Category Archives: sscience education

Oops—Greg Gage does it again! With a ‘neuroscience’ talk for TED and launch for the Plant SpikerBox

I’ve written a couple times about Greg Gage and his Backyard Brains,  first, in a March 28, 2012 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way for the mention of the first [?] ‘SpikerBox’) and, most recently, in a June 26, 2013 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way for the mention of a RoboRoach Kickstater project from Backyard Brains) which also featured the launch of a new educational product and a TED [technology education design] talk.

Here’s the latest from an Oct. 10, 2017 news release (received via email),

Backyard Brains Releases Plant SpikerBox, unlocking the Secret Electrical Language used in Plants

The first consumer device to investigate how plants create behaviors through electrophysiology and to enable interspecies plant to plant communication.

ANN ARBOR, MI, OCTOBER 10, 2017–Today Backyard Brains launched the Plant SpikerBox, the first ever science kit designed to reveal the wonderful nature behind plant behavior through electrophysiology experiments done at home or in the classroom. The new SpikerBox launched alongside three new experiments, enabling users to explore Venus Flytrap and Sensitive Mimosa signals and to perform a jaw-dropping Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator experiment. The Plant SpikerBox and all three experiments are featured in a live talk from TED2017 given by Backyard Brains CEO and cofounder Dr. Greg Gage which was released today on ​​https://ted.com.

Backyard Brains received viral attention for their previous videos, TED talks, and for their mission to create hands-on neuroscience experiments for everyone. The company (run by professional neuroscientists) produces consumer-friendly versions of expensive graduate lab equipment used at top research universities around the world. The new plant experiments and device facilitate the growing movement of DIY [do it yourself] scientists, made up of passionate amateurs, students, parents, and teachers.

Like previous inventions, the Plant SpikerBox is extremely easy to use, making it accessible for students as young as middle school. The device works by recording the electrical activity responsible for different plant behaviors. For example, the Venus Flytrap uses an electrical signal to determine if prey has landed in its trap; the SpikerBox reveals these invisible messages and allows you to visualize them on your mobile device. For the first time ever, you can peer into the fascinating world of plant signaling and plant behaviors.

The new SpikerBox features an “Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator” which demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of electrical signaling seen in humans, insects, and plants. With this device, one can capture the electrical message (called an action potential) from one plant’s behavior, and send it to a different plant to activate another behavior.

Co-founder and CEO Greg Gage explains, “Itis surprising to many people that plants use electrical messages similar to those used by the neurons in our brains. I was shocked to hear that. Many neuroscientists are. But if you think about it, it [sic] does make sense. Our nervous system evolved to react quickly. Electricity is fast. The plants we are studying also need to react quickly, so it makes sense they would develop a similar system. To be clear: No, plants don’t have brains, but they do exhibit behaviors and they do use electric messages called ‘Action Potentials’ like we do to send information. The benefit of these plant experiments then is twofold: First, we can simply demonstrate fundamental neuroscience principles, and second, we can spread the wonder of understanding how living creatures work and hopefully encourage others to make a career in life sciences!”

The Plant SpikerBox is a trailblazer, bringing plant electrophysiology to the public for the first time ever. It is designed to work with the Backyard Brains SpikeRecorder software which is available to download for free on their website or in mobile app stores. The three plant experiments are just a few of the dozens of free experiments available on the Backyard Brains website. The Plant SpikerBox is available now for $149.99.

About Backyard Brains

A staggering 1 in 5 people will develop a neurological disorder in their lifetime, making the need for neuroscience studies urgent. Backyard Brains passionately responds with their motto “Neuroscience for Everyone,” providing exposure, education, and experiment kits to students of all ages. Founded in 2010 in Ann Arbor, MI by University of Michigan Neuroscience graduate students Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, Backyard Brains have been dubbed Champions of Change at an Obama White House ceremony and have won prestigious awards from the National Institutes of Health and the Society for Neuroscience. To learn more, visit BackyardBrains.com

You can find an embedded video of Greg Gage’s TED talk and Plant SpikerBox launch along with links to experiments you could run with it on Backyard Brains’ Plant SpikerBox product page.

