Why America Desperately Needs More Scientists & Engineers

STEM Careers

Studies have shown that the number of jobs available in the United States is directly related to advances made in science and engineering.  Education experts feel that if America has few leaders developing the technological advances that will create the jobs of the future, then the future will hold few opportunities for our young workers. Read More →

Adding Another Dimension to Computer Simulations

Computer Simulations

Four-dimensional space is a difficult concept but this idea is driving a new revolution in programming today. Individuals familiar with August Ferdinand Möbius’ research know that an additional dimension allows a three-dimensional form to be rotated over on top of its mirror image. This gives us the so-called Möbius strip. While computer algorithms that really simulate scalable four-dimensional space are still in their infancy, they’re already making a big splash. Read More →

Sending Odors and Tastes as an Email Attachment

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrea Danti

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrea Danti

Research into cybernetic organs has been largely focused on replacements for disabled individuals who have lost a limb. Electronic noses and tongues are designed for a radically different purpose. Humans perceive different chemicals as various tastes and odors. Many types of additives are industrially manufactured to replicate certain flavors or scents. Read More →

Meet Baxter – the $22,000 Robot

Baxter

Realistic views of robots are usually centered on grappling arms hidden behind safety cages, but Rethink Robotics is working to change that. The Massachusetts-based company produces the Baxter line of robots shown above. These machines are designed to adapt to their local environment so that even unskilled labor can train them to do work. Perhaps equally important, they’re affordable and designed with simplicity in mind. Read More →

Future Computing: Meet the Flexible Paper Computer

Paper Tablet

A collaborative project between Queen’s University, Plastic Logic, and Intel Labs has yielded one of the more exciting unveilings during CES 2013: a flexible paper computer. Dubbed the “PaperTab” tablet, the device looks and feels like a normal piece of paper, however, it’s fully interactive with a flexible, hi-resolution 10.7” touchscreen plastic display powered by a second generation Intel Core i5 Processor. Read More →

Clean Energy Action Plan for U.S.

Clean-Green-Energy

The global clean energy marketplace is expanding rapidly, but the competitive position of American industry is at risk because of increased competition abroad and uncertain policies at home, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Read More →

Show Some Love for the Data Glove

cyberglove2

Data Gloves (or wired gloves or cybergloves), as the name implies, are computer input devices that are worn on the hand like a glove. They utilize motion trackers to translate finger manipulations into electrical signals. In the near future, this technology might revolutionize the way that disabled people are able to access computer resources. Read More →

Can MOOC’s Really Transform Education?

mooc

Traditional colleges often struggle with limited space availability in popular (or even core curriculum) courses. Higher education costs in the U.S. have sky-rocketed in recent years. A recent USA Today article reported that costs to attend a 4-year public university rose a staggering 15% between 2008 and 2010. To make matters worse, many graduates that are coming out of college are unable to find jobs while being saddled with enormous amounts of debt. Higher education in the U.S. is broken.

An Emerging Alternative

Education3The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) paradigm offers a rare opportunity to remedy these situations along with many others. The fact that the term includes the word massive illustrates the fact that such courses can be taken by a virtually unlimited number of students. This is revolutionary in its own right. The problem right now is not with student enrollment numbers, but the fact that organizations currently offering these MOOCs aren’t actually accredited to issue regular course credit to those that do the work. In other words, they don’t translate into college-level work that can be applied towards a degree. While some MOOCs are geared towards students who might want to learn more about a specific topic, most of them are essentially recreational at this point. Even so, individuals are learning new things, in an exciting way, in record numbers…so this is a good thing.

The other issue is (of course) about money. There is no clear indication of how organizations such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX will sustain their operations in the future. Equally unclear is if/when they start charging students, whether or not costs will be significantly lower than they are today. Plagiarism and other areas need to be addressed as well before these programs become viable degree options. However, existing online schools have found ways to deal with these issues and I’m sure these organizations will as well. Despite the obstacles that remain, the recent popularity of online learning has proven that learners are seeking alternatives to traditional schools in a big way.

