STEM Beats - science

A 24-7 Science Lesson

September 12, 2017

Since Harvey took shape as a tropical depression on August 23rd through today’s coverage of Irma, José and Katia, we’ve been treated to ongoing, fascinating in-depth scientific coverage on every channel.  The good news is that this coverage is apparently finding an audience, even beating out TV ratings for the opening week-end of the NFL season! 

We have learned that storms intensify quickly when passing over patches of warm ocean water. Harvey’s path took it over water 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding Gulf of Mexico, moving its winds from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 in only a day’s time.  We have learned that Irma’s arrival ‘sucked’ the Tampa Bay ocean bed dry—albeit temporarily—though less through suction than through fierce winds pushing water away from the coast. This phenomenon, although textbook perfect, is apparently an uncommon occurrence. We got a lesson in probability as experts explained the real meaning of a 500-year flood. Not that such a massive flood occurs only once every 500 years, but rather that there is a 1-in-500 (0.2%) chance of such a flood occurring in any given year.  

Hurricane Irma seen from space

In fact, the odds are probably much worse. Houston has had three consecutive years of massive floods, so complacency is dangerous. Even more severe storms may follow on Irma’s heels this season alone. Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia, already named although not yet formed, may follow.  Their paths, yet to be determined, may wreak even more havoc than Harvey and Irma.

Cable and regular news outlets found willing audiences for the round-the-clock coverage, even in areas far removed from the storms’ track. Yes, there were stories about remarkable heroism and good deeds as a welcome respite from the scenes of devastation. But the steady drumbeat of scientific knowledge coming over the airwaves was inescapable. And with that drumbeat comes the responsibility for all of us to participate in the necessary decision-making that will better prepare us for these fierce storms in the future.

It is a population that understands STEM—and not just meteorologists or engineers or climate scientists or politicians—who will be the critical thinkers demanding informed public policy. Yes, Mother Nature can be fierce and unpredictable, but knowledge empowers us. We need citizens who push for better zoning policies, more up-to-date data on flood plains, better evacuation strategies, and deeper understanding of earth science. Knowledgeable voters will support good public policy and make wise personal decisions.

If mega-storms and massive floods become routine, STEM literacy can be a matter of life or death.

Tags: science

Back to School: Do Schools and Teachers Have the Support They Need?

August 24, 2017

TV ads and news stories featuring parents and their children buying school supplies herald the close of summer just as surely as shorter days and falling temperatures do. These images tend to convey hope and optimism: children fully equipped for a fresh start in a new year. The reality, however, is less rosy.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that many parents cannot easily afford school supplies. Even students lucky enough to start the year will full backpacks will too often enter schools where teachers lack the supplies, materials, and support they need to teach. As we start a new school year, we should keep a few of our recent STEMtistics in mind.

Schools lack lab supplies, a problem most likely to afflict students of color:

Science labs and supplies are even scarcer in elementary schools, especially in those that enroll the most low-income students:


Teachers say the lack the resources to teach math and science—and, again, poor students get the short end of the stick:

These data are troubling at a time when dozens of states have ratcheted up their math and science standards. Schools and teachers need all the support they can get to lift students to these standards, and it’s not clear that enough help is on the way.

There are some encouraging signs, however. A new brief from Chiefs for Change highlights states such as Massachusetts and New York that give teachers strong teaching materials aligned to new standards--while respecting local authority and teachers' autonomy over what they teach. Programs like ASSET STEM Education and the Amgen Biotech Experience offer supplies and equipment--together with teacher professional development--to prepare schools for new science standards.

Yet, as the Chiefs for Change brief suggests, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. It's high time to learn from them.

Tags: science, math, teachers

Shark Week: 20,000 Careers Under the Sea

July 26, 2017

In honor of Discovery’s Shark Week, Change the Equation wants to take a deeper dive into STEM career prospects for budding marine scientists. As you can imagine, some deep-sea careers have higher supply then demand. In fact, internationally recognized shark expert R. Aidan Martin once compared aspiring to be a shark scientist to aspiring to be an astronaut. Just about all of us are intrigued by sharks but only a lucky few get the opportunity to work with them. Other STEM careers for ocean lovers, however, expect above average growth in the next 10 years and could earn you well above average wages. And they’re careers you may not have thought of! Check out our list of STEM careers under the sea.

