NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Generation Innovation: Priming the Science Education Pipeline in Alaska

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This is a sample blog post composed at the July 17-18 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Alaska is a beautiful, visually stunning state. It overwhelms you with wildlife and awe-inspiring sites like Denali. Visitors are ecstatic to have come here, and a few ultimately stay–but when they do, they may soon realize that Alaska is far from perfect. In particular, we’re lagging badly in an area that’s key to a brighter future for the state: training science graduates to fill well-paying jobs in hi-tech and science-based fields, ranging from the petroleum industry to biomedicine.

It’s a stunning statistic: Here in Alaska, we give out fewer bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences and engineering than any other U.S. state on a per capita basis–just 3.9 degrees for every 1,000 students aged 18-24. Indeed, as of 2010, only 46 percent of Alaska high school graduates went to college at all. That makes Alaska 50th in the nation on this measure, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

During the EPSCoR-sponsored "Micro to Macro" STEM Education event at UAA, students from the Anchorage School District visit the Applied Science, Engineering and Technology Lab to learn about chemistry, microbiology and physiology" Photographer: Holly McQuinn

Students from the Anchorage School District visit the Applied Science, Engineering and Technology Lab in an EPSCoR sponsored STEM event. Credit: Holly McQuinn

This is a massive problem for our future, because science jobs—in various fields from the life sciences to physical sciences—are expected to grow dramatically in the coming years. By 2018, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development forecasts an 11 percent increase in these positions over 2008 levels. Not only are job opportunities forecast to expand, but the current STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce in Alaska is aging—41 percent of workers in these high-paying fields were between ages 45 and 64, as of the year 2008. At present, given the state of the science education pipeline in Alaska right now, you have to wonder whether all of those promising, high-paying jobs can be filled. So what can we do about it?

That’s where the Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), supported by the National Science Foundation, comes in. Our latest 5 year, $ 20 million grant focuses on preparing Alaska communities for environmental change; but at the same time, its education component is focused on igniting science passion in K-12 students, often by getting them directly involved in research itself. What’s more, the programs focus on bringing science to Alaska Native students in particular.

Scientists and teachers participating in the "Icefield to Estuary" program. Photo credit: Sarai Timothy

Scientists and teachers participating in the “Icefield to Estuary” program. Photo credit: Sarai Timothy

As an example, consider the Alaska GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) “Seasons and Biomes” project. It gets students involved in doing research by teaching them how to observe and document changes in the seasons–a great way to learn about the centrality of measurement in science, and at the same time, to come to understand climate change. “Seasons and Biomes” is a global project, but it has been heavily focused in Alaska in particular. Meanwhile, the Permafrost and Active Layer Monitoring (PALM) project does something similar—teaching students at hundreds of Alaska public schools how to monitor the health of permafrost in their area. In 2012, faculty members participating in PALM visited 14 Alaska schools, and gave workshops to 52 Alaska teachers.

Finally, the Rural Research Partnership focuses on rural schools in particular, once again allowing students in rural and Native communities to engage in real biological sciences research—for instance, studying tissue samples from humpback whales. Each school receives a loan of lab equipment to aid in the research. In 2011-2012, Alaska EPSCoR gave $ 7,550 in scholarships and prizes to seven rural students.

These are just some of our educational programs–and the goal is clear. We’re doing what we can to fill the science education gap in Alaska and create an “innovation generation” of kids who dig science, and see it as the way to a better future and a successful career. The jobs will be there waiting for them. We’ve just got to make sure they’re ready to fill them.

Thanks to Tania Clucas, Pips Veazey, and Diane Hirshberg for help in composing this post.

Written by nsfmessengers

July 17, 2013 at 8:46 pm

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From Oil Boom to Science Boom: Fueling North Dakota’s Hi-Tech Economy

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This is a sample blog post composed for the June 25-26 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Fargo, North Dakota.

If you read the news lately about North Dakota, you may get the impression that we’re some sort of  economic wunderkind. The reason is that in comparison with the rest of the U.S., North Dakota has an extremely low unemployment rate: Just 3.2 percent. That’s the lowest in the nation, by a considerable margin. And much of it is thanks to an unfolding unconventional oil and gas boom here, which has generated a large number of jobs and considerable wealth.

