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April 29 2013

White House Science Fair praises future scientists and makers

There are few ways to better judge a nation’s character than to look at how its children are educated. What values do their parents, teachers and mentors demonstrate? What accomplishments are celebrated? In a world where championship sports teams are idolized and superstar athletes are feted by the media, it was gratifying to see science, students and teachers get their moment in the sun at the White House last week.

“…one of the things that I’m concerned about is that, as a culture, we’re great consumers of technology, but we’re not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted,” said President Barack Obama, “and we’ve got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”

President Obama at White House Science FairPresident Obama at White House Science Fair

President Barack Obama talks with Evan Jackson, 10, Alec Jackson, 8, and Caleb Robinson, 8, from McDonough, Ga., at the 2013 White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

An increasingly fierce global competition for talent and natural resources has put a premium on developing scientists and engineers in the nation’s schools. (On that count, last week, the President announced a plan to promote careers in the sciences and expand federal and private-sector initiatives to encourage students to study STEM.

“America has always been about discovery, and invention, and engineering, and science and evidence,” said the President, last week. “That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA. That’s how this country became the greatest economic power in the history of the world. That’s how we’re able to provide so many contributions to people all around the world with our scientific and medical and technological discoveries.”

Unfortunately, the role models that far too much of the media hold up for young people are all too frequently pulled from the stage, screen and playing fields, as opposed to laboratories, universities and schools.

In recent years, the success of technology entrepreneurs has shifted that dynamic, but in the American academy, big time sports have been eating college life, with huge stadiums and rallies for stars and comparatively little notice given to National Merit awards or fellowship winners. When the President said in 2012 that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and young people’s scientific achievements don’t belong in the back pages of newspapers, his media criticism was quietly scathing: a culture of celebrity is not geared to the more quiet, sustained achievement required to attain a graduate degree or patent, though both may have more enduring value to society than a pop album.

This is a dynamic that clearly troubles President Obama, and one that he has used the bully pulpit and the platform of the White House to drawn national attention towards over the past five years.

“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House,” said the President, in 2009. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example.”

In the years since, the White House has tried to carry through on that pledge, hosting three science fairs and involving national leaders in science education, including Bill Nye,”The Science Guy,” Reading Rainbow host Levar Burton, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

neil tysonneil tyson

“The White House Science Fair is a way of showing everyone that science is cool,” said Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in an interview. Engaging the public about the wonders of the universe and encouraging kids to be curious about how our world works has been a core part of his career, driven by his infectious good humor.

Making science and technology education more fun

As Greg Ferenstein noted at TechCrunch, there were some pretty awesome inventions at the White House science fair, from mind-controlled prosthetics to improved cancer detection methodologies to a bicycle-powered water purification system. You can see a list of the White House science fair projects at WhiteHouse.gov and watch President Obama tour the exhibits on YouTube.

One of the notable components of the science fairs has been the involvement of kids from the maker movement. In the summer of 2013, the Maker Education Initiative will host a season-long Maker Party where students can learn, design and create.

“We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow,” said President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair, recognizing the long-history of creative innovation in American garages, basements and barns.

In 2012, President Obama famously helped young maker Joey Hudy to fire his “extreme marshmallow cannon.” 14-year old Ben Hylack, the maker of a telepresence robot, said that Makerfaire changed his life. In 2013, “Super Awesome Sylvia” represented Maker Faire at the White House Science Fair, showing the President her watercolor drawbot.

Experimenting with more independent projects that let kids tinker are important but only part of a puzzle that includes parents, teachers and libraries.

neil-tysonneil-tyson

“We should be focused on getting kids ‘making’, yes, but that misses a tacit recognition that kids are by nature scientists,” said Tyson. “What we should be talking about is how to keep kids interested and get out of their way as they learn.”

For that to happen, we’ll need to encourage children to keep asking questions, teach them how to learn to answer them, and praise inquisitive students.

“Acts of curiosity are what make up acts of science,” he said. “Adult scientists are just kids who never grew up.”

January 31 2013

NASA launches second International Space Apps Challenge

From April 20 to April 21, on Earth Day, the second international Space Apps Challenge will invite developers on all seven continents to the bridge to contribute code to NASA projects.

space app challengespace app challenge

Given longstanding concerns about the sustainability of apps contests, I was curious about NASA’s thinking behind launching this challenge. When I asked NASA’s open government team about the work, I immediately heard back from Nick Skytland (@Skytland), who heads up NASA’s open innovation team.

“The International Space Apps Challenge was a different approach from other federal government ‘app contests’ held before,” replied Skytland, via email.

“Instead of incentivizing technology development through open data and a prize purse, we sought to create a unique platform for international technological cooperation though a weekend-long event hosted in multiple locations across the world. We didn’t just focus on developing software apps, but actually included open hardware, citizen science, and data visualization as well.”

Aspects of that answer will please many open data advocates, like Clay Johnson or David Eaves. When Eaves recently looked at apps contests, in the context of his work on Open Data Day (coming up on February 23rd), he emphasized the importance of events that build community and applications that meet the needs of citizens or respond to business demand.

