Category Archives: Projects

¡El módulo de clima está disponible en español! (The climate module is available in Spanish!)

We’re thrilled to announce that the popular High-Adventure Science (HAS) climate module is now available in Spanish. Many thanks (muchas gracias) to Penny Rowe (University of Santiago of Chile) and Cristián Rizzi (Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina) for taking this on! The Spanish-language version directly parallels the existing English-language version.

Spanish-language version of the HAS climate module

English-language version of the HAS climate module

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The HAS climate module poses the question, What is the future of Earth’s climate? This is a question to which climate scientists do not (yet) know the answer; while there is ample evidence that Earth is warming, there is uncertainty about how much the temperature will increase. There is continued active research to learn about all of the factors that affect Earth’s climate and their interactions. And it’s an interesting question, one with an answer that affects everyone on the planet.

These are types of questions that are posed by High-Adventure Science modules – big, interesting, unanswered questions about Earth and environmental science topics, coupled with real-world data and computational models. High-Adventure Science was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.

While cutting-edge science is interesting, it can be challenging for non-scientists (students and adults alike) to understand. That’s why we scaffolded the data and models. Text and a series of guided questions help learners to figure out how factors such as carbon dioxide and water vapor affect temperature and each other (through positive feedback loops). Students can use the models to run experiments – what might happen if greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 50%, for example?

Model in High-Adventure Science climate module. What might happen to the temperature if greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 50%?

 

Additional scaffolding comes in the form of uncertainty-infused scientific argumentation items. Climate science, like all science, has uncertainties. Just because some of the scientific understandings are uncertain does not mean that no conclusions can be drawn, however. We don’t shy away from the complexity, but instead help students to consider some of the reasons for uncertainty with the data. For example, the real-world temperature data include error bars. Students are asked to consider the year-to-year variations, as well as the longer, multiyear trends. Additionally, students are asked to consider why the size of the error bars is different across different time periods, including methods of data collection, and how that affects the strength of conclusions that can be reached from the data.

Real-world data embedded in the High-Adventure Science climate module. Average temperature change, compared to 1950-1980 baseline, from 1880 to 2010. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In each of the embedded four-part argumentation items, students (1) make claims based on the data, (2) explain their claims in light of that data, (3) rate their level of certainty with their explanations, and (4) explain what affected their certainty levels. Rather than turn students into “climate deniers,” this process has helped students to more deeply learn the underlying science. In our research, students who used the High-Adventure Science climate module improved their abilities to formulate good, data- and evidence-supported scientific arguments, even with an uncertain science.

You can find both the English- and Spanish-language High-Adventure Science climate modules, as well as other High-Adventure Science modules and models, in the STEM Resource Finder at learn.concord.org/has.

Uncertainty: Real-world examples

When you live in New England in the winter, you pay attention to the forecast. Large snowstorms can make travel near impossible. Heavy snow and blowing winds can cause coastal flooding, power outages, and roof collapses.

The National Weather Service (NWS) exists to “provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” They’re my favorite source for weather forecasts. And yesterday morning (February 26), they gave me one more reason to appreciate them.

You see, there’s a big storm that may (or may not) be coming later this week. Last week, some forecasters (not from the NWS, it should be noted) were calling for blizzard conditions – seven to eight days from any potential storm! That’s lots of planning time, but is it valid to make plans based on seven-day forecasts?

Yesterday morning’s post from NWS Boston included this graphic and description:

(https://www.facebook.com/NWSBoston/)

Note the words “POTENTIALLY” and “LOW CONFIDENCE FORECAST”. Clicking through to look at the details, you can learn a bit about the model information on which they’re basing their forecast. If you don’t know a lot about meteorology, you can get lost in the abbreviations and details of the models. But the meteorologists have made it easy to understand their shifting confidence by explaining how model runs have shifted as they compile more information. They’ve put a bit of this information into their graphic, illustrating that the model error decreases as more information is known closer to the event.

