SciTech Now Episode 316

In this episode of SciTech Now, American White Pelicans are disappearing from eastern Oregon–meet the citizen scientists who are tracking their flight patterns; how NASA is using augmented reality to train astronauts and explore the surface of Mars; a group of students engineered an electric hybrid racecar; and a middle school is putting on a STEM fair based on the PBS series, Cyberchase.



Coming up, the climate refugees of Puget Sound.

Seeing white pelicans in Western Washington is unusual, seeing a 180 white pelicans in Western Washington is unheard of.

Exploring space through augmented reality.

We reconstructed the Martian landscape using all the photogrammetry data, and we created a mesh that is the best reconstruction that we can create.

We put that into a system which allows scientists using HoloLens to walk around the surface virtually as if Mars was in their office.

Engineering Hot Wheelz.

It has four open wheels, not like a passenger car where it's all enclosed.

It has two roll bars to keep the driver safe in a rollover impact, and it has to be powered by an electric motor with high-power lithium-ion batteries.

Learning STEM with 'Cyberchase.'

As you watch them engage in this learning, whether it be the Makey Makey station or launching a rocket, going to the catapults, using the drones, the virtual reality, wherever they were, you could just see the excitement in the learning.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.

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.

Hundreds of American white pelicans are disappearing from Eastern Oregon and reappearing in Washington's Puget Sound.

Now two citizen scientists are taking it upon themselves to track these changing flight patterns.

Here is the story.

Matt Kershbaum and Sue Ehler have a summer ritual.

Every other week...

We come down and we set up our spotting scope.

We get out our data sheets and a hand clicker.

I call it a tallywacker.

And the citizen scientists count the herons of Padilla Bay.

You are seeing sometimes in the neighborhood of 500, 600 birds.

It's extraordinarily difficult to count in your minds.

What was your total count on that one?


210? Okay.

This estuary in Northwest Washington is home to thousands of birds, including the largest breeding colonies of great blue herons in the Pacific North West.

Counts like these serve as an annual checkup.

We watch all the species that are here and kind of used to who is who.

So they were some of the first to see the new arrivals.

Matt and I are coming to do our survey.

He throws on the brakes.

He goes, 'There they are!'

And there's 11 pelicans, just, I mean, they were like next to here.

And it's like seeing aliens arrive.

I mean, they aren't here.

The American white pelican's range stretches across much of the country, but it doesn't touch Western Washington.

It's just unprecedented for them to be here, so something really unusual is happening.

Of course, we're just, you know, we are having a blast.

Okay. I found the pelicans, and they are right by the boat.


Wow. Okay.

White pelicans are conspicuous birds with their 9-foot wingspans and long orange bills.

They are just bizarre, I mean, in a neat way.

They are different from brown pelicans, a more common summer visitor to coastal Washington.

Those are the ones that dive for fish.

White pelicans take a team approach to feeding.

Oh, they are doing the synchronized swimming, the ballet, yes, they are.

Oh, that's cool.

At first, they counted just a handful of pelicans.

Then we had like 30, and then there were 50.

I mean, finally it was up to a 100.

And then reports started coming from all over the region.

We got reports that came from Barkley Sound, Canada.

One at Lemieux.

From the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound and north into British Columbia.

During the summer, the region's white pelicans normally stick close to a few major breeding areas farther south and east.

But with parts of Oregon and California enduring another year of severe drought, some of their best-protected breeding grounds have gone dry.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has reported failed breeding colonies for two years.

So the pelicans in Puget Sound could be pioneers searching for a suitable site for a new colony.

One place they seem fond of is a small lagoon on Whidbey Island.

I counted 135.


Yeah, well, this is a first for them to be here.

Joe Sheldon has never seen pelicans in almost 20 summers living here.

Seeing white pelicans in Western Washington is unusual.

Seeing a 180 white pelicans in Western Washington is unheard of.

Sheldon is a retired professor of ecology.

He says that pressures of climate change could be at play.

You might describe these as a climate refugee, if indeed Malheur has dried to the point where they can no longer feed and breed there.

Pelican colonies across the country have indeed been shifting north by about 200 miles over the last 50 years.

But it's too soon to say if these pelicans are just Puget Sound tourists or new summer residents.

So will they come back?

We will wait and see for next year.

Augmented reality shows users a view of the real world supplemented with sound, video, graphics or data.

Now the same technology that brings Pokémon Go to life is helping scientists prepare for space exploration.

Here to explain is Matthew Clausen, creative director in the operations lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Matthew, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

So, first of all, we know that this is the technology that puts Pokémon onto our desks and backyards.

But can you really explain -- what is augmented reality and how does HoloLens work?

