of a new organism that has been produced by means of sexual reproduction?
  5. What term for an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter gets its name from a line in James Joyce’s 1939 novel “Finnegans Wake”?

I managed to get 39 right, which honestly include lots of educated guesses and lucky guesses. It almost seemed the test was 30% on your ability to translate Greek or Latin. Overall I think it was difficult and I was lucky to get 39 right. It would be nice to show participant results like an earlier Science Knowledge Quiz did. Percentage getting each question would be interesting too, along with the distribution of answers.

They do provide all your answers (and the correct answers) on one page once you finish (with is a nice usability touch).

Related: Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the SunTen Things Everyone Should Know About ScienceUnderstanding the Evolution of Human Beings by Country

Awesome Gifts for the Maker in Your Life

See the full Sylvia’s Super-Awesome MAKE Holiday Gift Guide 2011

Related: Science and Engineering Gadgets and GiftsGet Your Own Science ArtSiftable Modular ComputersArduino: Open Source Programmable Hardware

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