Friday, July 29, 2011

Better living through fluorescent tattoos

Via Alexander George at Wired:
Dr. Heather Clark, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University, is leading the research on the subdermal sensors. She said she was reminded of the benefits of real-time, wearable health monitoring when she entered a marathon in Vermont: If they become mass-produced and affordable for the consumer market, wireless devices worn on the body could tell you exactly what medication you need whenever you need it.
Current data is limited to using the mouse as an animal model for monitoring sodium levels. As noted in the post, future applications could also extend to sensing glucose levels for diabetics - which is particularly exciting given that insulin-dependent diabetics must prick their own skin multiple times daily in order to determine blood glucose levels and thereby calculate the appropriate insulin dosage.

Also check out Amy Dusto's post at Discovery News, which has a great microscopic picture of the "microworm tubes" that do the sensing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Big wave surfing in the information ocean

The other day while in the car I heard a piece on NPR noting Marshall McLuhan's 100th birthday. McLuhan's seminal "The Medium is the Massage" (1967) was a big influence on me during graduate school, particularly in the development of my thesis research. My favorite quote:
It is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive "outside" world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
Even though more than four decades have passed, the struggle continues between the classroom and the outside world. I believe that part of this struggle is self-made: schools are structured by the choices we make, and we have chosen a model for education that creates a boundary between the classroom and the outside world. With that said, I also see the establishment of a boundary as one of the key elements of vitality, in the living sense of the word; a membrane is a necessary structure for living things. How, then, does the cell manage the challenges of separation? It uses energy to make its membrane semi-permeable. With respect to the outside world, some aspects remain in balance, while others are actively included and others are actively excluded.

With this analogy in mind, the struggle between the classroom and the outside world can be re-framed. What informational media do we wish to maintain in balance? What informational media do we wish to include in greater proportion? What informational media do we wish to exclude? However, even if we can answer these questions, I believe that McLuhan's argument is that they are fundamentally less important than another question: how will we process the informational media that we bring into the classroom space?

In thinking about this question, I want to bring up another McLuhan reference: he was the first to use the word "surfing" to describe the way that people access and process the new and various forms of informational media he observed - in relatively small pieces, with rapid, multi-directional changes in motion. Although "surfing" is still a commonly-used term applied to how we access and process information waves, there's now a new type of in-water, sport surfing that wasn't possible during the time that McLuhan lived: big-wave surfing.

As legendary big-wave surfer Ken Bradshaw (seen above) described for the PBS program "Nature", big-wave surfing emerged in the 1990's as a result of the development of "true personal watercraft" that allow surfers to be towed-in, so as to catch these monstrous waves as they break (at speeds that made them previously uncatchable).  I hope you've watched the video, not only to see his accomplishment, nor simply to be in awe at the raw power of the ocean, but also to observe the movement of a big-wave surfer like Ken Bradshaw.  Unlike the small-wave surfers with moves that are short, quick, and multi-directional, big-wave surfers are powerful masters of holding a line, taking a direction, and harnessing the massive power of the wave behind them.

With this in mind, I believe that the development of true personal computers (smartphones and tablets) allows us to access information waves that are analogous to the monstrous swells of ocean water that big-wave surfers seek out. The problem, though, is that many people have jumped right into the big waves - email, web, texting, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so many other sources of information on very agile devices.  Bradshaw notes that big-wave water surfers tend to be in their late twenties or in their thirties, with lots of experience and progression through varying levels of difficulty.  Yet while some big-wave information surfers have experience in smaller-wave information surfing on a desktop computer, or perhaps even larger-wave experience through having a laptop, many don't (or don't have much), and most have jumped right in rather than developing skills in progression. Even though information surfing is different from water surfing, water surfing isn't the only kind of surfing with negative risks.

The Economist, in the article "Too Much Information", notes some of the potential downsides of unsuccessful big-wave information surfing: anxiety, lowered creativity, and lowered productivity. Just as Bradshaw describes the danger of the "triple hold", this trifecta of risks is dangerous to both personal and professional well-being. Techniques suggested for successful big-wave information surfing include focusing, filtering, and forgetting. Successful big-wave water surfers practice their craft with training and thoughtfulness and appropriate rest; with the same approach we will be able to harness the power of these giant sources of information, and develop those same skills in students in our classroom. Wouldn't it be awe inspiring to see our graduates holding a line and mastering the force of such giant waves of information?

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Are you saying my brain is British?"