With Pokémon, it's using the geographic data for GPS to give it a place a two-dimensional object in space or at least create the illusion.

But with HoloLens, it actually maps the environment in a three-dimensional model so that you can actually place three-dimensional objects onto the space as if they were really there.

So HoloLens looks like those virtual reality goggles that we have seen, right?

But it's spewing out a hologram in front of us?

Yeah, so HoloLens, it has a sort of like a visor that goes around your head, whereas like with the Oculus or with the Vive, the HoloLens actually has a translucent screen so you can see through into the world.

So if you and I were wearing it at the same time, we could still see each other but also have conversations about three-dimensional objects.

So that's another thing that actually separates it from two-dimensional augmented reality such as Pokémon, where you and I could both be on different sides of a three-dimensional object and have a perception of it being there as if it was actually real.

A real solid volumetric object.

So how is NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory using HoloLens for Mars exploration and planning?

So for Mars exploration, we've reconstructed the Martian landscape using all the photogrammetry data, the photographs that the Curiosity rover takes while it's on the surface.

And we've combined that with orbital data.

We have two different orbiters that are rotating and orbiting around the planet.

And we create a mesh that is the best reconstruction that we can create.

We put that into a system which allows scientists using a HoloLens to walk around the surface virtually as if Mars was in their office.

You can still see your office, but you can also see Mars at the same time.

And so scientists that would be, say, in France or scientists here in JPL, they can have a conversation together as if they naturally would, say, if they were walking around in the desert and doing their geology work that they are used to doing.

And you've found that when scientists are using the HoloLens in order to get a feel for the Mars landscape and kind of measure things, that their spatial accuracy is better?

One of the fortunate things is that here in the ops lab we develop the older tools that the scientists have been using, and the way this works is we usually have sort of an unwrapped panorama of the environment, so if you just imagine -- think of it as sort of turn around, taking pictures in 360 degrees and then unwrap that into one sheet -- that's how the standard way of doing things was.

And so they are very used to that, and so what we did was we just devised one test where we had them estimate the distance between the objects using that tool and then create a prototype that used a Oculus Rift actually and have them estimate the distances and angles between objects in the exact same environment.

And what we determined was that scientists were two times better at being able to accurately detect distances using immersive technology and they are more than three times as good at estimating angles.

And another one of the applications is Project Sidekick, where you are helping scientists, astronauts who are already at the International Space Station.

Can you explain how that works?

Yeah, so Project Sidekick has basically one goal, which is to help astronauts do their jobs better and help them to have more information when they need it.

When an astronaut is preparing to go to the space station, they spend months and up to years actually learning all these complex procedures.

As you can imagine, it's a ton of work, and it's a ton of information to have to hold in one person's head.

So, we have all these long documented procedures that are basically text documents, and they go through these books, and they read them and they're yet to kind of remember how to do them.

And we thought, what if we could actually just superimpose the three-dimensional model of the procedure on the environmental space station to enable them to just be able to follow a step-by-step thing as if they could basically have their imagination projected into the real space?

And I can see potential consumer uses for this, too.

Is there any chance that any of these applications could make it to the consumer market down the line?

So the stuff we are doing, I think, has helped in the design of some aspects of what is going to be coming commercially.

JPL doesn't necessarily take our products and push them out to the public, but we like to open up the resources that we've created and the designs that we've made to other partners to help them to create those commercial products.

You can expect there will be a number of commercial products that have similar applications that will be coming up.

Really? And one more application with the HoloLens is ProtoSpace -- is that right?


Can you explain how that works?

One of the really important tasks that we do here at JPL is we design spacecraft and rovers specifically.

So our focus is usually on robotic exploration, rather than on human exploration.

So what that means is that we have a lot of engineers who are working to create these very, very complicated pieces of equipment and machinery.

And oftentimes we have teams that are in France, we have teams that are in other parts of the country, that are designing very specific subsystems that all have to come together in order for the spacecraft to work properly.

It's difficult sometimes to imagine how all that stuff's coming together using traditional Autocad -- or computer automated drafting programs.

We can pull the 3D models into the space, and spacecraft designers can actually walk around, put their arm in between things, and actually just recognize things as simple as, oh, there's not enough space to put a screwdriver in here.

And what might seem trivial to the construction worker, for example, where materials are cheap, not being able to put your hand between something that is actually the combination of very, very expensive pieces of equipment, you know, on the scale of millions of dollars can save the taxpayer a lot of money.

And so we have been able to put that to use on multiple missions so far, and it's been a huge success.

So it's sounding like this is really... The biggest thing is it's strengthening the accessibility and the communication.

