SciTech Now Episode 606

In this episode of SciTech Now, leading a sea change to bring diversity to STEM education, leading the way to waste sustainability, and sustainable raising horseshoe crabs.



Coming up... leading a sea change to bring diversity to STEM education.

It means going from where I am to where I need to be and then to put in place a research-based action plan to get there.

Little Inventors.

That is really one of the aims of Little Inventors -- hopefully encouraging children to gain a passion for invention.

Leading the way to waste sustainability.

If we sequester our carbon in compost, we are reducing our impact on climate change.

Sustainably raising horseshoe crabs.

You become so attached to these animals.

I don't know what it is.

How can you become attached to a creature that looks like that?

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Harry Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

The vast majority of people in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, known as 'STEM,' are white men.

But although it may seem like slow progress, diversity in recruitment, education, and hiring is happening.

Our guest Shirley Malcom is helping to lead that change.

She is a role model with a PhD in biology.

She is the director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and she heads up a new diversity initiative they're known as SEA Change.

So, first, tell me, what is the SEA Change about?

SEA Change is an initiative that we've undertaken to try to make sure that colleges are ready for these diverse students when they are ready for college.

It means helping institutions look at themselves through a self-assessment and that is really critical to look at their policies, their programs, their practices and then to try to figure out how those map on to what they need to do to help support diversity, equity, and inclusion within STEM.

It means going from where I am to where I need to be and to identify where you need to be and then to put in place a research-based action plan to get there.

So would this be kind of on both parts -- the institutions and on the students that basically we would be trying to figure out where the students are at?

Where the students are, where they're not...


...and then trying to figure out what kinds of barriers are in place that keep them from getting to the end line, okay?

And what we find out is that there is actually a lot of interest by these students in STEM fields.


They come in, they're interested, and then, a couple of years later, you don't find them.

So, the question is, what happened in the interim?

Oftentimes it's the introductory courses that are weed-out courses that -- too much information, boring presentation.

It isn't just about racial diversity.

It's also about gender, I would imagine, right?

It's about gender.

It's about race and ethnicity.

It's really about other marginalized groups.

First-generation students have similar kinds of issues.

But right now we're just going to focus on gender and race and ethnicity because those are the things that are being measured by the institutions, and, that way, they can kind of monitor and keep track of whether or not they're making progress.

So, some of this, I'm assuming, you've learned from personal experience over time.

I mean, you grew up in the Jim Crow South, and you start your education journey in Seattle, Washington, at the University of Washington.


And then where else did you go from there?

Graduate school at UCLA and then PhD at Penn State.

And in those programs, was there anyone that looked like you in your classes?

Not really. [ Laughs ] Actually, after my first year, there was no one who looked like me in my dorm.


And so this was a -- this was an experience where you never really had anybody who looked like you who taught you, so you had to become something you'd never seen.

And that is a real -- That's a real heavy lift.

And I think that it's one thing that that was the case in the '60s, but it should not be the case now.

And so this issue of pushing this forward and trying to help institutions do a better job -- that's really what we have to do.

I mean, and there's research that shows that performance increases if you have diversity in both ranks, right -- the educators as well as the educated?

Yes. And you, in fact, do have you have a role model, but you also have people who really are beginning to -- they understand where you're coming from.


And it, in fact, helps keep you in the game.

And we need point only to the fact that historically black colleges and universities, that even though they have less resources and are often bringing in students who maybe may not be as well prepared as some of the students who've gone to the predominant white institutions, yet those institutions, the HBCUs, disproportionately contribute to the PhD pool in STEM fields for African-Americans.

So there is something that is different about being able to see people who are like you and be encouraged by them.

And how long do you think it will take to make this kind of cultural shift?

Because some of it is a resistance just for doing something different.

A lot of these institutions, especially the older they are, they have a tradition and pride in doing things, and all of a sudden what you're talking about could shake up that apple cart.

Well, I-I don't know.

I think that we may be talking about a generation.

But you have to begin.

You have to begin someplace.

I do not expect for this to happen over five years, even though, in our case, with SEA Change, we ask institutions to come back in for this rating structure in five years.

We are not saying that you have to have finished it.

We are saying you have to have started it and you have to work toward continual improvement in terms of against the metrics that you have set out in the beginning.

I mean, the AAAS is a pretty well-known organization.

How many institutions are signing up?

Well, in this particular case, we're still in our pilot.

So that means that the institutions who came on board the first year were taking a big leap of faith.


We had three who completed and were able to receive the Institutional Bronze Award, and they were able to pull their data together, to make sense out of their data, to articulate what their issues were, what their gaps might be, and then they -- This all went to peer review and was looked at, was assessed, as to whether or not they could get there.

