SciTech Now Episode 414

In this episode of SciTech Now, we look into one school district providing students 24/7 access to the internet; Scientist Ainissa Ramirez discusses how atoms keep time; students learning the science and technology of tomorrow; and one Texas entrepreneur combining his love of computers with his passion for ranching.



Coming up, bridging the digital divide.

We wanted to ensure that students has 24/7 access to the Internet because learning does not stop at the end of the school day.

How atoms keep time.

That energy actually has a wiggle to it, and that wiggle is very, very precise.

Teaching the science and technology of tomorrow.

We want to guide students in career pathways, and there are lots of different avenues to a career.

Big data and ranching.

I want to move the cattle auction online, and I want to collect data every step of the way.

It's all ahead.

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.

Lack of reliable Internet access and high-tech learning tools can put low-income and rural students at a disadvantage.

In an effort to bridge this digital divide, a superintendent at one of the poorest school districts in the nation created an initiative that provides students with 24/7 access to the Internet.

Here's a look.

30 minutes west of the wealthy suburbs of Palm Springs is a desert oasis best known for its annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

But behind the parties and concerts stretches a vast and isolated landscape home to the second poorest school district in the country, where most families live below the poverty line and struggle just to pay the rent.

We have some of the poorest of the poor in our country, very economically challenged, and 100% of our students on free and reduced lunch.

Some of them are living in trailer home parks -- You know, some have been condemned recently -- or some in abandoned railroad cars.

I mean, it's just unbelievable, some of the challenges they face.

Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent Darryl Adams believes the right use of technology is critical for the families in this area, like Norma Olivas and her daughter, Anisa Perez.

I do see students sometimes struggling, and right now, sometimes you see some of the kids struggling to get to school, to do certain things, and I wouldn't want my daughter to go through any of that.

I wouldn't want her to be a dropout.

When Adams took the job in 2011, the graduation rate was 70% according to the district.

One of his key initiatives was to get every student an iPad and wi-fi service, but he knew it would be a challenge.

We have 1,250 square miles to cover, larger than the state of Rhode Island.

So when we found out there was spots in areas where students were not connected, we said, 'Well, how can we get them connected?'

And so one of the ways is, 'Well, look, we got 100 buses.

Let's put wi-fi routers on those buses and let's park them where the need is.'

Finding the funding for this fleet of buses was no easy task.

Nevertheless, in 2012, the community voted for and passed Measure X, a nearly $45 million school bond to fund the mobile learning initiative over 10 years.

They called the program WiFi on Wheels.

Can you give me another day?

[ Chuckles ] In the bus, it's kind of cool that we have Internet because when the project is due the next day, we can actually spend time to do it.

Completing assignments was difficult for Anisa before getting her iPad and wi-fi service at home.

We'd have to travel actually to go in there, go to the library, get the books she needed to look up the information, and go home.

I don't make a lot of money, but I will do whatever it takes to make sure she does get a better education.

Adams is doing whatever he can to make sure that the 20,000 students in his schools, 98% Hispanic and about 10% undocumented, develop the skills they need to graduate.

So we realized that we had to provide this for our students in order for them to compete in the 21st century.

Installing solar panels on the rooftops of the school buses to power the state-of-the-art wi-fi routers was a solution proposed by Adams.

Being a musician by trade, I was a music teacher from L.A. Unified when I started out, you know, 30 years ago, and as a musician, you're always creating and thinking of different ways to do things or to play things or to hear things, and so I brought that to my career in education, and I've had some difficulty in the past because some people weren't really kind of ready for Adams' crazy ideas.

But this district was, and this is about anything we do that's maybe different, and it's good for kids, we go with it.

CVUSD's director of technology services, Israel Olivares, provides the technical support for the entire district.

We run the power through a conduit that was already existing on the bus.

It goes to the front of the bus.

That's where the router's located.

Then we do have the antennas pointing in different directions that'll cover 150-foot radius.

The school district allows a few of these buses to be parked throughout the East Valley overnight.

For students, it's a lifeline to the outside world.

We wanted to ensure that students has 24/7 access to the Internet because learning does not stop at the end of the school day.

What should we do at the elementary school level...

Megan Smith is the chief technology officer of the United States.

It's her job to advise a president on technology and innovation that will improve the future.

Coachella has an incredibly creative idea.

Being able to flip the classroom and be involved in, you know, have video at home instead of the classroom has a lecture, so a lot of work to do in the rural areas.

There are federal programs in place to help provide wi-fi to rural school districts, like the FCC's E-rate program, which provides about $1.5 billion each year to schools.

However, census data shows that there are still 5 million households with school-aged children who are not effectively connected to the Internet.

Smith says that has to change.