On a much more novice level, this is what students do when they use High-Adventure Science (HAS) activities. (High-Adventure Science, a National Science Foundation-funded project, produced six NGSS-aligned curricular modules on cutting-edge Earth and environmental science topics. These free, online curricula incorporate real-world data and computational models and are appropriate for middle and high school classrooms.) In HAS activities, students run models and make claims based on data from the model runs. They rate their confidence with their answers and explain the factors that led them to that confidence level.

In our research, we found that when students were asked to write about uncertainty in the context of scientific arguments, they improved their overall argumentation ability. That suggests that teaching about uncertainty in science enables students to better understand real-world science – including weather forecasts.

Will we experience a big snowstorm later this week? I’m confident that the staff at NWS Boston will keep an eye on the model runs, updating me (and the rest of the Boston area) with their forecasts and levels of certainty with the data. In the meantime, check out a High-Adventure Science activity to enhance your students’ scientific thinking skills!

 

 

 

UMass Amherst students contribute to dragon genome project

Can dragons get cancer? Students in Dr. Ludmila Tyler’s Biochemistry Molecular Genetics and Genomics course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst asked this question last semester. As part of their course work, they used our Geniverse software to study dragon genetics and develop new genes, mutant alleles, and phenotypes based on investigations of scientific literature. They imagined the genotypic and phenotypic possibilities for the fictional drake, the model species in Geniverse. Drakes are essentially miniature dragons, so students can take what they learn about drakes and apply it to dragons just as scientists study model species like mice to learn about human genetic disease.

We recently revealed the science behind the genes of Geniverse. Thanks to Dr. Tyler’s students, the dragon genome has the potential to expand in exciting ways.

  • Some drakes now have a high-frequency acoustic sensitivity, which gives them the ability to navigate and forage using sound waves—thanks to research conducted by Nicholas Fordham and Thomas Riley Potter. They focused on the SLC26A5 gene, which encodes Prestin, a protein that functions in the membrane of cochlear outer hair cells and is involved in auditory function. In bats and dolphins, a change in one amino acid in the Prestin protein allows for echolocation.
  • A form of dwarfism called achondroplosia was introduced to the drake genome by Brian Kim, Danny McSweeney, and Jared Stone. The group identified research showing a connection between short-limbed dwarfism and one altered amino acid in the FGFR3 transmembrane protein receptor expressed in bone-building cells. They created a drake with short stature due to a heterozygous genotype, containing a single mutated allele; the wild-type homozygous recessive genotype would result in an average-sized drake while a homozygous dominant genotype would result in the death of the drake offspring.
  • The MaSp1 gene now enables drakes to secrete and shoot silk from their mouths (for example, to capture prey or build a home). Brandon Hancock and Mitch Kimber researched the MaSp1 fibroin protein across several spider species to look for areas of gene conservation.
  • Drakes may now be resistant to cancerous tumors, thanks to research by Evan Smith and Kaitlyn Barrack, who added the TP53 tumor-suppressor gene. The gene encodes the p53 protein, which acts as a major tumor suppressant in many different organisms.

We’re excited that these students and other members of the class have extended the database of drake genes, and we’d love to be able to incorporate them in Geniverse software in the future.

Try Geniverse now. What additions to the dragon genome would you like to see?

Lights, camera, action: A video that introduces the NGSS practice of scientific argumentation

Following the recommendation to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices in their classrooms, schools across the country are looking for ways to integrate scientific argumentation into their curriculum. Since 2012 the High-Adventure Science project in collaboration with National Geographic Education has offered free online modules for Earth and space science topics—including climate change, freshwater availability, the future of energy sources, air quality, land management, and the search for life in the universe—that include multiple opportunities for students to engage in argument from evidence.

Over 67,000 teachers and students across the globe have used High-Adventure Science modules. Based on teacher feedback, classroom observations, and analysis of student data, we have learned that when students engage in argumentation from data and model-based evidence, they need a lot of support on how to write a convincing argument.

Last year, we added an introductory activity to each module where students learn about the component parts of a scientific argument before they are asked to write one. In this highly scaffolded task, students see written examples of a claim and explanation and learn about uncertainty in scientific data and how to express this uncertainty. In High-Adventure Science, argumentation takes a special form, including a multiple-choice structured claim, open-ended explanation, five-point Likert scale uncertainty rating, and uncertainty rationale.