The rest of my email interview with Skytland follows.

Why is the International Space Apps Challenge worth doing again?

Nick Skytland: We see the International Space Apps Challenge event as a valuable platform for the Agency because it:

  • Creates new technologies and approaches that can solve some of the key challenges of space exploration, as well as making current efforts more cost-effective.
  • Uses open data and technology to address global needs to improve life on Earth and in space.
  • Demonstrates our commitment to the principles of the Open Government Partnership in a concrete way.

What were the results from the first challenge?

Nick Skytland: More than 100 unique open-source solutions were developed in less then 48 hours.

There were 6 winning apps, but the real “results” of the challenge was a 2,000+ person community engaged in and excited about space exploration, ready to apply that experience to challenges identified by the agency at relatively low cost and on a short timeline.

How does this challenge contribute to NASA’s mission?

Nick Skytland: There were many direct benefits. The first International Space Apps Challenge offered seven challenges specific to satellite hardware and payloads, including submissions from at least two commercial organizations. These challenges received multiple solutions in the areas of satellite tracking, suborbital payloads, command and control systems, and leveraging commercial smartphone technology for orbital remote sensing.

Additionally, a large focus of the Space Apps Challenge is on citizen innovation in the commercial space sector, lowering the cost and barriers to space so that it becomes easier to enter the market. By focusing on citizen entrepreneurship, Space Apps enables NASA to be deeply involved with the quickly emerging space startup culture. The event was extremely helpful in encouraging the collection and dissemination of space-derived data.

As you know, we have amazing open data. Space Apps is a key opportunity for us to continue to open new data sources and invite citizens to use them. Space Apps also encouraged the development of new technologies and new industries, like the space-based 3D printing industry and open-source ROV (remote submersibles for underwater exploration.)

How much of the code from more than 200 “solutions” is still in use?

Nick Skytland: We didn’t track this last time around, but almost all (if not all) of the code is still available online, many of the projects continued on well after the event, and some teams continue to work on their projects today. The best example of this is the Pineapple Project, which participated in numerous other hackathons after the 2012 International Space Apps Challenge and just recently was accepted into the Geeks Without Borders accelerator program.

Of the 71 challenges that were offered last year, a low percentage were NASA challenges — about 13, if I recall correctly. There are many reasons for this, mostly that cultural adoption of open government philosophies within government is just slow. What last year did for us is lay the groundwork. Now we have much more buy-in and interest in what can be done. This year, our challenges from NASA are much more mission-focused and relevant to needs program managers have within the agency.

Additionally, many of the externally submitted challenges we have come from other agencies who are interested in using space apps as a platform to address needs they have. Most notably, we recently worked with the Peace Corps on the Innovation Challenge they offered at RHoK in December 2012, with great results.

The International Space Apps Challenge was a way for us not only to move forward technology development, drawing on the talents and initiative of bright-minded developers, engineers, and technologists, but also a platform to actually engage people who have a passion and desire to make an immediate impact on the world.

What’s new in 2013?

Nick Skytland: Our goal for this year is to improve the platform, create an even better engagement experience, and focus the collective talents of people around the world on develop technological solutions that are relevant and immediately useful.

We have a high level of internal buy-in at NASA and a lot of participation outside NASA, from both other government organizations and local leads in many new locations. Fortunately, this means we can focus our efforts on making this an meaningful event and we are well ahead of the curve in terms of planning to do this.

To date, 44 locations have confirmed their participation and we have six spots remaining, although four of these are reserved as placeholders for cities we are pursuing. We have 50 challenge ideas already drafted for the event, 25 of which come directly from NASA. We will be releasing the entire list of challenges around March 15th on spaceappschallenge.org.

We have 55 organizations so far that are supporting the event, including seven other U.S. government organizations, and international agencies. Embassies or consulates are either directly leading or hosting the events in Monterrey, Krakow, Sofia, Jakarta, Santa Cruz, Rome, London and Auckland.

 

August 30 2012

Four short links: 31 August 2012

  1. typing.io — a typing tutor for code.
  2. Sheep to Warn Shepherds of Wolf Attack by SMSaround 10 sheep were each equipped with a heart monitor before being targeted by a pair of Wolfdogs—both of which were muzzled. (via Beta Knowledge)
  3. New Species Found on Flickr (NPR) — Guek had noticed the insect while hiking the jungles of Malaysia, taken the photos, and then watched it fly away. I just love the idea of entomologists bringing up richly-coloured hi-res shots of insects from Flickr. Can’t figure out whether to parody as porn fetish or as if they were using movie tech (“can we enhance that?”)
  4. Position Correcting Tools for 2D Digital Fabricationin our approach, the user coarsely positions a frame containing the tool in an approximation of the desired path, while the device tracks the frame’s location and adjusts the position of the tool within the frame to correct the user’s positioning error in real time. Because the automatic positioning need only cover the range of the human’s positioning error, this frame can be small and inexpensive, and because the human has unlimited range, such a frame can be used to precisely position tools over an unlimited range.
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