There's a lot of creativity that American people have, and so whether it's gonna come from a school district, the municipal leader, or one of our national players, we need everybody in on this game working on it.

It's a very, very important fundamental resource for all of our people.

It drives our economy.

It drives our community and our interconnections.

With Adams at the wheel, the graduation rate jumped from 70% to 80%. Now the superintendent has aspirations beyond students getting their homework done.

He wants to connect everyone in the East Valley.

Because we found that we had a problem with some of the third-party Internet service provider companies not willing to go into some of the areas where we serve, so in the long run, we would like to become our own Time Warner or our own Cost Communication and provide this for our students.

It's too crucial for them to have this access for us not to go down this path.

Anisa recognizes that technology and the WiFi on Wheels program is playing a vital role in her education.

I want to do this for my mom because my mom didn't really get to finish school, so that's what motivates me to actually to finish school and complete my work and get the job I want.

I want her to have a better life than what I have right now.

I would want her to do really, really good in school so she can get all these ideas that she wants -- nice restaurants, different things like that.

That's one thing she always wants to do -- travel, and that's what she's hoping to go for.

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Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss one of her latest podcast episodes about how atoms keep time.

Before we had atomic clocks and all this fancy stuff or even watches, we just used to look up and say, 'It looks like it's really kind of near the middle.

It must be midday.'

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

That's not the most accurate way to do it?

[ Chuckles ] Well, it's a way that we did it for a very long time, looking at what was noon.

In fact, different cities would have different times because noon was different depending on where you are.

You could just be six miles down the road, and your noon's gonna be different than my noon.



But you didn't have the Internet back then to know that.

We didn't have the Internet.

And by the time you got over there, it didn't really matter.

It wasn't noon anymore.


But yeah, it's all about having something that keeps some kind of periodic pattern.

So it was the Earth at first.


And then we figured out how to make different mechanical contraptions that can keep time.

And then we got to quartz.

Quartz, which I have right here, if you zap it, actually wiggles.

It wiggles like jello.


And it wiggles thousands and thousands of times, and then that's counted, and a certain number make up a second, and that's what's inside of our watch.

Tiny pieces of quartz wiggling.

That's right.

A tiny piece of quartz, just like a tuning fork, and it's wiggling, and it's being counted, and that's how we determine a second.

Because it's at a very exact frequency of measure, and then you can say, 'Okay, well, if it wiggles this much at this time, this is now four seconds.'

That's right, that's right.

That's how we determine.

However, before things like GPS or satellite missions, quartz is not enough because it's precise.

It's more precise than what we used to do, but it's not precise enough for going into space.

What's the difference in the precision of an atomic clock versus what's on your wrist?

Oh, I don't have that number off the top -- I mean, this is scientific numbers.

It's on the order of like micron parsings for a scientific level.

For us, we don't care if it's one second or two seconds.

It doesn't really matter.

But a GPS cares a lot.

Exactly, because it's all about the minutia, microseconds that can be all the difference of different things that are going on, plus there's other effects that are going on.

Ends up that Einstein figured this out that when you change your position, if you're moving, your clock is actually a little slower than if a clock is stationary, so you have to take that into account if you're a satellite, as well.

So if you have --

It's a lot of math just to tell time.

It is.

It's a lot of math just to know where your packages are.

Because when we think about locations and when we see GPS location, it's kind of written differently.

It's not at this intersection and this intersection.

It's sort of hours and minutes and look at longitude and latitude, right?

So it all kind of matters on that exact moment because if you're off by a second, depending on how far away you are in space, that second could be a couple of feet, it could be much, much worse.


And a couple of feet up in space could be a larger distance if you get back to Earth, so we need something much more precise, and that's where atoms come into play.

How do we measure them and the movement that they're in?

Well, the atomic clock actually has a piece of quartz inside of it, wiggling again, and there's also another part that's counting those number of wiggles.

And then the atom comes into play because atoms have different electrons at different levels.

And if you zap it, an electron will move up, and then it will get rid of that energy and it will come back down.

And when it does, that energy actually has a wiggle to it, and that wiggle is very, very precise, more so than quartz, so that's compared to the quartz.

And depending on how off it is, then you can determine what the time is.

So the atomic clock has this thing that kind of checks the quartz.

But there are different types of atomic clocks, or are they all kind of at the same level?

Because there's one in Colorado, there's one at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and then there's ones that you can buy, like, on some catalog on a plane.

Like, 'Oh, I can put this on my desk.'

That's right.

Little atomic clock.

Well, I mean, they're around $10,000, so if it's less than $10,000, it might not be an atomic clock.

It might just be named atomic clock.

Got it.

But yeah, there's different sensitivities.