And I've seen you say that this could even, down the line, make Mars exploration virtually accessible to people all over.

What do you envision?

And when might we expect that?

The wonderful thing that's happening right now is that these technologies are becoming ubiquitous -- or they should be soon.

You can go and you can buy your own Google Cardboard right now for fairly cheap.

The HoloLens is now available to consumers.

The Oculus and the Vive are all available.

So it's really just a matter of taking the stuff that we have done and sort of being able to repackage it and give it to the public.

And so we are hoping that in the future, as we go and explore other planets, as we do our Europa fly-by in March 2020 mission, which is another -- curiosity that we are going to be sending to Mars in 2020.

We are hoping that right there with us using the same sorts of tools and exploring the surface of Mars together so that everyone can experience it.

Great. Matthew Clausen from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, thanks very much for joining us.

Thank you. It's a pleasure.

An all-female group of engineering students from New York's Rochester Institute of Technology set out to design and build a hybrid race car.

The result of their efforts is an 82-horsepower, 700-pound electric hybrid race car named Hot Wheelz.

Now the women are putting their hard work to the test as Hot Wheelz hits the track for its first ever international competition.

Take a look.

This car is unlike most others on the roads.

It has four open wheels, not like a passenger car, where it's all enclosed.

It has two roll bars to keep the driver safe in a rollover impact.

And it has to powered by an electric motor with high-power lithium-ion batteries.

The electric car is called Hot Wheelz.

It's the end result of a two-year project built by an all-female group of engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

We have to do all the frame design, the parts design, all ourselves.

The positive is always on the right.

It's one of those rare moments when the job requires no experience.

The students are a mix of different backgrounds and majors, who have formed a team out of interest and curiosity to see whether all the research could pay off.

We set out to do a two-year design-and-build phase.

The actual design started in January of '15, and we went and designed all the way through about December, and then we really started to build heavily in January of '16.

With their eyes set on a major competition, the women put the finishing touches on Hot Wheelz in early May.

Yeah, Maura. You got this.

Next, they were off to the races at the New Hampshire International Speedway.

[ Cheering ]

The tilt test is one safety check that ensures no leaking from the vehicle.

30 teams from across the globe put their creativity to the test at the Formula Hybrid, a design and engineering challenge for college students.

Hot Wheelz passed an initial mechanical inspection with flying colors.

But later, a close call would put the women in jeopardy of hitting the track.

I slammed on the brakes, and it was just way too much force in the front, and it actually turned -- the bottom and the front suspension twisted over each other, so it completely just ripped apart one of our wheel assemblies.

She was in the car.

I was out of the car, so I had a different perspective, I just saw everything crinkle.

And I was just like, 'Oh, no.'

Time was of the essence, so the women quickly put their thinking caps on.

The mistake cost them a few rounds of the competition.

Then finally, the electric car remained powered up for nearly 12 miles.

We came together as a team in the rest of that day to really pull together and show that we might have had a failure, but we are a team to be reckoned with, and we are going to get back out there, and we are not done, and we are here to compete.


Hot Wheelz brightly colored technical design won the team third place, and they finished third in the overall competition.

But the women say it was a different prize that made this all worthwhile.

We actually walked away with two professionalism and like management awards.

When things got rough, the team found a unique way to lighten the mood.

We dance. [ Laughs ] So I think they'd never really seen that type of an atmosphere before, where everyone just gets around the car and starts doing the wobble.

But that's how we build morale.

And there is no doubt the hands-on experience created bonds and friendships they will take with them down whatever road they travel.

We have seen so many girls, even young first- and second-years transform just in this past semester, their level of confidence and understanding of things just because of this team.

One middle school in Dade City, Florida, is putting on a county STEM fair for sixth graders based on the PBS math series 'Cyberchase.'

The students demonstrate their skills in writing computer code, examining the effects of various conductors on circuits, and using drones and rockets, all in an effort to expand their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Let's take a look.

Centennial Middle School in Dade City, Florida, is a STEM magnet school.

To kick off the new school year, they are holding a 'Cyberchase' STEM fair.

We are trying to get the students to realize that the science, technology, engineering and math -- not only are they going to really be beneficial to them in the long run as far as careers and jobs that haven't been invented yet that they might be competitive for, but also just to realize that learning and critical thinking really can be fun.

Teacher Bobbi Starling is in charge of this STEM fair, which goes on all day for these sixth graders.

It's comprised of six interactive stations.

There is one that is 'to infinity and beyond,' where they are testing to see if the shape and size of fins and nose cones affect the aerodynamics of water rockets that are launched.

At another station, they are using some virtual reality with Google cardboards, and they're exploring underwater reefs, and they are looking for signs of healthy and unhealthy reefs and in comparing those.