For a sample of what they have on offer, here’s an excerpt from the Venus Flytrap Electrophysiology experiment webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

Background

Your nervous system allows you to sense and respond quickly to the environment around you. You have a nervous system, animals have nervous systems, but plants do not. But not having a nervous system does not mean you cannot sense and respond to the world. Plants can certainly sense the environment around them and move. You have seen your plants slowly turn their leaves towards sunlight by the window over a week, open their flowers in the day, and close their flowers during the night. Some plants can move in much more dramatic fashion, such as the Venus Flytrap and the Sensitive Mimosa.

The Venus Flytrap comes from the swamps of North Carolina, USA, and lives in very nutrient-poor, water-logged soil. It photosynthesizes like other plants, but it can’t always rely on the sunlight for food. To supplement its food supply it traps and eats insects, extracting from them the nitrogen and phosphorous needed to form plant food (amino acids, nucleic acids, and other molecules).

If you look closely at the Venus Flytrap, you will notice it has very tiny “Trigger Hairs” inside its trap leaves.

If a wayward, unsuspecting insect touches a trigger hair, an Action Potential occurs in the leaves. This is a different Action Potential than what we are used to seeing in neurons, as it’s based on the movement of calcium, potassium, and chloride ions (vs. movement of potassium and sodium as in the Action Potentials of neurons and muscles), and it is muuuuuuuuucccchhhhhh longer than anything we’ve seen before.

If the trigger hair is touched twice within 20 seconds (firing two Action Potentials within 20 seconds), the trap closes. The trap is not closing due to muscular action (plants do not have muscles), but rather due to an osmotic, rapid change in the shape of curvature of the trap leaves. Interestingly, the firing of Action Potentials is not always reliable, depending on time of year, temperature, health of plant, and/or other factors. Quite different from we humans, Action Potential failure is not devastating to a Venus Flytrap.

We can observe this plant Action Potential using our Plant SpikerBox. Welcome to the Brave New World of Plant Electrophysiology.

Downloads

Before you begin, make sure you have the Backyard Brains SpikeRecorder. The Backyard Brains SpikeRecorder program allows you to visualize and save data on your computer when doing experiments.

….

I did feel a bit sorry for the Venus Flytrap in Greg Gage’s TED talk which was fooled into closing its trap. According to Gage, the Venus Flytrap has limited number of times it can close its trap and after the last time, it dies. On the other hand, I eat meat and use leather goods so there is not pedestal for me to perch on.

For anyone who caught the Brittany Spears reference in the headline in this posting,

From exploring outer space with Brittany Spears to exploring plant communication and neuroscience in your back yard, science can be found in many different places.

Model-type coding

By model, I mean Karlie Kloss whose computer coding camp project was profiled in an August 31, 2017 article by Elizabeth Segran for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

It all started on a whim. Four years ago, supermodel Karlie Kloss decided to take an intensive coding course at New York Flatiron School. She had never written a lick of code in her life, but she wanted to see what the fuss about coding was all about. Between runway shows in Paris and Milan, and magazine shoots in London and New York, she would sit down with her instructor, Avi Flombaum, and learn the basics of Ruby on Rails.

“It was sheer curiosity that led me to take that class,” the 25-year-old Kloss tells Fast Company. “But it was really eye-opening to learn about the hardware and the software that goes into the tech we use every day.”

As a successful model, Kloss didn’t have any immediate reason to learn how to code, but she soon realized the activity could bring sweet rewards–literally. “One of the first things I learned how to program was a drone that could pick up a cookie on one side of the room and deliver it to the other side of the room,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve learned to do with code.”

Around 2012, coding bootcamps like the Flatiron course began popping up all over the country with the promise of equipping people with no prior training with the basics of computer science. In Kloss’s case, she was surprised to discover that coding wasn’t an impenetrable skill. “It’s a language just like any other language,” she says. “And the way our world is going, learning to code should be just as important as learning your mother tongue.”

There’s a persistent narrative in our culture that women are less inclined to pursue computer science. This was evident in the infamous Google memo, in which an employee, James Damore, claimed that women are genetically less inclined to code. This hasn’t been Kloss’s experience, though. She’s encountered many young women who are just as curious as she is about the technology that surrounds them. “They are aware of the power of these technical skills and how they are shaping the world today,” Kloss says. “These young women grew up with this technology embedded and they’re not scared to try building things. They are more forward-thinking than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Back in 2014, Kloss put out a call on her social media channels, asking if there were like-minded young women out there who wanted to code but didn’t have access to a course. She received an avalanche of responses from young women and ultimately offered scholarships to 21 young women to attend a two-week summer camp at the Flatiron School.

