Tomatoes on Mars. Peas on Earth

Ok, bad pun! But growing produce on Mars is quite a work in progress, by the folks at MarsOne. Tomatoes, especially.

Despite the Matt Damon agro project, growing food is not going to be easy, from accounts I have read. I know of a teacher who is germinating plants on moon-like soil.

In this blog post by Natasha Schön, she talks about biomass measurements, and the first tomato that grew in martian-simulated soil. Schön explain the need for more work on this:

One of the follow up experiments will be to investigate if the produced seeds are viable. It would only make sense to cultivate crops on Mars or the Moon if the follow up experiments are a success and the seeds are able to form new plants. If the seeds are not viable, a constant stream of new seeds would have to be flown in, making Mars farmers highly dependent on seed deliveries from Earth. 

And yes, they also tried growing peas.

And to justify the bad pun (in the title of this post), there is a children’s book titled “Peas on Earth.”

I believe it has a sustainability angle!

Bring the robots. Lock up the clocks

So a boy could get handcuffed for bringing an electronic ‘clock’ to school, when it is perfectly OK to bring in, say, a robot? This turned out to be an embarrassing story for the school, and a wonderful one for NASA and robotics.

Are we sending mixed messages here? We urge kids to think outside the proverbial box aka a classroom, but we like them keep their inventions at home.

I’m not sure how to handle this. I’m in half a mind to have a “Bring your clockwork mechanism to school” day. Many students tell me about the experiments they do –from a simple Rube Goldberg contraption, to a Lego robot. Or should I tell them that guess what, you just might be invited to the White House…

Which is what editorial cartoonist, Steve Benson lampooned in today’s Arizona Republic. It’s hilarious.

Who hid ‘Advanced Search’ in Google?

Google does the weirdest things. It’s my favorite Search Engine, but (and perhaps because) it always messes with its algorithm, there are subtle shifts in how we could search.

The only reason I notice this is because I teach a class on Search Engines and Browsers to 4th and 5th grades. And though they use them the time, many are find it hard to tell the difference between a search engine and a browser –as many adults do.

There used to be a feature known as ‘Advanced Search’ – a dashboard on Google’s landing page, and also Yahoo. Now Google has buried it at the bottom of the site, next to ‘Privacy’ and ‘Terms’ – almost a guaranteed spot to be ignored! It is in a menu under Settings.

This dashboard is a very robust tool, letting you filter results by language, and file type etc. I try to break the habit of students type in any phrase or keyword into the search box, and get them to thing through what exactly they are looking for.

  • Is it a set of “Instructions”? O is it a “User Guide”? (For building, say a Solar Oven)
  • Is it the “How tall is the World Trade Center?” Or is it the “Storeys of WTC?”

There are more. The tech terms for these are called Search Operators. But a Dashboard for Advanced Search would simplify things. Over to you, Google!

Why students love ‘hacking’ – as Introduction to computers

Whenever I use the word ‘hack’ or ‘hacking’ in class , eyes widen, some smile, a few get super curious. These are often 4th and 5th graders! They’ve heard the word in many contexts, and are not sure if there will be an upcoming class on it. Today, when one asked me if one could hack into Wi-fi, I realized some of them may be ready for more than learning about how to use preloaded software, or understand hardware. After all, to “hack” (apart from the dry dictionary meaning) means “to find a workaround,” a DIY project, or to reverse engineer.

Or to put it in STEM parlance, to problem-solve.

As New Yorker writer Ben Yagoda explained, it used to refer to “a relatively benign sense of “working on” a tech problem in a different, presumably more creative way than what’s outlined in an instruction manual.”

This is the second week of classes, when I introduce Hardware and Software, and how it is part of the eco-system of the Internet we now know. Just like grown-ups, kids have a hard time explaining what the Internet is, or the difference between a web browser and a search engine. But definitions aside, they are in tune with what might be possible, and are open to being in a computer class that lets them peer beyond the hardware in front of them, and into the ‘boxes’ that make cyberspace come together.

Speaking of hacking, I wish I could start a different sort of hackathon here. Maybe not for programming per se, but in the ‘Life-hacking’ sense, for finding alternative, creative ways to use computers and related devices. After all, if governments (examples here and here) run hackathons, shouldn’t schools?

Summer Camp Scholarships for Girls!

Exciting news! We are about to announce details of a summer camp scholarship for girls.

This has been in the works for the past month. As you may have seen, I moderated a ‘Women in Engineering’ Town Hall meeting, here in the computer lab on April 21st.

Applications will be taken from students at Salt River Elementary. The scholarship will pay for a summer camp at Arizona State University. These ‘camps’ are for those interested in learning skills such as design, app development, robotics, animation, and renewable energy.

This STEM Scholarship program is being underwritten by The Quarter Project, a Colorado-based non-profit promoting engineering for young girls.

Application forms will be out later this week, and posted to our school website.

Lessons From Hubble

It is the 25th birthday day of Hubble Telescope.

In case you missed it, last Friday, April 24th was the day NASA sent up a giant piece of technology that looked like a tin can, but with an amazing lens.

Hubble orbits some 347 miles above the earth, and travels at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour! Think of it as a high-speed camera that could probe the universe, and provide us with images and ‘events’ going on in deep space. Like this one.

This one is called ‘Eagle Nebula’

To teachers, this opens up a vast library. Take the official Hubble website Among other things, teachers could:

And much, much more.