Clearly, North Dakota has fared better than much of the rest of the country in weathering the Great Recession and keeping its citizens employed—at least in “old economy” industries like agriculture and fossil energy. But if you look forward to the future, we’re not necessarily so well positioned. According to the Washington, D.C. based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, we rank 34th overall in the strength of our new economy sector. The economics of the 21st century will demand a much more tech savvy and advanced workforce, and plentiful jobs in hi tech industries–and what’s more, oil booms by nature are cyclical, and there are reasons to think the current one will someday end. If we’re going to continue to compete, those jobs need to be located and thriving right here in North Dakota.

So how do we ensure a future that’s at least as prosperous as the present? North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) is doing its part by helping to spur innovation in sectors that you don’t usually associate with a big oil state—fields such as clean energy, sustainable materials, and green chemistry. Read the rest of this entry »

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June 26, 2013 at 5:43 pm

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Know the Flow: Using Science to Protect Idaho’s Water Resources and Quality of Life

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(Clearwater/Snake River Junction at Lewistown Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Clearwater/Snake River Junction
at Lewistown
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This is a sample blog post composed at the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Boise, Idaho, May 29-30, 2013.

When people think about Idaho, an image often comes to mind of untrammeled wilderness, deep gorges and powerful rivers, perhaps dotted with the occasional fly fisherman, trying to land salmon as they travel upstream to spawn. Life unfolds against a backdrop of stunning scenery and is suffused with an appreciation of the outdoors—for nature drives a significant part of our tourist economy, as well as our quality of life.

However, those rivers that sustain us, and that make Idaho what it is, also underscore a key risk to the state. Idaho already leads the nation in its per capita consumption of water resources for agriculture, hydroelectric power, human consumption, and other needs. What’s more, in recent years Idaho has had one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., meaning that its water demands are steadily increasing. This will present a considerable future strain, fueling increased water conflicts and ultimately threatening our very quality of life—and all the more so if it is compounded by climate change. Global warming is expected to further destabilize our water system by rendering rainfall and river flows more variable and unpredictable, and overall, by increasing flooding potential and decreasing the storage of water in the mountain snowpack that ultimately feeds our rivers. (Not to mention raising the risk of wildfires and droughts, as much of the state experienced in 2012.)

There’s a way to manage this problem sustainably—and intelligently. However, that will require a much greater scientific understanding than we currently possess about the kinds of water changes we’ll see, and how they’ll impact us across all sectors, from agriculture to the tourism industry. Read the rest of this entry »

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May 29, 2013 at 6:27 pm

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Making the Invisible Visible: Using Science to Show the Value of New Hampshire’s Natural Resources

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Autumn in New Hampshire. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a sample blog post composed at the NSF “Science Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Durham, New Hampshire, April 10-11, 2013.

When you think of New Hampshire, it’s hard not to think of the scenes of natural beauty—from the Seacoast to the White Mountains. Indeed, 80 percent of the state’s geographical area is covered by trees. Then there are its 1,000 lakes, and its 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, which supply the drinking water of 200,000 households. Nature is the reason people—tourists—come here. And nature is the reason that many of them–residents–stay.

But New Hampshire is currently beset by two forces that threaten our quality of life, and the state’s own image of itself: Climate change on the one hand, and growing urbanization on the other. Climate change is taking a whack at one of the chief outdoor recreational industries here: skiing. A warmer climate threatens to turn more than half of New Hampshire ski resorts into money losers, according to a recent study. And then there’s urbanization. As recent reports by New Hampshire’s own Carsey Institute make clear, our population is increasing, especially in the state’s southern counties. That’s because people are migrating here, driven by the quality of life and recreational splendor that we’re so known for. And with that population  comes increasing urbanization—housing developments built amid forests, strip malls constructed to service it all.

All of which raises the question: “How much is too much?” Or as Cameron Wake, a climate researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire puts it: “How much can we develop, and still keep clean water, and clean air, and areas to recreate, and wood for timber, and areas for agriculture?” Read the rest of this entry »

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April 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

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Bluegrass Science: Revving Up the Economy Through Research in the State of Kentucky

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This is a sample blog post composed at the March 5, 2013 NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Louisville, Kentucky.

