SciTech Now Episode 427

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore a system that engages students through science; finding new ways for environmental sustainability; a look into the new documentary “Bill Nye: Science Guy”; and the Physics of the hockey slap shot.



Coming up -- empowering students through science.

It's really opened my eyes to what I have the opportunity to do and help people.

More efficient models for environmental sustainability.

To me, all these different waste streams, they're all resource streams.

Meet the one and only Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Ten years old is about as old as you can be to get the so-called lifelong passion for science.

The physics of the hockey slap shot.

Obviously it's a big lineup, but you're trying to hit actually the ice first.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and contributions to this station.


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.

San Antonio School of Science and Technology has created a system that engages their students with projects that are impactful to their community through science.

Here's the story.

At San Antonio School of Science and Technology, they're not only educating students in science, technology, engineering and math.

They're empowering students to create projects that are changing lives.

Let's go inside a computer lab and learn more.

We focus on projects that will educate our students on various aspects at the same time, and we also believe strongly in giving back to your community.

That's why we do require 100 hours of community service from all of our students as a graduation requirement.

This combination of STEM education and community service recently helped a 6-year-old boy from Cibolo, Texas, named Zack, who was born with an underdeveloped right hand.

The school's 3-D printer was used to create a prosthetic hand for Zack, which the school provided at no charge.

Well, 3-D printer is a great invention that came about semirecently.

What it does is it takes a resin polymer, and it melts that down and lays it down in very thin amounts so that it can build up whatever design you kind of AutoCAD design using Google SketchUp or any other AutoCAD design on the computer, and it builds it up using the filament, and so what we were able to do specifically with this hand project is take a prosthetic hand.

If you go and buy that from a prosthetic-hand company, you're going to pay thousands and thousands of dollars, I mean, $35,000 easily for a prosthetic hand.

For one that doesn't have the skin tone or anything, very simple prosthetic, that might cost you 10,000 to 15,000.

With the 3-D printing technology the way it is today, we're able to print one of these 3-D hands for about $35 but certainly under $50.

Tenth-grader Justin Cantu worked with his technology instructor to create Zack's prosthetic hand.

He showed me how the 3-D printer works.

So this is the actual 3-D printer that you used to 3-D print Zack's prosthetic hand?


This 3-D printer we used, and we programmed his customized measurements on the printing software just to fit him perfectly, and it can be changed at any time it needs to be, and this, using the 3-D printer is a lot cheaper than, you know, going to the hospital and getting a customized $13,000 limb.


And anyone can do this, and it inspires young kids like me to help the community and help anybody they need to.

How long did it take from idea to printing the component parts of the 3-D hand to having it completed?

How long was that?

To print out all the pieces, I'd say about 2 days, 3 days, and to build it, maybe two again or three.


So it can be done in a week.

Yes, definitely.

This isn't the exact one that we gave to Zachary, of course, but this is one that is the same model as the one that we did make for Zack.

You can see that it's 3-D printed, so it's all that injection polymer.

You can tell that it's held together with rubber bands and strings that are attached to this wristlet piece.

So the child hand would come in through this wrist portion, and then, by bending their wrist, it will close and open the hand, and that's how they're going to be able to manipulate objects is by actually bending their wrist down to grip that object.

So I was fortunate enough to be at the first face-to-face meeting between Justin and Zack, and the thing that struck me most is just the look in both their eyes.

You know, Zack saying, 'Oh, I'll remember you forever,' and Justin had the look in his eyes that I knew meant that he's found his true calling, and he feels like he truly values biomedical engineering and everything.

So I know that, you know, it's going to be one of those big inspirational moments for him to go forth and do bigger, better things for this world, you know, doing engineering and prosthetics and things of that nature.

So I was really happy not only to see, of course, the look in the eye of Zack, who was happy to have a hand and was playfully picking things up on the table and everything, very excited, but also to know that Justin, one of our own students, is sharing in that experience, and that's going to be a lifelong memory for him to help him to remember to value, you know, helping your community and paying it forward.

