Tag Archives: STEM outreach

This Year’s Flame Challenge Winners for “What is Color?”

I have really, really badly neglected the blog lately.  I am very sorry to anyone who actually looks forward to reading this on a regular basis for that neglect.  My lame excuse is some incredibly crappy personal stuff and much craziness at work… which all means I haven’t found much awesome stuff to share here lately, or had the energy to write about what I have found!

I hope you’ll bear with me and keep reading here, though, and I promise some good things are coming this week.  Those good things will be in the form of a new STEM female role model post, a book review, and today’s topic: the latest Flame Challenge winners.

If you missed my first post about Alan Alda’s flame challenge you can read it here, but in a nutshell he started this great annual competition a few years ago to explain a specific concept in terms an eleven-year-old can easily understand.

The entries in written and video categories are vetted by scientists and judged by actual 11-year-olds.  The challenges are questions that on the surface seem easy, and you think to yourself, “Oh, everyone knows what that is.”  But when you try to actually explain them using words in any kind of coherent manner, they are hard.

Previous years’ challenges included What is a flame?  What is color? and What is time?

This year, the question was What is Color?  The winners this year, both amazing women who work in STEM fields, are science communicator Melanie Golob for the written category, and physicist Dianna Cowern in the video category.  Here are the winning explanations:

Winning “What is a Color” entry by Melanie Golob

And now I’m totally hooked watching Dianna Cowern’s other awesome science videos.  You should check out the rest of her down-to-earth, quirky, and highly accurate science videos at her Physics Girl channel on YouTube.

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Shameless Plug for SeaPerch

This program is run/sponsored by the Navy (Office of Naval Research, to be exact), which makes this post just a little bit of a shameless plug.  Just sayin’ that up front.

I am extremely bummed out that, due to wrist surgery, I can’t participate in the local program this year.  Since, you know, unmanned-underwater-vehicle-building with kids tends to take both hands and a mind clear of painkillers.  There’s always next year, though!

Now onto the good part – it’s a really, really awesome STEM outreach program.  I’ve participated in the program in various capacities before, and both the kids and their adult advisors loved it.  Or at least they did as far as I could tell.

The fifth graders were unabashedly enthusiastic about it, whereas the high schoolers were a bit more subdued, in that “I think this is cool, but I can’t let anyone know I think this is cool, so I’m gonna shrug a lot and doodle circles on the ground with my big toe” kind of way.

The idea is that each team builds a remote-controlled mini-submarine from a kit.  There is some leeway allowed in the design, so they can experiment a little to see what works best.  Then they can take their creation to a competition, where they are judged on how well it performs on an underwater obstacle course (usually in a local swimming pool).

Teams can be individuals or up to a whole class in size, but generally it works best with around four kids per kit.  Kits can be purchased for under $200 and a toolkit is recommended but can be shared among groups.  There is often grant money available.

A portion of the competition is also an interview segment, where judges ask questions to see how well the kids understand what they’ve built (how does the motor work, why did you place that piece there, etc.).  Points are also given for teamwork, team spirit, and how they present a record of their work – usually a log of some sort describing their efforts, and maybe a science fair type poster, depending on the team.

The competition part goes all the way up to the national level.  Teams can come from schools, church youth groups, Boys & Girls clubs, scouting organizations, JROTC units, a couple of kids from the neighborhood, you name it.

The SeaPerch challenge is adaptable to age ranges from 5th grade through college freshmen, and various size groups.  It helps develop fundamental skills in areas including physics, electronics, mechanics, engineering, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, fluid dynamics, buoyancy, robotics, and – most importantly – how to glue PVC pipe together.  Seriously, it really is both fun and educational.

For more information or to find a competition near you, check out the SeaPerch Website.

http://www.seaperch.org/index

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Review of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Ok, finally managed to get through the episode – it was worth waiting until I could get through it all with my daughter, as she sat totally transfixed in my lap to watch it.

Overall, I enjoyed it.  They have updated the show from the Sagan years with modern CG, and the graphics and music are lovely.   It’s more basic than most adults with any kind of STEM enthusiasm or background need, but far more advanced than some really, really bad STEM-related shows in recent years (I’m looking at you and your oversimplification, The Planets).  It’s not overly simplistic, but presented in a way that’s accessible to everyone, which is exactly the point of a mainstream science show.  I think they found a nice balance – at least in the first episode.

Also, I’m not going to complain at all that a science show is on Fox.  I appreciate how great that is!  It doesn’t begin to make up for canceling Firefly or any of their other terrible decisions, but it shows that maybe, just maybe, they’re taking a step in the right direction.  So, on to the review, of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I liked the ‘cosmic address’ analogy that Neil deGrasse Tyson used to describe how to locate Earth in the Universe.  It works for those who are used to mailing addresses, but also for the younger crowd who speak in IP addresses.

DidI mention the graphics and music?  Boy, we’ve come a long way in computer graphics and animation in the last few decades.  Love it.  They also did a great mix of what is clearly real satellite imagery (I recognized a few famous Hubble shots in there) and computer-generated.  This is a very visually-appealing show.

