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Posts Tagged ‘STEM

Fixing America’s STEM education gap

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By: Michelle Bylicky

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

STEM education is more than a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Ideally, STEM education is meant to combine these disciplines to provide students with the necessary tools to solve real world problems. The current goals for STEM education as set forth by the National Science and Technology Council are to: increase diversity and inclusion in STEM, to develop a STEM-literate public comfortable with technological advancement and to prepare individuals for STEM careers . At the center of each goal is the need for quality STEM education to provide all students with a groundwork to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for scientific literacy or a career in STEM.  

American students fail to demonstrate proficiency and interest in STEM subjects, indicating clear problems with current STEM education in the US. Only one in three 8th graders test at or above competence in math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Department of Education’s nationally representative assessment . The US is ranked 36th in math and 18th in science on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which ranks 70 countries . Meaning we are below the average in math. There is national concern that these low test scores indicate a failure to teach quality STEM education to preK-12 students. The issues impacting STEM education are obviously complex and will involve a multi-pronged approach.  

Numerous solutions have been offered to increase preK-12 STEM interest and proficiency particularly among traditionally disadvantaged groups. However, solutions which have focused solely on specific segments of students have typically yielded disappointing results. To improve mathematical literacy among students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds some state legislatures have encouraged more formal math education at pre-school levels. The reasoning is simple, to prevent failing students from quitting a STEM pathway, do not let them fail by offering early enrichment opportunities. While initial results from early education programs have shown some promise, previous attempts to bolster continued improvement in students have failed. By the end of elementary school, students who received intervention during preschool fail to show ongoing improvement compared to students who did not. 

One suggested explanation for this failure is that teachers in higher grades do not effectively build on the educational opportunities offered to children by programs such as Headstart or Building Blocks.  Preschool teachers may be trained to utilize a specialized curriculum that leads to improvements in preschool childrens’ cognitive skills. But if subsequent education is not also of a high quality children will cease to improve. Training preschool teachers is ineffective if teachers in higher grades do not receive additional training as well. 

There may be more efficient ways to encourage the pursuit of STEM, and that begins with educators. Teachers who suffer from high math anxiety themselves are more likely to have low achieving students in math. One explanation is that math teachers with high anxiety may lack the knowledge to effectively teach math, relying on teaching students through rote memorization rather than discourse. 

If this is true of math teachers, consider that roughly 38% of middle school and high school science teachers have performed any type of research. They can not be subject matter experts in a subject they have no experience in. It would be useful to provide continuing education to these science educators by offering opportunities to participate in scientific research. Previous research has indicated that allowing secondary teachers to perform research has improved their students’ achievement scores

Giving teachers an opportunity to perform research can help by allowing educators to understand how science is performed so they may incorporate more relevant projects into their scientific curriculum for students. Understanding how projects are developed: through collaboration, experimentation and modification of hypotheses before re-testing may improve their teaching methods by moving towards an appreciation of higher order learning. 

Similarly, there has been research at the collegiate level indicating that traditional teacher centered lectures are the least effective method for getting students to retain and utilize information. There is no reason then that this teacher centric lecture strategy should be more effective in the lower grades. Both educating educators on the utility of active teaching and helping them to develop active teaching methods for their classroom would be useful. Active learning or student centered learning refers to methods which require students to reflect on ideas being taught and utilize these ideas to problem solve. This can involve small group discussions, allowing students to work together collaboratively on a question in class or hands on projects. While memorization of facts may be necessary for understanding, the goal should be to encourage student discourse and thought whenever possible. In addition, active learning is associated with a more positive learning experience which can increase motivation to enter a STEM pathway.

Improvement in current preK-12 STEM education may require multiple alterations to the current educational environment in the US. Providing more opportunities for educators to engage in research and other professional development may be one method. This will allow instructors to develop their own science acumen which can guide how they teach students. Similarly educating teachers on the benefits of active learning and introducing simple methods to incorporate active learning into lessons will be beneficial for improving STEM education. If educators are not comfortable with the material that they are teaching then students will struggle.  

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December 24, 2019 at 10:26 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 4th, 2019

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By: Patrick Wright, Ph.D.

Image by succo from Pixabay 

National Academy of Sciences to allow expulsion of harassers

The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) voted to approve an amendment to their bylaws that would allow expulsion of a member by the two-thirds vote of the 17-member NAS Council for sexual harassment and any other breaches of its Code of Conduct; 84% of votes cast were in favor of this amendment. 

Under this new amendment, any person can bring a complaint about an NAS member for a breach of the Code of Conduct, which can include scientific misconduct, bullying, and discrimination, in addition to sexual harassment. The complainant must then document wrongdoing by presenting official findings by outside entities (e.g. funding agencies) rather than NAS conducting investigations itself.  