When I first met him, I was overcome with happiness, and I didn't expect to feel so...just overwhelmed with feelings and emotion because, you know, I'd never met Zack before.

I've only seen him in a picture, and when I first met him, I felt like I've known him for years, and I first saw him, you know, use a hand and use both hands, and it was a great touch to my heart, and it really, you know, opened a door to me of seeing what I really want to do with my life.

The moment wasn't only emotional for Justin, but also his teacher, Murat Soruc.

Actually, I don't know if there's a word to explain that, but it was most happy moment in my life and for my student also, the others also.

He just used it.

He just started to use it.

He started to grab the things, everything.

When I see he started to use it, it was perfect moment for me.

Before I attended this school, I wanted to be a chef.

[ Chuckles ] I like cooking, but being exposed to technology and more of a science-y aspect of the workforce, it's really opened my eyes to what I have the opportunity to do and help people, and now what I want to do is become a medical engineer and help people with other prosthetic limbs and help them, you know, overcome an accident that's happened to them.

According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of the world's population living in urban areas will continue to grow in the upcoming decades.

Kartik Chandran and his colleagues at Columbia University in New York City are aiming to find ways to help us leave a friendlier chemical footprint on this Earth by changing the way we deal with food waste, sewage and even human remains.

Thanks for joining us.

So tell me, what is it that your lab works on?

Well, thematically speaking, we work with microorganisms.

We try to channel the potential that microorganisms have to different and sometimes multiple objectives.

So the whole chain is as follows.

We try to understand what microbial communities can do collectively, and once we... And this is really quite fundamental in terms of, we do genome sequencing, and then we do bioinformatics to understand what the sequence information tells us.

Using this knowledge, and this is where a lot of discovery happens from a fundamental side, but if we take all that knowledge, and using that knowledge, we try to come up with better engineered biological systems.

That's where the engineering umbrella comes in, and these engineered systems, the technologies and so on, we use them for different end points.

It could be for producing clean water.

It could be to enable sanitation.

It could be to recover resources like energy, like chemicals, nutrients and so on, and among the more recent applications has been with DeathLAB to address human remains as well, but it's all built on the foundation of microbial activity.

So tell me.

For example, there's a sewage plant here in New York City that you're working with, and it's an example of what the microbes can do.

How does that work?

Really at the heart of biological treatment at these sewage treatment plants, it's really... There's really a bioreactor, and the bioreactor contains all sorts of different organisms, and these are open bioreactors.

Any organisms can come in and colonize these reactors, and so, depending on what we feed these reactors, so in this case, it'll be sewage, or it could be a mix of sewage, and let's say, in developing countries, it could be fecal sludge because they don't really have the luxury of dealing with wastewater.


It could be food waste.

It could be industrial waste.

So based on what we feed them and the way we design and run these reactors, we can encourage the organisms to do what we want.

Traditionally speaking, some of the old plans I was helping to design, we were running after just producing clean water, and of course that takes a lot of energy, lot of chemicals, and sure, we were getting clean water, but then it was clean water at any cost.


Now what we are trying to do is still get clean water but facilitated or fueled by the energy and the chemicals that exist in these waste streams.

So in sewage, there is enough energy.

There are enough chemicals we can make to render the whole treatment process energy-neutral or even energy-positive, and we can substantially reduce the chemicals that we have to import into the boundary of a wastewater-treatment plant to get just clean water.

So you're getting energy out of the sewage to help power the sewage plant?


You also work at Columbia on an interesting project called DeathLAB, which sounds very ominous and sounds straight out of 'Star Wars,' but what does DeathLAB do?

So I'm part of DeathLAB.

DeathLAB is an initiative led by Karla Rothstein and the School of Architecture and Planning, and so, a few years ago, she and her colleague came to us and asked if we could do something with human remains in terms of producing energy or something else, and to me, it's all a mixture of organic carbon, nutrients and a few inorganic constituents, so my answer was, 'Well, we are doing this already.'

