Tag Archives: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NanoSpace online science ‘theme park’ and science literacy project wins web award

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NonoSpace, which opened in Oct. 2012, was designed to improve science literacy according to the Oct. 18, 2012 news release,

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today unveiled NanoSpace, an online “molecular theme park” populated with more than 25 games, activities, and animations to educate and excite young students about the world of atoms and molecules.

From playing “Who wants to be a Quindecillionaire?” in H2OPark, to solving the Polypeptide Puzzler in DNA Land, to button-jamming on Electronz and other retro-style games in the arcade, NanoSpace visitors are having too much fun to notice they’re also learning complex scientific topics.

NanoSpace is the latest platform from the Molecularium Project, which is the flagship outreach and education effort of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center. Many NanoSpace games and activities feature the characters Oxy, Hydra, and Mel from the Molecularium animated movies Molecules to the MAX! and Riding Snowflakes.

The mission of the Molecularium Project is to expand science literacy and awareness, and to excite audiences of all ages to explore and understand the molecular nature of the world around them. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and others, the project is a direct response to the challenge of inspiring more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is a significant workforce development issue, as the NSF estimates 80 percent of jobs created in the next decade will require some mastery of STEM.

“Science literacy—in every capacity—has never before been so important to our nation,” said Professor Richard W. Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer and director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center.  “We realize that not every kid wants to be a scientist, but learning the basics of science—involving molecules and atoms—is critical to the careers that will be available in the next decade, especially as the U.S. continues to fall behind. When learning is fun, it increases a child’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. That’s why we are excited to unveil NanoSpace. Kids are interacting, exploring, and having a great time while learning about atoms and molecules, and they are not even realizing they’re learning.”

This concept of “stealth education” runs through every aspect of the Molecularium Project. …

Almost one year later, it seems the project has been successful with its ‘stealth education’ concept, from a Sept. 25, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Faculty researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were honored for their efforts in developing and creating the NanoSpace website, an online science “theme park” that aims to excite elementary and middle-school students about the world of atoms and molecules.

Rensselaer and NanoSpace received a “2013 Best of the Web” award from the Center for Digital Education, in the category of Higher Education Website.

The Sept. 24, 2013 Rensselaer news release, which originated the news item, describes the agency bestowing the designation,

The Center for Digital Education’s “Best of the Web” awards recognize and honor outstanding education websites. The awards are open to all education institution websites in the United States, including K-12 districts, schools, colleges, universities, teachers, multi-class, parent, and student websites. The Center for Digital Education is a national research and advisory institute specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy, and funding.

“Educational institutions are constantly tasked with creating quality websites and applications to deliver services and enhance learning,” said Kim Frame, executive director of the Center for Digital Education. “This year’s winners are cognizant of this challenge and have developed innovative models to increase learning and promote achievement via the use of technology. The center congratulates them for creativity and dedication toward excellence!”

I decided to take a look at the Center for Digital Education and found this on their About the Center webpage,

The Center for Digital Education (CDE) is a national research and advisory institute specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy and funding. CDE advises the industry, conducts relevant research, issues white papers, and produces premier annual surveys and awards programs. CDE also hosts events for the education community. CDE’s media platform includes the quarterly Center for Digital Education’s Special Reports, centerdigitaled.com, email newsletters and custom publications.

The rest of the page includes links to their sales, research, corporate, etc. divisions. This looks like a ‘for profit’ endeavour and awards like “2013 Best of the Web” are classic public relations ploys. One of  the most spectacular examples of this ploy are the Nobel prizes.

You can go directly to the NanoSpace website here (be prepared to sign up) or you can go diectly to the Molecularium project website to find out more about both.

Graphene paper batteries

Michael Mullaney’s Aug. 20, 2012 news release for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) highlights work on a battery made from the worlds thinnest material. From the news release,

Engineering researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made a sheet of paper from the world’s thinnest material, graphene, and then zapped the paper with a laser or camera flash to blemish it with countless cracks, pores, and other imperfections. The result is a graphene anode material that can be charged or discharged 10 times faster than conventional graphite anodes used in today’s lithium (Li)-ion batteries.