So we don't expect them to, while we're still in pilot and actually couldn't manage a whole lot of institutions, but we expect that there would be a lot of interest once we are in our full-blown work because institutions are beginning to understand that the kind of demographic shifts that you have among the college population, even, that they're going to have to do something.

Otherwise, they're going to really experience a downward trend in terms of students going into these STEM fields.

Alright. Shirley Malcom, thanks so much.

Thank you for having me.

The U.K.-based educational nonprofit organization Little Inventors gives children around the world a basic assignment -- invent something that would solve a problem and then draw it.

Although it may seem simple, according to the program founders, its simplicity is a secret weapon.

From this basic inquiry comes a fount of whimsy and creativity.

Our partner Science Friday has the story.

When a child comes up with an idea and it's really clever, it really gives me a buzz.

The bouncy-castle car.

This is a robot spoon.

An odd-sock sorter.

We really think that children have the best ideas because they do not have any limits to their thinking.

They don't think about what is possible, what is not possible.

To take children's ideas seriously, I think it really gives them a self-confidence to keep on going inventing.

I'm Dominic Wilcox.

I'm an artist and designer and the chief inventor at Little Inventors.

And I'm Katherine Mengardon, chief educator at Little Inventors.

Little Inventors is a project to find amazing ideas.

And we do that by asking children to use their brilliant free imagination to come up with their invention ideas and draw them down.

And then we ask local makers and manufacturers, skilled scientists to take seriously the most interesting ideas and turn them into real things for exhibition.

The world has many problems and challenges, as we know.

And we need a lot more inventive thinkers to solve those problems.

And in order to do that, we've got to encourage young people to start thinking of those ideas, to look around at the world and find problems that they'd come up with ideas to solve.

I think what I like about the word 'invention' or 'inventor' is that it's a very friendly word.

It's a fun word, in a way, so it welcomes people from the artistic side and also people from the science side.

Because drawing is a very natural thing for children to do, it's much easier to express your ideas through drawing -- often much easier than using words for a lot of the children.

That is really the shortest distance between the child's imagination and us.

And then we can take it seriously and push it further than a simple model.

The way we work is we create challenges for schools, generally, or for museums or for organizations.

The principle remains always the same.

We want to invite children to draw invention ideas.

And then the best ones, the ones that we call the most ingenious ideas, we ask makers or designers and artists to bring them to life.

So we'll choose a particular subject matter.

We've done food waste, for example.

We loved the idea by Rumaan.

You could have this alarm cup.

You could program it by saying, 'In five days, I need the alarm to tell me to eat the fruit.'

So you put it in there, and then you know exactly when you have to eat the fruit.

[ Alarm rings ]

In Canada, we're doing what it would be like living in space.

There's all different types of ideas, like a moon roller coaster.

You know I think this is a brilliant idea.

We need inventions to help people live on the moon, but we also need a bit of fun, and so over the last couple of weeks, I've been working on making it.

The child is the client, so it's sort of changing the dynamic.

We're looking up to the children.

I really love the idea of the collaboration element of this project.

It's important that the children describe their invention to the makers.

Quite often they'll visit the makers and learn how things are made.

Thomas P. came up with a worry shredder.

It's a box.

It's got cards on the top, and you can write your worries, and it's got a shredder in it, so you just put it through, and then it sort of prints out words of wisdom for you on how to deal with worries, and then you can even get a chocolate at the end.

I decided to invent this so I can -- I can get over my worries and to... try and make other people happy.

Children look around them.

They see things and they want to respond to it and they often do not have any ways to do so.

You can really apply this lens of invention and really give them a way of sort of thinking, 'This is how I can bring my own voice to this.'

Basically, it's like a Zimmer frame for, like, old people, and it detects, like, cars and stuff for, like, when people cross the road.

Some people in my family -- they can't really see very well, so they have trouble crossing roads and stuff.

And now. I'm trying to do more things like it.

So, we have about 10,000 inventions on the website.

We accept the bonkers, crazy ideas as well as the perfectly practical ones.

It's just like a walker for people that don't like walking but they like eating sweets.

I invented it for my sister to start moving, and now she's stopped moving.

It's good now.

She stopped moving.

But she still moans, though.

I have to get another invention to stop her from moaning even more.

That is really one of the aims of Little Inventors, hopefully encouraging children to gain a passion for invention.

Emmy is autistic.

She's got sensory overload, really, so loud noises can be a real problem for her.

But, equally, she doesn't want to be noticed.