Neuroscientist David Eagleman visits The Colbert Report to discuss his new book "Incognito". The interview is light on the science but heavy on the funny. Looks like another good book to add to the reading list.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Monday, July 18, 2011

A new book on evolution and the brain: "Brain Bugs"

"Brain Bugs" by UCLA researcher Dean Buonomano is a new book exploring the ways our brains succeed and fail as they navigate the challenges of our modern world. Presented recently on NPR's Fresh Air, it seems like someone on their team is focusing on books that make neuroscience more accessible, which is exciting when the excerpts are as compelling as this one from the article:
Both declarative and nondeclarative forms of memory are divided into further subtypes, but I will focus primarily on a type of declarative memory, termed semantic memory, used to store most of our knowledge of meaning and facts, including that zebras live in Africa, Bacchus is the god of wine, or that if your host offers you Rocky Mountain oysters he is handing you bull testicles.
How exactly is this type of information stored in your brain? Few questions are more profound. Anyone who has witnessed the slow and inexorable vaporization of the very soul of someone with Alzheimer's disease appreciates that the essence of our character and memories are inextricably connected. For this reason the question of how memories are stored in the brain is one of the holy grails of neuroscience.
Memory is one of the most interesting areas of neuroscience to me given my work in education and my personal experience of powerlessly observing my aunt's early decline over the past 8 years as a result of an unknown form of a dementia-inducing neuromuscular disorder. Dr. Buonomano's research at UCLA focuses on how synaptic networks make computations, with a specific interest in how the brain perceives intervals of time. In "Brain Bugs", Buonomano addresses the wider topic of how evolution shaped our brain, and how the pace of evolutionary biological change has not kept pace with change in our modern world.

"Brain Bugs" is available in hardcover and in digital format (Kindle, iBooks).

Friday, July 15, 2011

IEP meeting of the future: "Can I see that fMRI again?"

Nirvi Shah at Education Week's blog on Special Education notes the recent release of a report on the potential role that neuroscience could play in improving special education services.   Though much experimental work and analysis remains to ensure that ideas for improvement are supported by evidence before implementation, the potential shines through:
But when that research does catch up to the classroom, the results could be dramatic, said Monica Adler-Werner, who works at Ivymount School.
"My guess is that as much as what we're doing now is cutting edge, we'll look back in five years and see it as very primitive," she said. "We're at the beginning of a revolution in human understanding."
I can't wait for the first time I sit in an IEP meeting and read through a diagnosis that includes functional brain imagery!

(Also of note - I didn't know before reading Shah's post that George Washington University has a doctoral program that integrates neuroscience and special education. Her post provides the link if you're interested.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

100kin10 STEM teaching initiative

Jason Koebler at U.S. News and World Report's Education blog reports on the recently-formed 100kin10 coalition formed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York:
100kin10 will focus on three challenges of improving STEM education: increasing the supply of qualified teachers, keeping teachers in the classroom with incentive programs for top performers, and getting the public to realize that STEM education is an important issue.
I think increasing the capacity for communication and knowledge sharing among the many great minds working on STEM education issues will have a very positive impact on reaching our goals. I'll be sharing this networking opportunity with the STEM organizations I'm involved with - I hope you will, too!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Synesthesia" - A short film on blended sensory perception

Although it was made in 2009 and released on YouTube in early 2010, it's only recently that I've seen this short film by director Terri Timely entitled "Synesthesia" (via both and

Inspired by the neurological condition of the same name, Timley's film applies artistic license to the phenomenon of blended sensory perception.  Not shown in the film is the most common form of synesthesia, in which letters and numbers are perceived directly and involuntarily to have an inherent coloration - for example, "A" might be purple (though research shows it's most frequently red).  I've had the pleasure of teaching a student with synesthesia who had this type of perception; you can read and listen to the perspectives of two synesthetes (via MIT), and even see their colored alphabets.

Research on the areas of the brain involved with synesthesia is ongoing, with functional imaging studies and work with stroke patients serving as leading sources of information.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Scary, lonely, and wicked hard

From "The educational value of creative disobedience" by Andrea Kuszewski at Scientific American:
The lucky few are the ones who are too stubborn to follow the rules arbitrarily. They suffer the consequences for their rebellion, but might have a supportive other (typically a teacher or non-family adult) that provides just enough encouragement to keep them on their path, even when it proves to be treacherous. Walking that path alone is scary, lonely, and wicked hard.
Let's not let these students walk the path alone. Take a few minutes to read the whole article - it's excellent.