Monthly Archives: November 2010

Surprising effects of solar activity on Earth’s temperature

Our Sun has bursts of activity that occur in an 11 year cycle–some periods of lots of activity and some periods of low activity.  The Sun provides the radiation that heats the Earth and makes it habitable for us.

So when the Sun is more active, the Earth should get warmer, right?   Wrong.

New research, recently published in Nature, shows that there was more solar energy reaching Earth during 2004-2007, when the Sun was relatively calm.

Over the past century, solar activity has been increasing.  Does this mean that the Sun’s activity is keeping Earth cooler?

Joanna Haigh, lead author of the study, points out the need to look at this data in the larger context and to make sure that the three-year period studied was not an anomaly.

Professor Haigh notes:

“We cannot jump to any conclusions based on what we have found during this comparatively short period and we need to carry out further studies to explore the Sun’s activity, and the patterns that we have uncovered, on longer timescales. However, if further studies find the same pattern over a longer period of time, this could suggest that we may have overestimated the Sun’s role in warming the planet, rather than underestimating it.”

The search for knowledge goes on–that’s why it’s called RE-search!

Read the ScienceDaily summary of the research at

Learn more about solar effects on Earth’s temperature and how climate scientists do research in our “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.

Energy3D: Design, print, cut, assemble, and test

Figure 1: Designing a building with

We have come close to release an alpha version of Energy3D, a computational building science laboratory for simulating energy flow and designing energy efficiency. This program will allow you to design a building in a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get style in 3D, just like Google SketchUp, and then evaluate its energy performance.

The alpha version will feature the Blueprint Wizard, which automatically deconstructs a 3D structure into 2D pieces, figures out which pieces are on the same 2D plane, generates a layout of all the planes, calculates the necessary lengths and angles, and prints them on a sequence of pages. Every piece is numbered and annotated with calculated geometric information adequate to guide students to cut it from provided constructional materials such as paper or foam board. The entire deconstruction process is animated so that the user has an intuitive understanding of the relationship between a house and the pieces in the blueprint.
Figure 2: Cutting and assembling the
building shown in Figure 1.

Students also have an option of fitting designs to the dimensions of constructional materials. For example, one option is to assemble a house using printer paper. If students select this option, Energy3D will automatically rescale every piece to guarantee that the largest piece can fit an A4 page and all the others will be proportionally rescaled accordingly. In this case, the texture and all the marks on a piece will be printed out, making it possible for students to construct a physical scale model that looks just like its computer counterpart.

Figure 3: Testing the scale model under
a table light and observing its thermal
signature with an IR camera.
If students are not sure where a piece is located during assembly, they can go back to Energy3D and click on the corresponding virtual piece in the 3D computer model, which will then be highlighted to indicate its position. Thus, the software tool remains useful during the hands-on construction. If any revision is needed after a physical scale model has been constructed, Energy3D’s blueprint feature can help students evaluate whether a modification is feasible by calculating how many pieces will need to be changed and whether there will be enough materials to make the changes.

Energy3D is developed by Drs. Saeid Nourian and Charles Xie and made possible by a grant awarded to the Concord Consortium by the National Science Foundation.

Giving Thanks

So many things to give thanks for. The Concord Consortium family had our own Thanksgiving this week, complete with turkey, stuffing and cranberries. We were happy to welcome a few new friends and a number of old friends, and have a great time. One way we showed our thanks was through our Thanksgiving tree, highlighting the many ways we’re thankful this past year.

Concord Consortium Thanksgiving Tree

How are you thankful? Let us know by chiming in a comment. We’re, of course, thankful for all of you as well. Happy holiday weekend to everyone. features Concord Consortium projects as examples of technology improving education featured our work heavily in its article today on 8 Ways Technology is Improving Education. Among other areas, the story cited our work with models and simulations, probes and sensors, and online assessment as examples of how technology has the potential to transform education.

It’s humbling to see so many examples cited in so many different domains. It’s also great to see some other good work from colleagues such as the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives. These manipulatives, some similar to interactive algebra examples we developed a number of years ago for our Seeing Math project, are great ways to learn important mathematical concepts.