Three years later, Kloss says that this initiative–called Kode With Klossy–has grown and evolved. So far, more than 400 girls age 13 to 18 have gone through the Kode With Klossy summer camps. Kloss can now track where these students have ended up, and the results have been impressive. One of the original beneficiaries just won the grand prize at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, together with three other high school girls. (The team beat out 750 engineers with a virtual reality app that can help treat and diagnose ADHD efficiently.) …

There’s a bit more about Kloss and her camps, although it’s mostly about Kloss’s career, in a June 2017 article by Laura Brown for In Style magazine.

You can find Kode with Klossy here; the efforts are concentrated in the US. For anyone interested in coding initiatives in Canada, there’s Ladies learning Code, which offers both girls only and co-ed opportunities amongst others. Also, the Canadian federal government is getting in on the act with a $50M programme as I noted in my June 16, 2017 posting,

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

 Getting back to Segran’s article about Kloss’s coding camps, the writer describes the current approach to coding camps in the US,

The problem, she [Kloss] believes, is access. Many middle and high schools don’t offer coding courses, although this is slowly changing. And when they are offered, they tend to be oversubscribed by male students, creating an uncomfortable imbalance in the classroom. Then there are the popular coding bootcamps, such as the one that Kloss took, but they often come with hefty price tags: Tuition can cost upward of $1,000 a week. There have also been questions about how sustainable the coding bootcamp business model really is, since several companies, like The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, have had to shut down recently.

I guess we’ll see what happens with the Canadian $50M in the next few years and whether it proves a more effective approach (i.e., government and not-for-profit) than the individual business and not-for-profit efforts seen in the US.

Canadian children to learn computer coding from kindergarten through to high school

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

Many jobs today rely on the ability of Canadian workers to solve problems using digital skills. The demand for such skills will only intensify as the number of software and data companies increases—whether they sell music online or design self-driving cars, for example. That’s why the government is investing in the skills that prepare young Canadians for the jobs of tomorrow.

This program is part of the Innovation and Skills Plan, a multi-year strategy to create well-paying jobs for the middle class and those working hard to join it.

 

Quotes

“Our government is investing in a program that will equip young Canadians with the skills they need for a future in which every job will require some level of digital ability. Coding teaches our young people how to work as a team to solve difficult problems in creative ways. That’s how they will become the next great innovators and entrepreneurs that Canada needs to succeed.”

– The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

“Coding skills are highly relevant in today’s scientific and technological careers, and they will only become more important in the future. That’s why it is essential that we teach these skills to young Canadians today so they have an advantage when they choose to pursue a career as a scientist, researcher or engineer. Our government is proud to support their curiosity, their ambition and their desire to build a bolder, brighter future for all Canadians.”

– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

Quick Facts

  • Funding applicants must be not-for-profit organizations incorporated in Canada. They must have a minimum of three years of experience delivering education-related programs to young Canadians.
  • The deadline for applications for project funding is July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine].

Associated Links

Exciting stuff, eh?

I was a bit curious about how the initiative will be executed since education is a provincial responsibility. The answers are on the ‘CanCode funding application‘ page,

The CanCode program aims to provide coding and digital skills learning opportunities to a diverse set of participants, principally students from kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) across Canada, including traditionally underrepresented groups, as well as their teachers. The program will consider proposals for initiatives that run until the program end date of March 31, 2019.

Funding

Maximum contribution funding to any one recipient cannot exceed $5 million per year, and the need for the contribution must be clearly demonstrated by the applicant. The level of funding provided by the program will be contingent upon the assessment of the proposal and the availability of program funds.

Proposals may include funding from other levels of government, private sector or non-profit partners, however, total funding from all federal, provincial/territorial and municipal sources cannot exceed 100%.

Eligible costs

Eligible costs are the costs directly related to the proposal that respect all conditions and limitations of the program and that will be eligible for claim as set out in the Contribution Agreement (CA) if the proposal is approved for funding.

Eligible costs include:

  • Administrative operating costs, including travel related to delivery of training (limited to no more than 10% of total eligible costs except for approved recipients delivering initiatives in Canada’s Far North due to high costs associated with travel, inclement weather, costs of accommodation and food)
  • Direct costs to deliver training (including for training delivery personnel, space rental, materials, etc.)
  • Costs for required equipment limited to no more than 20% of total eligible costs
  • Costs to develop and administer online training

Eligibility details

Essential criteria for assessment

To qualify for funding, your organization:

  • Must be a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada; and
  • Must have a minimum of three years’ experience in the delivery of coding and digital education programs to K-12 youth and/or their teachers.