“Li-ion battery technology is magnificent, but truly hampered by its limited power density and its inability to quickly accept or discharge large amounts of energy. By using our defect-engineered graphene paper in the battery architecture, I think we can help overcome this limitation,” said Koratkar, the John A. Clark and Edward T. Crossan Professor of Engineering at Rensselaer. “We believe this discovery is ripe for commercialization, and can make a significant impact on the development of new batteries and electrical systems for electric automobiles and portable electronics applications.”

Here are some more details about the graphene paper the researchers hope will replace the less efficient elements of today’s lithium-ion batteries  (from the news release),

Koratkar’s solution [to the problem of slow charging and discharge] was to use a known technique to create a large sheet of graphene oxide paper. This paper is about the thickness of a piece of everyday printer paper, and can be made nearly any size or shape. The research team then exposed some of the graphene oxide paper to a laser, and other samples of the paper were exposed to a simple flash from a digital camera. In both instances, the heat from the laser or photoflash literally caused mini-explosions throughout the paper, as the oxygen atoms in graphene oxide were violently expelled from the structure. The aftermath of this oxygen exodus was sheets of graphene pockmarked with countless cracks, pores, voids, and other blemishes. The pressure created by the escaping oxygen also prompted the graphene paper to expand five-fold in thickness, creating large voids between the individual graphene sheets.

The researchers quickly learned this damaged graphene paper performed remarkably well as an anode for a Li-ion battery. Whereas before the lithium ions slowly traversed the full length of graphene sheets to charge or discharge, the ions now used the cracks and pores as shortcuts to move quickly into or out of the graphene—greatly increasing the battery’s overall power density. Koratkar’s team demonstrated how their experimental anode material could charge or discharge 10 times faster than conventional anodes in Li-ion batteries without incurring a significant loss in its energy density. Despite the countless microscale pores, cracks, and voids that are ubiquitous throughout the structure, the graphene paper anode is remarkably robust, and continued to perform successfully even after more than 1,000 charge/discharge cycles. The high electrical conductivity of the graphene sheets also enabled efficient electron transport in the anode, which is another necessary property for high-power applications.

Here’s a citation and link for the paper (which is behind a paywall),

Photothermally Reduced Graphene as High-Power Anodes for Lithium-Ion Batteries by Rahul Mukherjee, Abhay Varghese Thomas, Ajay Krishnamurthy, and Nikhil Koratkar in ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn303145j Publication Date (Web): August 11, 2012

If the researchers are successful, electric cars could become 100% battery-run.

US soldiers get batteries woven into their clothes

Last time I wrote about soldiers, equipment, and energy-efficiency (April 5, 2012 posting) the soldiers in question were British. Today’s posting focuses on US soldiers. From the May 7, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

U.S. soldiers are increasingly weighed down by batteries to power weapons, detection devices and communications equipment. So the Army Research Laboratory has awarded a University of Utah-led consortium almost $15 million to use computer simulations to help design materials for lighter-weight, energy efficient devices and batteries.

“We want to help the Army make advances in fundamental research that will lead to better materials to help our soldiers in the field,” says computing Professor Martin Berzins, principal investigator among five University of Utah faculty members who will work on the project. “One of Utah’s main contributions will be the batteries.”

Of the five-year Army grant of $14,898,000, the University of Utah will retain $4.2 million for research plus additional administrative costs. The remainder will go to members of the consortium led by the University of Utah, including Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Brown University, the University of California, Davis, and the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy.

The new research effort is based on the idea that by using powerful computers to simulate the behavior of materials on multiple scales – from the atomic and molecular nanoscale to the large or “bulk” scale – new, lighter, more energy efficient power supplies and materials can be designed and developed. Improving existing materials also is a goal.

“We want to model everything from the nanoscale to the soldier scale,” Berzins says. “It’s virtual design, in some sense.”

