SciTech Now Episode 232

In this episode of SciTech Now, how one company in Kansas City, Missouri, is bringing technology to the roadways; busting environmental myths and an answer to the  controversial question: paper or plastic?; teaching educators how to integrate new technologies into the classroom; and a unique collection of scientific and medical devices from decades past is shedding light on innovations old and new.

TRANSCRIPT

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Coming up, a new path towards smarter roads...

The highway's always communicating to the vehicle.

The vehicle always is able to communicate what the speed limit at this point in time is or what the message is that's most important.

...busting environmental myths...

We see plastic bags strewn on the street, and we think a paper bag is better because it would just biodegrade, right?

Right.

Unfortunately, that's not what happens.

...training teachers in creative technologies...

It's important to understand the technologies, 'cause they're out there in the world, as well.

So to have an understanding of those technologies and be able to use them in your art-making process, I think that's empowering.

...and finally, scientific instruments of yore.

This was a teaching aid for learning how to reconstruct the face.

Students would build a wax face over the metal skull.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello.

I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

In our data-driven world, developers are integrating tech into our infrastructure, and one company in Kansas City, Missouri, is bringing data to the roadways.

Here's a look.

Roads are horribly expensive, and everyone just kind of assumes that they will exist and that we can use them for free.

There is no political willpower to resolve that using traditional solutions of taxes and tolls.

So we thought, well, what if we treated the transportation network like the Internet or a cellular network and used it as a platform for new services that provide new value and new features that people actually will pay for?

It's hard to believe, but Tim Sylvester has spent nearly half of his 33 years nurturing this idea, blending a background in construction work with a degree in electrical engineering.

Roads, he likes to point out, were our earliest networks, so why not put them to creative use today?

The electronics, he says, aren't all that complicated.

Basically, we're taking the guts of a tablet PC or a smartphone and putting them into big prefabricated blocks of concrete.

Test sections, like this one installed on the UMKC campus and another on 1-35 south of Kansas City, seem to prove that these precut panels do go together quickly and efficiently.

But the marriage of infrastructure and I.T.

is still a hard sell.

You know, software, you can just build and you can iterate.

You know, there's this whole sort of like, 'Move fast and fail fast and change something.'

Well, you don't necessarily want to fail fast when you're putting in a stretch of highway.

If anyone's aware of that, it's this man.

MoDOT engineer Tom Blair heads up the Road to Tomorrow Committee, charged with reimagining the 250-mile stretch of I-70 that crosses Missouri.

The work his team does here every day might merge nicely with concepts he's being pitched about smart roads and the Internet of Things.

Because, think, if the highway's always communicating to the vehicle, the vehicle always is able to communicate what the speed limit at this point in time is or what the message is that's most important -- the travel time, accidents ahead, right lane closed, left lane closed.

So no longer do you have to really look for, every so many miles, that sign on the side of the road or hope it's there to tell me what's happening ahead of me.

Smart Highways specifically is focused right now on getting that built into the highway, where my Internet of Things could simply be as much as strapping some kind of small device to our existing signs up and down the road.

So, literally, I could have somebody come in, I could partner with an Internet of Things broker and say, 'Here's what we have.

How much would you pay for if we gave you access to this, and here's some criteria you have to meet?'

The ideas Blair calls his Level 4s are all over the map.

They range from selling licenses to speed, modestly, to shifting trucks onto trains so drivers can grab their federally mandated sleep, even alternative modes like Elon Musk's proposed Hyperloop.

Basically, if it might generate revenue, it's worth a look.

But as it turns out, the prime mover might be the accelerated arrival of cars that don't need any drivers.

Seems like it was maybe three years ago that people first started seeing the Google car, and it was kind of this novelty.

And all of a sudden, you've got every major car manufacturer in the world that is experimenting with driverless cars.

You know, it's become more clear that even kind of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which people don't think of as autonomous car companies, but that's their end game.

Tom Blair wouldn't mind seeing today's distracted drivers become distracted passengers, ones who might even be willing to subscribe to a service that fed their appetite for data.

These business entrepreneurs and innovators that our Road to Tomorrow Team has been talking to look at Interstate 70 and the public right-of-way that we have across our state as a business, and they say, 'Government, you're just providing a service.'

