Thursday, August 28, 2014

Author Spotlight: David Rigby

by Colleen Joyce, Project Manager

One thing is certain when you sit down to talk with David Rigby: you will learn something. The man knows his history (especially of the World War II variety), he is passionate about it and he wants to share that passion. Fortunately, I’m a history buff so our interview ended up lasting longer than I planned—and it was time well spent.

Rigby holds a PhD in comparative history from Brandeis University. He teaches in the Boston area, works in educational publishing and is a published author. Rigby’s first book, Allied Master Strategists: The Combined Chiefs of Staff in World War II, won the 2012 John Lyman Book Award in US Naval History from the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH). His second book, tentatively titled No Substitute for Victory: Successful American Military Strategies from the Revolutionary War to Present Day, is due out in October.

When Rigby and I sat down to chat, he had just returned from a trip to Washington, DC, where he gave several talks on Allied Master Strategists. I first asked Rigby if he could pinpoint where his passion for history began. He immediately credited his education, describing his upper-elementary and middle-school years as the “golden era of education in the 70s,” where teachers noticed his interest in history and fostered it. One teacher had a free period where students spent time reading books and, for extra credit, could conduct a “conference” on a book with the teacher and earn stars as a reward. Rigby loved reading and talking about history, so he held a conference with his teacher for nearly each book he read, all the while watching his line of stars outshine his classmates’. There was also a high-school teacher who helped make history come alive. Rigby also credits his father’s commission in the navy as an electronics officer and his uncle’s service in World War II with promoting his love of history. I have a feeling that even without that familial connection Rigby would have connected with and loved history.

Allied Master Strategists is about a subject clearly close to his heart. Originally the topic of his dissertation, Rigby wanted to bring the topic to the public. He heavily revised and expanded the original version to get it ready for publication. The book describes the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) during World War II and their contributions to the Allied victory. Rigby knew there was an abundance of information about the national leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the field commanders, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, but barely anything about the group of American and British officers who stood between them. “My guys,” as he affectionately refers to them, were instrumental in holding together the American-British alliance and planning key military strategy for the war effort. Rigby contends that it was this relationship that enabled the Americans and British to work together so successfully, and ultimately win the war.

The story of how Rigby’s second book came into being is a textbook case of serendipity. An avid fly-fisher (wait for it), Rigby enjoys salmon fishing in eastern Canada where a legendary salmon guide named Richard Adams lives and works. Adams is the best of the best when it comes to finding the perfect spots for fly-fishing and has guided notables like President Jimmy Carter. Rigby came up with the idea of writing a fly-fishing memoir with Richard Adams at its center and began shopping the idea around to publishers. The president of one publisher replied that he didn’t feel there was a market for the book, but after learning about Rigby’s background said something akin to, “I want to get you more money for fishing trips, so instead we’d like to commission a book on American military strategy.” And Rigby got to work.

In Rigby’s new book, he focuses on five successful military strategies, among them the value of achieving unity of command, having clear war aims, and taking advantage of an enemy’s mistakes. He cites examples from American conflicts from the American Revolution through the Vietnam War. Rigby notes the process for writing his second book came a little more easily than the first—research went smoothly and writing came quickly.

Today Rigby is engaged in an amalgam of writing, teaching and editing. When I asked him which he prefers, he was hard-pressed to make a decision. Then he mentioned how much he enjoys teaching. If given the choice, his perfect schedule would be comprised of about 75 percent teaching and 25 percent writing and consulting projects for education. But he is also quick to note how much he enjoys the writing process and keeping up with education trends by working in the publishing industry.

One thing is certain—whether through college professorship, publishing consulting or book authorship—David Rigby will never stop teaching and learning.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Those Are Some Funky Chickens: Feathered Dinosaurs Rule the Roost

by Caitlin Wilson, Summer 2014 Intern

In July, some very old guests visited New Jersey: dinosaurs! If I had the time for the four-plus hour drive from Boston, I would have definitely gone to the Walking With Dinosaurs show. When I was little, my mom painted my whole room into a dinosaur mural. I had a Stegosaurus on one wall, an Apatosaurus (a.k.a. Brontosaurus) on another and even a Velociraptor tucked under the window. It was amazing. There was, however, one crucial difference between my dinosaurs and the ones coming to New Jersey: feathers.