Usually we use cesium, and cesium is a standard.

In fact, we used to think about time as a certain duration, but now it's the number of wiggles that a cesium atom gives off.

That is the benchmark...

Go to Wikipedia.

...against which everything else is measured.

Yeah, so cesium was the benchmark.

But now we can use a range of different atoms, as well.

Is there a backup plan, right, if the cesium stuff for some reason stops working?


GPS goes all haywire.

And we are dependent on GPS, and we're dependent on lots of different technologies that have this very fundamental, basic understanding of what time is.

If our measurement of time goes haywire, it's not like we can sort of back up the satellites by looking up and saying, 'Oh, it looks like it's noon again,' right?

Yeah, I mean, if we want to know the time, it goes back to astronomy.

And we can look and see when certain planets and when certain objects are moving across.

And from that, we can determine the time.

That's just what we used to do, you know, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s.

But in terms of like will your Amazon Prime package get to you on time, if we have a problem with the satellite, that's a different issue.

It kind of goes back to a fundamental, you know, lack of understanding of basic science that I think we sort of stopped paying attention after we get out of that science class at fourth grade or seventh grade.


I mean, it's almost like you -- It's not like I want you to prepare to live in a shelter and a dark cave or anything, but it's like we should know some basic things on, I don't know -- Like, I'm just thinking to myself as I'm having this conversation with you.

It's like, if I didn't have a watch, if I didn't have a GPS, if I didn't have a smartphone, how would I tell what time it is today on a cloudy day?


You don't have a sundial?

I haven't made one, but I'll look it up online.

Maybe we should put that online.

Definitely have a sundial.

But remember, it changes, you know, depending on --

Where you are and the seasons, et cetera.

That's right.

Anyway, it's a lot of math.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.


Waves are all around us, from the light we see to the sound we hear to the earthquake that shakes the ground.

The thing that makes a wave a wave is that it transports energy from one place to another through something without actually transporting the thing it's passing through.

A mechanical wave is a type of wave that physically vibrates or oscillates the medium as it transfers energy.

There are three main types of mechanical waves that are defined by how and in which direction the medium moves.

Transverse waves, or S waves, transfer energy by moving the medium back and forth at a right angle to the energy movement.

Longitudinal waves, or P waves, transfer energy by compressing and expanding the medium to move the energy forward.

And surface waves transfer energy by displacing the medium in a circular motion.

So there you have it.

Three wonderful waves that are everywhere.

St. Petersburg College in Florida is offering science and technology programs to its students as they pursue the skills they need to land the latest jobs.

The school works diligently to assure the training inside the classroom is what businesses need now.

Here's the story.

More and more employers are requiring ever-higher levels of education in order to fill their workforce needs.

And, in fact, labor economists with Georgetown University project that by as early as the year 2020, fully 65% of all job openings in Florida will require some form of post-secondary education.

As the executive director of the Florida College Access Network, Laurie Meggesin works with universities, community colleges, and technical schools to help students reach their potential.

We will need, as a state, to increase the number of working age Floridians with at least a two-year degree by 1.7% a year, year over year, over the next decade.

And while we are seeing advances in degree completion in Florida, it's nowhere near where that needs to be if we're going to meet that goal.

Having a workforce ready for Florida's businesses remains a daunting task.

Many are looking to community colleges and technical programs to speed up the process and ensure Floridians are ready to work.

One such school is St. Petersburg College.

We want to guide students in career pathways, and there are lots of different avenues to a career.

The advisers at the college have all been trained in career development facilitation.

That means their conversations that they're having with the students are centered on, 'What is your goal?

Find out who you are as a person, where your interests are, and how you fit into the world of work.'

Of that, how do I fit into the occupations that are in demand?

But we align them directly to our programs of study, provide the links to them so they can explore exactly what programs we have that match their interests and abilities.

Dr. Krupp heads up the workforce services here at St. Petersburg College.

Their department provides a variety of events to support students as they plan their career.

I think the welcome back session was a fun thing for the programs to do for students each semester to welcome them back and get them re-acclimated to the college environment.

Then we host information sessions like supply chain management information session, where you can learn about occupations in that field.

And then we host job fairs on each campus.

We have at least two job fairs a semester.

Couple of our campuses have Working Wednesday, which basically is just like a smaller scale job fair, and we'll have a couple or three employers who come on campus and set up a table and advertise their positions.

We try to get them connected with their potential employers as much as possible through online job boards, through campus events, and activities in the classroom.

The science and technology programs offered provide numerous levels of attainment for students as they follow their career path.

We have about 100 degree programs that are called workforce programs.

About 20 of those are baccalaureate, and the other 80 are associate in science and certificate programs.