In June 2018, the collective National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a report characterizing sexual harassment in STEM settings, preferentially impacting women and driving many to leave science. The report, entitled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” states that “…sexual harassment is a serious issue for women at all levels in academic science, engineering, and medicine, and that these fields share characteristics that create conditions that make harassment more likely to occur. Such environments can silence and limit the career opportunities in the short and long terms for both the targets of the sexual harassment and the bystanders—with at least some leaving their field.” This amendment approval marks another step forward in addressing this issue at a national level by putting NAS policy in parity with the National Academy of Medicine which voted to allow expulsion of sexual harassers this past January.  

Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, stated, “All women who have had a tough road–even those who have made it—I’m sure like me are happy to see this day where they can finally say: ‘The climate is going to change’. No longer will a climate be tolerated that doesn’t allow women to have the same chance as their male colleagues to thrive.” 

 (Meredith Wadman, Science)

Ph.D programs drop standardized exam

An increasing number of U.S. research universities are no longer requiring the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test as part of their Ph.D program application requirements. In 2018, 44% of molecular biology and 35% of neuroscience Ph.D programs sampled from 50 top-ranked research universities stopped requiring GRE scores. One potential initial driving force behind this trend was the 2017 decision by the University of Michigan Biomedical Sciences Program end their GRE application requirement, leading other programs to follow suit. However, more than 90% of sampled chemistry, physics, and computer science programs, among others, still required general GRE scores in 2018. 

A common belief in academia is that GRE scores represent innate intelligence and thus are coupled with success in graduate school; in reality, this likely is not the case. Joshua Hall, Director of Graduate Admissions for the Biological and Biomedical Science Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and colleagues showed that for 280 graduate students in his program, GRE scores did not correlate with the number of first author publications or time needed to complete degree. An analogous study by Moneta-Koehler et al. looked at 495 biomedical Ph.D students at Vanderbilt University and reported that GRE scores did not predict which students passed their qualifying exams, graduated, had a shorter time to defense, delivered more conference presentations, or published more first author papers. On the other hand, GRE scores were observed to be moderately predictive of grades on first semester coursework. 

Problematically, in addition to the lack of evidence that GRE scores are predictive of success in an academic research environment, it is also possible that GRE requirements hinder diversity and inclusion efforts by disadvantaging underrepresented groups. Members of underrepresented groups, including women and racial and ethnic minorities score lower on the exam than do white and Asian men. The cost of test preparation and training, in addition to the cost of taking the exam itself, can be burdensome for those of lower socioeconomic status. Many programs have now begun to assess the extent to which removing the GRE from application requirements will diversity applicant pools. For example, Jon Gottesman, director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Research, Education, and Training at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, recently sent out a survey to biomedical graduate programs soliciting demographic information on applicant pools. 

Going forward, it may be vital for graduate programs to revisit their standardized testing admission requirements. Arthur Kosowsky, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, which removed the GRE application requirement in 2018, believes the test “…is both not really measuring something useful….and at the same time discriminating against students who we are trying to work very hard to increase the numbers of in our program.” 

 (Katie Langin, Science)

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June 4, 2019 at 4:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 6, 2018

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By: Neetu M. Gulati, Ph.D.




The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day

Ethical concerns and controversy came to the forefront last week when news broke that Chinese scientist He Jiankui had supposedly created genetically edited babies using CRISPR technology: a first in the world. CRISPR/Cas9 technology, or CRISPR as it is more commonly known, is a scientific tool that allows researchers to edit (add, subtract, or change) the expression of genes quickly and precisely. This technology could be used to fix mutations that cause human disease. However, there are also risks, using CRISPR for gene editing may have disastrous side effects such as potentially leading to cancer.

He Jiankui claimed that he used the technology to alter a gene called CCR5 to reduce the risk of of HIV infection in embryos before implanting them in a woman, who then gave birth to twin girls. He claimed another CRISPR baby may be on the way from another pregnant woman. It is unclear if He has actually done what he claimed, and he has not yet published his results in a peer-reviewed journal. Nevertheless, the response to He’s claims have been strongly negative. Many people are concerned that He violated ethical norms by editing human embryos, especially because the overall consensus among scientistsin the field of gene-editing was that “there is a need for caution” and to only use the technology after “much more research to meet appropriate risk/benefit standards.”

Since the public has learned about He’s experiments, numerous scientists, including pioneers in the CRISPR field, have spoken out against He’s actions and have called for a temporary moratorium on similar experiments. Southern University of Science and Technology in China, where He has been on unpaid leave since February, has opened an investigation into He after finding out about his research. China’s National Health Commission is also investigating He.

Amid the backlash, He defended himself and his actions at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, claiming to be “proud” of his work. Dr. He has not been seen since the summit, however, and there are now concerns that he may be missing.

(Ed Yong, the Atlantic)


Trump emphasizes workforce training in new vision for STEM education

The White House released a new five-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education this week, with a vision that “all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation and employment.” The report emphasizes workforce training in STEM, focusing primarily on opportunities outside of traditional classroom settings, such as apprenticeships. The plan also highlights the need for more diversity in STEM, such as minorities and women.