“Today’s soldier enters the battle space with an amazing array of advanced electronic materials devices and systems,” the University of Utah said in its grant proposal. “The soldier of the future will rely even more heavily on electronic weaponry, detection devices, advanced communications systems and protection systems. Currently, a typical infantry soldier might carry up to 35 pounds of batteries in order to power these systems, and it is clear that the energy and power requirements for future soldiers will be much greater.” [emphasis mine]

“These requirements have a dramatic adverse effect on the survivability and lethality of the soldier by reducing mobility as well as the amount of weaponry, sensors, communication equipment and armor that the soldier can carry. Hence, the Army’s desire for greater lethality and survivability of its men and women in the field is fundamentally tied to the development of devices and systems with increased energy efficiency as well as dramatic improvement in the energy and power density of [battery] storage and delivery systems.”

Up to 35 lbs. of batteries? I’m trying to imagine what the rest of the equipment would weigh. In any event, they seem to be more interested in adding to the weaponry than reducing weight. At least, that’s how I understand “greater *lethality.” Nice of them to mention greater survivability too.

The British project is more modest, they are weaving e-textiles that harvest energy allowing British soldiers to carry fewer batteries. I believe field trials were scheduled for May 2012.

* Correction: leathility changed to lethality on July 31, 2013.

Get rid of the canary, you can use graphene foam to detect hazardous gases

While I’ve come across a number of research items regarding detection of poisonous and hazardous gases, this is the first I’ve seen an item where graphene foam is being tested for the purpose. According to the March 8, 2012 news item on physorg.com.

Fazel Yavari has developed a new sensor to detect extremely small quantities of hazardous gases. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute doctoral student harnessed the power of the world’s thinnest material, graphene, to create a device that is durable, inexpensive to make, and incredibly sensitive.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s March 7, 2012 news release provides details about the importance of these gas sensors and  some of the problems with using nanomaterials for this purposed,

Detecting trace amounts of hazardous gases present within air is a critical safety and health consideration in many different situations, from industrial manufacturing and chemical processing to bomb detection and environmental monitoring. Conventional gas sensors are either too bulky and expensive, which limits their use in many applications, or they are not sensitive enough to detect trace amounts of gases. Also, many commercial sensors require very high temperatures in order to adequately detect gases, and in turn require large amounts of power.

Researchers have long sought to leverage the power of nanomaterials for gas detection. Individual nanostructures like graphene, an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chicken-wire fence, are extremely sensitive to chemical changes. However, creating a device based on a single nanostructure is costly, highly complex, and the resulting devices are extremely fragile, prone to failure, and offer inconsistent readings.

It seems that Yavari has come up with a solution,

Yavari has overcome these hurdles and created a device that combines the high sensitivity of a nanostructured material with the durability, low price, and ease of use of a macroscopic device. His new graphene foam sensor, about the size of a postage stamp and as thick as felt, works at room temperature, is considerably less expensive to make, and still very sensitive to tiny amounts of gases. The sensor works by reading the changes in the graphene foam’s electrical conductivity as it encounters gas particles and they stick to the foam’s surface. Another benefit of Yavari’s device is its ability to quickly and easily remove these stuck chemicals by applying a small electric current.

The new graphene foam sensor has been engineered to detect the gases ammonia and nitrogen dioxide, but can be configured to work with other gases as well. Ammonia detection is important as the gas is commonly used in industrial processes, and ammonia is a byproduct of several explosives. Nitrogen dioxide is also a byproduct of several explosives, as well as a closely monitored pollutant found in combustion exhaust and auto emissions. Yavari’s sensor can detect both gases in quantities as small as 0.5 parts-per-million at room temperature.

I don’t grasp how the graphene foam can be  a sensor that can be reused since foam usually dissipates after a few minutes and no details are offered in the news release or the news item. Yavari appears to holding an object (perhaps it’s a composite material based on graphene foam?),

Fazel Yavari

Cngratulations to Yavari.

