Thursday, January 28, 2016

Adopt-a-School Programs Encouraging Literacy

by Tess Renault
Fall 2015 Intern

When I was in elementary school, I was one of those kids who got overly excited for the annual book fair. The night before, I’d spend a lot of time perusing the fair’s flier, looking at all the books that were going to be offered. Being the age that I was, I figured every school had a book fair each year. I didn’t know that many schools throughout the country lack the resources to provide books for their students. Fortunately, United Way is pairing up with The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and Scholastic to provide books and encourage reading at some of the country’s most underserved elementary schools.

The initiative, which is called the United Way Club Connect Adopt-a-School program, was developed by Bill O’Dowd and has been in the works for years. It officially debuted in February 2015 after being tested in several cities, and represents the first time United Way has worked with high-poverty schools all over the United States. Research has shown that reading by third grade is crucial for academic success later on, so a focus on early reading is key. A study conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013 revealed that only 32 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls are reading proficiently by fourth grade. If that’s not troubling enough, third graders who do not read at grade level are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

So what’s to be expected from the Adopt-a-School initiative? Schools that are chosen to participate will receive over 400 books from Scholastic, access to online reading resources and engagement tools for parents and guardians. Each school will be equipped with a Reading Oasis, which is a place for students and their parents or guardians to have access to the donated learning materials at any time. Each Reading Oasis will provide books on CD as well. All of the learning materials will be geared toward pre-K through third grade in order to emphasize the importance of early literacy. Also, each student will have access to a membership to the United Way Club Connect website, which will help students remain engaged with reading during after-school hours, including the summer. United Way will also send parents and guardians emails with coupons, tips to help their children with reading and other incentives for engaging with the program.

Currently, it costs $10,000 to implement the Adopt-a School program in each school. However, there is hope that the initiative will spread across the country, as every student deserves the chance to love reading.

Did You Know?

There are many great reading materials out there, especially in the form of apps. MemeTales offers picture books with audio components to help beginners read along. StoryKit (which is only available for iOS at this time) gives you the chance to create your own electronic storybook. Both apps are free!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Augmented Reality in the Classroom

by Kyle Amato
Fall 2015 Intern

Google Glass seems like something out of a Star Trek episode, but, amazingly, this example of augmented reality exists today. Merriam-Webster defines augmented reality as “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera).” Although Google Glass may have seemed like the only technology of its kind, augmented reality (AR) technology exists in many forms. And it is even finding its way into classrooms across the country thanks to creative developers and smartphone technology.

AR technology is not as ubiquitous as virtual reality, but it is still gaining notoriety. NASA recently released a remarkable app known as Spacecraft 3D, which makes spacecrafts such as the Curiosity rover materialize in fully animated models. All you have to do is print an AR target on a normal piece of paper and aim the camera of your tablet or smartphone. The spacecraft will appear on the device through the app, and you can move the camera to examine every inch of it. With this app, kids can learn how NASA’s robots maneuver on Mars and other alien terrains.

Developers of the app Aurasma want to make homework and other school assignments more interactive and engaging. It's very simple: use the app to upload a trigger image that, when scanned, will cause a separately uploaded "aura"—essentially an interactive marker that will display on Aurasma users' screens—to appear on the smartphone screen. Writer Todd Nesloney says Aurasma could be used to display equipment safety tips in laboratories or make vocabulary definitions pop off the page. Kids could have a lot of fun with technology and learn plenty along the way.

Augmented reality is still in its early stages, but it should not be written off as a flashy fad just yet. The applications in classrooms alone are endless. Who knows where the technology could be a year from now?

AR technology can even be used to make learning more accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. German design group Morphoria is creating a concept magazine that uses AR to demonstrate sign language with a video playing to the left of the articles. It’s a fascinating new way to learn sign language!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Experience the Prehistoric World through the Chauvet Cave

by Chelsea Wilson
Fall 2015 Intern

Sometime over 30 thousand years ago, prehistoric humans found their way to a limestone cave in the Ardèche region of southern France. Here they drew more than one thousand images in what is believed to be the oldest cave art in the world. Around 20 thousand years ago, a rockfall covered the entrance and the cave remained undisturbed until December of 1994, when Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire and Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered the cave while spelunking. Archaeologists soon rushed to examine and protect the cave.