When people think about the state of Kentucky, the first instinct is probably to picture a scene of mint julep sipping at the Kentucky Derby. Sure, the horses might be fast–but the living is slow and easy.

But if you’re paying attention to the state’s scientific endeavors, you get a very different picture: one of dynamism. Currently, Kentucky is finishing out a five year, $ 12.5 million grant–with $ 5 million in state matching funds–from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The investment is designed to grow research in some of the most promising areas where Kentucky researchers have built-in expertise—such as nanotechnology, bioengineering, and ecological genomics. But the grant hasn’t just increased the state’s research capacity—it’s also contributing to the Kentucky economy. That’s no small thing in a state whose per capita income ($ 23,033) lags the national average ($ 27,915), and which also ranks well behind most U.S. states in patents per capita.

Over the last eight years, NSF funds have created 377 research jobs at Kentucky institutions. And that’s just for the scientists doing the work (and those who support them), so it only begins to describe the full economic impact. Consider: In 2011-2012 alone, EPSCOR-supported Kentucky researchers reported nine pending or awarded research patents, for innovations in areas ranging from nanoribbons to tissue culturing. Three of those patents were licensed to General Motors. Read the rest of this entry »

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March 5, 2013 at 5:29 pm

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America’s Science Idol Winner: Tom DiLiberto (& Pics)

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“America’s Science Idol” was a big success yesterday, unfolding to a packed room at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

While the competition was close, the judges ultimately chose a runner up–Jenna Jadin, who presented on sex in the insect and human worlds–and a winner, Tom DiLiberto, who talked about the difficulty but importance of predicting the weather, and ended with a hashtag–#weatherrespect–that perfectly summed up a well crafted presentation.

Here’s a picture of the winner with (from right to left) host Chris Mooney and judges Indre Viskontas and Corey Powell:


Read the rest of this entry »

Written by nsfmessengers

February 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm

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America’s Science Idol: Rules and Judging Criteria

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Judge, NotThe purpose of this post is to more fully elaborate on the rules, and the judgment criteria, for:


Workshop at 
AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting

1-2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 15, 2013
Room 205, Hynes Convention Center - Boston, MA

1. Rules: The six contestants will present on a scientific topic of their choosing, for no more than three minutes. This will be a hard time limit, and an alarm bell will go off at the end of the three minutes—after which they will be cut off if they try to continue.

We will be holding up 1 minute and 30 second signs to let the contestants know when they are nearing the end of the 3 minute time period.

Although it is not mandatory, contestants are strongly encouraged to give a visual/slide presentation to enhance their talk. 

At the end of the 3 minute talk, each of the judges will offer brief commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the performance. They will also record their evaluations, which will ultimately determine the winner.

2. Judging: The judges will evaluate each presentation based on three criteria: 1) clarity and effectiveness of message, 2) delivery (including quality of visuals), and 3) overall impact.

A little elaboration on the three criteria:

1) Clarity and Effectiveness of Message: This criterion involves whether the presenter is disciplined and clear in making one well-supported, central point in your presentation. Undisciplined, rambling presentations and data-dumps will be marked down.

2) Delivery/Quality of Visuals: This criterion involves stage presence, volubility, effective use of rhetorical techniques and turns of phrase, and also the quality of PowerPoint design. Poorly designed presentations will be marked down, as will presentations containing repeated disfluencies or visual distractions.

3) Overall Impact: How much the presentation affects and moves the audience, engaging listeners emotionally and/or making them want to take a particular action—or forcing them to think in a new way.

The final winner will be chosen based on the consensus of the three judges. All decisions of the judges are final. NSF, the judges and the moderator will not respond to any claims or inquiries regarding contest rules.

Enjoy! Once again, that’s:


Workshop at 
AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting

1-2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 15, 2013
Room 205, Hynes Convention Center - Boston, MA

Written by nsfmessengers

February 14, 2013 at 7:27 am

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