For anyone who’s puzzled by my headline reference to canaries, miners used to bring them down into the bowels of the earth. The canaries weren’t pets but rather an early warning signal of poisonous gases that could be released as the miners dug into the earth. Since the canaries were more sensitive to the gases, they would die first and that’s how the miners knew when to clear out of an area.

Human-Computer interfaces: flying with thoughtpower, reading minds, and wrapping a telephone around your wrist

This time I’ve decided to explore a few of the human/computer interface stories I’ve run across lately. So this posting is largely speculative and rambling as I’m not driving towards a conclusion.

My first item is a May 3, 2011 news item on physorg.com. It concerns an art installation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The Ascent. From the news item,

A team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students has created a system that pairs an EEG headset with a 3-D theatrical flying harness, allowing users to “fly” by controlling their thoughts. The “Infinity Simulator” will make its debut with an art installation [The Ascent] in which participants rise into the air – and trigger light, sound, and video effects – by calming their thoughts.

I found a video of someone demonstrating this project:

Please do watch:

I’ve seen this a few times and it still absolutely blows me away.

If you should be near Rensselaer on May 12, 2011, you could have a chance to fly using your own thoughtpower, a harness, and an EEG helmet. From the event webpage,

Come ride The Ascent, a playful mash-up of theatrics, gaming and mind-control. The Ascent is a live-action, theatrical ride experience created for almost anyone to try. Individual riders wear an EEG headset, which reads brainwaves, along with a waist harness, and by marshaling their calm, focus, and concentration, try to levitate themselves thirty feet into the air as a small audience watches from below. The experience is full of obstacles-as a rider ascends via the power of concentration, sound and light also respond to brain activity, creating a storm of stimuli that conspires to distract the rider from achieving the goal: levitating into “transcendence.” The paradox is that in order to succeed, you need to release your desire for achievement, and contend with what might be the biggest obstacle: yourself.

Theater Artist and Experience Designer Yehuda Duenyas (XXXY) presents his MFA Thesis project The Ascent, and its operating platform the Infinity System, a new user driven experience created specifically for EMPAC’s automated rigging system.

The Infinity System is a new platform and user interface for 3D flying which combines aspects of thrill-ride, live-action video game, and interactive installation.

Using a unique and intuitive interface, the Infinity System uses 3D rigging to move bodies creatively through space, while employing wearable sensors to manipulate audio and visual content.

Like a live-action stunt-show crossed with a video game, the user is given the superhuman ability to safely and freely fly, leap, bound, flip, run up walls, fall from great heights, swoop, buzz, drop, soar, and otherwise creatively defy gravity.

“The effect is nothing short of movie magic.” – Sean Hollister, Engadget

Here’s a brief description of the technology behind this ‘Ascent’ (from the news item on physorg.com),

Ten computer programs running simultaneously link the commercially available EEG headset to the computer-controlled 3-D flying harness and various theater systems, said Todd. [Michael Todd, a Rensselaer 2010 graduate in computer science]

Within the theater, the rigging – including the harness – is controlled by a Stage Tech NOMAD console; lights are controlled by an ION console running MIDI show control; sound through MAX/MSP; and video through Isadora and Jitter. The “Infinity Simulator,” a series of three C programs written by Todd, acts as intermediary between the headset and the theater systems, connecting and conveying all input and output.

“We’ve built a software system on top of the rigging control board and now have control of it through an iPad, and since we have the iPad control, we can have anything control it,” said Duenyas. “The ‘Infinity Simulator’ is the center; everything talks to the ‘Infinity Simulator.’”

This May 3, 2011 article (Mystery Man Gives Mind-Reading Tech More Early Cash Than Facebook, Google Combined) by Kit Eaton on Fast Company also concerns itself with a brain/computer interface. From the article,

Imagine the money that could be made by a drug company that accurately predicted and treated the onset of Alzheimer’s before any symptoms surfaced. That may give us an idea why NeuroVigil, a company specializing in non-invasive, wireless brain-recording tech, just got a cash injection that puts it at a valuation “twice the combined seed valuations of Google’s and Facebook’s first rounds,” according to a company announcement

NeuroVigil’s key product at the moment is the iBrain, a slim device in a flexible head-cap that’s designed to be worn for continuous EEG monitoring of a patient’s brain function–mainly during sleep. It’s non-invasive, and replaces older technology that could only access these kind of brain functions via critically implanted electrodes actually on the brain itself. The idea is, first, to record how brain function changes over time, perhaps as a particular combination of drugs is administered or to help diagnose particular brain pathologies–such as epilepsy.

