Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘STEM’ Category

Just the facts, ma’am (and sir): Website offers valid science to reporters and the public

In STEM on September 3, 2018 at 8:20 am
A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Musem.

A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Museum.

If you’re looking for it, there’s good science news reporting everywhere. There’s a long list of science blogs (this is only a few), many written by researchers themselves. There also are innumerable podcasts and videos – some authoritative, some not.

But unless you’re seeking such information, you probably won’t see it. Science coverage in general-interest publications, like newspapers, is almost nonexistent. (Exceptions include the USA Today section in Gannett papers around the country, which often has a science story anchoring its cover, and the New York Times Tuesday section.) Most media can no longer afford reporters who specialize in science.

So what’s a local newspaper or television station to do when science issues burst onto the scene? How can they answer readers’ questions about whether the latest flood or wildfire is related to climate change? How can they address the latest discovery at their local university and gauge its importance?

A nascent website, financed through donations grants from foundations, offers those local reporters quick, scientifically valid and understandable explanations on these issues, free of charge. Its organizers were in Iowa recently to promote the effort and attract both reporters and the scientists who can help them.

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Forget the big boar. Pin down some candidates on science at the Iowa State Fair

In Government, STEM on August 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes,The Des Moines Register

Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register’s political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register

When it comes to science, Iowa politicians are largely blank slates. Most have only made vague statements about supporting science, protecting natural resources or balancing agriculture and the environment. Few have laid out actual policies on science and issues in which knowledge and evidence play major roles.

The March for Science Iowa group, with which I volunteer, is changing that. We’ve emailed questionnaires to candidates for Congress, governor and secretaries of agriculture and state.

Yes, there are still nearly three months left before the election, but the response has been … nonexistent. A few have acknowledged receiving the email, but no one has provided answers. I’m hoping that within a few weeks we’ll get replies.

In the meantime, we each have opportunities to get answers on our own – while also enjoying a corndog or other food-on-a-stick.

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Weather chills March for Science Iowa turnout but can’t freeze plans to hold politicians accountable

In Government, STEM on April 19, 2018 at 7:35 am
60 marchers line up for a photo on the Iowa Capitol steps before embarking on the second March for Science Iowa. Credit: Shari Hrdina, Bold Iowa.

Most of the hardy folks at the second March for Science Iowa at the Capitol. Credit: Shari Hrdina, Bold Iowa.

By Thursday of last week, it was becoming clear that the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa would suffer from the state’s bizarre spring weather. Over the previous few days, the forecasts sank from 60 degrees and sunny to the low 40s and rainy.

Organizers (including your correspondent) hung onto hope that the situation would change, but by Saturday morning it appeared almost certain to be a miserable day.

It wasn’t the best outcome, yet march leaders had already decided that the event’s purpose would endure past a single annual event. They’re determined to give voters the information they might have gotten had the event gone as planned.

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Science marches on – with some conspicuous absences

In Government, STEM on April 9, 2018 at 7:42 am
Woman holds a sign saying "Empirical Data Trumps Imperial Alt-Facts" at the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

A pointed sign from the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

Plans are shaping up for the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa, a more overtly political version of last year’s event, when more than 3,000 Iowans flooded the Capitol grounds.

With elections coming up, organizers (including your humble correspondent) have invited candidates to appear on Saturday (the event starts with the march at around 1:00, followed by candidate forums and speeches at 2:00) to detail their views on publicly supported research, science education and evidence-based policy.

The march is nonpartisan: We want to hear from politicians and candidates from both parties. But it is not nonpolitical: We demand that our elected officials and contenders uphold science.

We invited candidates for governor, the Third Congressional District, agriculture secretary and secretary of state. Most will attend.

But only from one party. Guess which.

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Famed climate change warrior and former Iowan headlines Darwin Day in Iowa City

In STEM on February 21, 2018 at 7:35 am
One of the better signs at last year's March for Science Iowa: A portrait of Darwin with the slogan, "Very gradual CHANGE we can believe in.". Credit: Paula Mohr.

One of the better signs at last year’s March for Science Iowa featured dear old Darwin. Credit: Paula Mohr.

Iowans have an opportunity to hear from a hero in the battle to halt or reverse climate change.

The event is the annual Iowa City Darwin Day, actually a two-day symposium to honor Charles Darwin, the naturalist whose book, “On the Origin of Species,” posited evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. The celebration is held every year on or around the great scientist’s February 12 birthday. This year it’s Friday and Saturday, February 23-24, on the University of Iowa campus.

Darwin Day celebrates science – particularly science that often is denigrated or attacked, such as evolution and human-caused climate change. Many of the sessions revolve around these two subjects and how to communicate about them with skeptics.

This year’s program includes a rare chance to see in person a former Iowan who has become a champion and a lightning rod on climate change.