If you give me the opportunity, I could create a business model here that would create a revenue stream.

Which brings us back to Tim Sylvester.

If all goes according to plan, later this spring, a one-mile stretch of Integrated Roadways' Smart Pavement will be installed and tested just past the stadium complex on 1-70.

When I first had the idea, I would have never expected that in the end, what we were really selling was a wireless network.

I never would have expected that the state would be taking us seriously about potentially using this to rebuild I-70.

When old ways don't work, you've got to try something new.

And the interstate system was new at one time, and this is our chance to make it new again.

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Paper or plastic?

It's a question we've grown accustomed to, and for many people, the answer is automatic.

But how do we know we're making the right ecological choices?

Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu has been working to answer this question.

She joins reporter Andrea Vasquez to bust a few common eco-myths.

Environmental folklore -- you say it's based mostly on our experiences, on hearsay, not always on science.

What's going on?

Well, to start with, it's only been in the last few decades that we've actually really started to understand and analyze how our choices in the economy are having impacts on the planet.

So it's really quite a new science to know, if we make packaging from plastic and it ends up in the natural environment, what's gonna happen?

So this means that a lot of the information that's available to us is quite new, and, also, humans really like fuzzy feelings.

And so I like to think of environmental folklore as that little voice in your head that says, 'Pick the paper bag.

It's so much better.'

But what we've started to discover with this new scientific analysis technique, new within the last 20 years, life-cycle assessment, it's really started to show us how activities in the economy aren't actually playing out the way we think.

So, how do you make a paper bag?

Well, you have to go and cut down trees and you have to, obviously, process them, and then the same with plastic.

You have to extract materials.

Now, they both have impacts.

We know that.

But that's in the production stage.

A lot of our decisions about environmental impacts are based on our assumptions around the end of life.

So, what happens when we no longer want them?

And we see plastic bags strewn on the street, and we think a paper bag is better because it will just biodegrade, right?

Right.

Unfortunately, that's not what happens.

Because when you take these two products, and you look at their entire life, most of them end up in a landfill, and a landfill is what's called an anaerobic environment.

It basically means it's got no air.

Now, in that environment, what actually happens is these little microorganisms break down cellulose material.

So anything that's made from an organic material -- so your food waste --

Anything from the earth.

Exactly. Yeah.

So it starts to break it down like little guys munching away.

Kind of like if you left a piece of fruit in a plastic bag for a few days, opened it up, doesn't smell so good.

Right, you get that gas release when you open it up.

That's right.

And that gas is methane, and methane is a by-product of this environment.

Now, the thing about this is that it's a 25-times-more-potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

So, if you have this landfill environment, the paper bag is actually contributing to this negative environmental impact, but the critical issue with the bags has to do with the weight of them.

Up to 10 times more material is used in order to create a paper bag with the same functionality as a plastic bag.

So when you look at the whole life, and you look at one bag versus another, the paper bag has a bigger impact because you need more material to achieve the function.

So there's a volume issue here that we're not considering.

Mm-hmm.

What are the other questions that we're just not thinking to ask in our well-intended effort to be green and eco-friendly?

Well, the bag example basically isn't saying, 'Everyone rush out and use plastic bags.'

What it actually is telling us is that our predisposition to disposability is the issue -- right? -- the fact that we do think that having disposable objects and that one alternative over another is gonna make things better.

The same applies to coffee cups, for example, you know.

The average New Yorker uses 500 disposable coffee cups every year.

Whew.

Which is crazy, right?

Yes.

And the thing is, is that most of those paper cups are lined with a plastic film that make them unrecyclable.

But, unfortunately, what we're really looking at here is a crisis of consumption because somehow, collectively, we've all said, 'Disposability's fine.

I'm gonna take that plastic bag, and I'm use it once, and them I'm gonna throw it in the trash, and I'm gonna feel guilty about the few that I see out in the natural environment, but I'm not gonna be really thinking about the whole picture.'

So, to start with, we have to think about our choices day to day and how they impact the planet.

And so a simple one would be, obviously, reusable bags, but the other thing is, like, having your coffee the coffee shop with a nice ceramic cup.

Very small micro-changes can help influence the bigger system, because once customers start asking their local coffee shop for nice, reusable cups, they start responding to the customer demand.