Overall the strategic plan focuses on four pathways to success: developing and enriching partnerships between educators, employers, and the community; engaging students in trans-disciplinary learning, including advancing innovation and entrepreneurship education; building computational literacy; and operating with transparency and accountability. The plan put forth by the Trump administration diverges from some of the key priorities of the former administration, including efforts focused on traditional academic environments such as training more teachers, and improving STEM instruction in colleges and universities. Instead, this plan appears more focused on how STEM education prepares students for the years after schooling is completed. “STEM education is absolutely critical to supporting the American worker, and this plan brings together a number of programs that are part of our emphasis on the American worker,” said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president at OSTP.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)


NASA’s InSight Mars explorer lands safely on the Red Planet

For only the eighth time in human history, a spacecraft has been landed on Mars. The InSight lander touched down on Martian soil on November 26, 2018 after over six months of space travel.

NASA’s InSight mission aims to gather information about Mars, and is part of the NASA Discovery program for focused solar science missions. InSight will study the crust, mantle, and core of Mars, to allow scientists to learn more about the formation of rocky planets in the solar system.

InSight has already begun taking photos of the surface of Mars, which have been posted on social media accounts such as Twitter. The lander has also set up solar panels, which allows InSight to power its cutting edge instruments. In doing so, the lander set an ‘off-world record,’ generating more electrical power than any previous vehicle on the planet’s surface. InSight project manager Tom Hoffman spoke on the importance of this achievement, “The 4,588 watt-hours we produced during sol 1 means we currently have more than enough juice to perform these tasks and move forward with our science mission.” This almost doubles the energy produced in a Martian day produced by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which previously held the record.

InSight will continue taking pictures of the surface of Mars to study its new surroundings and use its robotic arm to set up instruments to place them on the surface of Mars for the next few weeks. It will take two to three months before the lander begins conducting science on the Red Planet.


(Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post)



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December 6, 2018 at 5:23 pm

The Threat of Stereotype Threat in STEM: How do we address it?

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By: Patrick Wright, Ph.D


source: Eryk via wikimedia CC-BY-SA-4.0

Stereotype threat (ST) was first described by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in 1995 and is defined as the risk of confirming and fulfilling a negative stereotype about one’s group and the subsequent potential impact on performance that can result. In their initial study, Steele and Aronson describe the apparent equalization of performance on a verbal exam between African American and Caucasian students in an exam after stating the exam was a tool for studying problem solving (to better understand the “psychological factors involved in solving verbal problems), and thus making no reference to ability, compared to conditions in which ability was made salient to participants (“genuine test of your verbal abilities and limitations so that we might better understand the factors involved in both”). Steele and Aronson argued that priming the African American group of race-based performance stereotypes alone was sufficient to impair their performance. In the decades since this original study, substantial work has been done to characterize this seemingly profound driver of performance and achievement disparities, especially as they pertain to science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) education and careers. However, the application of these findings (both those supporting the existence of ST or calling it into question) into tangible, meaningful changes to guide future research and policy implementation has been uneven at best. What role does ST play in STEM itself, and how can we move constructively into the future to address the broader blight of stereotyping and bias in the sciences?

ST experienced by and biases against minority groups can have a substantial effect across all cogs of the scientific process, from professional progression to publishing. Underrepresentation of minority and female professors is driven predominantly by marginalization in STEM fields. For example, women make up around 50% of faculty in non-STEM fields, whereas they only account for 24% of faculty in STEM fields. African-American faculty make up only approximately 1.5% of faculty in chemistry, biology, and economics, but around 9% of faculty in English, sociology, and educational leadership/policy. Once in a faculty position, however, the problems can continue. A recent study by Magali and colleagues on junior faculty (n=174: n=108 women, n=66 men) at the Stanford School of Medicine using novel ST measures showed that women reported greater susceptibility to ST than men across all items including ST vulnerability (p < 0.001); rejection sensitivity (p = 0.001); gender identification (p < 0.001); perceptions of relative potential (p = 0.048); and, sense of belonging (p = 0.049). Women also reported lower beliefs in advancement (p=0.021). An example statement and Likert scale used to test ST vulnerability includes “I feel that people in academic medicine judge me negatively because of what they think of (my gender) as a group”; 1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree). Similarly, for Career Advancement: “I can see myself completing enough research to advance to Associate Professor”; 1= strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree). Finally, when it comes to scientific publishing, Budden et al. showed that after the journal Behavioral Ecology introduced double-blind peer review, there was a significant increase (7.9%, p=0.01) in the proportion of papers with a female first author and a corresponding decrease in papers with a male first author over a four year period, whereas similar journals in the field without blinded review showed not differences in gender representation across the same time period.