Although scientists still disagree over the details, most paleontologists have concluded that at least some dinosaur lineages had feathers or feather-like structures. There is fossil evidence that the theropod lineage, which includes such celebrities as Tyrannosaurus rex and Deinonychus, had feathers. This is also the branch of the dinosaurs some birds have evolved from. Other lineages show little or no evidence of feathering despite much better fossil records: Ornithischians (think Triceratops or Stegosaurus) only had the most basic feather-like filaments, and sauropods, or lizard-hipped dinosaurs, seem not to have been feathered at all. The tricky part isn’t actually figuring out which dinosaurs had feathers, but when they got them. One hypothesis suggests that most dinosaurs started out with feathers, which would mean feathering is an ancestral trait, and certain branches lost the trait over time. Another hypothesis posits that feathering arose in dinosaur lineages later, meaning feathering is a derived trait developed in response to environmental pressures.
As far as Walking With Dinosaurs goes, it doesn’t matter when dinosaurs got their feathers so much as that they did. Sonny Tilders, the creator of the show, is passionate about teaching kids through scientifically accurate entertainment, so he’s decided to add feathers to the raptors as well as the T. rex mother and baby that appear in the show. He wants to balance accessibility with respect for his audience members’ curiosity and knowledge; as he says, “Talking down to kids tunes them out faster than anything.” And with the current focus on getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, shows like Mr. Tilders’s are invaluable. Getting kids interested in science and capable of interpreting scientific facts will help them succeed not only in their classes down the line, but also as they interact with science for the rest of their lives.
Science has become a much larger part of everyday life than it used to be: our cars, houses, entertainment and job environments all rely on more complex systems than ever before. For the kids attending a dinosaur show, that spark of interest can grow into a lifelong fascination with how things work and how we go about studying the natural phenomena we don’t yet understand—and that’s fantastic news. Science-literate kids tend to grow into science-literate adults who care about the progress of our collective understanding of the universe and who are able to consider problems from a multitude of angles. They might figure out how to more efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or even to skip the electricity altogether and power our devices with the sun itself. They might become doctors. They might make something even cooler than bendable Fabric PCs that use e-paper—but they have to get interested in science first. And I am stoked that there’s a man with feathery animatronic dinosaurs to help get the ball rolling.
Did You Know?
A team of researchers out of the University of Texas at Austin has discovered a variety of melanosomes in dinosaur fossils. Melanosomes are microscopic structures that vary in shape, and these variations determine the coloring of animals. In modern mammals and birds, round melanosomes produce red pigment, while elongated melanosomes produce black. Although the researchers are unsure which structures were responsible for which colors in dinosaurs, they are certain that dinosaurs were much more colorful than modern turtles and lizards.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The New Wave of Electronic Learning in the Classroom