So there was an idea in there about a suspended cemetery underneath a bridge.

Explain that.

Yeah, so again, in terms of the technology, the objective was to take the embedded energy, primarily in the carbon within the human cells, and convert that carbon into a manifestation of light.

That was a concept, but we can take that concept to any other setting as well, does not have to be under a bridge.

So literally the energy that's stored into the body, in the body after it's dead, would be converted into electricity, and it would create a light...

Yes, that's right.

...that everybody would see, so it's almost like a memorial.


It's exactly a memorial, yes.


What do you expect... What are you looking forward to, kind of your future impacts?

Right now, you're working with the developing world and the developed world.

You're working on sewage.

You're working on food waste.

I mean, there's so many different areas where that you could actually have an impact.

What are you focused on?


So we have a collection of projects, which touch both the developed and the developing world.

The main thread that runs, that connects many of these projects if not all of them is the concept of channeling microbial potential, but not just doing this for the sake of doing so, but also this concept of resource recovery, and so, to me, all these different waste streams, they're all resource streams, and we can connect this.

We can use the same principle for multiple substrates of feed stocks.

All right.

Kartik Chandran of Columbia University, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Television host Bill Nye the Science Guy was known in the '90s for his quirky humor, fun science experiments and his ability to make STEM learning fun and engaging.

Nye is the subject of the new documentary titled 'Bill Nye: Science Guy' in which he opens up about who he is and what drives him now.

Correspondent Maddie Horton sat down with Bill Nye and filmmaker Jason Sussberg to discuss.

This new documentary focuses a lot on who you are as a person and also what you're focusing on right now.

What made you want to do the documentary?

Well, my agent, Nick, thought this would be cool because he was interested in it because, like Jason and David and Kate, he grew up watching the 'Science Guy' show.


You know, David and I grew up watching the show, and, you know, in no small part, it was a huge influence on our decision to become science documentary filmmakers.

You know, the show was so interesting.

It had this weird language.

It was like 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' but educational, and so, yeah, it seemed like the right topic, and it was the right time because Bill had just done the debate in Kentucky.

You mentioned the Kentucky debate.

Let's talk about that a little bit.

Much of the film focuses on your speaking with, I guess, skeptics of evolution and skeptics of climate change.

What brought you to do the debate at the creationism museum?

Well, the guy wrote to me, and I didn't really know who he was, I admit, and I know that Bill Maher had exposed him a little bit in his movie, and I thought...I still think this is a good opportunity to show the world how this entity, these creationists... And you used the word skeptics.

They're deniers.

They're deniers of science.

I mean, I'm a big skeptic.

I'm a big critical-thinking proponent of rationality, reason and all that, but these are people that ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence, and I believed, and I still believe, that by putting it on the Internet, people would see what these guys are up to, and I hope not enable them to use tax dollars to miseducate kids.

What are your concerns as far as children in science education as far as this is concerned?

Well, the biggest problem facing humankind is climate change.

I say all the time, when I was a kid, there were three billion people in the world, but now there are 7.4 billion people in the world.

In fact, when we were making the movie, there were 7.3 billion people.


Now there's 7.4, and so this enormous number of people trying to breathe and burn the Earth's atmosphere is causing the Earth's climate to change very fast.

Most of us live on sea coasts, and most of us will be affected by this.

You visited Greenland to look into the science and the research behind climate-change studies.

Tell me a little bit about how they are really looking into that.

For years, I'd been using ice cores, pictures from the ice-core lab, pictures colleagues would send, academic colleagues would send me, the famous hockey-stick graph in my lectures, but I had never been to the land of ice cores, but Jason and David and Kate somehow schmoozed somebody somewhere, and we went to Greenland and saw the evidence with our own eyes.

And so what is the evidence?