At another station, they are coding a robotic ball called a spiro, and their spiro will actually paint for them.

So they are making some black-light paintings.

Another one of the stations is catapult launching.

So there, students are actually building catapults, and they are testing to see how angle and force and speed affect the trajectory of the marshmallows.

Another one of the stations -- they are actually using sumo jumping drones.

And that was kind of a math focus there.

And then there is a station called the cyclone makers, where they are using a 21st-century invention kit called Makey Makey, and they are testing circuits and conductivity.

So there, they are creating some different circuits that are musical.

They made game controllers out of Play-Doh.

They've make gummy-worm pianos.

You just have to hold the ground and touch it.

And they can take any gravity.

And it also comes if you do the circuit, so she can play, too.

It's just one big circuit.

It was really great to actually hear the students just collaborating with each other, and then you could see the critical thinking that was going on in the Makey Makey station there.

This 'Cyberchase' STEM fair is a part of a collaboration with PBS LearningMedia, the 'Cyberchase' program, and WEDU.

All of the lessons that we are doing today on STEM day actually came from PBS LearningMedia resources.

A lot of those were 'Cyberchase' resources.

And so the students actually had some learning before we went out there.

We use that learning to kind of focus on our STEM day so they could then go and test their knowledge and what they had learned and hypothesize and see what happened there.

For example, when they did the VR exploration, being able to use those Google cardboard goggles then and actually go underneath the reef and look for signs and things themselves and interact with something that had them all hooked, and they were really super engaged.

The interactive rocket launch program helps students prepare for launch day.

The interactive from the rocket launch is something that the kids love because anytime that they are able to engage and interact with things, I think the learning really sticks, and they are remembering which rocket design they picked that went the farthest, and then they are able to apply what they did there digitally to their actual rockets that they launched today.


One of the popular sessions was at the Cyclone Makers room.

Daisy from the design squad introduced the students to Makey Makey, the invention kit, and so they really were able to relate to her, and she has fun, and she makes some controllers out of gummy worms to play a 'Fetch!'

PBS Kids game.

Myka Wilks is in sixth grade and is enjoying being creative with her Makey Makey kit.

The lesson is about circuits and just making game board sees what's conductive and what's not conductive or what's an insulator.

You can connect circuits and make really cool things, like Makey Makey piano or a Makey Makey game board.

Some students use bananas, Play-Doh, and gummy worms as conductors.

Makenzie Reed joined Myka in creating a game controller using Play-Doh.

The game that we were playing was on a website called Scratch, which you can go on and find all kinds of programs.

And what we are doing was the Mario Bros.

So the Makey Makey takes what you could do on a computer and makes a bigger controller, so it's easier to access than having your fingers crammed up on a keyboard.

The lesson is about conductivity and why some materials work better than others to create a circuit.

Water is very conductive, and you could see a lot of them up there have moisture in them -- like gummy bears have a lot of that moisture, and so do bananas, and the Play-Doh does have the moisture to keep it malleable.

In the 'ready, set, launch' room, students are learning the science behind an ancient device.

We mix science with history.

So they were able to take a catapult -- ancient tool -- and talk about potential energy and the kinetic energy.

And the kids loved it.

They actually built their own catapult using tongue suppressors, rubber bands and a bottle cap, and launched marshmallows.

As a history teacher at Centennial Middle, Clay loves combining history and science, and watching how the students respond.

They got very competitive.

They all wanted to have the longest shot.

It started out -- the first class shot 15 feet.

The final class shot 22 1/2 feet with a miniature marshmallow.


[ Exclaiming ]

Principal Rick Saylor explains why they wanted to bring a 'Cyberchase' STEM fair to this new magnet School.

We thought it was a great way to kind of jump-start the year as a STEM magnet school to get the kids excited about learning and using some different tools and strategies that they can not only use today but also carry throughout the rest of the year in their learning as they achieve the normal standards we would teach during a normal school year.

Today what I saw was -- I always called it when I was a teacher, the light bulb effect.

This just wasn't a light bulb.

This was sun going off in these kids' brains as you watch them engage in this learning.

Whether it be the Makey Makey station or launching a rocket, going to the catapults, using the drones, the virtual reality, wherever they were, you could just see the excitement in the learning.

For Bobbi Starling, it's all about preparing future scientists and engineers.

The excitement that they have from this day is going to kind of carry them forward and get them really interested in some of those STEM careers.

And there's kids that are talking about wanting to be engineers, and there are kids that want to design rockets.

And so this kind of gives them a spark or an idea of what maybe they could look for career-wise to come and gets them just really excited to move forward.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.