by Elizabeth Rule, Summer 2014 Intern

The world is constantly moving toward an overwhelmingly technological future. Every day, there is a new high-tech innovation or breakthrough—it’s rather exciting to be living in the forefront of the Information Age.
With the way technology seems to be incorporating itself into everyday life, it’s essential that schools and classrooms become more equipped with digital-based curricula and devices.
To get the ball rolling, in early March, Amplify, an independent subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, released Amplify ELA, a digital English language arts (ELA) program for grades 6, 7 and 8. This is an update to their tablet (which we covered once before) involving apps and digital content for students and teachers in grades K–12. This content features videos, games and vocabulary apps, as well as tools to allow teachers to track students and give them immediate feedback online. Teachers are also given full daily lesson plans that allow for flexibility so teachers can design their own syllabi. All of this is designed to meet Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and runs at about $45 per student per year.
McGraw Hill Education is not far behind. They have announced a partnership with StudySync, to create a cross-curricular, digital literacy source for grades 6–12. So far, the program has been used in 22,000 classrooms around the country. Not far behind Amplify, McGraw Hill and StudySync also created their products to align with CCSS and to provide options for differentiated instruction.
Scholastic Corporation also boasts its Read 180 curriculum, which consists of print and digital components that target struggling readers in all grades. Over one million students in 40,000 classrooms currently use Read 180. Recently, Scholastic announced the introduction of Common Core Code X, a new print/digital curriculum for middle-school English that is structured around the CCSS.
Understanding that our students need to be digitally literate, the government is also on board with more technology and online activity in schools. The federal government announced in 2013 the ConnectED initiative, which seeks to, within five years, connect 99 percent of American schools with high-speed wireless internet and next-generation broadband. Additionally, the FCC has pledged over $2 billion to connect 15,000 schools to the internet over the next two years.
From the private sector, companies like Adobe, Autodesk, Esri, O’Reilly Media and Prezi, among others, have made ConnectED commitments. Mostly, they are opening up software and content materials to eligible schools across the country. Other companies partnering to equip schools in need with hardware, software and wireless connectivity are Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon.
It would seem everyone is getting on board with promoting more internet and digital materials in schools. With the power of technology rising every day, it is clear that American students need to be taught technology literacy as soon as possible. Soon, many more jobs will require at least some computer knowledge, and it is probably best to give our students an education based on technology now, so they can succeed in the future.
Did You Know? 
Net neutrality, or the concept of an “open internet” where no particular data is prioritized over other particular data, came under fire in April as the FCC decided to back the “fast lane” for web trafficking. This means the FCC could allow larger streaming content providers like Disney, Google and Netflix to pay internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon for faster internet speeds for streamed content, while smaller companies might have to suffer with slower speeds unless they also pay. This could mean the end for small ISPs; if they cannot afford to pay for faster internet speeds for their customers, customers may get frustrated and switch to a larger provider. For content providers, it could mean larger content providers might pass the expense on to their customers; but it could also encourage customers to switch to smaller content providers if that happens.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Intern Spotlight: Meet Elizabeth!

by Elizabeth Rule, Summer 2014 Intern

From the bright lights of the city, to the thousands of stars I loved to look at nightly from my porch, I grew up moving between city living and farm living with only a few miles spanning in between. I learned a lot living in a farm town directly outside of New Haven, Connecticut. Even though I did not live on a farm of my own, most of my childhood was spent on various horse farms around my town, riding and doing different barn chores. This is where I developed my love and knowledge of animals, especially dogs and horses. I brought this passion into the city by volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter a few times a week throughout high school and over the summer during college. This appreciation of animals is something I have never lost and have honed throughout my years.

Along with my love for animals, I have also always had a love for literature. Since I was very young, I have been reading fantasy novels and classic literature at an extremely fast pace. There were times in my middle- and high-school career when I would be reading five or six books at one time. I remember making mistakes in my high-school English class, confusing Mr. Darcy with other male characters from one of Jodi Picoult’s or Charlene Harris’s books, which I was reading outside of school. I couldn’t put one of my own books down even while reading Pride and Prejudice for class.

Luckily, I have found equilibrium in my college career, balancing my class books with leisure ones, which have started to mesh more and more in my classes. This is partially because I chose to pursue Writing, Literature & Publishing as my major at Emerson College, choosing to follow my love for reading instead of my love for animals. (I considered becoming an animal behaviorist or veterinarian for a while.)

Since choosing to pursue literature, I have discovered a whole new world in publishing that I never imagined existed. I always thought I would want to be on the writing side, producing the work. Now, with one semester left until completing my undergraduate degree, I find I am very interested in the editing and production side of publishing as well. Though I think I will continue to write until I can’t work a pen anymore (although by then I will have my cyborg helper monkey write what I dictate on an outrageously advanced computer), I can see myself in the meantime working somewhere in the publishing industry, producing either educational, trade, academic or literary work. At the moment I am very interested in learning more about the editor’s job concerning educational materials and choosing content, though this may change as I get more experience in the publishing industry.

So far, interning for PSG has taught me a lot about the hard, long hours that go into publishing education materials. I’ve worked on picking up content for teacher lesson plans to be used online and have also dealt with audio files for a bilingual math project. Overall, I have experienced a lot of what goes into the publishing industry, and I plan to learn a lot more over the course of the summer. 