The drawings display artistic skills previously unseen in art from that period, such as use of shading, paint made of charcoal or red ocher used with engraving, and anatomically correct images. In a virtual tour of the caves, you can see how the prehistoric artists used the shape of the cave to provide the illusion of three-dimensionality. Some of the different types of animals depicted include ones dangerous for prehistoric humans to observe—mammoths, bears, lions, rhinos, bison and aurochs.

The rockfall that blocked humans out also blocked animals in. Some of the bones found include cave bears, wolves, ibex, small reptiles and bats. These remains make up some of the four thousand remains that have been inventoried in the caves, which also include prehistoric plant life and human footprints.

As a way to share this treasure with the world, hundreds of people spent eight years and over $50 million to create a 3D model of the cave for a replica built 1.5 miles away at Vallon-Pont d’Arc. The replica, which opened in April 2015, is housed in a concrete hanger and replicates the interior of the caves down to the temperature. The interior of the cave is replicated by concrete layered over a metal scaffold, with stalactites and stalagmites made of resin. The drawings were created using images projected onto the walls as a guide for artists to replicate.

For those of us who cannot travel to France, the online tour will have to suffice, but those who can see the replica of the Chauvet caves will be able to experience the world of our prehistoric ancestors through the art they created, which could have been lost to time if not for a lucky rockfall 20 thousand years ago.

Did You Know?

Never heard of an auroch before? Aurochs are an extinct form of cattle that stood 6.5 feet tall, weighed around 2,200 pounds and were known for having a temper “akin to a tetchy rhinoceros.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Forget PJs and Story Time, It's PJs and “Solve” Time!

by Tess Renault
Fall 2015 Intern

When I was a little, my mom would read me a story every night after dinner. I always had a stack of my favorite titles ready to go, but it’s probably safe to say that I never asked her to read me a bedtime math problem. However, a recent study suggests that doing bedtime math problems can be beneficial for developing a child’s math skills.

Sian Beilock and Susan Levine, psychologists at the University of Chicago, conducted a nine-month study during the school year that showed students who did bedtime math gained “on average the equivalent of a three-month advantage over their peers.” There were 587 first graders from 22 schools in the Chicago area that participated. Each child was given a tablet to read at bedtime, but 420 of the participants were instructed to use it for mathematical word problems on the Bedtime Math app. The rest of the participants used a reading app. At the conclusion of the study, the results of a standardized math test demonstrated that the students who used Bedtime Math outscored their peers.

As of yet, there is no reason known for why bedtime math problems seem to work so well. Is it specifically the time of day? The additional practice? Or the way in which the math is presented? It certainly appears that simply discussing math problems with your child helps considerably. Even math-anxious parents who aren’t overly confident about doing math with their children can benefit from the Bedtime Math app. When using this app (or similar ones), parents often continued to engage in some degree of math talk during daily life, including something as simple as counting the chocolate chips when baking cookies. Also, using Bedtime Math removes the stigma that some often attach to learning math—the app shows that math shouldn’t cause anxiety and can be fun to learn.

Bedtime Math is just one example of the many math apps out there for young students. If you’re considering doing nightly math problems with your children, there are many fun options to choose from. For instance, DragonBox Algebra 5+ helps teach children as young as five algebra concepts through a series of games (and in the process they probably don’t realize they’re learning). YodelOh Math Mountain is good for learning basic math skills with a quirky touch—children have to answer a series of math problems to prevent a cartoon yodeler from falling off a mountaintop. Motion Math Pizza is another popular app in which students get to create and sell pizzas, learning both math and economic skills.

So maybe the next time story time rolls around, swapping a fairy tale for a math problem might be an idea to consider!

Did You Know?

There are many great apps out there for kids, but some are created by kids. In 2011, eighth grader Robert Nay created Bubble Ball, a puzzle app that received a million downloads in the first two weeks it was available.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Listening and Learning: Educational Podcasts in the Classroom

by Kyle Amato
Fall 2015 Intern

In late 2014, a 12-part podcast focusing on a high school murder case called Serial became mainstream news. Serial reached 5 million downloads faster than any podcast before it. But it wasn’t just radio and podcast fanatics who tuned in.