She thought that she could have these replacement ears that would provide her with a bit of quiet.

After all this, we received a fantastic message from her parents, who said having done that gave her real confidence in her own ideas.

Apparently, we can't really shut her up these days, so there we go.

Invention and creativity is -- is like -- it's like a muscle, and if you stop using it, if you stop doing it, you lose it, in a way.

And that's the thing about creativity.

That's why it's so important to encourage children to be creative and then get through to adulthood, where they can really make the world a better place.

Presented by Science at NASA.

The human eye is crucial to astronomy.

Without the ability to see, the luminous universe of stars, planets, and galaxies would be closed to us, unknown forever.

Nevertheless, astronomers can't shake their fascination with things they cannot see.

Outside the realm of human vision is an entire electromagnetic spectrum of wonders.

Each type of light, from radio waves to gamma rays, reveals something unique about the universe.

Some wavelengths are best for studying black holes.

Others reveal newborn stars and planets while others illuminate the earliest years of cosmic history.

NASA has many telescopes working the wavelengths up and down the electromagnetic spectrum.

One of them, the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope orbiting Earth, has just crossed a new electromagnetic frontier.

Fermi is picking up crazy energetic photons, says Dave Thompson, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and it's detecting so many of them, we've been able to produce the first all-sky map of the very-high-energy universe.

This is what the sky looks like near the very edge of the electromagnetic spectrum, between 10 billion and 100 billion electron volts.

The light we see with human eyes consists of photons with energies in the range 2 to 3 electron volts.

The gamma rays Fermi detects are billions of times more energetic, from 20 million to more than 300 billion electron volts.

These gamma ray photons are so energetic, they cannot be guided by the mirrors and lenses found in ordinary telescopes.

Instead, Fermi uses a sensor that is more like a Geiger counter than a telescope.

If we could wear Fermi's gamma-ray glasses, we'd witness powerful bullets of energy, individual gamma rays.

from cosmic phenomena such as supermassive black holes and hypernova explosions.

The sky would be a frenzy of activity.

Before Fermi was launched in June 2008, there were only four known celestial sources of photons in this energy range.

In three years, Fermi has found almost 500 more, says Thompson.

What lies within this new realm?

Mystery, for one thing, says Thompson.

About a third of the new sources can't be clearly linked to any of the known types of objects that produce gamma rays.

We have no idea what they are.

The rest have one thing in common -- prodigious energy.

Among them are supermassive black holes called blazars, the seething remnants of supernova explosions, and rapidly rotating neutron stars called pulsars.

And some of the gamma rays seem to come from the Fermi bubbles, Giant structures emanating from the Milky Way's center and spanning some 20,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane.

Exactly how these bubbles formed is another mystery.

Now that the first sky map is complete, Fermi is working on another more sensitive and detailed survey.

In the next few years, Fermi should reveal something new about all these phenomena, what makes them tick, and why they generate such unearthly levels of energy, says David Paneque, a leader in this work from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

For now, though, there are more unknowns than knowns about Fermi's world.

Says Thompson, it's pretty exciting.

For more science news from the edge, visit...

In Texas, high-school students are leading the way to develop a more efficient and sustainable waste-management system.

'PBS News Hour' student reporting labs visited one school to get the story.

At Stephen F. Austin High School, four ordinary teenagers have stepped up to make a change at their school.

After more than two years of hard work and dedication, their efforts to bring in compost bins have finally paid off.

We visited Austin High School to talk to the students that were the very foundation of this project.

Margaret Apperson, one of the students, explained to us what got the project started.

So, during our sophomore year, we traveled to Costa Rica for a week, and during our trip, we stayed at EARTH University for a few days, and while at the university, we learned about their waste-management systems and particularly the three-section trash-can system of landfill, composting, and recycling.

But we felt particularly inspired after our trip to focus on waste management, and so we decided to attempt to implement the three-bin system to our campus.

We then spoke with Amanda Mortl Walker, at the zero-waste specialist at Austin ISD, about some of the benefits of composting.

It adds nutrition to the soil, and so we can spend less money on adding fertilizers to our soil.

It also helps add moisture to the soil.

Another benefit to compost is that it has a lot of carbon in it, and we are trying to prevent putting carbon dioxide into our atmosphere because it's a global-warming gas and causing climate change.

And so if we sequester our carbon in compost, we are reducing our impact on climate change.

Also involved were seniors Cameron Thompson and Lucia Hagert.

They explained to us the challenges they faced.

From the beginning.

For a while first off we had to make it to where we could have three-section bins, and we had to move around, like, the entire cafeteria, basically, to make it work.