In this introductory activity, students learn about the components of a good explanation.

Even with this new activity, some students still struggled, so we recently created an animated video to introduce the scientific practice of developing an argument. We start by helping students identify the difference between a scientific argument and so-called “arguments” they may have with their friends (e.g., arguing about favorite ice cream flavors!), and making the distinction between claims backed by evidence and opinion. The goal is to introduce students to scientific arguments in a fun and relatable way and to make the terminology and process of scientific argumentation less daunting.

We’re piloting the video in our Will there be enough fresh water? module for select students. We’re looking forward to student and teacher feedback and may revise the video based on their comments. We want everyone to be able to engage in the critical practice of arguing from evidence.

We welcome your comments about our video, as well as your challenges and successes with incorporating the NGSS practice of engaging in argument from evidence.

Designer dragons? Talking to students about the ethical implications of editing DNA

University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

A breakthrough in medical research has allowed a team of scientists to edit the DNA of human embryos to repair a version of a gene that causes cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease resulting in heart failure. While some see this genome editing technology—known as CRISPR—as a remarkable tour de force, others find the practice extremely alarming.

Meanwhile, some middle school students are already practicing genetic engineering in the classroom with inexpensive kits. Geniventure, our dragon genetics game for middle and high school students, also allows students to manipulate genomes, but the DNA in Geniventure is virtual and the species is a mythical creature called a “drake,” the model species for dragons.

Working with drakes and dragons allows us to combine various real-world genes without having to be restricted to the genome of a specific species, a problem that scientists in many countries often run into. We’ve combined real genes from mice, fruit flies, lizards, and other model organisms into the genome of our fantastical creatures. Students thus experience many of the same real genes that scientists around the world are also studying. Importantly, using dragons also allows teachers to talk about ethical issues, including the implications associated with modifying DNA.

CRISPR incites fears of designer babiesthe idea that parents will someday want to choose particular traits for their unborn children. In Geniventure, students do “design” drakes in challenges that require them to change alleles to match a target. Teachers guiding students through these challenges have an opportunity to discuss the notion of modifying an organism’s genes for a particular purpose. They can pose questions to get students thinking about the ethical implications of gene editing: Are there circumstances where you wouldn’t want to edit a drake’s genes? What might happen if you changed the wrong gene and you couldn’t change it back? What effect would that have on the drake’s future offspring?

“Designing” drakes. Geniventure tasks students with manipulating drake genes by selecting alleles from pull-down menus in order to match a target drake.

It’s easier to discuss these issues when we are talking about drakes and dragons because humans aren’t anything like these fictitious creatures. But since the genes are modeled after real genes (e.g., the the albino gene is modeled after skin color in humans), we can translate conversations about dragons to similar debates by scientists and regulatory officials about human gene editing. In Geniventure, students change an albino drake’s genes from producing a broken enzyme so that it can create a functional protein and generate a drake with color distributed throughout its scales. Albinism is also an inherited genetic condition in humans, so there is a significant parallel that could bridge the conversation.

Scientists are using CRISPR to investigate the prevention of inherited diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and even some cancers, though there is opposition and concern over this technology. One major fear is the safety to a developing embryo. DNA that’s been modified in an embryo would be passed down for generations, which raises concerns that any mutations as a result of the gene editing could cause new diseases and become a permanent part of that family’s genetic blueprint. Geniventure enables students and teachers to start discussions about these important topics.

Virtual CRISPR-like techniques engage students in editing dragon DNA

The CRISPR gene editing technique is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than past methods of editing DNA. And it’s creating a huge buzz in the world of science and medical research. By precisely removing, adding, or altering part of the genome, CRISPR enables geneticists to target and edit genes that are associated with genetic diseases—without affecting other areas of the genome, a major drawback of previous approaches.

A recent story (CRISPR, 5 ways) includes a video, produced by Wired magazine, in which a biology professor at NYU explains CRISPR to a seven-year-old, a high school student, a college student, a graduate student, and an expert scientist in the field of genetics. The conversations range from genomes to the value of basic research.

