SciTech Now Episode 235

This week on SciTech Now, each and every one of us has a personal microbial cloud wafting around us — but what is it made of?; marine garbage patches are harming our ecosystem; how a popular video game is helping students engage with a variety of topics; and an underwater robotics program that teaches kids about STEM.



Coming up, your very own microbial cloud.

You touch a human being or you touch a surface, then you can transfer your human microbiome to that surface.

We are also directly shedding microbes from our bodies.

The truth about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The gyre's mostly made up of these smaller plastic fragments -- fragments of larger pieces of plastic items that have broken down over time, and those pieces are actually distributed throughout the water column.

They're not necessarily floating on the surface.

Minecraft in the classroom.

I think it's a lot more engaging.

It's a lot more immersive, and I think it just lets you have a much more hands-on approach to the material that you're also learning in other lectures and readings and discussions.

And finally, submerging students in STEM.

Basically, what I do is, I give them a problem at the beginning of the day and then I say, 'All right, go underwater,' and I let them loose.

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.

It's floating around you all the time -- a wafting cloud formed by billions of bacteria that fall off your body with every movement you make.

At the University of Oregon, researchers have revealed that not only can they detect and catalog this personal microbial cloud, but each person's cloud is unique.

Here's the story.


When you're sitting in this room as a participant, you're hyper-aware of how you're behaving, you know -- 'Do I really need to scratch that itch?

Am I gonna run my hands through my hair?

Am I emitting particles just by doing that?'

Roxana Hickey is not normally a guinea pig in an experiment.

As a microbial ecologist, she's usually the not the

Humans actually spend up to 90% of their lives indoors, and so the fact that we're being constantly exposed to that environment is a good reason to study what kinds of things we're contributing and picking up from that environment.

Things floating in the air, like bacteria and viruses -- billions of organisms all around you all the time.

Being aware of them might make you a little self-conscious.

But for Roxana Hickey and the researchers at the Biology and the Built Environment Center, it's also a cause for celebration.

So, we study the fate and transport of microbes the way you would ecosystems and to also consider that they may not be necessarily harmful.

Or exotic, either.

We saw that humans were a very strong force in influencing what's going on in the indoor environment, and that pattern has emerged time and time again.

Just how big can our influence be on the indoor microbiome?

To find out, you need a very large and very controlled Petri dish of sorts.

Right now, we are sitting in the climate chamber at the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory.

So, this room is a unique research tool where we have the ability to control pretty much all of the environmental variables that exist in here, so temperature, relative humidity, airflow rate, and that gives us a great opportunity to be able to sample the particles that are surrounding an individual in a room.

You also need a good, clean -- or rather dirty -- set of samples.

The participants were asked not to bathe or shower the morning of the experiment.

They were also asked not to apply any products to their skin or wear perfumes or deodorants.

The participant walks in here, they sit down, and then we just collect the air while they're waiting.

And it doesn't take much to get our microbiome airborne.

On the human body, we have trillions of bacteria inhabiting every environment.

For example, our skin -- we have a skin microbiome that is distinct from our gut microbiome.

We have microbes in the urogenital tract.

We have them on our feet, our hands.

So if you touch a human being or you touch a surface, then you can transfer your human microbiome to that surface.

And then we are also directly shedding microbes from our bodies.

So when your skin sloughs, for example, that's one mechanism that then gets suspended on our chairs or on our tabletops, on the floor.

And then just by moving about, those end up getting re-suspended, and we're exposed to them that way.

And so by using this controlled chamber, the researchers captured airborne microbes on Petri dishes and sterile filters.

So, once we get them back to the lab, we use a buffer to wash the cells off into solution and then we use that solution to extract DNA, and we use that information and variations in that code to determine what types of bacteria and fungi we have in that sample.

Revealing a very human picture.

Even just the act of sitting there gives off enough microbes for us to be able to detect a person in a room.

So we really are surrounded by a microbial cloud.

What exactly's in that cloud?

The main types of bacteria that are found in the cloud are gonna be skin and oral-associated microbes, and so these would be things like Staphylococcus, Propionibacterium, for instance.

But that's not all they found.

We also have, time and time again, seen a significant number of gut-associated microbes in the indoor environment.

But having so-called 'fecal bacteria' wafting around you should neither surprise or alarm you.

Most of the microbes that are found -- even in our gut, in our urogenital tract -- those are healthy microbes.

We need those to be healthy, and so the fact that they're everywhere is not alarming.

It's just part of the natural dynamics of microbial communities on our bodies.