What are these ice cores?

Well, I mean, I mean, that's definitely a question for Bill, but what they're able to do when they drill the ice core is they're able to crush the ice and then take a reading of the atmosphere at the time, so, you know, Bill refers to it as a time machine.

You can actually find the atmosphere going back tens of thousands of years, and you can actually find the correlation between CO2 and temperature with great accuracy.

By analogy, the ice down deep or the rocks down deep are older than the rocks and the ice on top.


And so that's it.

You drill down into the ice.

You get this cylinder of ice about yea, and you look at the bubbles very carefully, and you put them in your mass spectrometer that you have, and you figure out what the ancient atmosphere was made of.

Science education has been a huge part of your life and your career.

I thought it was particularly interesting that you said something changes in a child's science-education abilities when they're about 10, right?

Ten is the oldest you can be to get... And I say this.

This isn't my research, but when we did the 'Science Guy' show over 20 years ago, we had very compelling research that 10 years old is about as old as you can be to get the so-called lifelong passion for science.

What gives you hope about science education now?

Oh, I think things are changing.

I think I should take full credit.

[ Laughs ] It's all you.

No, it's just that here is the example that I am so fond of -- 'The Big Bang Theory' and now a spin-off show, 'Sheldon'...


...'Young Sheldon.'

'Big Bang Theory' was the most popular show on television, not the most popular sitcom, the most popular show, and it celebrates these nerdy people interacting, who are scientists and engineers interacting, and that right there is evidence that things are changing.

Then if I said to you STEM, you know exactly what that means, right?

Science, technology, engineering and math...


...and because it's just this acronym is just around all the time, STEM, STEM, STEM, and that's good.

I think things are changing.

One of the particularly cool things about the film, I think, for people who are science lovers is it's not just Bill Nye the Science Guy, but you also have clips of Carl Sagan, and you have a moment of you interacting with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I mean...

Neil is a good friend.

Man, I spend a lot of time with Neil.

I think it must be so cool, especially you're a science lover, science documentary, and what was that like?

It was really exciting because, you know, Bill doesn't exist in a vacuum.

As we did the research, we realized that there... You know, his mentor, who was his old college professor, Carl Sagan, influenced both Bill and Neil, and, you know, getting into that history felt really pertinent to what Bill is currently doing, which is hopefully inspiring a new generation to love science the way that he learned to love science from Carl Sagan.

It's just an exciting time.

You know, when you're in love, you want to tell the world, as we say.

What are your hopes for the documentary?

Well, that it saves the world.


No big thing.


That people watch it, realize climate change a big problem, decide to produce all the electricity in the world renewably and make it reliable, have clean water for everyone on Earth and access to the Internet for everyone on Earth so we raise the standard of living of women and girls and manage the Earth's environment globally and have the human population manageably reduce over the next century and a half for a better quality of life for everyone.

Let's go.

We'll have to get on that.

Yeah, the film is what, an hour and 10 minutes?


We can do that.

That should be enough.

That should do it. Yeah.

That's fine. Bill, Jason, thank you for being here.

Thank you, Maddie.

Appreciate it.

Thanks a lot.

Watching a hockey player score a goal can be a rush of excitement, but did you know players often take physics into account as they play?

We join the Raleigh, North Carolina, hockey team, the Carolina Hurricanes, and learn how torque, friction, energy transfers and vectors make for success on the rink.

Take a look.

Hockey is one of the fastest sports on Earth.

Players travel as fast as vehicles.

Hockey pucks scream along the ice at 90 miles per hour.

[ Cheers and applause ]

You got to know not just what you're doing, but what everyone else is doing and where everyone else is, so it's awareness, knowing where they're going, anticipating where they're going so you can get the puck to them in time or your body in time.

But it's not just practice that helps the Carolina Hurricanes win in this fast and frozen sport.

It's science.

We spent some times at a Hurricanes practice to find out.