ST can even have a profound effect on day to day personal interactions. A recent investigation used an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), worn by participants, that records nearby audio for 30 seconds every 12 minutes, as an unobtrusive sampling technique of daily interpersonal interactions. Male and female scientists wore the recorders while at work. Researchers found that when male and female scientists were not talking about work, women reported feeling more engaged, compared to having feelings of disengagement and sounding less competent when talking about work. This behavior was not observed during similar conversations with female colleagues. Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and a lead investigator on the study, noted “For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype. By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent.”

Despite the extensive data outlining the damaging effects of stereotype threat, many scientists and studies question the experimental approaches of these ST studies and the interpretation of their results. Lee Jussim, Professor of Social Psychology at Rutgers University, has noted concerns about the analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) approach that was used in the initial, seminal Steele and Aronson study to compare the performance of both the African American and Caucasian groups , specifically calling into question the use of prior SAT scores as a covariate to adjust the performance scores of both groups. While their covariate-adjusted scores are statistically equivalent, there is little meaning when pre-existing differences are still intact without this adjustment; the seeming primary driving force behind these groupwise differences was entirely controlled for when prior SAT scores were selected as a covariate. Similarly, a meta-analysis on the effects of ST on girls in stereotyped domains, reported that publication bias may be underlying the ostensible effect of ST as it pertains to women’s math performance. Many of these ST studies also have small effect sizes, are underpowered, and are not robust nor replicable.

Despite the ongoing dialogue over the validity of the ST field, progress has been made to implement policies to minimize gender and racial biases and stereotypes across academic and industry settings. Daisy Grewel, a social psychologist in the Office of Diversity and Leadership at Stanford University School of Medicine, has proposed three steps that individuals can use to buffer their own susceptibility to negative stereotypes: adopting a growth mindset, educating themselves and others about the science of stereotypes and how stereotypes affect decision-making, and expanding their professional networks to increase a sense of belonging. National Academy of Sciences released a report  in 2006 called Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering to provide interventional strategies and guidance to academic institutions to minimize stereotyping. The document systematically addresses common stereotypes and beliefs against women in science and engineering such as “Women faculty are less productive than men” or broader stereotypes about the research “Behavioral research is qualitative; why pay attention to the data in this report?” and provides extensive evidence refuting these beliefs. The report states: “Federal funding agencies and foundations should ensure that their practices—including rules and regulations—support the full participation of women and do not reinforce a culture that fundamentally discriminates against women“ and recommends that all research funding agencies should provide workshops to minimize gender bias, and expand support for research on the efficacy of organizational programs designed to reduce gender bias. It also states that Federal agencies should establish guidelines, leverage resources, and enforce existing laws to increase the STEM talent developed in these populations. Schmader and Hall succinctly conclude in a review evaluating current polices implemented to minimize stereotypes and biases the role of policy in this realm: “Policy designed with social psychology in mind can help to recover the human potential lost from stereotype threat. However, only informed implementation can reduce the risk that policies inspire backlash from the majority or exacerbate stereotype threat among minority group members.”

The debate on the significance of ST in STEM and the broader dispute on causes of minority-related performance disparities demonstrates an increased need for research funding to allow studies to recruit larger cohorts, to maximize statistical power, enable collaboration and recruitment of biostatisticians, and pursue more appropriate analysis to give these data their appropriate due and more conclusively illustrate the weight of ST in STEM. The self-esteem, livelihood, and productive output of large groups of people are what is at stake. The questions on the existence of “stereotype threat” as it is currently known is somewhat tangential to the point; these performance disparities in STEM educational and professional settings exist, and the scientific community is attempting to put a name to a face. Despite debate regarding ST research, if these studies have catalyzed the implementation of policies at an institutional level to address implicit biases and change world views, is this not a net gain for all of us? Even if the quantifiable impact of ST does ultimately prove minimal, is it not in everyone’s best interest to implement policies to minimize stereotyping and expand perspectives regardless?

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July 5, 2018 at 1:20 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 26, 2018

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By: Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD



source: pexels

Women in STEMM

Sexual harassment is rife in the sciences, finds landmark US study

On June 12, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released their report: Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The 311-page report is the most comprehensive study on the topic, characterizing the problem of sexual harassment in academia and providing a series of evidence-based recommendations to combat harassment. The problem is pervasive in academia, with over 50 percent of women faculty and students reporting harassment, which is second only to the military’s 69 percent incidence. While sexual harassment is most often thought of as unwanted sexual advances, the report defined three classes of harassment, broadening this traditional conception: (1) gender harassment; (2) unwanted sexual attention; (3) sexual coercion. Gender harassment is the most prevalent form, which conveys the idea that women don’t belong in the workplace, for instance, by implying inferiority or telling demeaning jokes.

The report also documented the toll sexual harassment takes on academic achievement and career development, with consequences on mental and physical health that can lead to decreased participation in research and leadership, as well as leaving academia entirely. Authors of the report also have pointed out that harassment isn’t restricted to women alone, and that underrepresented minorities (including racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities) have increased risk of harassment The resulting loss of talent deals a major blow to research integrity and progress in STEMM fields.