Your funding proposal must also clearly demonstrate that:

  • Your proposed initiative meets the objectives of the program in terms of target participants and content (e.g. computational thinking, coding concepts, programming robotics, internet safety, teacher training);
  • Your initiative will be delivered at no cost to participants;
  • With program funding, your organization will have the resource capacity and expertise, either internally or through partnerships, to successfully deliver the proposed initiative; and
  • You can deliver the proposed initiative within the program timeframe.

Asset criteria for assessment

While not essential requirements, proposals will also be assessed on the degree to which they include one or more of the following elements:

  • Content that maps to provincial/territorial educational curricula (e.g. lessons for teachers on how to integrate coding/digital skills into the classroom; topics/content that support current curricula);
  • Development of tools and resources that will be made available to students and teachers following a learning opportunity, and which could reinforce or continue learning, and/or reach a broader audience;
  • Partnerships with other organizations, such as school boards, teacher associations, community organizations, and other organizations delivering coding/digital skills;
  • Private sector funding or partnerships that can leverage federal contributions to deliver programming to a wider audience or to enhance or expand initiatives and content;
  • A demonstrated ability to reach traditionally underrepresented groups such as girls, Indigenous youth, disabled, and at-risk youth;
  • A demonstrated ability to deliver services on First Nations Reserves; or
  • A demonstrated ability to reach underserved locations in Canada, such as rural, remote and northern communities.

Eligibility self-assessment

Before you get started, take the following self-assessment to ensure your proposed initiative/project is eligible for funding. If you answer yes to all of the questions below, you are eligible to apply:

  • Are you a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada? Are you able to provide articles of incorporation?
  • Has your organization been delivering coding/digital skills education to youth within the range of kindergarten to grade 12 and/or teachers for at least three years?
  • Can your proposed initiative/project be delivered by March 31, 2019?
  • Does your proposed initiative/project provide any of the following: development and delivery of training and educational initiatives for K-12 students to learn digital skills, coding and related concepts (e.g. in-class instruction, after-school programs, summer camps, etc.); development and delivery of training and professional development initiatives for teacher to develop the skills and confidence to introduce digital skills, coding and related concepts into the classroom (e.g. teacher training courses, workshops, etc.); development of online resources/tools to support and enhance coding and digital skills learning initiatives for youth and/or teachers.

How to apply

When you click “Apply now”, you will be prompted to submit a basic form to collect your contact information. We will then contact you to provide you with the application package.

[Go here to Apply now]

Contact information

For general questions and comments, please contact the CanCode program.

Telephone (toll-free in Canada): 1-800-328-6189
Telephone (Ottawa): 613-954-5031
Fax: 343-291-1913
TTY (for hearing-impaired): 1-866-694-8389
By email
Chat now
Business hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Time)
By mail: CanCode
C.D. Howe Building
235 Queen Street, 1st floor, West Tower
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0H5
Canada

For anyone curious about just how much work is involved (from the Apply for CanCode funding page;Note: contact form not included),

Please complete and submit the form below and we will contact you within 2 business days to provide you with an application package.

Application package

A complete application package, consisting of a completed Application Form, a Project Work Plan, a Budget, and such additional supporting documentation as required by the program to fully assess the proposal’s merit to be funded, must be submitted on or before July 26, 2017 to be considered.

Supporting documentation includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Corporate documents, e.g. articles of corporation;
  • Financial statements from the last three years;
  • Information on any contributors/partners and their roles and resources in support of the project;
  • A detailed budget outlining forecasted total costs and per participant cost of delivering the proposed initiative;
  • A detailed work plan providing a description of all project activities and timelines, as well as overall expected results and benefits;
  • Information on experience/skills of key personnel;
  • Copies of any funding or partnership agreements relevant to the proposal;
  • Letters of support from partners, previous clientele, other relevant stakeholders;

Application intake

The program will accept proposals until July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine], whereupon the call for proposals will be closed. Should funding remain available following the assessment and funding decisions regarding proposals received during this intake period, further calls for proposals may be issued.

If you keep scrolling down you’ll find the contact form.

Applicants sure don’t much time to prepare their submissions from which I infer that interested parties have already been contacted or apprised that this programme was in the works.