But the other half of the potentailly lucrative equation is the ability to analyze the trove of data coming from iBrain. And that’s where NeuroVigil’s SPEARS algorithm enters the picture. Not only is the company simplifying collection of brain data with a device that can be relatively comfortably worn during all sorts of tasks–sleeping, driving, watching advertising–but the combination of iBrain and SPEARS multiplies the efficiency of data analysis [emphasis mine].

I assume it’s the notion of combining the two technologies (iBrian and SPEARS) that spawned the ‘mind-reading’ part of this article’s title. The technology could be used for early detection and diagnosis, as well as, other possibilities as Eaton notes,

It’s also possible it could develop its technology into non-medicinal uses such as human-computer interfaces–in an earlier announcement, NeuroVigil noted, “We plan to make these kinds of devices available to the transportation industry, biofeedback, and defense. Applications regarding pandemics and bioterrorism are being considered but cannot be shared in this format.” And there’s even a popular line of kid’s toys that use an essentially similar technique, powered by NeuroSky sensors–themselves destined for future uses as games console controllers or even input devices for computers.

What these two technologies have in common is that, in some fashion or other, they have (shy of implanting a computer chip) a relatively direct interface with our brains, which means (to me anyway) a very different relationship between humans and computers.

In the next couple of items I’m going to profile a couple of very similar to each other technologies that allow for more traditional human/computer interactions, one of which I’ve posted about previously, the Nokia Morph (most recently in my Sept. 29, 2010 posting).

It was first introduced as a type of flexible phone with other capabilities. Since then, they seem to have elaborated on those capabilities. Here’s a description of what they now call the ‘Morph concept’ in a [ETA May 12, 2011: inserted correct link information] May 4, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Morph is a joint nanotechnology concept developed by Nokia Research Center (NRC) and the University of Cambridge (UK). Morph is a concept that demonstrates how future mobile devices might be stretchable and flexible, allowing the user to transform their mobile device into radically different shapes. It demonstrates the ultimate functionality that nanotechnology might be capable of delivering: flexible materials, transparent electronics and self-cleaning surfaces.

Morph, will act as a gateway. It will connect the user to the local environment as well as the global internet. It is an attentive device that adapts to the context – it shapes according to the context. The device can change its form from rigid to flexible and stretchable. Buttons of the user interface can grow up from a flat surface when needed. User will never have to worry about the battery life. It is a device that will help us in our everyday life, to keep our self connected and in shape. It is one significant piece of a system that will help us to look after the environment.

Without the new materials, i.e. new structures enabled by the novel materials and manufacturing methods it would be impossible to build Morph kind of device. Graphene has an important role in different components of the new device and the ecosystem needed to make the gateway and context awareness possible in an energy efficient way.

Graphene will enable evolution of the current technology e.g. continuation of the ever increasing computing power when the performance of the computing would require sub nanometer scale transistors by using conventional materials.

For someone who’s been following news of the Morph for the last few years, this news item doesn’t give you any new information. Still, it’s nice to be reminded of the Morph project. Here’s a video produced by the University of Cambridge that illustrates some of the project’s hopes for the Morph concept,

While the folks at the Nokia Research Centre and University of Cambridge have been working on their project, it appears the team at the Human Media Lab at the School of Computing at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) in cooperation with a team from Arizona State University and E Ink Corporation have been able to produce a prototype of something remarkably similar, albeit with fewer functions. The PaperPhone is being introduced at the Association of Computing Machinery’s CHI 2011 (Computer Human Interaction) conference in Vancouver, Canada next Tuesday, May 10, 2011.