The study honed in on factors that contribute to harassment, with the largest predictor being institutional organization and environment, including a lack of understanding of the problem and potential mitigation strategies among leadership. The committee put forth a number of recommendations to address the problem. Strategies include treating sexual harassment as scientific misconduct (similar to a policy issued by the American Geophysical Union), improving transparency and accountability within institutions, and increasing diversity and inclusion through anti-harassment and civility-promotion programs.

The consensus study was prepared by the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine and was sponsored by NSF, NASA, NIH, NIST, NOAA, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

(Alexandra Witze, Nature)

Public health

What separation from parents does to children: “The effect is catastrophic”

On June 20th, the Trump administration announced the President would sign an executive order to end the controversial policy separating minors from their parents at the border. The policy had garnered a great deal of opposition from mental health professionals citing research that separation has lasting effects on child welfare and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association had all issued statements warning of the traumatic effects of family separation. Over 13,000 mental-health professionals and 229 organizations have also signed a petition urging the administration to end the policy.

The effects of family separation have long been documented in case studies around the world—from state-run orphanages under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime to Australian aboriginal children removed from their families. The effects range from post traumatic stress disorder to lower IQ to a higher risk of addiction later in life.

Notably, the executive order has not alleviated the concerns of the professional societies that expressed concerns about the original policy. The EO maintains the “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings, which will continue to place children in detention facilities. It also does not specify whether or how separated families will be reunited in the future. At least 2,342 children have been separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9, and experts note that even if children are reunited with their parents soon, the trauma will have lasting effects into the future.

(William Wan, Washington Post)


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June 26, 2018 at 4:55 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Science Education Policy

Are Science Lecture Classes Sexist?

Students of both sexes complain it is increasingly more difficult to get A’s in college science and math classes then in other non-science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) classes. However, women are suffering disproportionately to a “grade penalty” in sciences versus male college students.

A study from the University of Michigan, that has been submitted to the open access journal, PLoS One, observed that female college student typically earn half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science courses than in other classes at the university. In contrast, male college students only received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes do worse in the introductory chemistry course, however, female college students experience a “grade penalty” more often than male college students.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true when looking at STEM laboratory grades and breaking it down by gender. Female college students do better overall in laboratory classes compared to lecture and even outscore their male counterparts. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor of physics, contributes this difference the the fact that labs allow time for students to go at their own pace and polish up their reports without a ticking time clock — such as you have with in-class timed examinations. Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety. (Jill Barshay, U.S. News).

STEM Education

Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

Top businesses in the United States — Apple, Facebook, Target, Walmart, and AT&T—are calling on Congress to improve computer science education in all K-12 schools. The companies worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science among the nation’s youth in technological fields. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort. They hope by supporting the teaching of coding and programming that this will draw in middle-class jobs to their states. Moreover, with children who are trained in computer science and math, they will be giving them the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. “Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often forcing companies to turn to foreign workers for specialized skills. To make matters worse, the federal government has virtually no federal funding dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools. For many schools, computer science education is treated as an elective: a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. However, there is a push to treat computer science as a core subject instead, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed. “It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, and the dating site

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job. “Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field.” (Emma Brown, Washington Post).

Science in Health

After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

“The Biggest Loser” is a reality TV show where contestants who are extremely overweight compete in their weight loss efforts and whoever is ‘the biggest loser’ wins. Danny Cahill, winning contestant from Season 8 of NBC’s television show said, “I’ve got my life back. I mean, I feel like a million bucks” upon winning. However, in the 5 years since the show’s end, he has gained more than 100 pounds back despite his best efforts. In fact, most of the season’s contestants have regained most if not all the weight they lost. Surprisingly, some are even heavier now.

Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center, had the idea to follow contestants from “The Biggest Loser” for six years. The project was first to measure what happened to people over that time period. Their stunning results showed the body’s resistance to weight loss. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “I am just blown away.”

A person’s resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns at rest, is set to the individual’s body weight set-point. Therefore, when a person deliberately loses weight, regardless of if they are a normal weight or not, the body will slow its metabolism to thwart their best efforts.

It was already known that those who deliberately lose weight will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So the researchers were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slower metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was as the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight. These research findings give insight into the nation’s obesity problem and the struggles individuals go through to keep the weight off. (Tracey Yukich, The New York Times).


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May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 8, 2016

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By: Swapna Mohan, DVM, Ph.D.