The Logical Progression in Education

In the near-term future, MOOCs could ultimately transform the way that education works. Anyone who has done research on the recent success of MOOCs are familiar with the fact that some courses have had tens of thousands of signups. Last year, Google unleashed an open-source MOOC-building tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses. MOOCs are expected to continue to rise in popularity in 2013. While all of this may seem astounding, the idea of virtual teaching has been around for years. For instance, colleges have made use of radio and television in the past to provide instruction to students irrespective of their geographical location. MOOCs are simply the next logical step in this evolution given the rise of the Internet in recent years.

Despite the rise of popularity in online learning in recent years, many traditional institutions have been reluctant to offer full degree programs to people who never step foot inside of a classroom. For some degrees this makes perfect sense. No one would want to issue a medical license to someone who has been taught solely online. On the other hand, it seems relatively innocuous to incorporate distance learning into degree programs in a variety of other areas. As long as standards are created to ensure that learning occurs as designed and appropriate, there is no reason online education should continue to take a backseat to classroom-based learning in the future.

I view MOOCs as the 21st century descendents of the old broadcast instruction programs of the past. As education moves towards this new model, the work that students have done on their own will certainly become more important. Students might be able to customize their own education plans based on all of the courses completed that apply to a particular field. In fact, if MOOCs become more of an integral part of an education plan, credits could become less important. Instead, colleges could focus on how much work students have done in a particular field. Once enough coursework (and even practical application) has been completed, a degree would be awarded.

A Changing Paradigm

Education2Considering that we live in the information age, elements of data are being created at a greater rate than at any other point in time. Aggregation is one of the strongest tools that MOOCs bring to the table. In the near future, software could bring together different bits of information and aggregate it together into a single source for delivery to students. Lesson plans and lectures would be a thing of the past, since information would be produced in real-time. Instead of a rigid curriculum, students could learn from a number of sources and receive a truly well rounded education. And that’s the point here. This isn’t about transforming education for the sake of transformation. This is about making education more accessible and affordable to learners while ensuring that they learn what they need to know in order to be successful in the workforce and society.

What Do the Critics Say?

Critics often point to the fact that online programs permit students to enroll with little or no admissions standards. I maintain that many of these critics are those that are directly threatened by the MOOCs and the promise they hold for their own futures. If I’m the president of a traditional school and seeing my enrollment numbers dwindle because I’m against online learning, than naturally I’m going to be against MOOCs (or any other similar change). While admissions requirements have been important in the past, in the future everyone with an Internet connection will have access to higher education. If they need foundational courses, they will take them online just as they’ve done in the past. This is they way it should be. In fact, today virtually anyone can sign up for courses with EdX and other MOOC providers. That’s a good thing.

Critics also point to the completion rates of these courses. Because they are free, many people sign up for the courses and then fail to complete them. But consider this. If you have 50,000 people sign up for a course and only 5% complete all of the work, you still have 2,500 people that finished, right? How many traditional classrooms does it take to teach 2,500 people? And how many of those 2,500 people would have missed out on the chance to learn the material otherwise? Those in education that would argue against this type of success need to seriously consider a new field.

Education for Everyone

spring sunsetIn the future, with less stringent admissions criteria and much lower costs, students will be able to earn accredited certificates or degrees in record numbers. These individuals can take what they’ve learned to create new businesses or perform better in their own jobs while ultimately becoming lifelong learners. This in turn will hopefully prompt society to transform right along with them. I would argue that along with a more educated population comes a better society. And if we’re not working towards that objective, what the hell are we doing as a species anyway? Whether MOOCs will transform education remains to be seen. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Regardless, they are a step in the right direction. They have successfully highlighted the need for change in higher education and perhaps more importantly, that individuals are seeking new learning options in today’s increasingly connected world.