What surprising is how unique our microbial impact can be.

We can compare the particles that are in the room when different individuals are present at different times, and their individual microbial clouds actually are distinct from one another.

Now is a small sample size, and we are now asking questions such as, 'Can you identify an individual out of a crowd?'

We're trying to understand how far these particles actually move if a person is just sitting in a chair.

Are the microbial clouds getting mixed together?

How long do they last?

What activities affect them?

Can they change your own microbiome?

If sitting in a room by yourself pondering these questions leaves you feeling a little self-conscious, you're not alone.

I am sitting in an ecosystem right now.

It's where I'm gonna spend 90% of my life, and I don't know anything about this ecosystem.


Floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are three marine garbage patches made up of tiny pieces of plastic and man-made debris.

Scientists are focused on cleaning up these concentrations of litter.

Here to discuss the effort and why it's important is Amy Uhrin, chief scientist for the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA.

So, the Pacific Gyre, I've seen the descriptions -- that it's the size of Texas.

I mean, we're not talking about one actual physical structure in the middle of the ocean.

It's millions of small parts.

So, let's first talk about what the garbage patch is So, it's not a floating island of trash.

You know, the phrase conjures up this image of maybe a large vortex of human-derived waste, and that's not what's out there.

So, the Gyre is mostly made up of these smaller plastic fragments -- fragments of larger pieces of plastic items that have broken down over time.

And those pieces are actually distributed throughout the water column.

They're not necessarily floating on the surface, and they're very small -- similar to this sample that I've brought in here.

They can be very, very, very tiny.

And the reason that they're concentrating in this area is actually because this is an area inside an oceanic gyre.

Think of it as a large -- a massive slow-moving whirlpool, if you will.

The middle of the water body is relatively calm and stationary, but these currents are moving around and around that central water mass.

And what happens when you have a whirlpool?

Things start to gravitate towards the center.

So these gyres are pulling in floating items across the ocean into the center.

And there's not just one gyre.

There are actually five major gyres across the globe.

But the North Pacific gyre is the most popular, and the garbage patches that are associated with that gyre tend to get a lot of attention.

When you said 'deeper down in the water column,' how deep does this trash go?

Folks have actually found micro plastic and plastic pieces in benthic sediments.

So at the bottom of the seafloor and in sand, in muddy surfaces, they're distributed throughout the water column.

And so the concentrations and densities of shoreline debris are easier to quantify and measure because you can go out to a beach and collect items and get an idea of what's out there.

But currently, researchers -- they're not having a difficult time, but it's harder to quantify these tiny pieces when they're floating throughout the water column or they're in the sediment because you've got to send gear down there that can capture the sediment and bring the samples back up.

So it's really -- it's not an easy task to get a handle on how much.

And what's the impact of this on marine life?

We know right now that over 600 marine species have been affected by or have ingested marine debris of some kind.

And so if we're talking about plastic particles, they almost see these as food items, right?

And so they unwittingly take them into their system.

Sometimes the plastic pieces have very rugged or serrated or sharp edges that can puncture or perforate the digestive system, which can cause obvious problems.

Also, if they eat a lot of plastic and they have a lot of plastic in their gut, it gives them the feeling of fullness, and so they don't eat any more, and, obviously, plastic doesn't have any nutritional value, so eventual starvation could occur.

But in addition to just those direct physical impacts, plastics have additives -- they have chemical additives in them to make them pliable, to make them last a long time.

And those chemicals can actually leach out of the plastics when they're in the environment.

They can leach into the water column, they can leach out on land, they can leach out in the digestive system of an animal.

And so that's also a problem.

Plastics when they're in your environment, they can also adhere other chemicals to their surfaces.

So when an animal takes that in, they're now exposed to this chemical cocktail, if you will.

And what's really not well known right now is how those chemicals can then cross barriers into tissues, into organs, and things of that nature.

But plastic ingestion has been documented in the smallest animals -- zooplankton -- on up through whales, fish, seabirds, bivalves, oysters, mussels.

When we think of a remote tropical beach somewhere or someplace in the ocean, we think of beautiful white sand, et cetera, et cetera.

But there's also islands that have this stuff washing up on it.

Since the inception of our program in 2006, we have actually partnered with another NOAA program -- another NOAA line office, actually, The National Marine Fisheries Service -- and they conduct research cruises out to the Northwest Hawaiian islands -- very remote location, about 2,500 miles from the United States.

That's where Midway Atoll is.