Here’s more about it from a May 4, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The world’s first interactive paper computer is set to revolutionize the world of interactive computing.

“This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years,” says creator Roel Vertegaal, the director of Queen’s University Human Media Lab,. “This computer looks, feels and operates like a small sheet of interactive paper. You interact with it by bending it into a cell phone, flipping the corner to turn pages, or writing on it with a pen.”

The smartphone prototype, called PaperPhone is best described as a flexible iPhone – it does everything a smartphone does, like store books, play music or make phone calls. But its display consists of a 9.5 cm diagonal thin film flexible E Ink display. The flexible form of the display makes it much more portable that any current mobile computer: it will shape with your pocket.

For anyone who knows the novel, it’s very Diamond Age (by Neal Stephenson). On a more technical note, I would have liked more information about the display’s technology. What is E Ink using? Graphene? Carbon nanotubes?

(That does not look like to paper to me but I suppose you could call it ‘paperlike’.)

In reviewing all these news items, it seems to me there are two themes, the computer as bodywear and the computer as an extension of our thoughts. Both of these are more intimate relationships, the latter far more so than the former, than we’ve had with the computer till now. If any of you have any thoughts on this, please do leave a comment as I would be delighted to engage on some discussion about this.

You can get more information about the Association of Computing Machinery’s CHI 2011 (Computer Human Interaction) conference where Dr. Vertegaal will be presenting here.

You can find more about Dr. Vertegaal and the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University here.

The academic paper being presented at the Vancouver conference is here.

Also, if you are interested in the hardware end of things, you can check out E Ink Corporation, the company that partnered with the team from Queen’s and Arizona State University to create the PaperPhone. Interestingly, E Ink is a spin off company from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 3 of 3)

Today is the last of the series on Cheryl Geisler and the new Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (Burnby, Vancouver, Surrey, Canada):

In addition to factors such as the global economy and faculty politics (used not pejoratively but in its most general sense), Geisler and her colleagues have to contend with an increasing emphasis from the tri-council funding agencies (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC], Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC]) on open-access to research and on proving to the public that the funded research has value.

From the recent Conference Board of Canada report on trademarks, patents, and copyright, Intellectual Property in the 21st Century by Ruth Corbin (as quoted by Michael Geist on his blog here),

In discussing the tabling of a new copyright bill, it notes:

Simultaneous support for “open-access” initiatives, where appropriate – such as facilitation of the use of government data with suitable safeguards, and readier access to publicly funded research – would help to unlock tremendous stores of knowledge and balance out the resources being expended on protection of rights.

From the SSHRC report, Framing our Direction, here,

Systematic evidence about the multiple short and long-term benefits of research in the social sciences and humanities will provide a solid foundation for decisions about levels of investment. In other words, our ability to enhance research activities is closely linked with our collective efforts to demonstrate the impact and value of social sciences and humanities research to society. For this reason, we will update our programs and policies to include a more complete accounting of research results. (final para. on p. 12 in print version, p. 14 on PDF)

The SSHRC report makes it quite clear that the quantity of funding it receives is liable to be affected by how the agency and its grant recipients are able to “[demonstrate] the impact and value of social science and humanities research to society.” No doubt the other members of the tri-Council are feeling the same pressures.

In responding to a question about how FCAT will make its research more easily accessible, Geisler drew on her experience as the head of the Language, Literature and Communication Department at Rensselaear, the oldest technological university in the US. “There certainly was the desire at the National Science Foundation and other federal programmes in the US for research to be more widely disseminated and to try to incorporate outreach activities and for the same reasons [as here in Canada].

For example, the School of Contemporary Arts will move into Woodward’s [Downtown Eastside] in the fall [2010] so now we’re planning for how we will partner with the community, what kinds of non-credit programmes we’ll offer, and [the] residencies [we’ll offer] for artists in the community. We also have 3 or 4 faculty members that work with policy leaders in the area of culture to try to understand how to manage cultural resources and growth and make them a greater social benefit.” She also pointed out that there are plans to situate the Surrey City Hall near SIAT as part of an initiative to create a new city centre in that municipality. All of this is in stark contrast with SFU’s main campus, built in 1965, and situated on a mountain top.