Reference:

Dalal D, Brancati FL, & Sisson SD (2012). Factors affecting learner satisfaction with an internet-based curriculum. Southern medical journal, 105 (8), 387-91 PMID: 22864092

Mark Hochberg, J. (2006). Online Distance Education Pedagogy: Emulating the practice of global business Distance Education, 27 (1), 129-133 DOI: 10.1080/01587910600654841

Forster, A. (2012)., edited by E. Burge, C. Campbell Gibson , and T. Gibson
Distance Education, 33 (3), 429-436 DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2012.723169

The Science of Choosing Space Pioneers

Image Credit: NASA Ames

Image Credit: NASA Ames

I often ask others if they would live in space or on another planet if given the opportunity. More often than not, the answer is in the affirmative. But what if you were given the chance and actually wanted to go, but were declined because you weren’t selected by a computer algorithm as one of the lucky space travelers? Or worse, what if you were declined because of your cultural background or because your genetic profile was deemed inappropriate?  What about those that do venture off to live in space or on other worlds…will they suffer the types of loneliness that individuals experience in major cities here on Earth today? These are the questions that I thought I’d delve into today.

Loneliness in Space

Overcrowding is a major concern in many parts of the world today. People often feel like they’re being shoved into boxes that they don’t really fit into. Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a great number of individuals have felt as if they are all alone in the world. Large cities don’t make for the best of neighbors. Even though other members of the human race surround people, they’re seldom able to make any genuine connections with those who live close by. This sort of a problem is only worsened by the prospect of space colonization.

The feeling of loneliness is usually portrayed as being experienced by those who are truly without anyone near them. However, individuals can actually become lonelier when other people that they don’t connect with show up within their circle of friends. Of course, in many cases, these people don’t even really have a circle of friends in the first place.

While one person adrift in space might be able to comfort him or herself with the idea that others are back home on planet Earth, ironically the same cannot always be said of someone who were to live in a colony habitat. If other people surrounded that same individual, he/she would probably end up experiencing increased feelings of loneliness — just as so many do in cities around the world today.

This is something that’s been observed by Earthbound psychologists for decades, but it would possibly worsen in orbital complexes and on colonized worlds. Sci-fi writers have long stressed the importance of choosing the right colonists for space missions based on genetic profiles. But it seems that culture and the ability to work together are actually more important indicators of who should go off together into the great unknown.

Un-natural Selection

Using some sort of computer algorithm to select candidates for space travel is probably the worst idea I can imagine. This is a common trope in many pieces of fiction, but engineers working on global cities might have actually found a better way to psychologically equip generations of space pioneers. They have suggested that those who are culturally similar to people they live with might very well make the best partners. Seems like common sense, right?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

While this sounds reasonable, it opens up an entirely new thought process for those who are planning generational space missions. If colony ships are set out on extremely long voyages, people will want to be with those that they have bonded with or care about. Letting a community choose who they want to be with the same way that they always have on Earth might be the best idea.

Genetic selection might sound logical and some people have suggested that it could produce the best stock for other worlds. However, this is a throwback to the sort of eugenic thinking that predominated the early 20th century. It was a mistake here on Earth and the same holds true of space. If space colonies are ever actually going to solve population problems, they need to be able to function much like regular cities do today. By letting people live in space the same way that they always have on Earth, the average citizen is far more likely to adapt to others in an acceptable manner.

There are those who would say that this limits diversity, but in reality it doesn’t. Genetic selection programs and the like would actually seek to create a race of space colonists who are in some way similar to one another. This would limit diversity, and would also have the side-effect of making a civilization less resistant to disease or similar catastrophes. For instance, one colony of microbes could wipe out an entire colony if it were built in such a way. The same could be said of a generational space mission attempting to reach another star system.

Humanity has never been perfect. It is these imperfections that very well may help our species to survive in space in the future.

Reference:

Yusof, N., & van Loon, J. (2012). Engineering a Global City: The Case of Cyberjaya Space and Culture, 15 (4), 298-316 DOI: 10.1177/1206331212453676

Saaty, T., & Sagir, M. (2012). Global awareness, future city design and decision making Journal of Systems Science and Systems Engineering, 21 (3), 337-355 DOI: 10.1007/s11518-012-5196-z

ResearchBlogging.org

Age of Sail 2.0

SkySails

Wind power is free, which is why German engineers have been experimenting with a device they termed SkySails. They’ve proved that inflatable kites can actually haul freighters across the ocean. This mirrors research conducted over 20 years ago by a Japanese firm. Those who say that sails aren’t a new emerging technology should be careful, since the efforts are actually becoming popular with scientists. Read More →