Also, for those of us in British Columbia, this is not the first government initiative directed at children’s computer coding skills. In January 2016, Premier Christy Clark* announced a provincial programme  (my Jan. 19, 2016 posting; scroll down about 55% of the way for the discussion about ‘talent’ and several months later announced there would be funding for the programme (June 10, 2016 Office of the Premier news release about funding). i wonder if these federal and provincial efforts are going to be coordinated?

For more insight into the BC government’s funding, there’s Tracy Sherlock’s Sept. 3, 2016 article for the Vancouver Sun.

For anyone wanting to keep up with Canadian government science-related announcements, there are the two minister’s separate twitter feeds:

@ministerISED

@ScienceMin

*As of June 16, 2017, Premier Clark appears to be on her way out of government after her party failed by one seat to win a majority in the Legislative Assembly. However, there is a great deal of wrangling. Presumably the funding for computer coding programmes in the schools was locked in.

Science literacy and illiteracy according to the US National Academy of Sciences

Phys.org is hosting a commentary by Mike Klymkowsky on the recent report (Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences) published the US National Academy of Sciences in an Oct. 18, 2016 news item,

Scientific literacy – what it is, how to recognize it, and how to help people achieve it through educational efforts, remains a difficult topic. The latest attempt to inform the conversation is a recent National Academy report “Science Literacy: concepts, contexts, and consequences.”

While there is lots of substance to take away from the report, three quotes seem particularly telling to me. The first is from Roberts [D. A. Roberts] that points out that scientific literacy has “become an umbrella concept with a sufficiently broad, composite meaning that it meant both everything, and nothing specific, about science education and the competency it sought to describe.” The second quote, from the report’s authors, is that “In the field of education, at least, the lack of consensus surrounding science literacy has not stopped it from occupying a prominent place in policy discourse” (p. 2.6). And finally, “the data suggested almost no relationship between general science knowledge and attitudes about genetically modified food, a potentially negative relationship between biology-specific knowledge and attitudes about genetically modified food, and a small, but negative relationship between that same general science knowledge measure and attitudes toward environmental science.”

"Flat Earth” The Flammarion engraving (1888) Wikipedia [downloaded from http://blogs.plos.org/scied/2016/10/16/recognizing-scientific-literacy-illiteracy/]

“Flat Earth” The Flammarion engraving (1888) Wikipedia [downloaded from http://blogs.plos.org/scied/2016/10/16/recognizing-scientific-literacy-illiteracy/]

The commentary was originally published on Klymkowsky’s Oct. 16, 2016 posting on Sci-Ed, a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog where you find a list of references including one for D. A. Roberts at the end of the post,

… what is added when we move to scientific in contrast to standard literacy, what is missing from the illiterate response.  At the simplest level we are looking for mistakes, irrelevancies, failures in logic, or in recognizing contradictions within the answer, explanation or critique. The presence of unnecessary language suggests, at the very least, a confused understanding of the situation.[3]  A second feature of a scientifically illiterate response is a failure to recognize the limits of scientific knowledge; this includes an explicit recognition of the tentative nature of science, combined with the fact that some things are, theoretically, unknowable scientifically.  For example, is “dark matter” real or might an alternative model of gravity remove its raison d’être?[4]

For me, one of the more intriguing ideas Klymkowsky explores is scientific illiteracy in the scientific community (from the Oct. 16, 2016 PLOS posting),

There are also suggestions of scientific illiteracy (or perhaps better put, sloppy and/or self-serving thinking) in much of the current “click-bait” approach to the public dissemination of scientific ideas and observations.  All too often, scientific practitioners, who we might expect to be as scientifically literate as possible, abandon the discipline of science to make claims that are over-arching and often self-serving (this is, after all, why peer-review is necessary).

A common example [of scientific illiteracy practiced by scientists and science communicators] is provided by studies of human disease in “model” organisms, ranging from yeasts to non-human primates. While there is no doubt that such studies have been, and continue to be critical to understanding how organisms work (and certainly deserving of public and private support) – their limitations need to be made explicit, while a mouse that displays behavioral defects (for a mouse) might well provide useful insights into the mechanisms involved in human autism, an autistic mouse may well be a scientific oxymoron.

Discouraging scientific illiteracy within the scientific community is challenging, particularly in the highly competitive, litigious,[5] and high stakes environment we currently find ourselves in.[6]  How to best help our students, both within and without scientific disciplines, avoid scientific illiteracy remains unclear, but is likely to involve establishing a culture of Socratic discourse (as opposed to posturing). ….