English teacher Michael Godsey decided to use Serial in his tenth and eleventh grade classes. Students were instantly hooked on the murder mystery. They held mock debates, examined evidence gathered by Serial host Sarah Koenig and even made their own podcasts.

Linda Flanagan writes for KQED, “Godsey is one of a growing number of educators who are using podcasts like Serial to motivate their classrooms and address education requirements set by the Common Core state standards. Improving students’ listening skills is one of the essential components of the new education mandates, and using audio in the classroom can be an effective way to promote listening.” Thanks to well-made, engaging podcasts like Serial, teachers like Godsey can make sure their students are actively listening and absorbing the information. The students can learn while also being entertained.

Other teachers across the country have been using episodes from podcasts such as This American Life and Radiolab to educate their students. I listen to these podcasts routinely, so I’m glad to hear that educators are encouraging the audio world for their students. Podcasts have made interesting topics more accessible than ever before. A world of knowledge is at your eardrums. Here’s hoping Serial season two is just as gripping and educational!


Earlier this year, PSG wrote about educational podcasts specifically for children. There are podcasts for kids of all ages focusing on a variety of subjects like reading and science—take a look at the blog post to find out more! 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I'm Not A Conspiracy Theorist, I'm a Robot Realist

by Eileen Neary
Assistant Project Manager

Ever since the creation of automated machines, the fears of an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover (or cybernetic revolt, as more professional futurists call it) have been growing. From the minds of science fiction greats Isaac Asimov and Aldous Huxley to 2015’s blockbuster films Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina, culture shows that people are fascinated with what machines could someday be. This potential future has long seemed fictional, but the (small) possibility of artificial intelligence destroying the human race has, in some ways, been on the minds of more than just storytellers and conspiracy theorists.

The phrase “artificial intelligence” was coined by cognitive scientist John McCarthy in 1955. By the early ’70s, one of the first successful QA, or question-answering, programs was functioning. It was named SHRDLU, and could follow a user’s instructions to pick up and place blocks and pyramids in a virtual toy box. Today, “intelligent personal assistants,” otherwise known as AI software agents, are standard features on the biggest brand-name products. Perhaps what started with SHRDLU, has continued with agents like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa . . . but where does it end?

Maybe with doom. An informal survey of participants at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference published by the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) estimated in 2008 [PDF link] that the risk for Superintelligent AI resulting in the end of the human race has a 5 percent chance of occurring before the year 2100 (a tie with molecular nanotechnology weapons). This beats out the survey responders’ estimated probabilities for wars (4 percent), engineered pandemics (2 percent), nuclear war specifically (1 percent) and other possibilities, like nanotechnology accidents and natural pandemics.

High-profile scientists like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk of SpaceX and Steve Wozniak of Apple, have signed an open letter from the Future of Life Institute (an organization with the goal to prevent any existential risks to the human race) that addresses how to make AI safe and helpful to society, rather than more powerful and potentially deadly. The letter advocates for the ban of autonomous weapons to prevent a “global AI arms race.” The goal of the letter is to prevent automated weapons of the future for a variety of ethical reasons, as the results could be tragic for the human race.

There has also been the fear of machines continuing to put employees out of work. But as it turns out, there are some tasks that robots just cannot do. Amazon Mechanical Turk is just one host for HITs, or human intelligence tasks (tasks that require a person's mind). These types of jobs involve taking surveys, describing and labeling the content in images or videos, matching data, and conducting research.

If you’re still feeling a little uneasy about all of this, here’s a list of 10 jobs that have a less than 1 percent chance of ever being replaced by robots, according to researchers at the University of Oxford (yes, the same university with an institute that surveys estimates for the probability of human demise.)

And if you’re still feeling uneasy, well, here’s a cute puppy.

Did You Know?
Besides Mechanical Turk, other sites to perform HITs include ShortTask, CrowdFlower and Clickworker. Certain apps are available too, like EasyShift and TaskRabbit. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What Has Six Arms and Two Legs—and a Brain in Each One?

by Chelsea Wilson
Fall 2015 Intern

What does have six arms and two legs and a brain in each one? An octopus! Three-fifths of an octopus’s brain is found in its eight appendages. The largest octopus on record, a giant Pacific octopus, reportedly weighed 600 pounds and was nearly 30 feet wide. Think of all that brain room!