Little-Known Fact About Elizabeth
Elizabeth is a big fan of pretty much every genre of music, especially classic rock, all types of blues, and rap and hip-hop. Her playlists consist of an eclectic mix from Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin to Tedeschi Trucks Band, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal to the Wu-Tang Clan and KRS-One. The one genre you won’t find on her iPod, however, is electronic dance music (EDM), though the recently discovered artist Pretty Lights is attempting to make a breakthrough into her music world. Don’t ask her what her favorite song is unless you have a good hour to sit and discuss the various selections and genres she has to sift through to choose!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What About Academics?

by Caitlin Wilson, Summer 2014 Intern

I just graduated from college, and I can guarantee that at least half my classmates were sometimes more concerned with how the football team did than with whether they could explain the thematic convolutions in Great Expectations or find the rate of flow through a wire suspended on the surface of a four-dimensional plane. (I knew that calculus class would pay off someday.) It’s expected that students will sometimes prefer to go out partying, stay home and relax, go to the game, even clean the house—rather than do their homework. However, there is a growing concern that universities themselves are absorbing this “fun stuff first, academics second” attitude, and that it’s costing their students.
The main culprit, according to some sources, is athletic spending. The 2013–14 annual report of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shows that most colleges and universities increased their total spending on athletics programs in the last few years, even accounting for inflation, but cut back spending overall. In many cases, that extra money was taken from university public works projects and research funding, although there are also plenty of universities where academic funding was cut to make ends meet. The problem is particularly prevalent not in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I universities, but in Division II and III schools seeking to use a refurbished athletics program to attract a larger student base, and thus to collect more tuition fees. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that with a larger student base comes a greater need for academic resources of all kinds—which a smaller school is hardly in a position to provide.
On the other hand, there are claims that it is not athletics that represents the greatest unnecessary drain on university resources, but administrative costs. Where in 1975 there was 1 administrator per 84 students, now the ratio is 1 to 68; from 1 professional staffer per 50 students, there is now 1 per 21 students. Universities rely on heavier administrative staffing than they used to, in part because professors no longer take on administrative jobs when not teaching, and so dedicated staff is required to keep institutions running on a day-to-day basis . James Joyner suggests that more administrators are needed because as state and federal funding decreases, universities rely more heavily on individual professors acquiring grants to continue their research, and the paperwork involved in securing and keeping track of funds from a wide variety of grantors requires a greater amount of attention than the professors themselves have to spare.
I’d like to see the greatest amount of university funding go to supporting professors and student resources designed for academic success. However, I also understand that as a degree has become more necessary for even an entry-level job, universities need to find ways to stand out to their potential students, and athletics is a good way to gain attention. Administrative costs also necessarily rise with a rising student population, although I agree that the administration of some colleges has grown out of proportion to the size of the student body. In the end, I hope that universities, like their students, can find a good balance among all the vying elements that require their attention.
Did You Know?
Of the 228 athletic departments at NCAA Division I public schools, 23 are self-sufficient. These include departments at LSU, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Purdue and Texas, all of which do not subsidize their athletics programs. Instead, the programs are responsible for their own costs, allowing these universities to allocate funding elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Researchers Strike a Chord: Health Benefits of Music

by Claire Paschal, Summer 2014 Intern

Music may have even more benefits than many of us thought. From playing an instrument to being exposed to music during surgery, recent studies suggest that music can have positive effects on both mental and physical health.

A 2011 study conducted by clinical neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and cognitive psychologist Alica McKay, PhD, measured the cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument as a child. The goal of the study was to measure whether or not learning how to play a musical instrument at a young age could affect our mental clarity in positive ways as we age. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older,” Hanna-Pladdy said.

To conduct the study, 70 healthy adults ages 60 to 83 were divided into three groups based on their level of musical experience. The study found that high-level musicians with at least ten years of musical training scored best on the cognitive tests. Musicians with one to nine years of musical training, as well as those with no musical experience, scored lower on the cognitive tests, thus highlighting a trend. Of the high-level musicians, half still played an instrument. Interestingly, those who still played an instrument did not perform any better on the cognitive tests than those who didn’t. “Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy said.

A second study, published in 2012, confirms Hanna-Pladdy and McKay’s earlier findings. This study suggests that to benefit most from musical training, one should begin before the age of nine and continue for ten years.

Apart from staving off cognitive decline, it’s also become increasingly evident that music can effectively serve further health needs of patients. For example, two musical therapists at Boston Children’s Hospital visit with patients in almost every unit. The therapists play for premature babies as well as to calm older children who are anxious about X rays or other procedures. They also assist in urgent situations, helping patients to relax when under stress.