In the final conversation with the expert scientist, the focus shifts to the level of DNA and genome engineering. Scientists who use CRISPR must understand the underlying mechanisms by which the genes affect particular genetic traits and disorders. They’re able to learn about the composition and functionality of genes from model species they study and apply what they’ve learned to another target species (e.g., the mouse is a model species for human genetic disease).

We’ve created an online learning environment that allows middle and high school students to do the same.

Geniventure, dragon genetics software

Geniventure, the next generation of our popular dragon genetics software Geniverse, places students in a virtual underground lab where they perform genetic experiments with drakes, the model organism for dragons. There is real biology behind the mythical drake and dragon genes and traits, which have been carefully compiled from the actual genes and associated traits of the anole lizard, mouse, fruit fly, zebrafish, and other model species used to study genetics. The genes that affect horns, wings, color, and other drake traits are genes that are involved in the development and functioning of similar traits in real organisms.

In our Geniventure game, students zoom into a drake’s genes, see the actual DNA code behind them, and manipulate the resulting proteins as the proteins do the work of producing traits. The first set of protein-based challenges using this new interface revolves around scale color (modeled after the same genes for human skin color) and allows students to edit the genes of an albino drake. After working with the proteins that produce melanin and discovering a broken enzyme that results in an albino drake, students enter the nucleus of the cell to change the drake’s genes (and DNA) from producing the broken enzyme so that it can create the functional protein, ultimately generating a drake with color distributed throughout its scales.

From albino to charcoal (right). In the protein-level challenges, students can view the starting state of their drake’s scale color (Albino), the current state (Lava), and the target state (Charcoal). The Start and Target views also display the distribution of color throughout the drake’s scale cells.

Proteins in action. In the Geniventure Zoom Room, students experiment with proteins and discover how they influence the color of the drake. Students are tasked with manipulating the proteins of an albino drake to restore color to its scales.


Inside the nucleus. In some challenges, students are unable to work with the proteins directly. Instead, they must enter the nucleus where they can alter the drake’s alleles to create the proteins needed to reach the target color.

Making this protein-based link from DNA to trait is critical for students’ ability to make sense of patterns between genes and traits— for example, dominant vs. recessive versions of genes— and to apply the same logic to other genetic phenomena. Through Geniventure, students are able to transfer their experience of editing genes and working with proteins in drakes to an understanding of how scientists are using CRISPR and other techniques.

Our goal is to help students better understand modern science, including biotechnology advances such as CRISPR, to make science engaging and relevant, so students can ultimately envision themselves as future scientists.

Teaching about water quality and the importance of fresh water

A new resolution may overturn the Interior Department’s “Stream Protection Rule,” which required coal mining companies to monitor and test the quality of local streams and rivers before, during, or after mining operations. There is no better time than the present to learn about the importance of water issues in our communities and environment. Three Concord Consortium projects focus on teaching middle and high school students about their local watersheds, careers in environmental conservation, and freshwater availability, and all of them offer free, high-quality resources ideal for classrooms or informal education settings.

The Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed project, a collaborative research project at the Concord Consortium, Millersville University, and the Stroud Water Research Center, has developed curricula for environmental/geoscience disciplines for high school classrooms, using the Model My Watershed (MMW) web-based application. The curricula also integrate low-cost environmental sensors, allowing students to collect and upload their own data and compare them to data visualized on the new MMW.

In Supporting Collaborative Inquiry, Engineering, and Career Exploration with Water (Water SCIENCE), middle school students from southern Arizona, central valley California, southeastern Pennsylvania, and eastern Massachusetts complete hands-on science and engineering activities, receive guidance and instruction from undergraduate and graduate student mentors, interact online with STEM professionals, and learn about careers in environmental conservation and engineering while investigating their community’s local water resources.

Melinda Daniels, Associate Research Scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center, describes her work. Watch additional videos about water scientists and environmental conservationists »

And in our High-Adventure Science project, we’ve developed a unit entitled “Will there be enough fresh water?” Students explore the distribution and uses of fresh water on Earth. They run experiments with computational models to explore the flow of groundwater, investigate the relationship of groundwater levels to rainfall and human impact, and hear from a hydrologist working on the same question. Students think about how to assess the sustainability of water usage locally and globally while considering their own water usage. Use these great resources today to help students understand critical water issues!