There's a lot going on in about a split second, and these guys are so good, they figure it all out, and it happens naturally.

We've just played for so long, it just comes naturally now.

There's a lot of information being thrown at you as a goalie because you got to worry about the shooter.

You got to worry about pass options.

Is there a screen?

Could it hit somebody in front of you?

And it's a broken play.

Let's look first at the slap shot.

It's one of the most exciting moments in hockey as well as a dramatic example of how multiple types of energy are used.

The power comes from the player transferring weight from the back legs through the body, down the arms and right through to the stick.

The moving player and the moving stick are examples of kinetic energy.

That's the energy of movement, but there's more to it than that.

Obviously it's a big windup, but you're trying to hit actually the ice first.

People may not know that, and that's so you can bend the stick.

The stick is actually doing the work.

The bent stick is an example of potential energy, the energy stored in an object.

When the stick actually hits the puck, the energy stored in the bowed stick is converted to kinetic energy and released into the puck.

The overall motion of the shooter combined with the stick snapping back gives the slap shot so much power.

That torque on that stick is going to make that puck go where it wants to go or the speed at which it wants to go.

Obviously, the bigger, stronger guys can get a little more torque on their stick, a little more bent, creates a lot more velocity through the puck.

And it turns out there are different types of hockey sticks.

There's a lot of physics that goes into that, for sure.

I mean, a lot of guys use different flexes of stick.

I use more of a whippy stick, so it's easier to move, and then guys like Justin Faulk use a really stiff stick, so that means basically, if you have, you know, a lot of upper body strength and use a stiffer stick, then you're going to have a harder shot just because of the basic physics of the stick.

Here's a different type of shot.

Players call it a flick or a wrist shot.

Now you're talking about no windup, but you're still... If you watch, guys will get torque on that stick.

So we're still watching.

That stick is still going to bend.

So now the puck is right on the stick, but they're pushing into the ice to get, again, that bend on that stick to get that stick to do the work, and that whip of that stick is getting the work done.

Now, obviously they have to have strength, and you have to have timing, and you have to have skill to put the puck where you want it.

That's a whole nother game.

That's an example of what's called projectile motion, how an object propelled through the air is influenced by gravity.

As the player snaps his wrist, the puck rolls off the blade and towards the target.

The longer the puck is in contact with the stick, the faster it spins when it leaves the stick, and that spin keeps the puck on target even though gravity is pulling it down.

But you'll move it on your stick depending on where you want to shoot it, so guys will pull it in to get more torque in here, you know, get that bend.

Guys...Sometimes guys like it depending on the curve of their stick.

There's a lot of stuff going on where you release the puck off the blade.

These players are so good that, you know, they can start with the puck out here, but by the time they release it, it's 2 feet in tighter, so they're changing their angle, trying to, you know, sneak one by you.

Finally, there's passing.

It's one of the most important skills in hockey.

Passing involves speed, accuracy and a vision of what is happening.

How fast they're moving, obviously if they're moving, then for sure, you're passing it where you think they're going to be, where they're going.

That's kind of the famous Wayne Gretsky quote is he's not going where the puck is.

He's going where the puck is going.

Passing is an example of what's called velocity vectors in physics.

A vector is a quantity with more than one piece of information.

The players and the puck itself all have speed and direction.

Putting the vectors together shows where the puck needs to go to complete the pass.

Of course, hockey players do all of this instinctively.

There's a lot going into passing.

It looks like nothing is going on, but there's the pace of the pass, number one, the curve that you're passing it to.

So if the guy is on his forehand, I can fire it hard, meaning I don't have to lead him too much.

He's on his backhand where it's a harder pass to accept, I better put a little more touch on, a little more gentle, if you will, and I maybe have to put it a little ahead of him a little more so he can skate into it.

[ Cheers and applause ] There's a lot going on.

People don't need to probably know all that.

The end of the day, it's putting it in the back of the net however you can.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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

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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 Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and contributions to this station.