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Iowa’s March for Science sets second event, looks to the future

In Government, STEM on February 14, 2018 at 7:16 am
Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Nearly a year ago, around 3,000 Iowans gathered on a sunny April day to support science – its role in public policy and improving the human condition – at one of dozens of marches around the world.

The March for Science Iowa, April 22 (Earth Day), united citizens, sent a message to government and provided insights into Iowa-based research. But its organizers say their dreams to continue advocating throughout the year haven’t panned out. Assembling the event left many of them exhausted. I was involved and, like others, the demands of work and family left me little time for activism. (Just look at the recent sparsity of posts to this site for evidence.)

Now, however, two of last year’s leaders are staging a revival, starting with a second event – to coincide, again, with a national March for Science. They’re also working to institute a formal structure that, with luck and hard work, could lead to a more enduring impact.

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What’s ahead for the March for Science Iowa; what sparked dissent at the event

In STEM on April 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant. He had his wife and child with him, too.

I wasn’t sure what would happen last Saturday. More than 1,300 people were committed via Facebook and more than 900 people followed the @MarchForScienceIA Twitter handle, and we got some press on WHO-TV and in the Des Moines Register. Nonetheless, I couldn’t guess how many actually would show up for the March for Science Iowa at the Capitol.

I contributed (in money and time) to the march and was there to help (my job, with my wife and son, was to man the barricades at each end of Finkbine Drive on the Capitol’s west side). If a thousand people gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to support science, I would be thrilled.

As the march started, I stationed myself at the corner of Finkbine and Grand Avenue and used a handheld clicker to count the passing participants. At times it looked like the troop of colorfully dressed, T-shirt-bedecked and sign-bearing activists would peter out, but a new horde would appear. I clicked furiously to keep up.

When the last had gone by, the readout was 2,025. I know I missed dozens more and organizers put the crowd at 2,500, give or take a couple hundred.

It was a great event – an enthusiastic and orderly crowd and a gorgeous day. Participants heard energizing speeches (at least one with some controversy sprinkled in) and educational talks. Organizers already are considering how to capitalize on the momentum.

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Stepping up in Iowa to support science, facts and evidence

In Government, STEM on March 15, 2017 at 7:13 am
A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

I authored this post, which first appeared on the Iowa Starting Line blog. – TRO

Even before he was elected, commentators and experts noted a strong anti-science streak in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Now that he’s been inaugurated, they’re calling him the most anti-science president ever. Trump is enacting an agenda that, at best, selectively supports scientific evidence and research.

With the appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s clear that climate change will be downplayed or dismissed in the Trump administration. Pruitt took a moderate stance in his nomination hearings, but now is proudly revealing his anti-science views. Earlier this month he said he disagrees with the overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global climate change.

Trump and Pruitt are putting their words into actions. The administration has offered a plan to cut the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development by 40 percent. The EPA as a whole would get a 24 percent cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a major climate research agency, also would get a severe reduction. Other proposals under consideration would roll back Department of Energy financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy and for research on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Trump’s disdain for sound science goes beyond climate, however, and spans political parties. He’s given credence to the disproven notion that vaccinations cause autism and met with noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (of the famed Democratic family).

It’s easy to pick on Trump, but in truth his election and views are just the culmination of years of attacks on science, evidence and research – attacks that aren’t solely from conservatives. Now, scientists and those who value research and evidence as a foundation for sound public policy are fighting back.

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March for Science: Iowans organizing rally for research

In STEM on January 30, 2017 at 7:08 am
A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

Jordan Shaw was a lab technician working in food safety a few years ago when one of his supervisors, a researcher working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a study comparing eggs from organic and free-range chickens to standard eggs.

Time published her results: there was little difference in terms of safety or quality between the different eggs.

When the magazine posted the story on line, Shaw was stunned. “The comments on that were just unreal, like ‘you can’t trust the USDA because they’re the idiots who made the food pyramid,’” said Shaw, now a food safety consultant living in West Des Moines.

That made Shaw consider how to help the general public better understand science. “What we’re seeing now, really badly, is that science is elite, it’s liberal, all this stuff, and the problem is our populace just doesn’t understand, honest and truly, what is peer-reviewed science.”

His alarm increased when he read reports that the Donald Trump administration was suspending research grants and communications from key government science offices, especially those associated with the environment.

So Shaw – and others across the state – are taking action. They’re planning an Iowa version of a national march in Washington, D.C., to support science and research.

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Mucking about the Des Moines River with Project AWARE – and getting some science to boot

In Government, STEM on July 17, 2016 at 6:16 pm
One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River during Project AWARE July 11-15.

One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River on Project AWARE.

I was waist-deep in chocolate-brown water, my feet sunk ankle-deep in gooey Des Moines River mud, and I was gripping the waterlogged backrest of an overstuffed recliner, helping wrestle it onto the floor of a green fiberglass canoe.

It was my first day on Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) on the Des Moines River through Van Buren County in southeast Iowa. My wife and I had paddled for only an about hour before finding ourselves drenched and grimy as part of a canoe and kayak armada helping clear the river of an amazing assortment of garbage, big and small.