What are some of the other myths and environmental folklore that you see as being very prevalent and what's the data behind why we're so wrong about them?

I think that some of the biggest myths are that these terms, like 'biodegradability,' 'recyclability,' 'renewable' -- they're all the, like, strong titans of the environmental movement.

And they're amazing terms, but what they are are material properties, right?

They just describe what something can do.

Right.

So if you don't have the right system set up -- So, if have something that's compostable, for example, and then you don't have a composting system, then you have that thing that I mentioned earlier about the landfill and the methane and the 25-times-more-potent greenhouse gases.

So we have what's called a double negative.

So really we need more efficient systems so those material properties -- the renewable and the biodegradable -- they actually have that benefit, rather than accidentally causing a bigger environmental impact.

So we need to be looking at the larger picture and also filtering some of the popular science and science tidbits that are giving us small pictures of things?

Sure.

I mean, in any case, what we know is that simple and painless activities don't create big change.

The easier it is, the less likely it's going to actually have the kind of change that we need.

And so when it seems like an easy, quick-fix solution, like all you have to do is change your light bulbs, and suddenly we've solved climate change, I think that we're all smart enough to know that it's not as simple as that.

Changing your light bulbs is a great first step, but if you then go and buy two televisions and leave them on half the night, you've actually created a bigger rebound effect, where your choices have validated a bigger impact.

So, I mean, I don't want people to think that I'm saying everything's bad.

I think what's really important is that we have a bit more of a curiosity about the way the world works, about systems and the choices we make, and that we don't fall into the trap of believing that some simple solution like a paper cup is gonna somehow absolve all of the environmental impacts that come down to us using disposable items and us thinking that we're gonna be able to solve the world's problems by just changing a light bulb or eating less meat.

And drinking our coffee out of a paper cup.

Yeah.

Well, we'll try to look at the bigger picture, then.

Thanks for being with us.

Thanks for having me.

♪♪

With tablets, SMART boards, and 3-D printers, technology plays an increasingly important role in schools.

The Creative Technologies Program at Columbia University's Teachers College trains future educators on how to bring tech into art class.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez sat in on a class and found out that it's not about replacing canvas with screens, but adding to students' artistic arsenals.

Our story is part of American Graduate, a project made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities find ways to keep students on the path to graduation.

Traditionally, art classes have looked kind of like this.

But new technologies, like 3-D printing, which have already made their way into artists' studios, may soon be alongside the pencils and paintbrushes in classrooms.

It's important to understand the technologies, 'cause they're out there in the world, as well.

So to have an understanding of those technologies and be able to use them in your art-making process, I think that's empowering.

At Columbia University's Teachers College, a new certificate program called Creative Technologies trains future teachers on how to integrate new tools and media into their art lessons.

Making always has existed, right?

And it was always very important for art education, but now it's different because it is digitally enhanced and technological-advanced making.

This class lets us think about how to balance technology and traditional art.

A lot of children today are already exposed to technology, so I think it's for educators to really step ahead and experience first and then introduce the good technology for children.

We'll address physical computing, programming, creative coding, and digital fabrication.

Richard Jochum teaches a basic survey class in the program.

Today he's teaching students to use design software and a 3-D printer to create simple objects.

One of the most important things for students is to make connections with traditional materials so that the two don't get polarized or antagonized.

The main thing we are trying to achieve is for them to make bridges to expand the materials, because art education is expanding as a field.

Technologies like laser cutters and 3-D printers are opening a world of new possibilities for artists and art educators, but instead of tossing the paint and canvas, they're adding these to their toolbox.

Students in this class actually, for their final project, have to roll the dice.

One has old media, one has new media, and one has the theme that they'll have to use to integrate both.

If you're taking materials, and you're playing with them and you're building with them and you're creating new things, it teaches you to be flexible.

It teaches you to be creative, it teaches you to be imaginative -- all the so-called 21st-century skills that everybody's talking about.

Increasingly, educators are challenged to integrate new gadgets in class so they're used as learning tools, rather than distractions.

I think that there is quite a lot of evidence now that having children in front of screens for inordinate amounts of time during every day has an inverse relationship to the development of their academic skills, and what we have to learn, I think, in education is how we balance these different ways of leaning so that they infuse each other, they support each other, and they don't, in a sense, cancel each other out.