I recommend reading the commentary in its entirety. You might also want to check out Klymkowsky’s website here.

Finally, the US National Academy of Sciences report, Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences is available as a free download.

Oil company sponsorships: Science Museum (London, UK) and Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology

Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery opened in London’s (UK) Science Museum on Oct. 12, 2016 and it seems there are a couple of controversies. An Oct. 17, 2016 article by Chris Garrard outlines the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

What do you wonder?” That is the question the Science Museum has been asking for many months now, in posters, celebrity videos and in online images. It’s been part of the museum’s strategy to ramp up excitement around its new “Wonderlab” gallery, a space full of interactive science exhibits designed to inspire children. But what many have been wondering is how Statoil, a major oil and gas company with plans to drill up to seven new wells in the Arctic [emphasis mine], was allowed to become the gallery’s title sponsor? Welcome to Wonderlab – the Science Museum’s latest ethical contradiction.

In Australia, Statoil is still considering plans to drill a series of ultra deepwater wells in the Great Australian Bight – an internationally recognised whale sanctuary – despite the decision this week of its strategic partner, BP, to pull out. …

The company’s sponsorship of Wonderlab may look like a generous gesture from outside but in reality, Statoil is buying a social legitimacy it does not deserve – and it is particularly sinister to purchase that legitimacy at the expense of young people who will inherit a world with an unstable climate. This is an attempt to associate the future of science and technology with fossil fuels at a time when society and policy makers have finally accepted that that it is not compatible with a sustainable future and a stable climate. As the impacts of climate change intensify and the world shifts away from fossil fuels, the Science Museum will look ever more out of touch with the words “the Statoil gallery” emblazoned upon its walls.

The Science Museum has previously had sponsorship deals with a range of unethical sponsors, from arms companies such as Airbus, to other fossil fuel companies such as BP and Shell. When Shell’s influence over the Science Museum’s climate science gallery was unearthed last year following Freedom of Information requests, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, sought to defend the museum’s engagement with fossil fuel funders. He wrote “When it comes to the major challenges facing our society, from climate change to inspiring the next generation of engineers, we need to be engaging with all the key players including governments, industry and the public, not hiding away in a comfortable ivory tower.”

In reality, Blatchford is the one in the ivory tower – and not just because of the museum’s ties to Statoil. Wonderlab replaces the museum’s Launchpad gallery, a hub of interactive science exhibits designed to engage and inspire children. But unlike its predecessor, Wonderlab comes with an entry charge. Earlier this year, the science communication academic Dr Emily Dawson noted that “charging for the museum’s most popular children’s gallery sends a clear message that science is for some families, but not for all”. Thus Wonderlab represents a science communication mess as well as an ethical one.

While the museum’s decision to offer free school visits will allow some children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to experience Wonderlab, Dawson argues that “it is not enough to use school visits as a panacea for exclusive practice”. Research recently undertaken by the Wellcome Trust showed that likelihood of visiting a science museum or centre is related to social class. Entry charges are not the only obstacle in the way of public access to science, but perhaps the most symbolic for a major cultural institution – particularly where the primary audience is children.

Garrard does note that museums have challenges, especially when they are dealing with funding cuts as they are at the Science Museum.

The sponsorship issue may sound familiar to Canadians as we had our own controversy in 2012 with Imperial Oil and its sponsorship of the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s show currently named, ‘Let’s Talk Energy‘ still sponsored by Imperial Oil. Here’s more from my June 13, 2012 posting,

They’ve been going hot and heavy at Canada’s national museums in Ottawa this last few months. First, there was a brouhaha over corporate patronage and energy in January 2012 and, again, in April 2012 and now, it’s all about sex. While I’m dying to get started on the sex, this piece is going to follow the chronology.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website has a Jan. 23, 2012 posting which notes the active role Imperial Oil played in a November 2011  energy exhibit (part of a multi-year, interactive national initiative, Let’s Talk Energy)  at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (from the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting),

Imperial Oil, a sponsor of the Museum of Science and Technology’s exhibition “Energy: Power to Choose,” was actively involved in the message presented to the public, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

The Ottawa museum unveiled the exhibition last year despite criticism from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which questioned why it was partly funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation, which contributed $600,000 over six years.