And this was our vacation. We were among hundreds of volunteers who took time off work for the event’s 14th annual edition, July 11-15, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with help from numerous sponsors.

It’s dirty, smelly work, but paddling the river also can be serene and picturesque, and it’s a terrific chance to meet like-minded, outdoorsy and friendly people. It’s no wonder volunteers return year after year, each time on a different river segment. It’s like RAGBRAI on the river, without the crowds and mass partying.

A healthy dose of Iowa science – and history – also is imparted over the four nights that volunteers camp along the route. During our time on the project, we learned more about the natural history of the area where we now live part-time. Read the rest of this entry »

Big bots storm castles in Iowa competition

In STEM on April 4, 2016 at 7:35 am
FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at Cedar Falls' McLeod Center.

FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at UNI’s McLeod Center.

It was mechanical mayhem in a medieval milieu.

In Cedar Falls March 24-26, 52 teams of high school students (mostly from the Midwest but also three from China and one from Brazil) pitted their mechanized marvels (OK, I’m laying off that bottle of Old Alliteration) in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Iowa Regional tournament. Eleven Iowa teams competed.

At the McLeod Center, where the University of Northern Iowa Panthers usually chuck balls at baskets, robots instead fired “boulders” at mock parapets. It was just one of several missions the machines, each built from scratch, carried out on a theme of attacking and overcoming a castle’s defenses.

This was Iowa’s first FRC regional competition. Teams that did well in Cedar Falls will go on to the championships in St. Louis at the end of April.

My son, Thomas, is on Team ASAP (4646), a collection of Des Moines-area students, and I attended the three-day robot bash. It was a raucous, nerdy – but cool – celebration of technology and engineering. I knew before I got to Cedar Falls what the robots had to do. How they did it, much less that they did it at all, was extraordinary and inspiring. Read the rest of this entry »

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 Amazon.com.

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.

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Iowa approves NGSS as opposition fizzles

In STEM on August 10, 2015 at 7:38 am
An April 2015 photo at California's Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming persists.

An April 2015 photo at California’s Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming rises. Photo credit: Chris Wronski via photopin (license).

Thursday’s meeting of the Iowa Board of Education was almost as notable for what didn’t happen as for what did.

The board voted to adopt a modified version the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as the science criteria for Iowa students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It was unanimous.

In adopting the standards, the board followed the recommendation of two Iowa Department of Education panels. The most recent one worked since last fall to weigh numerous sets of science education standards – including those Iowa currently uses – and chose the NGSS. The board of science educators and industry representatives said the NGSS are best suited to help Iowa children grasp not only science’s fundamentals, but also how science works and how to weigh evidence, making them better prepared to learn on their own and judge competing scientific claims.

The outcome was not completely unexpected, but the way it happened surprised me. It could foreshadow a change in the debate over science and climate change.

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The Des Moines Register catches up on the Next Generation Science Standards: a critique

In STEM on May 6, 2015 at 7:05 am
Cover of Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

It’s taken months, but the Des Moines Register finally caught up with deliberations over Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

On Sunday, reporter Mackenzie Ryan did a big takeout on the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) study of the standards, which would replace the current Iowa Core standards in science. It ran across the top of the front page – and as a former Register reporter, I will say you can’t do better than lead the Sunday paper, which has the biggest circulation of any day of the week.

There’s even a video on line of Ryan discussing the story and visiting a West Des Moines engineering class. (The class has more to do with Project Lead the Way, an initiative to coax more students into engineering, than with the NGSS, but never mind.)

So the Register focused a lot of attention on the issue – one that your faithful correspondent and others have reported on for months. That fact, and the fact that it was a rather weak story (as I’ll detail below), has me scratching my head about why editors thought it deserved such prominent play. Perhaps there wasn’t anything better to run.

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NGSS moves forward in Iowa; skeptical review team member discusses why he voted no

In STEM on April 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards from Achieve on Vimeo.

After months of work, an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) review team last week signed off on a recommendation that the state’s schools teach the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as an update to the current Iowa Core standards.

It’s a victory for science advocates over conservative opponents, who don’t like the NGSS’ focus on inquiry over rote learning and inclusion of lessons on evolution and human-caused climate change.

The team of science educators and business leaders will meet again next month to draft a report to the Iowa Board of Education, which has the final say. Opponents are likely to put up resistance again there. One press report indicates some board members may be leery of diving into the evolution and climate science controversies (which really are non-controversies among scientists). Conservatives may try to exploit that hesitation.

The team formally endorsed only a portion of the NGSS document and its decision wasn’t unanimous. Two members voted no.

In fact, one of those two consistently voted against the standards at the team’s March 24 meeting.

His objections and the review team’s choice to adopt only part of the standards, leaving the rest as “supporting material,” provide insights into how the NGSS are structured and what they’re designed to do.

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