Kris Krüg via Photo Pin cc

Public Health Surveillance

Mystery cancers are cropping up in children in aftermath of Fukushima

After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in 2011 in Japan, a swift and efficient evacuation and containment plan ensured that human suffering was kept at a minimum. This included beginning a more thorough population surveillance for thyroid problems in Fukushima citizens under the age of 18. However, this thyroid screening for children and teens in the months that followed showed an unexpectedly high rate of thyroid related cancers. Anti-nuclear power activists concluded that it is the result of inhaled and ingested radioactivity from the Fukushima incident. However, scientists unequivocally disagree and stress that a majority of cases of thyroid abnormalities have not resulted from radiation exposure. Others indicate that it might be a result of overdiagnosis on the part of public health officials.  Since there are no baseline data from before the incident, it is impossible to verify whether this high report of cases is a direct result of radiation or are just indicative of a high number of thyroid carcinomas in children. Epidemiologists point out the error in comparing the results of this screening (where they used advanced devices to detect even unnoticeable abnormalities) to more traditional clinical screenings (where participants have already detected lumps or symptoms). In order to get a better idea of the baseline of thyroid abnormalities, scientists screened approximately 5000 children from other areas of Japan in comparable age groups. The data did not reveal a significant difference in the rate of thyroid abnormalities in the unexposed populations. This demonstrates that thyroid abnormalities in children is higher than previously thought and must be kept in mind when considering options such as complete or partial thyroidectomy. (Dennis Normile, Science News)

Global Health

A Zika breakthrough: Scientists detail how virus can attack fetal brain

The mechanism by which the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns has been described by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, Florida State University and Emory University. With lab grown stem cells, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the virus invades the brain cortex, killing the rapidly dividing stem cells there. This reduction in stem cell numbers in the cortex causes the brain to be malformed and underdeveloped. The study, published in Cell Stem Cell, is the first piece of evidence that conclusively ties Zika infections to microcephaly and developmental defects in newborns. Zika virus, known to induce only mild symptoms in adults, has been linked to an unprecedented increase in cases of microcephaly in babies born in Brazil last year. However, the link between the two had been so far, inconclusive. There was an alternate theory that the incidence of microcephaly could be caused by pesticide and use. This study showed the propensity that the virus has to neural stem cells over other cell types (such as fetal kidney cells or undifferentiated stem cells). The researchers observed that the virus used the rapidly dividing neural stem cells to replicate their numbers and in the end, this leaves the cells depleted and unable to grow properly. Scientists believe that getting a better insight into the pathogenicity of the virus on neural cells is essential for developing preventative and therapeutic measures to fight the disease. (Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

STEM diversity

NSF makes a new bid to boost diversity

To understand why women and certain minorities are underrepresented in the science filed, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched an initiative aimed at increasing diversity in the scientific community. The 5-year, $75 million program named INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) targets proposals for scaling up involvement of underrepresented groups in science education and STEM fields. The proposals solicited for this initiative are required to outline an effective strategy for broadening participation by working with industry, state governments, schools and nonprofit organizations. While NSF has over the years, funded several similar initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, this one is expected to test out novel ideas and approaches. The initial response to this program has been largely positive, with commentators calling it “a bold new initiative” and having high expectations on its potential to strengthen the participation of underrepresented groups in science. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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March 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 5, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

Scanning electron micrograph of neutrophil ingesting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Credit: NIAID. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC)

U.S. oversight of risky pathogen research could be better, draft report concludes

Gain of function (GOF) mutation studies that manipulate dangerous pathogens to develop treatment and vaccines can pose significant threat to public safety in event of an accidental or intentional release of the modified infectious agent. A recently released report by an expert advisory group, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to the U.S. government concludes that though just a small subset of the GOF studies pose such a risk, current policies regulating such studies required further policy supplementation.

The debate on GOF studies came into prominence in 2011 when two research groups reported GOF studies on H5N1 avian influenza virus resulting in a more virulent and readily transferable virus. This led to a controversy over publication of the results and fear of pandemic in case of escape of these agents from the laboratory. In 2014, the U.S. government suspended 18 funded GOF studies involving pathogenic viruses such as influenza and SARS. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) later exempted few of the studies while NSABB and National research council (NRC) continued to review the risks and benefits of such studies. Following the NRC meeting, NIH commissioned an independent firm to evaluate the risk and benefits of such studies.

The report submitted by the firm analyzed the probability of both lab accidents and security breaches and concluded that “only a small fraction of laboratory accidents would result in a loss of containment; of those, only a small fraction would result in a laboratory-acquired infection, and of those, only a fraction would spread throughout the surrounding community (or global population).” It further states that some types of GOF experiments may not pose any security threat. The report also highlights the regulatory gap overseeing this kind of research. There are some regulatory requirements for handling the lethal viruses and bacteria classified as select agents; however GOF studies involving MERS virus and seasonal influenza viruses does not seems to be regulated by any of the current policies.

The draft report also proposes multistep guidelines while making funding decisions on research proposals related to GOF studies. In the initial step, reviewers would evaluate three criteria to determine whether the study needs further special evaluation. Studies requiring further evaluation would have to undergo a seven step review process before making a funding decision. In the final step, all the funded studies would be regularly reviewed by the sponsoring institution and federal funding agencies.