Regardless of its mountain top status, SFU has long made an effort to reach out to its various communities through its non-credit continuing studies programmes in Vancouver at Harbour Centre, the programmes at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, and its longstanding presence in the Downtown Eastside through various School of the Contemporary Arts courses (Note: The school is slated to make a wholsale move into the area, Fall 2010). Unfortunately, many of these efforts fall short of reaching any community that is not in some way affiliated with the university

Geisler acknowledges that more could be done, “You have to give the public ways to option in, or to find out things or to give more clear access. That’s a good problem to work on.”

As for why she came to SFU, “I’ve always done interdisciplinary work and I led a department that had many of the same components that I saw here. In a way, I thought this was the perfect next step for me. There was no other department like mine and there’s no other faculty like [this one]. I had a sense that at FCAT there was a lot of potential and desire to interact across disciplinary boundaries and do exciting new work and I thought that’s [what] I would want to lead.”

The next and last question begged to be asked. Do you have any dreams, any fantasies about where it [FCAT] might go?

“What people do is very interdisciplinary in the sciences, in art practice, and in design practice but the academic structure is much more reified and rigid so that students’ curricular experience often doesn’t mirror what’s going on in professional practice and in knowledge generation. Also, I think one of the consequences [of curricular rigidity] is that the public is often alienated from the university because it’s cut off from what makes academics excited.

There’s a real potential for creating new processes and faculty structures that can be responsive and be reflective of more problem-based or opportunity-based alignments [that exist] for a few years to get [a] project done. [As opposed to] ‘we all do biology here and we always do it; and a hundred years from now there’s going to be a biology dept. Departments are structured ‘as if they will always be there’ because they reflect the way the world is. I’d like to see a more exciting, project-based [approach]. I don’t know exactly how to do that but I thought this would be a place to figure [it] out.”

Thank you to Dr. Geisler for the insights and your time.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Introduction, Part 1, Part 2

Happy Weekend!

Nano valentine; Owning the podium and science at the Olympics in French; Introduction to three part interview with Cheryl Geisler

Yesterday, I meant to post about the nano Valentine’s Day card that scientists at Birmingham University’s Nanoscale Physics Research Lab made out of pure palladium. From the university’s  news release (thanks to Azonano where I first spotted this item),

Making the card was also a work of love; clusters of palladium atoms bonded together on the surface of carbon and spontaneously arranged themselves into the world’s smallest heart.

Here’s the card,

Palladium Valentine, 8 nm in size, from Birmingham University's Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory

Now on to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, “Own the Podium” or “À nous le podium” and science in a very illuminating podcast (French language) on Je vote pour la science.

I first heard about the “Own the Podium” government sports/science initiative, although not by that name, early last week from a friend in England where it was being discussed in the media. I saw nothing here until the Globe and Mail (G&M) article, Is Canada a Spoilsport? (pp. F1 & F6) by Ian Brown in the Feb. 13, 2010 edition, but I assumed that’s because I don’t follow sports closely. After listening to the Josée Nadia Drouin and Pascal Lapointe (both of Quebec’s Agence Science-Presse) podcast on Je vote pour la science, I realized that the programme has been kept somewhat quiet until lately.

My French comprehension is spotty but I gathered from the podcast that the government devoted some $117M for sports in preparation for the Olympics, from the G&M article that athletes were given a stipend of $18,000 for living expenses (doesn’t sound like much to me), and from the podcast, again, that money was given to 55 Centres of Excellence in 7 universities for scientific research supporting athletic efforts.