It was definitely frustrating just dealing with getting adults to listen to us and trust us and know that this was something that we were passionate about.

They were so fascinated by the fact that we came down to the AISD headquarters and just, I guess, showing that we really cared.

When they came up to us and asked for composting, we're like, 'We want to give you composting!

This is perfect!'

I was really excited to see the students so happy to see what they're doing making a difference, and I was happy to see that people were on board.

I think that the compost bins show students that our community and our school is willing to take measures to help the environment, and so I think it inspires people a lot and it influences others to do their part in making an impact on the environment.

' I think a high school is the perfect opportunity to educate kids on the benefits of composting and how to compost.

Hopefully, our implementing composting to our campus can spread the idea to other areas.

Most medical interventions, like vaccines, drugs, and other medical devices, have been tested on horseshoe crabs, but horseshoe crabs are in decline, and a North Carolina company is trying to figure out how to raise them sustainably.

Here's a look.

I can see, like, the eyes.

Hi. Hi, friend.

He's like, 'What are you doing?'

'Please put me down.'

Here's a horseshoe crab, a creature that's been around for 400 million years.

And here's Rachel, the scientist who's trying to figure out a way to raise them.

If you can see that hole that's opening up there, that's their mouth, and it's surrounded by these toothbrush-like bristles, and they don't have teeth, so what they do is they grab on to the food.

They walk with it.

They grind that food, and they ingest it.

It's like a little, yeah -- little eating orifice there.

[ Laughs ] So, this is Care.

It's a backyard urban aquaponic farm in the heart of Durham, North Carolina.


Can you explain how horseshoe crabs and urban farming come together?

It's kind of a perfect example to integrate into the system because it could potentially be a high-profit-margin animal as well as an animal that we should be thinking about conserving.

Horseshoe crabs are big money to the biomedical industry.

Every time you get a flu shot, you should probably thank a horseshoe crab.

Basically, any medical device or drug that goes into your body -- think vaccines, pacemakers, hip replacements -- has been tested using the blood of horseshoe crabs.

Yes, that's horseshoe-crab blood.

The copper in their blood gives it that bright blue color, but that isn't the only thing that's special about it.

Horseshoe-crab blood clots almost immediately when it's exposed to dangerous bacteria or fungi.

It's part of the reason horseshoe crabs have outlasted the dinosaurs.

But it's also the reason the biomedical industry depends on horseshoe crabs to make sure their products won't cause infections.

Fishing participants will go out, collect the crabs, and put them in a boat.

They'll transport it in a truck back to the facility, and they will then bend the crab in such a way that you have access to that membrane to do the bleeding.

A horseshoe crab maybe that's twice the size of this one, to the industry, is worth about $1,800.


They don't even get a cookie or orange juice after they give blood, like we do.

So, you know, what happens to these creatures once they're released back in the wild?

Nobody knows.

They're not tagged.

You become so attached to these animals.

I don't know what it is.

How can you become attached to a creature that looks like that?

[ Laughter ]

You must have a soft heart.

Bleeding horseshoe crabs doesn't kill them, and companies only take 30% of the crabs' blood.

In exchange, millions of lives are saved from diseases like sepsis.

But according to research from Kepley BioSystems, in some areas of the U.S., the combination of bleeding, overharvesting, and habitat destruction has caused a 95% decline of spawning horseshoe crabs.

So, horseshoe crabs are stressed out?

They are really stressed out.

We want to offer a new way to collect horseshoe crabs while you're not pulling them from the wild but you are actually maintaining them in a managed closed system, a trackable one so we know which horseshoe crab was being bled.

Rachel says it's difficult to keep horseshoe crabs alive longer than six months, and she thinks it's because of their diet.

So she and her team from Kepley BioSystems are experimenting with different types of food.

So, yeah, they're receiving a very well-balanced diet to keep them healthy and happy.

The team's goal is to teach farmers how to raise horseshoe crabs, so instead of pulling crabs out of the wild, the biomedical industry can rely on farmers instead.

Is it lunchtime?

His tail's wagging.

He's happy.

Is that what that means?

We can potentially set up contract farming to integrate them into their farming system, because God knows farmers need to have more profitable revenue.

You want some?

You hungry? Hmm?

Just kind of flip him over that way, hold him from that side, so the hinge doesn't basically pinch you.

Snap down.


But for now, we expressed our gratitude to the humble horseshoe crab by giving him some treats.

Yes. It literally is the Sarlacc pit from 'Star Wars.'

[ Laughs ] He likes the worms.

Okay, buddy. Ciao.

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 then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.