Although the NSABB reports details a thorough risk benefit analysis and recommends a set of policy guidelines for research funding for GOF studies, it is expected to draw extensive comments during the upcoming NSABB meeting. However, some scientists believe that due to the perception of a larger scale benefits of these studies, the recommendations of the report may not lead to stricter policy guidelines. (David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

Antibiotic Resistance

Spread of antibiotic-resistance gene does not spell bacterial apocalypse — yet

The worldwide emergence of bacteria resistance to colistin – one of the “last resort” antibiotics – was  recently reported in numerous countries. Colistin is one of the few antibiotics which are rarely used in humans as it can cause kidney damage; thus, bacterial resistance due to overuse in humans has not occured. However, mutations conferring colistin resistance have been previously reported in soil bacteria, and most recently it has been identified in plasmids, those small sections of circular DNA which are readily shared among bacteria. The ease of this transfer of plasmids between bacteria has resulted in the emergence of colistin-resistant bacterial species. As colistin is considered as a last resort drug, the appearance of resistant bacterial species has resulted in an outcry in the medical field.

However, not all researchers and physicians are considering this as the worst possible news, since colistin is not the only last resort antibiotic available. They suggest that even with the emergence of colistin-resistant bacteria, the drug can still be used for treatment in conjunction with other antibiotics. Moreover, they state that all antibiotics have a spectrum of activity and thus a larger dose may overcome the apparently resistant bacteria.

Even though the appearance of colistin-resistant bacteria now may not be the end of the antibiotic line, it is only a matter of time before that becomes fact. The last new class of antibiotics, lipopeptides, were discovered in the 1980s and the newest antibacterial compound teixobactin has a long way to go before it can be used beneficially as an antibiotic. Though a lot of antibiotics have been developed in past years, the functional basis of all these drugs are quite similar and thus may not work any better (or prevent resistance from occurring) than each other.

Government incentives for companies that continue to develop new antibiotics are a good thing, so long as bacteria do not quickly develop resistance against these new drugs. So, in addition to the important work of developing new antibiotics, we must also try to use our existing drugs in a better way and try to find a different alternatives to treat bacterial infections. In this regard, current policies for the proper use of antibiotics should be regularly revisited with preventing antibiotic-resistance in mind. This will require further policies which dissuade the misuse of antibiotic in farm animals and agriculture, as well as in hospitals. Furthermore, worldwide cooperation is needed to create global policies to prevent the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in the near future. (Sara Reardon, Nature Trend Watch)

Women in STEM

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

The 2015 Noble prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Dr. Youyou Tu for her discoveries regarding a novel therapy for malaria. The Noble prizes in Chemistry, Literature, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine were first awarded in 1901 and since then 18 women have received the Noble prize. Current statistics show that approximately 50% of doctoral candidates are women; however, less than 20% of them end up in a tenured research position. So what is the cause of fewer women in science? Clearly it is not the quality of work done by the women, as this has already been substantiated in many ways.

A significant reduction in number of women in science occurs during the postdoctoral years, after receiving PhDs and before reaching tenure. This drop in number of female scientists can be caused by a number of factors. For instance, the most widely accepted issue is trying to balance a career with motherhood. In addition, the current academic system does not make the job easier by demanding long hours at work to earn tenure, leaving little time for anything else. Even after overcoming all these obstacles the accomplishments of a woman is seen with bias and skepticism as mentioned by Dr. Virginia Valian in her book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Dr. Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale, thinks that the accomplishments of women in science are under appreciated in such a way that they themselves lose the confidence to continue further. Some of the other challenges faced by women in science are subtle but unique, and are so overtly ignored that it even escapes notice by women. Some of these challenges are unconscious institutional bias and lack of proper mentoring. A study done in 2012 found that both male and female professors would offer a job to the male applicant, when presented with identical curriculum vitae  of two imaginary applicants one male and one female. Moreover, if they did hire the female applicant, her salary was nearly $4,000 lower than male counterpart. This bias is not only limited to the salary and extends even to promotions and office space and professional interactions.

Though there are many policies in science to address these gender imbalances, current circumstances warrant that these policies be re-evaluated. One policy for all may not be the best way to deal with the present situation. Policies should be crafted to attempt to remove any bias in salaries, allocation of research space, and promotions, in addition to raising public awareness regarding importance of women in scientific field. This in turn, might result in motivating women to continue in the scientific field. (Eileen Pollack, The New York Times Magazine)

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January 5, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 9, 2015

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By: Rebecca A. Meseroll, Ph.D.