I do think that we should better support our athletes but I abhor the programme name,  Own the Podium, which suggests that winning is the prime motive for competing. This is noxious when you consider the intent of the Olympics as expressed by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, (from Wikipedia here citing Christopher R. Hill’s 1996 book Olympic Politics)

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

As for the Olympics and science, Lapointe and Drouin also focused on surveillance. Unfortunately for me, their correspondent was on a poor telephone line and that combined with my French comprehension skills means I got very little data but the conflation of science, surveillance, and sporting events gave me an expanded perspective.

For my final bit today, I’m introducing Dr. Cheryl Geisler, the new dean for the new Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada). She very kindly gave me an interview in early February about her new faculty and her plans.

I’m providing some background before posting the interview. From the SFU website, the university has approximately 32,000 students and 900 faculty as of the 20007 annual report which contrasts somewhat with Geisler’s previous home institution, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (located in Troy, NY with approximately 7700 students and 450 faculty as of Fall 2009. from their website).

I did encounter some difficulty finding numbers of students, faculty and administrative staff for individual departments and faculties (FCAT has five admin staff) at both universities and am not sure if this is innocence (nobody has considered making the information available) or strategy (i.e., universities prefer to keep the information discreet although it can be obtained if you’re willing  [spelling corrected Feb.17.10] to dig deep enough). ETA (Feb.17.10): I was kindly provided with a link to FCAT’s wikipedia entry where I found that there are 1861 undergraduate students and 208 graduate students for a total of 2069 students with 79 continuing full time faculty members. According to the wikipedia entry, this information is available at the SFU website on this page in a category titled Headcounts. It is part of the SFU website which belongs to Institutional Research and Planning.

As for Dr. Geisler herself, she holds a PhD in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University (main campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), an MS in Reading from Western Illinois University, and a BA in English from Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). Prior to her move, she had been affiliated with Rensselaer in one fashion or another since 1986.

The most exotic thing on her CV (obtained from the Rensselaer website in October 2009) is a two year stint in Jerusalem as a teacher of English as a foreign language. She has some experience with Canada as an outside reviewer for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2000 for their Valuing Literacy in Canada programme.

Taken as a whole, her CV is an impressive document. At Rensselaer, she taught courses such as Techniques for the Analysis of Verbal Data; Proposing and Persuading; and the Literacy Seminar: Theories of Mediation, Technology and Text. She has written widely and (along with partners) holds two patents in addition to administering federal government grants for a number of different projects.

I cherrypicked, there’s a lot more to Dr. Geisler’s CV but I think the point has been made. Tomorrow (Feb. 17, 2010), I start a three part series, Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Nano, the arts, and the future

In New York state, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is  opening, on October 3, 2008, a new performance/high tech/research space called the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center or EMPAC. The whole thing is being powered by Rensselaer’s Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations and despite its name the center is supposed to bring together artists and scientists. In other words, the general public may go there for a performance, artists can collaborate virtually, or scientists can “immerse themselves in data and fly through a breaking wave or inspect the kinks in a DNA molecule.” There’s more in the NY Times article titled ‘Art and Science, Virtual and Real, Under one Big Roof’ here.

Dr. Andy Miah (University of the West of Scotland) is launching (on October 30, 2008 in Liverpool, UK) a new book with a symposium both of which are called, Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty. The book looks exciting. I notice that Richard Jones has a chapter in it and I loved Jones’s nanotechnology book, ‘Soft Machines’.  It’s not obvious from the title but the book does discuss science, technology, and ethics in relation to art and our futures.  Wish I could attend. More  information about the book and symposium here.

A few weeks ago, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies announced an event for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. It’s called: Nanotechnology? Synthetic Biology? Hey, What’s That? The details aren’t up on their website yet but according to the press release the talk will focus on the results of an opinion poll that was run in August 2008, asking people if they’d heard of nanotechnology or synthetic biology (“An emerging area of research that uses advanced science and engineering to make or redesign living organisms, such as bacteria, so that they can carry out specific functions”). Two representatives from the polling company and David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies will be speaking from 12:30 – 1:30 pm ET next week, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. you can attend by webcast (I’ll put up a link when the site has the webcast set up). If you’re attending the live event, please rsvp here.