A meta-analysis of 400 studies analyzing the link between music and our brains was conducted by a psychologist who studies neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal named David Levitin, as well as his colleagues. The analysis highlights evidence that music could reduce anxiety as well as affect immune response.

Another study, published in 2012 and led by Dr. Masanori Nimi, further supports the idea that music may be linked to the immune system’s response. For the study, mice were exposed to music for seven days before undergoing a heart transplant. The three groups of mice were exposed to either Verdi’s opera La Traviata, music from Enya or no music at all. Interestingly, those exposed to the opera music had a median survival time of 26.5 days, whereas mice exposed to Enya or no music at all had a survival rate less than half of that. The researchers concluded that exposure to the opera music had suppressed the immune response to the transplant, thus lengthening survival rates.

Although I’m not a scientist, it seems safe to say that there is indeed a palpable link between music and health. With more and more studies coming out in support of that link, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how music’s role in health care evolves.

Did You Know?
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

Perhaps one of the more publicized instances of this treatment involved  Gabrielle Giffords, a former member of the United States House of Representatives who was critically injured in 2011 due to a gunshot wound to the head. Giffords, whose injury caused damage to the language pathways in her brain, relearned how to speak with the help of music therapist and certified brain injury specialist Meaghan Morrow. “Music is the other road to get back to language,” Morrow said.

Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to create new pathways when a pathway is damaged or blocked, can allow someone to regain his or her ability to speak. To regain speech ability, the alternate pathways must be discovered and then strengthened in order to use them. It was Morrow and music therapy that helped Giffords’s neuroplasticity, allowing her to regain her ability to speak.

Intern Spotlight: Meet Caitlin!

by Caitlin Wilson, Summer 2014 Intern
When I was little, I wanted to be a drifter when I grew up. Then a farmer. Then a geneticist. Let me know if you sense a trend here, because I certainly don’t—after all, now I’m interning with an educational publishing company on the opposite end of the country from where I was born (I guess I got the drifting part down, at least).

To be fair, I have loved words ever since I learned to read in first grade. My mom still likes to remind me that I actively avoided reading until I had no choice but to learn. Once I’d learned, she couldn’t get me to stop—I used to read by the streetlight outside my window after getting caught with a flashlight after bedtime. In elementary school, I brought books to recess; in middle school, I hid them under my desk to read once I’d finished my worksheets; and in high school, I almost got frostbite walking to school because I took my gloves off to turn the pages of Paradise Lost. I probably should’ve known I would end up working with words.

Despite my obvious love of reading, I entered the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) as a biology major intending to focus on genetic research. I thought I might get into crop research, helping to produce more drought- or pest- or flood-resistant plants. I’d spent a lot of time learning about the environment in the Midwest: It’s a delicate ecosystem composed of physically tough plants, and modern farming techniques are hard on the land. I wanted to help create food plants better suited to the environment so farmers would be able to make a living off the land without killing it. Perhaps fortunately, just like in that famous Burns poem, the plans I’d laid so carefully went sideways on me. Halfway through college, I changed my major to English, and I had to throw myself into studying to make up the time I’d spent on chemical compositions instead of poetic ones.

At Publishing Solutions Group I’ve had the opportunity to learn what being part of the publishing industry means; I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I applied to intern here, but I’m glad I decided to go for it. So far, I’ve written several blog posts and worked on a variety of projects, and each task has given me a little more insight into how this job works. I’ve discovered that publishing can be as difficult as farming and as specialized as genetic research, and it requires the same curiosity I once applied to learning the best impromptu camping methods I could find. I probably won’t need to know how to build a fire with a handful of twigs and a hole in the ground—unless we have a cookout go spectacularly wrong—but that type of ingenuity will serve me well here.

I look forward to immersing myself in publishing as I have done with previous career goals. At last, I think this might be the right one for me, and I look forward to the rest of my time at PSG among the talented, knowledgeable staff here.

Little-Known Facts About Caitlin
Caitlin has attained blue belt rank twice in taekwondo, once under each of the main federations in the United States—the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF)—but hasn’t made black belt yet. She plans to take up the art again soon and to finally earn her black belt.