When we make lesson plans, we think how the children of that specific target age would work on specific projects.

So we would think about their developmental age and how this media would affect them at school and also outside school.

As new technologies are constantly appearing in our daily lives, learning to adapt and use these tools for new tasks and creations is a lesson in itself.

What we have now is the advent of a technology and technological tools, the potential of which we haven't even begun to think of.

The rapidity with which they're being invented and used is astonishing.

If you feel empowered to take on a new material, then you may actually have a better chance to do the same with the materials that come up in 20 years' time.

Columbia's two-year Creative Technologies Certificate Program passed state approval this year, widening the pipeline for a new breed of teachers.

And then you could say, 'Well, now I want to design another element.'

♪♪

For more than 30 years, Steve Erenberg has collected early scientific and medical objects and instruments.

Erenberg's store and museum in Peekskill, New York, is packed with Victorian medical masks, surreal anatomical models, and long-forgotten devices.

Here's a look.

A lot of these objects have character.

You can sense it.

They have an aura about them.

I mean, there's nothing sinister in this collection, and people look, and they say, 'Oh, what is that?

Is that S&M or is that a torture device?'

No. They're medical devices, or they're life-saving devices.

I mean, you have to think of someone wearing a smoke mask to go into a smoky building.

They really had to be a hero to wear that stuff.

And then you have some other things, and it could be a brace or a prosthetic device, and there is a sad story behind it.

My name is Steve Erenberg, and I'm a collector, but now I'm a dealer.

My son and I -- we collect and buy anything from a prosthetic hand to an airplane engine.

Scientific electronic equipment, medical head devices -- it's early technology.

And the collection has been going for over 30 years, and I can't even count how many things we have.

One of my favorite things to collect are early anatomical models.

They're really art.

Early on, they started with cadavers, and then came wax, and wax was unstable, also.

And Dr. Auzoux did them in papier-mâché. Every piece is hand-painted and labeled, and maybe there's 400 pieces in this life-size horse.

It's the kind of model I wouldn't want to take apart unless I had gone through four years of veterinary school.

[ Chuckles ] This is one of my favorite pieces, and it's French.

There are different keys that connect to pulleys and to strings, and it shows how the different muscles of the eye works.

When I was in school, I failed science.

I was an artist.

I was not geared to be a doctor or a scientist, so I found the aesthetics of some of this equipment to be more interesting than its use.

You see design trends.

You go back to Victorian times, and they used wood.

They'd use mahogany.

It would be polished.

It would have brass corners on it and edges and details and knobs.

And then you find aluminum and you find pressed steel, and the shapes become more organic or more free-flowing.

This was a teaching aid for learning how to reconstruct the face.

Students would build a wax face over the metal skull.

It looks as if Salvador Dalí did that.

That's a quack medical device for electrical treatment -- two wands that a patient would hold.

They'd feel the electricity running through their hands, and they'd think that something was happening.

If you look at early quack devices, they're designed to be better-looking than their purpose.

This is a nebulizer, and you can see it's Victorian if you look at the legs.

And this was used by doctors.

Maybe they had a little eucalyptus in this one, a little saltwater in this one, and there'd be a pipe with a breathing apparatus, and they would mix a couple of things for the patient, and, 'That will be $5, please.'

[ Chuckles ] The more important it looked, the better people thought it worked and the more money the doctor would get.

And some of these things aren't quack devices.

They were state-of-the-art for their time.

Just, over time, they proved not to really work that well.

This is light therapy.

Now they use light therapy to treat depression, but back in -- I believe this is 1920s.

I believe this one was used to treat any number of ailments.

It could have been kidney disease, it could be stomach problems.

It looks like an electric chair, but it's actually from the Kellogg Sanitarium.

You would sit in that chair, and it would vibrate your whole body.

I mean, everything there had to do with your bowels.

I'd rather try the electric chair.

I can't help but think, when I see some of these new devices that are being used and new materials, that 100 years from now, we'll be looking back at them and laughing and calling them quack devices, but that's what science is.

We always think state-of-the-art and that we're ahead of our time, and it will never get any more modern than that, but it's always changing.

♪♪

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