To learn more and see the other great projects cited, read the story on

Climate Change: Back to the Future?

Climate scientists are working intently on models that can forecast what Earth’s climate might be like in the future.  The evidence points towards a warmer future, thanks to increased greenhouse gas emissions from humans.

So why are climate scientists studying the distant past (paleoclimate), long before humans roamed the planet?  Well, it turns out that it’s hard to predict the future if you don’t know what happened in the past.  And it also turns out that Earth’s temperature has been warmer in the past.

The graph below (from the USGS) shows that sea-surface temperatures during the Pliocene Warm Period were warmer than sea-surface temperatures today.

By studying the causes of past warming, and trying to figure out how the temperature cooled back down, climate researchers will be able to make better models for predicting the future.

Will the forecast ever get so accurate that we can plan our retirement homes?  Probably not, but it’ll be interesting to see how close we can get!

Read the United States Geological Survey (USGS) report at

To learn more about how we’re helping students explore unanswered questions about climate change, explore our High-Adventure Science project.

Accessing Sensor Data from Java

For years we have been using several layers of Java, Java Native Interface, and native driver code to support common access to sensors from multiple Probeware interfaces from different vendors. We’ve been calling these layers the org-concord-sensor framework.

Our Java/OTrunk framework which has supported many kinds of interactive educational activities uses the org-concord-sensor framework to route data from sensors to real-time graphs and as input into dynamic models.

The Google Code org-concord-sensor project includes a link to a some older (but still useful) documentation in our Confluence wiki Sensor Device System.

Here’s a general page in our wiki which shows how to (setup a full development environment for OTrunk in Eclipse)[].

Recently we have adapted this framework to support collecting data from Vernier GoIO probes directly in the browser.

If you have a GoMotion probe try the GoMotion Graph Demo page.

Crowd Sourcing JavaScript Performance-testing lets you write two equivalent ways to accomplish something in JavaScript and it then measures how fast each method is in every browser you run the test in. Other people’s performance tests can be browsed here Browse test cases.

Taking a look at a specific test could show data where you might want to pick an approach that is 25% slower in Chrome …

For example operator-vs-localecompage shows that FireFox starts out seven times slower than Chrome and the slower method in Chrome runs twice as fast in FireFox as the faster method in Chrome.

Other people who view your test can contribute new results when it is run in their browser also.

EdWeek features Concord’s Evolution Readiness project

Education Week article about Evolution Readiness

We’re pleased to see that Education Week has featured our Evolution Readiness project. Their recent article describes evolution teaching efforts and describes the significant results our project has found in helping students as young as 10 years old learn about natural selection. We’re pleased to see continued attention to this important topic. Check out the article on Education Week’s website (subscription may be required).

Do school firewalls really just block learning?

Noticed this past week that EdWeek’s Teacher Magazine had run a special column aggregating chat room comments about an issue particularly close to our heart: The difficult problem of school firewalls. The list of comments is quite interesting to read, as it pulls from both sides of the issue.
A blue lock for George, flickr: Darwin Bell, cc:by-nc

As software designers for things we hope are used in schools, we tend to fall on a particular side of this question, as you might imagine. The difficulties with deploying software in schools have caused many person-hours of consideration and consternation around our halls. We certainly understand the impulse to keep kids safe, but it’s not at all clear that the reactions to block and channel access bring safety. They certainly limit opportunity. We’ve begun a move toward Web-based applications, in no small part because of this phenomenon. It’s not clear that this will free us from difficulties in disseminating our work, either, but we feel it will get us closer. In any case, this seems like a root problem if we are to have technology used to its best potential in schools; pitting deep protectionist instincts against educational needs has seemed to run against the best interests of students for quite a while. Are there any solutions out there you have seen? Any ways we as a society can get past this problem? Are the concerns valid enough to warrant the degree of blocking that goes on in many places, or is it all truly just FUD? Let us know by chiming in in the comments.