It can keep the interest of both an adult aerospace engineer and a 3-year-old.  That’s a tough thing to pull off.  My daughter’s main concerns where whether Neil de Grasse Tyson was harmed in the filming of the Big Bang scene, and what exactly happened to the dinosaurs.  Luckily, she didn’t really understand the scene with The Inquisition.

The ‘Cosmic Calendar’ they used to show the scale of the age of the universe was very well done.  It really helped break something that enormous into chunks small enough to wrap the human brain around.

The personal story of Neil deGrasse Tyson meeting and being inspired by Carl Sagan was also a very nice touch.  Adding the current human interest element to stories that can sometimes feel impersonal – like the forming of galaxies and a long-ago story of an early astronomer – helps attract and keep a modern audience.

All that said, what was up with the weird little spaceship thing that flew around in a lot of the space scenes?  It looks a lot like the a bottle opener I have.  I also took issue with the ‘blowing clouds of cosmic dust’ or whatever that was supposed to be that Voyager seemed to be flying through – which is the kind of thing would have demolished the poor satellite decades ago.

The caption is “The Ship of the Imagination, free from the shackles of space and time, can go anywhere.” But the ship is seriously weird-looking. From: http://www.cosmosontv.com/photos/album/standing-up-in-the-milky-way

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the "spaceship of the imagination"

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the “ship of the imagination”

The weird cartoon of Bruno’s story with cheesy accents and creepy arrow-shooting cherubs.  And then flying through space scenes with cape and hair waving in the wind.  Just plain bizarre.  Also, the whole thing was a little too drawn out and dramatized with the name-calling and book-throwing and flashes to shots of torture instruments.

The good in this show far outweighed the bad.  I like the new Cosmos, and I really, really hope it doesn’t become another reason I have to buy one of those “I’d rather be watching shows canceled by Fox” t-shirts.  Fingers crossed.

What did you think of it?  How does it compare with your memories of the original?  Will you continue to watch?

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I’ll Be Seeing You at Detcon1!

This week I received an official invitation to participate in programming at Detcon1, this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention.  I am always thrilled to be a part of programming at cons, and look forward to some really great panels this year.  This is my first NASFIC and will also be my first con completely child-free, as kiddo will be camping with the grandparents for this one.  Can’t wait.

So here are my Top Five Reasons to go to Detcon1, if you need some motivation to go:

5) I want to see for myself if Detroit deserves the bad rap it has.  I kind of doubt it, or my sister-in-law wouldn’t live near there.  And it’s way cheaper than going to the WorldCon in London!

4) People-watching and people-meeting.  I meet some awesome people at every con, and I love seeing the costumes some folks come up with.  There is some crafty talent well beyond anything I will ever manage, and I especially look forward to the masquerade.  I’m about as socially awkward as they come, but even I can manage to muddle through and make some new friends at cons.

3) The awards.  Since WorldCon is in London this year, that’s where the Hugos will be, but the Golden Duck awards for YA and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction will be handed out at Detcon1.  The ceremonies are always entertaining, and the award nomination lists always give me new ideas for things to go read.

2) The 80’s dance with John Scalzi as DJ.  First, I really like John Scalzi and will try not to squee too much about being in the same room.  Few people who haven’t been in the military can write military SF that doesn’t make me cringe over its ridiculous cliches and borrowed-from-Hollywood stereotypes.  Scalzi is one, and the only other I can think of off the top of my head is Lois McMaster Bujold.  Second, while I can’t dance, an 80’s dance at a sci-fi convention sounds like just the place where that won’t matter and I can look as ridiculous as I want. Third, there will be neon.  Lots of neon.

1) The opportunity to learn about interesting new things.  I may be the only person on earth who thinks the primary reason to go to cons is the programming, but I get really excited when the panel matrix comes out.  Presentations on the latest NASA missions, e-publishing vs. traditional publishing, the latest new SF TV show coming out, you name it, there’s probably a panel.  The STEM outreach is always fun at these events, too, because the audience tends to already be interested.  I usually have first, second, and third choices of what I want to see during each session.  Tough decisions, people!

I won’t know for probably a few months what kind of panels I might be doing, but usually look for me to be on panels for things like STEM outreach, women in STEM, diversity in fandom, “talk to a rocket scientist”, spacecraft design, getting kids interested in sci-fi, geek parenting, etc.  So, you know, the stuff I talk about on this blog.  I also make a point of asking to be on any panels with titles like “women warriors” or “military SF” because at my first few cons I was absolutely horrified to go to a “women warriors” panel consisting entirely of middle-aged men and a “military SF” panel without a single person who had ever been in the military.  Which, well, made me kinda angry… and that’s how I got into this whole paneling gig!

Are you going?  What are you looking forward to most?

 

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I Love it When STEM Outreach Makes the News

My best friend from college was recently part of a STEM workshop for middle school girls, and it made the Washington Post.  I’m excited for all the events they did at the workshop, the enthusiastic response of the girls who participated, and that a major newspaper took notice.  Also, I’m jealous of the really cool projects they did, which included building artificial hearts from rubber tubing, launching straw rockets, and a workshop on combating bioterrorism.  Definitely time for me to go work another STEM outreach event – I want to play, too!

The full article is here.

Have you ever been to a STEM workshop or outreach event?  What did you think of it?

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