So there's really no human inhabitation there, except you've got a few very small military installations.

But on those cruises -- for example, just last year, they removed 57 tons of derelict fishing gear from these islands where nobody is living.

Also, you can walk along the shorelines there and just see piles of material that look like this, only on a much, much larger scale.

So it all has to do with location.

Where the islands are situated, they're very close to that gyre that I was talking about earlier.

And so even though trash is not being generated the islands and washing into the water, it's coming from elsewhere.

How do you clean up this mess?

Our program did some very simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, and we determined that if you had -- and this is assuming that the method worked to a 'T' and you had an endless budget, et cetera -- and we determined that if you had 100 ships, they were each towing a net that was 200 meters across, they towed for 10 hours a day, going about 10 to 12 miles an hour, they could cover less than 2% of the North Pacific Gyre in a year.

And so, at those same rates, you could cover the entire gyre in about 50 years, but the problem is, you haven't turned off the faucet, right?

So plastics are still entering the environment, they're still getting out to the gyre.

So think of it as if you were home, all of a sudden, your sink or your bathtub were overflowing and you're running in there with a mop and a bucket and some towels and you're trying frantically to clean it up, but the faucet's still running, so the water's still overflowing and it's a very difficult and daunting task.

So, is this through our storm-drain systems that go out into the ocean?

I mean, how's all this plastic getting in there?

So, a paper came out last year in science from a researcher.

The lead author was a researcher from the University of Georgia.

She's a waste-management specialist.

And so they looked at waste-management practices in 192 countries across the world -- coastal countries.

And what they found out was that it's actually coming into the oceans through mismanagement -- waste mismanagement -- and so what they found was that the top 20 countries actually contribute to about 83% of the plastics washing into the ocean and they estimated, on average, about 8.7 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic get washed into the ocean annually.

So it's a global problem.

At the same time, solutions can be local.

So just improving waste management in certain parts of the globe can effectively reduce what's being input into the marine environment.

What's that 'local solution' talk about?

It's gonna take a concerted effort between governments across nations to work toward maybe improving those types of infrastructures in these countries.

And also locally -- So, everybody thinks, 'Well, I'm just one person.

What can I do?'

But if you've passed that message along -- and that's often a focus within our program, the NOAA Marine Debris Program, so we put a heavy emphasis on prevention through education and outreach.

And every year, we actually hold a grant competition to award projects monies to try to teach about the issues of marine debris, so how to recycle properly, understanding that there are a lot of single-use disposable plastics out there, so maybe there are other alternatives you can use.

We like to focus on the three R's -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- and things of that nature.

So prevention is really key in educating the public about what they do because it does make a difference.

It all adds up.

Amy Uhrin from NOAA, thanks so much.

Thank ♪♪

A popular video game is helping teachers inspire creativity in the classroom.

Thousands of schools across the country are using the game Minecraft to engage students of all ages in topics ranging from career readiness to archeology.

Let's take a look.

This is a teacher-training course for the video game Minecraft.

It's an open-world game, which means there are no specific goals for the player to accomplish.

Instead, the gamer uses creativity to explore and build things in this 3-D space.

Educators have latched onto the game to spark creativity and develop programming skills.

The 21st century skills and all what kids could use in their future careers.

The spectrum of things is so massive that we can't expect schools to be able to teach all of that, so how can we give examples to teachers and students that sparks their curiosity, and when they go back home, they carry on where they left at school?

Koivisto's company started supporting MinecraftEdu just a few years ago.

Now they have almost 6,000 schools engaged -- in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

The spectrum of different uses is massive.

We have heard examples from kindergartens and career centers across all the subjects.

I don't really know what they are doing with the game in career centers, but, I mean, I would really love to visit one and see.

One of those users is this archeology and art history class at Chapman University.

They are creating an entire Greek city using Minecraft.

Professor Justin Walsh says the idea to teach with Minecraft just clicked.

It was a kind of 'Eureka' moment.

What happened was that I was trying to think of a better way to have students do a project in this class.

I thought, 'Ah!

I can really engage the students, give them an active learning opportunity by having them play this game, but also applying the principles of Greek urban planning in a really important -- like what they're learning on a regular basis in class.

They can apply that knowledge using Minecraft.

At first, Walsh's students didn't exactly share his enthusiasm.

I was actually extremely scared.

[ Laughs ] I'm not very good with computer games or video games or anything like that.

So, it actually, thankfully, was fun once I got into it.

