Archive for the ‘Computers & Technology’ Category

Playing It Safe Online: NOVA Cybersecurity Lab Trains You to Carefully Navigate the Web

By March 2nd, 2015 at 10:10 pm | Comment

cyberpromo-facebook header

With our ever-increasing connectivity and reliance on the internet, cybersecurity is a growing concern. Despite all the cautionary warnings about cyber safety, individuals, companies and government agencies still fall victim to attack.

So what does it take to stay safe? NOVA, in partnership with computer scientists and cybersecurity experts, created the Cybersecurity Lab, a digital platform designed to teach people about cyber threats and how to improve their own cybersecurity. Read the rest of this entry »

Using the Quake-Catcher Network Citizen Science Project to Meet Common Core and Next Generation Teaching Standards

By February 24th, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Comment

Citizen Science in the Classroom: Quake-Catcher Network

Quake-Catcher Network Citizen Science Project Meeting Common Core and Next Generation Teaching Standards

QCN screen shot 1

Quake-Catcher Network Imaging Map




Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) is a citizen science project that uses internet and sensors (subsidized or free for K-12 classrooms) to connect schools and other entities to an earthquake monitoring network. It is hosted through Stanford University (along with UC Berkeley) and is supported by the National Science Foundation, US Geological Survey, the Incorporated Research, UPS, and O Navi (a low cost sensor development company).  The idea of this project is to create earthquake and seismology awareness, as well as recording data though a “distributed computing network.” This means that your classroom’s computer will be linked to a network of other computers relaying information back to the central hub monitoring for earthquakes.

For this project you need to be at least fairly tech savvy and able to understand how to download drivers and software, and able to install programs on your computer. The initial investment of time will be setting up everything so that it syncs with the BOINC seismology network. I would suggest at least a good solid hour or possibly two. You may also have to go through your IT department to be sure that there are no firewall issues and that you have permission to add the software required.  However, the investment is well worth the hand-on science aspect of this project and the feeling of connection that students may gain by participating in a global program.

The nice thing about this project is that it provides teacher support, lesson plans, and multimedia materials to help get you started. This type of citizen science, and the lesson plans provided, tends to run towards middle to high school content but it can be used by elementary schools as well.

Materials You’ll Need:

I’m going to spend a bit more time on the materials section, because this project is more tech centered than others. The QCN has different way that your classroom can participate in this project, either through seismic software sensors that are already in your mobile device or laptop (many Macs have this) or by sending you a $5 subsidized sensor. There is an option for a free sensor, but you must be in what they deem a “high risk” area, which I take to mean on a fault line or high activity area. Otherwise, you can mail in a request form for up to 3 sensors for $5 each. The nice thing is that for low income schools you can get a “loan” sensor and there is a free sensor program for schools that are Title1.

qcn sensor

QCN Sensor.

Sensors require that you have a USB capable device and you can dedicate one USB port to the project. The software that you download comes in a variety of formats for Windows and Mac. You will also need a location on the floor that will not be disturbed by students.  Your sensor will be connecting to the network using a software program called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure Networking Computing). It was originally used for the SETI program, but now it’s used for computer sourcing projects world-wide.

Some of the lesson plans on the QCN site also require that you have a mobile device or computer with an accelerometer. This is built into most smart phones though you may need to download an app. You may also borrow one from QCN. This is not required to participate in the program.

  • Computer with internet access.
  • QCN network sensor.
  • USB Drive that can be dedicated to this project.
  • Permission to download drivers and BOINC software to the computer.
  • Duct Tape and glue
  • Printer

Why This Citizen Science Project is a Strong Candidate for the Classroom:

  • Even though the program has some tech to it, it can be set up fairly easily.
  • There are many strong lesson plans free online.
  • Technology from this project supports STEM curriculum.
  • Teachers can run simulations and scenarios for students in the classroom.
  • This project incorporates maps, graphs, and technology.

Teaching Materials:

The lessons and activities provided by QCN can be found on their website. These tell you exactly what grade they are for and there are variations of some activities for different grade levels, K-12.

Online Safety for Children

The set up for QCN is done by an adult, and students do not need to enter information or data. Teachers will need to create a BOINC account with an e-mail and password. There are options to provide data about where you sensor is located. The more specific (long/lat) the better because this helps with their data collection. However, the BOINC software allows you choose to provide very specific or very general location information if you’re worried about privacy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spec-tacular Science: Use Public Lab’s DIY Spectrometer to find out what stuff is made of!

By February 19th, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Comment

PublicLab Spectrometer Project. Images:

Public Lab’s DIY spectrometry kit makes it possible for citizen scientists to do their own spectrometric analysis at home.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of citizen science projects for all five senses.


