Thomas R. O'Donnell

Roundup: Pitchman or teacher, Borg mussels and tell-all textbooks (with videos)

In STEM, University research on October 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The cover to John Cisna's book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via

The cover to John Cisna’s book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.

So much science, so little time.

The last few weeks have seen Iowans and Iowa universities garnering attention for so many controversial, strange and cool science-related ventures it’s hard to keep up. For example:

  • An Iowa high school science teacher’s experiment with a McDonald’s-only diet made him famous. Now health advocates say his presentations to students around the country are thinly veiled commercials for the fast-food chain.
  • University of Iowa engineers are coming out of their shells to flex their electronic mussels. (Ba-dump ching!)
  • And teachers are using digital textbooks to spy on their students’ performance – with an eye on improving it, an Iowa State University professor says.

From teacher to McDonald’s pitchman?

I have yet to see an Iowa outlet cover this (other than running a wire story), but an Ankeny teacher who shot to fame last year for shedding nearly 60 pounds in six months eating only at McDonald’s food is under fire.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say critics are blasting the fast-food company for sponsoring John Cisna’s travels to schools around the country.

Over about the last year my Google alerts have fished up story after story about Cisna as he appeared at schools, telling students about his experiment. For six months he ate only McDonald’s meals, carefully chosen by his Colo-NESCO students to keep his intake to a maximum of 2,000 calories a day. Cisna also took up walking and other exercise to boost his caloric burn.

It’s a textbook weight-loss formula: Limit your calories while increasing your activity. And Cisna did turn it into a textbook (of sorts) – although if you read the Amazon reviews, it seems as much a tale of a sudden leap to fame as a dieting guide.

Cisna says that’s what he’s telling students: It’s about wisely choosing what you eat and matching it with physical activity.

But health advocates see his travels as little more than a McDonald’s commercial. The company calls him a “brand ambassador” and pays his expenses. The hamburger giant also edited a teacher’s discussion guide Cisna distributes and a documentary he shows at his presentations, Reuters reported.

Activist Bettina Elias Siegel, at her The Lunch Tray blog, called the documentary a McDonald’s infomercial. McDonald’s appears to have made the on-line video private, Siegel says, but you can see a teaser on YouTube. There are titles at the end saying no one recommends eating every meal at McDonald’s and that the teacher and students designed the experiment on their own. (Later, the local McDonald’s franchisee learned about it and provided Cisna’s food for free.) So there are disclaimers.

In a CBS news story, a spokesman for the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International criticizes Cisna’s programs, saying “our schools should not be places where corporations market their brands to children” – although, frankly, it happens all the time.

Reuters wasn’t able to reach Cisna for comment, but CBS did. He said his talks aren’t about McDonald’s but about making good choices. He also said he “can’t fathom” why people would think it’s a problem for McDonald’s to support his travels.

I’m sorry, but that’s a bit naïve. If Cisna were doing this on his own dime, or covering his costs by charging schools for his appearances, it would be far less difficult for someone to accuse him of being a corporate shill. To be clear, I’m NOT saying he is one. His message does have weight (no pun intended), but his sponsorship gives critics grounds to question his motives. And McDonald’s definitely has something to gain by casting itself as an advocate for a responsible diet.

March of the Borg mussels

At the University of Iowa, engineers are taking on a small problem: How to track the activities of mussels, fading but vital parts of river ecology in Iowa and elsewhere.

You might think mussels lead a boring bivalve existence, but in fact they move around riverbeds and follow a regular schedule to open and close – gaping, the scientists call it – as they filter the nutrients they live on from the flowing water. (OK, it’s pretty boring after all.)

Mussels are monitors of water health, a U of I story says. In great enough numbers, they could help reduce harmful nitrate runoff from farm fields.

But to understand what mussels’ role is and how they interact with their environment, researchers have to track their activity, including how often they gape and what might make them stop.

That’s the U of I engineers’ job. They’re developing tiny high-tech backpacks to glue to mussel shells. Each device would gather data and transmit it to servers via radio signal. There’s a nifty video about the project.

Researchers are testing the tiny backpacks to see if they inhibit the creatures and can take the punishment of an underwater existence. The U of I story calls these combinations of living creature and electronics “cybermussels.” I prefer the more threatening “Borg mussels.”

Did you do the reading? Now your professor may know

These days, it’s difficult to cover your digital tracks. Google knows what you’re browsing and searching and uses that information to sell you stuff. Your phone tracks your location to sell you nearby stuff.

Add to that teachers, who now can digitally track how hard their pupils study. With many textbooks digitized and available only on line, professors can see when someone is or isn’t doing the assigned reading.

Reynol Junco, a professor in Iowa State University’s College of Education, and colleague Candrianna Clem tracked how 236 Texas A&M University students used their digital texts over the course of a semester. The researchers found that how much time students spent with the material was a better predictor of success in a particular class than the student’s grade point average.

In an ISU release, Junco says this real-time tracking can let instructors adapt to their students’ needs. If students aren’t spending enough time with the book – or too much – it may indicate the material is too difficult. Teachers can alter lesson plans to improve learning.

Bloomberg New picked up the story with a provocatively titled piece, “Your Textbook Knows You’re Going to Fail.” That may be a bit too strong, but you be the judge.

Now I’m taking my electronic backpack with me to get a Big Mac.

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