I think once I got over the fear and I figured out how to plant an entire forest of flowers around my house... [ Laughs ] ...I was like, 'Okay, we can work with this.

It'll be fun.'

You can mess with things a lot more than we thought we would be able to, given that we're working with one-meter cubes.

Walsh says the immersive experience of technology enhances the learning process more than any lecture ever could.

I think that interaction or interactivity is really the difference.

We actually can just have a virtual space -- a sandbox, if you will -- for them to have success and to make mistakes.

And actually, both of those things are great.

I think it's a lot more engaging, it's a lot more immersive, and I think it just lets you have a much more hands-on approach to the material that you're also learning in other lectures and readings and discussions.

Back at the training, Koivisto says that kind of student/teacher success is what kept them going when they first began working with MinecraftEdu.

When we started getting e-mails and Skype calls from teachers that were like, 'This is really changing how I teach,' that sort of kept us going, although we were really making no money out of the company and so on.

And that has been going on so far, and I think that's the best evidence for us that we are doing something good.


Hi. I'm Ben Goldstein.

I'm co-founder and president of End Point Corporation, and we're here to present the Liquid Galaxy today.

The system itself is a panoramic system so that it engages your peripheral vision and it's immersive in that fashion.

Basically, you have these large-paneled screens set up in an arch around the viewer.

You have a touchscreen and 3-D joystick, so you can fly around the world and experience the world anywhere you want.

And from there, you can add images, video, KML, and other sorts of overlay to make it a very interactive product and make presentations on it.

So it's a great tool for real estate, for museums and aquariums, for research libraries at universities, and for the hospitality and travel industries.

The way it works is it kind of plays Follow the Leader.

You're navigating on a central display.

The other displays are configured at the appropriate geometric offsets, and so they go and they pull down their appropriate section of the world so that you can see it all together at once.


Here's a novel way to submerge students in science, technology, engineering, and math -- hand kids a STEM tool and order them to sink it.

Reporter Erin Delmore has the story.

It's just about the most fun you can have at a pool without jumping in.

Here at the Boys & Girls Club of Wayne, students work on creating underwater robots.

The program's called WaterBotics, and the curriculum was developed by Stevens Institute of Technology.

T.J. Walters is a sophomore at Stevens.

He's also the WaterBotics coordinator for the Boys & Girls Clubs in Wayne and Pequannock, where he teaches 5th through 8th graders.

It's actually really fun to see the kids working out all the solutions to the problems.

Basically, what I do is, I give them a problem at the beginning of the day and then I say, 'All right, go underwater,' and I let them loose.

The robot we're making, it's supposed to grab a ball and take it underwater with it.


And how's that working out for you so far?

Not that well.

The students get into groups and build prototypes that can move forward, backward, up, and down.

This control moves this propel, and the other one moves propel.

Mostly made out of Legos.

There's some electronic parts inside this blue case right here that, obviously, run the engine.

And they can't get wet that much, so we have to put them in this case.

Then they test out their models.

It's dipped inside the pool probably, like, 20-something times -- a lot of times mostly for tests, a couple times for competitions, like soccer or defusing bombs.

Score a goal in soccer by capturing and moving a ping-pong ball across the pool.

Defuse a bomb by turning this cup over.

When you tip it over, it 'explodes.'

Right now it's all fun and games, but program administrators say these kids are gaining valuable skills at an early age.

They are actually learning, one, to build, and how to actually get these, two, to run, to do multiple different functions as far as grabbing items.

So they play ping-pong.

They actually play games against each other.

I didn't get exposed into robotics until I was in high school, which I regret because I got so into it, and seeing how into it these kids are, it's amazing to see how much they really just dive into it and it just consumes them.

I'm hearing from their counselors -- their normal counselors in camp -- that they won't stop talking about it.

So being able to expose kids to science, technology, engineering, and math so early in their lives is really important to developing their career choices.

Katie, Calista, and Kaylyn say their favorite subject in school is math.

While they're mostly undecided on future jobs, Kaylyn has an idea.

I might be a doctor or I'm trying to become a -- work for Google, maybe.

Their instructor says programs like this one can help even out the gender gap in engineering.

There's more newer and exciting opportunities with programming, computer science is a very, very big field right now, engineering -- especially mechanical, industrial engineering, biomedical engineering is very important with the medicinal fields.

And as you see more of the working class and the assembly-line jobs going away, you're actually gonna see a lot more of people designing the assembly lines coming in.

The hope is that a program like this will spark interest and one day these future engineers will remember where they got their feet wet.

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...