In high school, Caitlin belonged to a robotics team that designed, built and programmed robots during a six-week season culminating in a regional tournament. She has fond memories of singing Disney songs with her teammates in counterpoint to soldering, sawing, drilling and hammering (only occasionally getting her thumb)!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Just Say “Ah”: Improvements in Voice Synthesis

by Caitlin Wilson, Summer 2014 Intern

On stage, Dr. Rupal Patel is a commanding presence. She speaks clearly and passionately about her work. Patel is an associate professor in the Department of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at Northeastern University and the creator of the VocaliD project. She leads a team of researchers that is developing a system to create personalized synthetic voices for people with speech impairments, called target talkers by the folks at VocaliD. Rather than continue with the limited options for synthetic voices currently available, Patel imagines a world where people in need of synthetic voices can have them tailored to the qualities of their own speech.

Synthetic voices aren’t exactly new to science, but the technology also hasn’t progressed much in the past several decades. While a voice can now be played from a smartphone rather than a separate, bulky machine, the options for voices remain much the same. The most common voice (nicknamed Perfect Paul) is used because it is easy to understand in a loud environment; this is the voice Stephen Hawking uses. It also may be the voice a speech-impaired teenage girl uses—even though the voice is recognizably an adult male. Patel’s research focuses on combining a sample of the sound of a target talker’s voice with sounds derived from a voice donor. This allows her to build a voice that has the clarity, breathiness and pitch of the target talker’s voice, but with the articulation of the donor’s speech.

Patel can use as little as one vowel sound from the target talker and a few hours of speech from a donor to build a synthetic voice that matches the target talker’s voice better than any of the currently available synthetic voices. The donor is recorded while reading a few hours of sentences to make sure that an example of all possible sound combinations is included in the sound database for the new voice. Next, characteristics of the target talker’s voice are added to the program. The program can then produce articulate speech that sounds like the target talker’s voice. Patel also helped found The Human Voicebank Initiative, a growing body of speech recordings intended to contribute to research and development of better synthetic voices and other speech pathology research.

Voices built to suit the people using them would direct a listener’s attention more to what the individual is saying rather than be a source of distraction by not matching the speaker’s appearance. While a young girl speaking with an adult woman’s voice seems discordant, a girl whose voice sounds the right age hardly registers. There are intangible benefits as well. Patel closes her TED talk (see Patel’s video on the home page) with a brief anecdote about the first little boy for whom she built a voice; she tells the audience that one of the first things he said with his new voice was, “Never heard me before.” With that, she bows offstage, allowing the power of the boy’s message to demonstrate her own.

Did You Know?
The earliest speech synthesizers, built in the late 1700s, were mechanical. A Viennese man, Wolfgang von Kempelen, made a synthesizer that made sounds by using a bellows to press air through a tube with a reed at the end, like a clarinet. He attached a flexible leather tube to the end of that, and by changing the shape of the leather with his hand, he could change the sounds produced. Since the shape of the leather—acting like a person’s lips and mouth—altered the sound his machine made, Kempelen’s work displayed that it was the vocal tract that controlled speech, and not the larynx as had been believed previously.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thoreau’s Walden: Digital Discourse

by Dan Plonowski, Summer 2014 Intern

Though it has existed in the public domain for years, Thoreau’s Walden; Life in the Woods is going digital in a new way. Though the book has been easily accessible in the domain since the “Internet Age,” and text-based web pages can rewrite and place the entire book online (such as here), technology has helped enhance reading the work of Thoreau. Digital Thoreau aims to improve Thoreau discourse with three new projects: Walden: A Fluid Text Edition, The Readers’ Thoreau and The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.

Walden: a Fluid Text Edition derives from Ronald E. Clapper’s 1967 (UCLA) dissertation “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” which is about the process and number of revisions Thoreau edited from 1846–1854. The project uses the Versioning Machine, which allows multiples versions of a text to be compared at the same time. The formatting (for instance, text with strikethrough was “cancelled,” while text in red was “interpolated, not in manuscripts”) makes it possible to observe all of the changes, corrections and marks Thoreau made on his manuscript throughout all revision stages.