Spectrometry. Listen to yourself say it out loud. Admit it. It sounds cool just to say “spectrometry.”(Whoa you just did it again!) As fans of Star Trek or Star Wars will attest to, spectrometers are must-have instruments in the scientific arsenal. I’m happy to let you know, however, that the use of a spectrometer (a.k.a ‘spec’) is not limited to fictional, futuristic worlds. In fact, from discovering new chemical elements to measuring DNA, spectrometry is a technique that’s dipped its toes in almost every field of research.

What’s all the fuss about a spectrometer? 

Before I talk to you about a spectrometer, let me get into a little bit about the properties of light. You might know that objects appear a certain color because they absorb certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. For example, leaves appear green because they absorb other colors except green. So if you took some leaf extract in a glass tube and passed light through it on one side, the light that comes out of the other side will have lots of green and little of the other colors (because they were absorbed by the leaf extract).

Put on your scientist hat (or a lab coat) and think about that for a moment. You’ll probably say, “Hey! If I can figure out what specific mix of colors a known substance is made of then I can use that to find out what an unknown substance is made of!” And put simply, that’s what a spec does. It’s an instrument that uses light to determine what a substance is made of.


Spectrum produced by iron

A spec identifies the specific mix of colors that is absorbed by a sample producing what is known as an ‘absorption spectra‘ which is characteristic of that sample. Think of it like a fingerprint for every material. To do this accurately, the spec needs something that can effectively split light into its constituent colors. One option is to use a prism, which you’ve probably seen at some point. Another way is to use a ‘diffraction grating’ which is a surface with many small parallel lines that can also do the same job of splitting light.

DVD as a diffraction grating

DVD as a diffraction grating for a spectrometer

One cool everyday object that acts as a diffraction grating is a CD or DVD. The tiny grooves on the disc act like a grating and split white light giving off the rainbow of colors that you see on its back side. The Public Lab DIY spec uses a DVD as a diffraction grating. The image below describes how a simple DIY spec works. And that’s the Cliffs Notes version. Public Lab’s spectrometer curriculum has lots more detail!

The Public Lab DIY Spectrometer

Our friends over at Public Lab have made it possible for you to do your own spectrometric analysis at home! When it started, the goal of the project was to create a cheap, do-it-yourself spectrometer that anybody could use to analyze materials and contaminants like oil spills and tar residues in urban waterways. In 2012, the team came up with an idea for a spec and crowd-funded it on Kickstarter.  The Kickstarter project was a massive success and now Public Lab is selling the DIY desktop kit for $40 in its online store. However, if you prefer to build it from the materials you have at home, they have a great instruction manual for how to make it yourself.

They have also made a smartphone compatible Foldable Mini Spectrometer ($10 in the store) that you can carry around (and show off!). To be able to actually use the spec, the team at PublicLab built an open source software called Spectral Workbench that runs within your browser to help you record and analyze the data you collect. Whether you buy the kit or build it yourself, the Public Lab community has a wiki style page that is a great information resource.

To make it easier to get started, I’ve put together a plan to get you started with making and using your shiny new instrument:

Getting Started

1. What would you like to do with your spec? Check out this page of spectrometry activities. You can also look up this really cool (and really big!) Kickstarter backers-suggested list of ideas. For fun experiments you can test things like coffee, wine or beer! On a more serious note, you can read about detecting pesticides in fruits. At the end I would suggest you make a list of 2-3 experiments you want to try (if it’s your first time experimenting with a spec, start with an easy one!)

2. Buy the kit or make one yourself. Here’s the list of materials you will need (from the Public Lab website) and here are the instructions.

  • stiff black card paper
  • a clean DVD-R
  • a USB webcam (preferably HD)
  • a Type LB conduit body (basically a light-proof box with a couple holes)
  • double-sided foam tape and a box cutter/x-acto knife

3. Ready with your spec? Now read up about how to use Spectral Workbench, the software that PublicLab has built to help you capture and analyze your data. You can also watch the introductory video. Spectral workbench also has an open source database of spectra for different materials that you can compare yours to.

4. Connect your spec and fire up Spectral Workbench. Make sure to calibrate your spec using a fluorescent light bulb. This will ensure that your readings are accurate and can be compared between samples.

5. Based on your project, find out how you can prepare your samples for testing.

6. Get some science done! Document your research and share it with the PublicLab community (you will need to sign up to post your research notes). Get input from your fellow citizen scientists to answer questions you might have or improve your experiment.

7. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.


Images:, Wikipedia

Arvind Sureh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn or at his Website.

VerbCorner – A Window Into The Brain One Thought At A Time

By January 31st, 2014 at 8:56 am | Comment

VerbCorner invites citizen scientists to answer fun questions about words and their meanings to eventually help train computers to understand language.

SciStarter is shuffling science into the language department. Explore the science of words with these citizen science projects!