Refugee scientist relief policy

Program launched to help refugee scientists find opportunities in Europe

Many thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Europe in recent months, and among those in crisis are scientists who had to leave their research behind. The European Commission has demonstrated its support for these refugees by launching an E.U.-wide program called Science4Refugees, which will allow refugee scientists to be matched with universities and other institutions that have volunteered to be a part of this initiative. The program will provide an online portal where refugees who are interested in jobs, internships, or other training opportunities at the institutions can get more information about available vacancies and upload their CVs. Refugee job seekers will not receive preferential treatment and must compete for available positions with all other applicants, but this approach should at least help increase refugees’ awareness of which institutions have vacancies and provide a centralized online location to apply for these jobs. Science4Refugees joins the ranks of other initiatives that provide relief for displaced scientists in individual countries around the E.U., including established programs such as the UK’s Council for At-Risk Academics, which was instituted in the 1930s to help scientists persecuted by the Nazis and the Scholars at Risk program in the Netherlands, as well new programs in Germany and France. (Tania Rabesandratana, ScienceInsider)

Women in STEM

‘Pretty Curious’ campaign criticized

In an effort to increase the involvement of women in science and technology, a London-based energy company, EDF Energy, recently started a program to foster interest in STEM among girls ages 11-16, but the initiative has garnered some objections because of its name – Pretty Curious. Some critics of the name bristle at the implication that girls place a lot of importance on being pretty and liking pretty things, and thus need to be tempted with prettiness to be interested in STEM. Others object to the use of ‘pretty’ as an adverb, as they believe it suggests the girls will be only fairly interested in STEM topics, rather than truly passionate. EDF Energy states that they chose the name intentionally to “to challenge the stereotypes around personal appearance that are often applied to girls,” as well as to draw attention to their campaign. Pretty Curious plans to hold workshops in the UK to teach girls technological activities and techniques, such as coding and 3D printing, as well as introduce them to various female role models who have succeeded in STEM fields. Whether the program will overcome its early controversy and help increase representation of women in science remains to be seen. (Chris Woolston, Nature)

Animal population control

New vaccine provides hope for single-shot animal birth control

A recent study by Li et al. in Current Biology presents a new method of vaccine sterilization for both male and female mice, which may be a promising technique for cheap, easy, and long-lasting animal population control for pets and wildlife. Pet populations tend to be controlled by spaying or neutering, but these procedures require anesthetization and can be costly. Animal contraceptive vaccines that are currently in use, such as GonaCon, have been used to sterilize deer and other wildlife, and work by eliciting an immune response to gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is required for production of sex hormones. These vaccines often lose their efficacy after several years if administered in a single dose. The new vaccine developed by Li et al. contains an anti-GnRH antibody encased in an inactive viral shell and uses the animal’s muscle cells to generate more antibodies, rather than the immune system. Because muscle cells are long-lived, they continue to produce antibody in over a long period of time without the need for a booster. When injected into muscles of the mice at a high enough dose, the vaccine conferred long-term infertility to the animals, although there is a two-month lag between injection and the onset of infertility, as the muscles ramp up production of the anti-GnRH antibody. Future study will be required to minimize the lag time and test the technique in animals other than mice before it can be used to control captive and wild animal populations. (Sarah C.P. Williams, Science)

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October 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 18, 2015

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By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph. D.

photo credit: via photopin cc

Legislative policy

Turmoil in Congress could lead to government shutdown and a stall in scientific research

Planned Parenthood has received a lot of negative press surrounding a video of a high-level executive talking about fetal tissue collection and sale. Despite the fact that Planned Parenthood is completely within the law regarding such sales, and fetal tissue research (typically in the form of stem cell research) is also legal and funded by the NIH (in the form of grants to university researchers), and has real promise in saving individuals with devastating disease, some in Congress are using anti-abortion grandstanding and the threat of de-funding Planned Parenthood to hold up passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government solvent. If a CR is not passed by Sept 30th, the government will likely experience a shutdown similar to the one experienced in 2013.

The government shutdown impedes science in a variety of different ways. When the government is unfunded, NIH cannot enroll new patients to the clinical center including children with cancer. In 2013, the FDA was forced to furlough approximately 45% of its employees, which jeopardized food safety, since they were no longer able to inspect food manufacturers or monitor food imports. And the government shutdown was felt in science beyond the DC metro area. Scientists applying to the federal government for grants and funding to conduct research, who would have otherwise had their applications reviewed in October, had to wait until January for review. The Washington Post estimates the likelihood of a government shutdown on Oct 1st as “well over 50%”to 70%.

Women in STEM

Miss Vermont uses the talent portion of Miss America 2016 to promote STEM

Alayna Westcom didn’t tap dance or sing for her talent in Atlantic City on Sunday night (9/13/15), she chose beakers and chemicals in an effort to wow the crowds with chemistry. Westcom has a B.S. in forensic science from Bay Path University and an M.S. in medical laboratory science from the University of Vermont. More recently, she completed an internship with the Vermont state medical examiner’s office. Westcott plans to attend medical school after her tenure as Miss Vermont with the goal of becoming a medical examiner herself. Since her victory as Miss Vermont 2015, she has traveled the state sharing her love of STEM with school children, hoping reach 10,000 by the end of the year. Her chemistry demonstration in last night’s competition mixed potassium iodide, hydrogen peroxide, and soap to produce a foamy eruption called “elephants toothpaste”. You can see the demonstration at the 2015 Miss Vermont pageant here. While Miss Vermont was not crowned Miss America on Sunday, her elevation of science was a welcome addition to the talent competition.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 18, 2015 at 9:00 am