The Readers’ Thoreau, an idea to further the discussion of Walden, focuses on a social nature where users can comment and discuss certain aspects and theories on a sidebar. This is an attempt to create worldwide discussion between the public, scholars and students. For example, an English class at the one college may have the opportunity to have a debate with a philosophy class at a university in a different country. Powered by WordPress’s Commons in a Box and Comment Press, users can write and comment on each other’s posts using their preferred device, thus creating a digital discussion and never-ending chain of posts and comments. The site also allows people to “like,” comments and improve visibility settings when reading.

The last feature of Digital Thoreau is The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar. This serves to tell the life story of Walter Harding, who was a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo and was arguably the most influential Thoreau scholar of the twentieth century. This third and final project includes interesting artifacts such as letters from Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein to Harding.

By providing an ample opportunity for people to express ideas and interpretations about Walden, this may widen national and international discussion. It brings people together, allows them to exchange thoughts and ideas about certain pieces in the text and may even open doors to further discussion about other books.

Did You Know?

Contrary to popular belief, Thoreau was not a hermit. In fact, his father was the owner of a successful pencil-making business and he worked there for some time. Thoreau indeed chose to live quietly on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property for a few years, but not before he left his mark on the pencil industry. Apparently, he improved the pencil. He invented a machine that ground pencil lead into powder, and, by using clay as a binder with the lead, he changed the pencil into a smear-free, controllable utensil to write with. This propelled the Thoreau business into becoming one of the leading US pencil-making companies of the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Engineering is Elementary, Watson

by Alyssa Guarino, Junior Project Manager

Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinkertoys, K’Nex, GoldieBlox. While we may associate these names with simple creative outlets for children, more adults are seeing the opportunity to teach kids about engineering beginning at an early age. With the recent increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), new programs are emerging to keep students engaged in these subjects throughout their academic careers, beginning as early as elementary school.

This past March, Raytheon provided a grant to elementary schools in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to provide teachers with the training and materials necessary to implement the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) program. EiE was created in Boston at the Museum of Science (MOS) through the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) as a way to bring engineering awareness, interest and literacy to the elementary-aged group. It is based on the idea that kids frequently engage in engineering-like activities without even knowing it. EiE’s inquiry-based approach—stemming from most children’s inquisitive natures—aims to give students guidance on how to develop the skills they seem naturally disposed to have. The developers of EiE see reaching out to kids’ curiosity as a way to develop their engineering skills, as inquiry is the basis of the scientific method. These developers also created the program out of worry that even as technology becomes more accessible and our society more dependent upon it, fewer adults and children are aware of its uses and implications.

In addition to developing science and math skills, EiE’s main goals include building classroom equity and skills necessary for successful careers in the twenty-first century and teaching students to be engaged citizens. Students who learn the engineering design process at a young age will also come to understand that failure is a critical step in building successful experiments, and that oftentimes, problems hold more than one solution. These students are also working in a collaborative environment with one another, learning to communicate better and critique the work of their peers. This hands-on and project-based style of learning is meant to give students a taste of real-life working environments, whether as an engineer or in a different career. Because students are engaged in the creative side of science and math, they are more likely to consider diverse career options.

Implementing the EiE program includes a “Five E” learning cycle. Students are engaged in challenges that utilize their imagination and explore science and engineering principles. They are encouraged to explain what occurs in an activity, elaborate on what they have learned, and finally, evaluate the learning experience.

EiE, though developed in Boston, has since moved past the Northeast. North Carolina State University (NCSU) promotes the program in its local schools and the Science Museum of Minnesota provides “EiE professional development for educators in the Upper Midwest.”

So the next time you see children playing with building blocks, remember that they have the potential to become successful engineers, and even establish the next tech-giant companies!

Did You Know?

Even as the use and applications of science and technology grow in our society, there is still some stigma attached to careers in these fields. The Mind Trekkers team at Michigan Technological University (MTU) wants students to change their perspectives on what may be considered “geeky” careers. The club, consisting of both graduate and undergraduate students, is one of the programs under MTU’s Center for Pre-College Outreach, and aims to “reveal the mysteries of . . . STEM to students of all ages.” The group travel to bring activities to students and have worked with small groups of 15 students and much larger groups of 15,000. Recently, Mind Trekkers has teamed up with MTU’s Blue Marble Security Enterprise. Recently, the group taught students about circuitry by using a heart monitor, just one example of the many experiences students may have at a young age that could cement an appreciation and knowledge that will aid and guide them later in life.