Apparently, CBC reporters got their hands on some emails where the Imperial Oil Foundation president, Susan Swan, made a number of suggestions,

In an Oct. 3 [2011] interview on CBC Ottawa’s All in a Day, host Alan Neal asked exhibit curator Anna Adamek whose idea it was to include in the exhibit a reference that says oilsands account for one-tenth of one percent of global emissions.

“This fact comes from research reports that are available at the museum, that were commissioned by the museum,” Adamek told Neal.

But earlier emails from Imperial Oil Foundation president Susan Swan obtained by Radio-Canada through an Access to Information request show she had recommended that information be included back in May [2011?].

Swan, who also served as chair of the advisory committee to the project, also asked that information be included that the oilsands are expected to add $1.7 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years.

Not all of Swan’s requests made it into the final exhibit: in one point, she asked that an illustration for Polar Oil and Gas Reserves be changed from red to blue, arguing red “has a negative connotation” bringing to mind “blood oil.” The change was not made.

Personally, I love Swan’s semiotic analysis of the colour ‘red’. I wonder how many graphic designers have been driven mad by someone who sat through a lecture or part of a television programme on colour and/or semiotics and is now an expert.

If you’re curious, you can see the emails from the Imperial Oil Foundation in the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting.

A few months later, Barrick Gold (a mining corporation) donated $1M to have a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature renamed, from the April 24, 2012 posting on the CBC website,

Environmental groups are upset over a decision to rename a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature after corporate mining giant Barrick Gold.

Barrick Gold Corp., based out of Toronto, purchased the room’s naming rights for about $1 million. The new “Barrick Salon” is the museum’s premier rental space featuring a circular room with glass windows from floor to ceiling.

The decision had activists protest at the museum Tuesday, a few hours before the official naming reception that includes Barrick Gold executives.

“It’s definitely not a partnership, it’s a sponsorship,” said Elizabeth McCrea, the museum’s director of communications. “We’re always looking at increasing self-generated revenue and this is one way that we’re doing it.” [emphasis mine]

Monarchs and wealthy people have been funding and attempting to influence cultural institutions for millenia. These days, we get to include corporations on that list but it’s nothing new. People or institutions with power and money always want history or facts * presented in ways that further or flatter their interests (“history is written by the victors”). They aren’t always successful but they will keep trying.

It’s hard to be high-minded when you need money but it doesn’t mean you should give up on the effort.

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) at Marvel Comics

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Aug. 20, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for this tidbit from Marvel Comics (Note: A link has been removed),

This week Marvel announced that several of its titles will have STEAM-themed variant covers.  Readers are likely familiar with the STEM acronym – science, technology, engineering and math.  STEAM adds art to the acronym, and can be favored by some advocates (who are generally objecting to the crowding out of many subjects in American education).

In November [2016] Marvel will issue variant covers for five of its titles, each one corresponding to a category in STEAM. …

An Aug. 19, 2016 article by Xavier Harding for Popular Science provides more information and preview images for the covers,

Marvel heroes are no strangers to science. Characters like Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Reed Richards and many more all have ties in science as either part-time, or full-time, scientists. Keeping with their science-based roots, Marvel’s latest crop of characters are engaging in the science fun as well.

In an attempt to spark interest in math and the sciences amongst readers, Marvel will introduce STEAM variant covers. Each cover will represent one of the themes relating to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. The education-themed Marvel covers will hit stands November 2016.

In a statement issued by Marvel, senior vice president of sales & marketing David Gabriel mentions how Marvel’s characters have inspired fans for ages. “With our new STEAM variants, we plan to continue to motivate our fans to explore their passions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math,” said Gabriel, “and present these disciplines through some of our favorite young heroes who are doing just that – following their dreams and preparing for the challenges that await them ahead.”

Moon Girl: Science

Moon Girl Marvel STEAM cover

Marvel

The Moon Girl, Lunella Lafayette, covers Marvel’s STEAM-branded issue.

*Iron*-Man Cover: Engineering

Ironheart

Marvel

Invincible Iron Man

Riri Williams will be know known as Ironheart

Champions Cover: Arts

Marvel STEAM branded cover

Marvel

Marvel STEAM branded cover

Starring Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Nova, Incredible Hulk, Viv and teenage Cyclops, this cover offers the Arts in STEAM.

I miss the days when you could find comic books at drugstores. In order to find these, I’ll have to make a special effort.

*’ron’ changed to ‘Iron’ on Sept. 14, 2016.