So our associate in science degrees are tied directly to jobs, and those are two-year degrees generally, and they have embedded certificates within them, so if a student wants to be -- goes into computer networking, a two-year degree, but in one or two semesters, they can get a Cisco certification, a certificate.

They can continue to go along and enroll and finish the associate in science degree program, and that's another stopping point in the pathway, and that all leads into the bachelors degrees, and they all tie together.

And the college works very closely with local business and industry leaders.

We align our programs with occupations that are in high demand in our region.

We share that information with the students so that they can see, 'Here are the average salaries or median salaries of people in these occupations that are aligned with the jobs.'

We show them the demand for the jobs, too.

You don't want to look at just salary, but you want to say, 'How many openings are there gonna be in the next 10 years?'

We have an online job board.

We're helping them with the résumé development.

We're helping them with mock interviews and all the skills that they need to help land that job.

And the connections do not end there.

The school works diligently to assure the training inside the classroom meets what businesses need now.

We have 38 advisory committees that help shape the programs that we offer.

And over 500 companies are represented on those committees, so they are helping guide our curriculum, our activities, and our programs to make sure that we are helping our students be prepared and have the right kind of skills that are in demand by those companies in our backyard.

Schools like St. Petersburg College continue to retool in order to meet the needs of businesses.

But according to Laurie Meggesin, businesses play a major role, too.

Businesses can participate, whether it's working with their own employees or partnering with local institutions, the nonprofit community, helping to support efforts at local schools in order to help ensure that students have the resources and information that they need in order to succeed.

♪♪ [ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

A Texas tech entrepreneur combined his love of computers with his passion for ranching by creating an app made for auctioning cattle.

Here's the story.


The life of the 21st century rancher is evolving, and the smartphone is changing the way cowboys have managed cattle for generations.

This idea came to me watching calves go through a chute one day, and the greatest pain point I know of in the cow/calf business is the marketing of calves, selling your calves.

There's just not a good way to do it.

And I was watching a cowboy one day run calves through a chute.

He was listening to Pandora on his iPhone.

And it just occurred to me that with the computing power in his pocket and that animal in that chute, we had all the information and the ability to gather that information necessary to sell a calf before we ever moved it.

Wendel approached me originally to help him mock up some ideas that he'd had that he wanted me to program some stuff for the web, and then he came back to me, oh, a few months later and said, you know, 'I'm really thinking about starting this company.

I want to move the cattle auction online, and I want to collect data every step of the way, and I want the data to flow with the animals.'

So I was a little skeptical, but I went out to a local auction with Wendel.

I saw how it was done, and I was kind of shocked at the state of technology in the industry.

We've eliminated an enormous area of stress in the cattle production chain.

That stress is essentially the physical movement of those animals to a physical marketplace.

And that 24-hour process causes material weight loss -- 6% to 8% shrink is pretty standard.

And it also causes animals to get grouped together, and communicable disease becomes a real problem as we physically bring them together to market them.

By gathering the data on the ranch and being able to transport the data around and put it in front of buyers as opposed to physically moving the animals around, we've eliminated that entire efficiency sink in the production chain, and now we're able to deliver healthier, heavier animals to buyers than they could get out of traditional channels.

One of the things we sought out to do early on was to take the same intuitiveness and simplicity that so many mobile apps that you use, you know, in your daily life, whether it's your e-mail app or your messaging app or your photos or Facebook, and to create a product that would be immediately usable to ranchers in the field and wouldn't feel any more difficult or any more foreign than those apps that they're already using.

The three components are the smartphone, the ear tag, and the smart chute.

And the ear tag is the physical connection.

That's how we physically connect data to animals.

Anywhere this ear tag is, you can access that animal's data.

Doesn't matter who owns it, where physically it is.

The smartphone is our conduit to the Internet, and it allows all the data that the chute and the phone pick up to fairly instantly get on the Internet so it exists in a true cloud, our cloud database, so that it can be accessed anywhere this tag should turn up.

And that's the trick here is that we're making all that animal's data as portable as the animal so that it is in front of the person who needs to know it as long as that animal is there.

Right now we have the calf in the chute, and she already has an AgEx ear tag in her.

We're grabbing the weight off the weigh box.

And we're grabbing an updated headshot.

The ear tag has been read.

This ear tag has already been read by this antenna, so the weight and the photograph that we are gathering that are being collected right now are being associated to her file, to her data card.

I'm really excited to see where our product is going.

You know, we're looking into other kinds of imaging, whether that's thermal imaging or 3D imaging or other ways to collect information.

That sort of thing is exciting to us.

The simplification of the user experience is very exciting to us.

And I'm really looking forward to seeing where this ends up two or three years from now.

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.

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