(1) Marine Engineer

2016 Median salary: $93,350 per year| Projected job growth: 9%| Education needed: Bachelor’s degree*

What do they do? Marine engineers test, produce and maintain equipment and vessels used at sea including ships, underwater craft, and drills. 

(2) Naval Architect

2016 Median salary: $93,350 per year| Projected job growth: 9%| Education needed: Bachelor’s degree*

What do they do? Naval architects design, construct, and operate marine vessels and structures.

(3) Marine Geoscientist

2016 Median salary: $89,780 per year| Projected job growth: 10%| Education needed: Advanced degree*

What do they do? Marine Geoscientists develop deep knowledge of natural ocean processes on Earth and other planets. They keep an eye on the imapct of changes to climate. 

(4) Hydrologist

2016 Median salary: $80,480 per year| Projected job growth: 7%| Education needed: Advanced degree*

What do they do? Hydrologists look at the movement, quality, and distribution of water across the Earth and other planets.

(5) Marine Biochemist

2016 Median salary: $82,180 per year| Projected job growth: 8%| Education needed: Advanced degree*

What do they do? Marine Biochemists study the chemical properties of the ocean using their research to develop things like medicines.

(6) Ocean Model Programmer

2016 Median salary: $102,280 per year| Projected job growth: 17%| Education needed: Advanced degree*

What do they do? These are scientists with strong programming skills that help develop and run ocean model software.

Looking for hands-on opportunities and work experience to see if an ocean career could be right for you? Check out the Shark Research and Conservation program at the University of Miami in our STEMworks database. The program's director, shark scientist and Shark Week regular Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, uses people's curiosity about sharks to get them interested in STEM while teaching conservation practices. See him and his team at work in some special Shark Week footage below!

*Salary, job growth, and education data found in the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tags: science, engineering

From Chem Lab to Crayon Box

May 11, 2017

In 2009, chemists at Oregon State University (OSU) discovered a new blue color—the first new blue in over 200 years—purely by happenstance.

“People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries,” said Mas Subramanian, a professor of material science in the lab where they made this discovery, told NPR last summer.

But why is blue so coveted—besides being America’s favorite color? Looking at the earth’s oceans and sky, there certainly seems to be no lack of the pigment.

“Blue pigments can’t be readily extracted from the natural environment,” said scientist and blue-enthusiast Marc Walton. “So, artisans across the millennia have had to use their innovative abilities to manufacture synthetic blue pigments.”

When referencing difficult extraction, Walton talked about the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli—a deep blue metamorphic rock found in Afghanistan.  This stone has mesmerized the world since the beginning of time. In fact, the word for blue in many languages, including the English azure, comes from the latin name of this stone.

The history and science of manufactured blue pigments as well as the world’s love of it, opened the door for commercial use of Subramanian’s bright and durable material.

The staff at Crayola, especially, jumped at the chance to bring a new blue to the littlest consumers. Crayola collaborated with OSU and Shepherd Color Company to add the shade to the crayon box.

“Curiosity starts at a young age, as chemists we are curious just like kids,” Subramanian said. “I can understand the excitement of adding a new crayon color to the box, like adding a new element to the periodic table,”. 

Now, Crayola wants your help naming the color! Submit your suggestions on Crayola’s website through June 2. And on July 1, cast your vote for one of the top five color names. 

Photo courtesy of Crayola.

Tags: science

Lack of Teacher Support Prolongs the Elementary Science Drought

May 10, 2017

On Monday, we explored the troubling state of science education in the nation’s elementary schools. One likely reason for the drought? We argued that elementary teachers are unlikely to spend much time teaching science, because they feel so ill prepared to teach it. 

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress support our suspicions. They show a compelling relationship between the amount of professional development fourth-grade teachers receive in science and the number of hours they spend teaching it.

Fourth-grade teachers who receive more training in science instruction spend more time on science

Fourth-grade teachers who receive training on lab activities spend more time teaching science

Yes, these data do not prove a causal relationship between professional development and instructional time, but they do support a pattern that shouldn’t be surprising: the elementary science drought will probably continue unless teachers get the support they need. 

Tags: science, Next Generation Science Standards, teachers