Aquifers

Students use computational models to explore water extraction from aquifers in urban and rural areas.

New features in CODAP

Our Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP) software provides an easy-to-use web-based data analysis tool, geared toward middle and high school students, and aimed at teachers and curriculum developers. CODAP is already full of amazing features. We’re excited to announce several new features! Continue reading

High-Adventure Science Partnership with National Geographic Education

We are excited to announce that the Concord Consortium’s High-Adventure Science modules are now available on the National Geographic Education website, thanks to a National Science Foundation-funded partnership with National Geographic Education. High-Adventure Science modules have been used by thousands of students so far, and we welcome the opportunity to share our modules with a wider audience of middle and high school teachers and students. All modules will continue to be available on the High-Adventure Science website.

High-Adventure Science: Bringing contemporary science into the classroom

Each week-long High-Adventure Science module is built around an important unanswered question in Earth or environmental science; topics include fresh water availability, climate change, the future of our energy sources, air quality, land management, and the search for life in the universe.

Throughout each module, students learn about the framing question, experiment with interactive computer models, analyze real world data, and attempt to answer the same questions as research scientists. We don’t expect that students will be able to answer the framing questions at the end of the module (after all, scientists are still working to answer them!); rather, we want to engage students in the process of doing science, building arguments around evidence and data and realizing that not knowing the answers (uncertainty) drives scientific progress.

To that end, each module (and associated pre- and post-tests) contains several scientific argumentation item sets. The argumentation item set, with multiple-choice and open-ended questions, prompts students to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the provided data (graphs, models, tables, or text). Our research has shown that, after using High-Adventure Science modules, students improve both their understanding of the science content and their scientific argumentation skills. Register for a free account on the High-Adventure Science portal for access to pre- and post-tests.

Expanded teacher resources through National Geographic Education

Partnering with National Geographic Education has allowed us to provide more support for teachers. On the National Geographic Education website, you’ll find in-depth teaching tips, background information, vocabulary definitions, and links to the standards (NSES, Common Core, ISTE, and NGSS) to which our curricula are aligned. Additionally, each module is linked to related resources in the National Geographic catalog, greatly expanding the resources available to both teachers and students.

Teachers have been excited about the models, real world data, and the argumentation prompts that get students to focus on the evidence when making a scientific claim. (You can hear directly from one of the High-Adventure Science field test teachers at NSTA!)

Come see us at NSTA in Nashville, TN, this week! Stop by the National Geographic booth or come to a presentation about using High-Adventure Science modules in your classroom:

  • “High-Adventure Science: Free Simulations Exploring Earth’s Systems and Sustainability” on Thursday, March 31, from 12:30-1:00 PM in Music City Center, 106A
  • “Integrating Literacy Standards in Science” on Sunday, April 3, from 8:00-9:00 AM in Music City Center, 209A

 

Modeling solar thermal power using heliostats in Energy2D

An array of heliostats in Energy2D (online simulation)
A new class of objects was added in Energy2D to model what is called a heliostat, a device that can automatically turn a mirror to reflect sunlight to a target no matter where the sun is in the sky. Heliostats are often used in solar thermal power plants or solar furnaces that use mirrors. With an array of computer-controlled heliostats and mirrors, the energy from the sun can be concentrated on the target to heat it up to a very high temperature, enough to vaporize water to create steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in California's Mojave Desert, which went online on February 13, 2014, is currently the world's largest solar thermal power plant. With a gross capacity of 392 megawatts, it is enough to power 140,000 homes. It deploys 173,500 heliostats, each controlling two mirrors.

A heliostat in Energy2D contains a planar mirror mounted on a pillar. You can drop one in at any location. Once you specify its target, it will automatically reflect any sunlight beam hitting on it to the target.

Strictly speaking, heliostats are different from solar trackers that automatically face the sun like sunflowers. But in Energy2D, if no target is specified, as is the default case, a heliostat becomes a solar tracker. Unlike heliostats, solar trackers are often used with photovoltaic (PV) panels that absorb, instead of reflecting, sunlight that shine on them. A future version of Energy2D will include the capacity of modeling PV power plants as well.