SentencediagramVerb. Noun. Pronoun. Adjective. Adverb. Preposition. Conjunction. Interjection… If you’re anything like me, the sight of sentence diagrams and parts of speech trigger nightmares of grade school English class and number 2 pencils. But, how do we understand what a word means? As useful as dictionaries are, they only provide other words in their definitions. How do we know when to use one word in a sentence and not another? How do we explain a complex idea to children?

In July 2013, Lily Bui introduced us to VerbCorner, a citizen science project investigating the structure of language and, ultimately, the structure of thought. According to Dr. Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, “Scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meaning of most words… It is [similarly] hard to understand how children come to learn the meanings of words, when we don’t fully understand those meanings ourselves… I can tell you as a former translator, we translate words into meaning and then back into words.” With an infinite number of words and sentence structures, where should linguists begin to understand their meanings?

In VerbCorner, the mammoth task of understanding how language is structured is broken down into smaller, simple tasks. Through wild stories, each task focuses on one of seven unique aspects of verb meaning to elucidate the fundamental building blocks scientists think make up language such as how a verb is used and its relationship to a change of state. To date, over 1500 citizen scientists have provided more than 117,000 judgments on the initial 641 chosen verbs and six aspects of meaning, supplying Dr. Hartshorne and colleagues enough preliminary data to begin understanding how we understand words.


Are there patterns to how we use verbs? Do we systematically choose words? Or is our word choice completely random and learned in childhood? Regardless of what language you speak, scientists are learning that how we choose words appears to be similar. Scientists have discovered there is a relationship between grammar and meaning which is systematic, and thereby machine learnable. Previous work by Beth Levin lead to the creation of VerbNet, a database where verbs are categorized based on their meaning and usage. Citizen scientists in VerbCorner are helping Dr. Hartshorne’s team verify that verbs with similar descriptions (such as contact or force) are similarly classified and only work in particular grammatical situations.

According to Dr. Hartshorne, “The most interesting things we are learning are about the building blocks of the mind.” In the initial release of VerbCorner, one task tried to understand the building block ‘change of state’ be it physical, mental, or a location. “If ‘change of state’ really was a core component of how we conceptualize the world, it should have been easy to make a task that got at it. We were unable to make such a task. People found it very hard to keep track of all three types of changes.” Dr. Hartshorne explained. Consequently, the initial task was broken down into three new tasks, each focusing on a different aspect of changing state. Suddenly, citizen scientists were able to complete the task. “This suggests that linguists were wrong about ‘change of state’ being a building block of meaning… Rather the building blocks are probably ‘change of physical state’, ‘change of location’, ‘change of mental state’, and possibly more.”

With these results, VerbCorner achieved its first goal – the analysis of the original 641 verbs and six aspects of meaning. But, there is lots of work still to do – another 400 verbs and four additional tasks have recently been added to the project which ultimately plans to cover all the verbs and components of meaning in VerbNet. Linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists plan to use our evolving understand of language and meaning to develop a deeper understanding of human thought as well as fine tune the artificial intelligence programming society is increasingly reliant upon.

Why not flex your mind over language skills at VerbCorner this afternoon?  I’m certain you know more than Siri.

Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

The Hour of Code: What Most Schools Don’t Teach, and How You Can Learn It

By December 11th, 2013 at 11:32 am | Comment

Screen shot 2013-12-11 at 11.26.44 AM

As an educator, I wanted to take a moment to write you all to inform you about the Hour of Code project that is taking place globally this week. Both President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently issued statements about Computer Science Education Week, which runs from December 9-15th, to encourage students all around the world to learn more about coding and programming. This is a massive initiative to help students both new and not-so-new to the field. The project even comes with teaching materials and valuable resources for educators inside. (I personally wish that I had taken a greater interest in this subject earlier on in my life, and having been an educator of yours at one point, I’d like to help you to check it out too!)

What is Computer Science?

If you’re not familiar with what Computer Science is or what it can be used for, I’d highly suggest that you check out this video (above). Understanding how to program is another venue for helping the mind to think logically and critically, and while coding has traditionally been used to build operating systems, programs, and websites, it can also be used creatively (game and web designdata visualization, and interactive art projects just to name a few)! If you’re interested in reading about more, check out this list of careers that utilize and value a computer science education.

How can you get started?

To participate in the Hour of Code this week, it’s simple! You just need to spend an hour learning about computer science sometime before this Sunday (12/15/13). Luckily for you, a whole bunch of projects have been curated for different skill levels and most of them are fun! Best of all, they’re free! Some of my recommendations include making an interactive holiday card, the Light-bot puzzle game, and the Processing Hour of Code tutorial. Even Khanacademy has added coding tutorials to their repertoire of educational materials.

If you’re feeling even more advanced, check out the list of resources at the bottom of the post, “You can code, too!” from my friend, Olga.

Images: (top)

Joe Diaz is an MIT alumnus, science educator and enthusiast. Follow @RealJoeDiaz.