As if the brains-in-their-appendages fact weren’t strange enough, octopuses have additional unique characteristics that make them truly amazing animals. An octopus can change its shape and the color of its skin. A 100-pound octopus can fit through an opening smaller than an orange. The creature can taste through its skin and eat through a parrot-like beak. Studies of the octopus genome have found hundreds of genes active in no other animal and some genes previously thought to be found only in vertebrates such as humans.

Despite coming from a family of mollusks that includes brainless clams, the octopus is also surprisingly intelligent. Octopuses are dexterous enough to open jars with screw-on lids. And experiments performed at the Seattle Aquarium show that octopuses can even recognize people dressed identically.

Amazed yet? If not, these next octopus anecdotes might convince you.

Otto the octopus from Coburg, Germany, made a name for himself when it was discovered he was responsible for shorting out the entire electrical system in the Sea Star Aquarium several days in a row. The six-month-old octopus had climbed the side of his tank and squirted water at the 2,000-watt spotlight that shined into his tank at night.

Otto isn’t the only octopus to express his disapproval or play tricks. One octopus had been given shrimp that didn’t meet its standard of freshness, and it maintained eye contact with its keeper while it stuffed the shrimp down the drain. A foot-long octopus disassembled a valve above her tank, releasing at least 200 gallons of seawater into nearby offices and exhibits.

Whether the octopus is squirting water at spotlights, opening the lid of a jar or expressing its opinion of its dinner, the remarkable, almost alien form of an octopus belies its intelligence.

Did You Know?
The plural of octopus is not octopi. Octopi comes from incorrectly applying Latin rules of pluralization to octopus, which actually comes from the Greek word oktōpous. Although Merriam-Webster notes octopi is acceptable (likely due to common usage), Oxford Dictionaries designates the standard English plural as octopuses or, occasionally, octopodes, the Greek plural form.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Real-Life Fairy Tale: King Ludwig II and Neuschwanstein Castle

by Tess Renault
Fall 2015 Intern

Neuschwanstein Castle is nestled into a mountainside in Bavaria (not too far from Munich) and even from far away it looks like it belongs on the pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In fact, it was the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. On a high school trip to Germany, I was lucky enough to visit Neuschwanstein Castle and the whole experience was akin to a fairy tale. You can take a horse and carriage ride up the winding pathways that lead up to the castle, and throughout the grounds there are musicians clad in traditional German clothes playing music for tourists. If you get to take a tour of the castle, you’ll see that its history is fit for a fairy tale as well.

King Ludwig II, who took the throne in 1864, was something of a recluse and decided to build Neuschwanstein Castle to have his own personal dream world removed from the general public. Enamored with castles from the medieval ages, Ludwig II modeled Neuschwanstein after these strongholds, despite the fact that the medieval ages were long since over and there was no real need for kings to have castles anymore. The interior of the palace is intricately decorated with scenes from the medieval legends that inspired the composer Richard Wagner, as Ludwig II was a patron of his. The castle even has its own grotto, adding to the fanciful atmosphere of the castle. However, Ludwig II never saw his castle fully finished.

In 1886, King Ludwig II was dethroned on the premise that he was insane. The king had a history of behaving eccentrically and spending money recklessly (such as building an elaborate castle on a cliff) and so he was deemed “mad.” On June 13, 1886, three days after his dethronement, Ludwig II and his psychiatrist disappeared. Later that day, their bodies were found on the shores of a palatial lake.

A cloud of mystery has always surrounded the cause of King Ludwig II’s death and several conspiracy theories have come out of the suspicion, such as the belief that he was murdered in a plot by power-hungry relatives. A recent study published in the journal History of Psychiatry claims that the king probably wasn’t mentally ill and, therefore, continues the speculation surrounding the king’s death.

Even though Ludwig II never got to see his castle completed, Neuschwanstein has become one of the most visited castles in Europe. It officially opened to the public only seven weeks after his death in 1886 and ever since it has become a popular tourist attraction. Currently, 1.4 million people visit the fairy-tale castle each year, and during the summer up to 6,000 tourists visit each day.

Did You Know?

There’s actually an app all about King Ludwig II and his “fairy-tale” life—perfect for history buffs or tourists. The app includes several interesting features, such as augmented reality simulations, audio features and extensive photo galleries. Plus, it’s free! (Although it’s currently only available for iOS.)