The Technology Is There, So Why Aren’t You in a Zero Emissions Car?

AGV Cover
Image: NEMPA

Automotive technology has come a very long way over the last few years. Fuel efficiency is better and seeing hybrid and electric cars is no longer out of the ordinary, but there’s one problem. No one is buying into the whole zero emissions thing right now even with a growing number of options that are significantly better for the environment.

This was the topic of conversation at the NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference held this year at the MIT Technology Center. It’s an annual event organized by the New England Motor Press Association along with MIT to focus on technology issues in the automotive industry. The topic this year was the challenge of getting people to buy into zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs).

You might remember a few years back when gas prices were frighteningly high and everyone was clamoring to get into a more fuel efficient car. There weren’t even a heck of a lot of hybrid options out there at the time so people were on waiting lists for cars like the Prius. Then gas prices came down and our priorities changed.

The expert panels of speakers included representatives from General Motors, Toyota, MIT, and the International Council on Clean Transportation. They represented different groups all trying to convince consumers to go green and get into a zero emissions car.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

If you look just at the cost of gas, that might not convince you to get into a ZEV, but if you look at the environmental impact, then it’s a no-brainer. Bob Perciasepe of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions gave a great example of the impact of ZEVs.

A hybrid produces roughly three tons of carbon dioxide annually which is a lot less than a beast like a Hummer at ten tons. Your traditional gas car probably falls in the middle somewhere, so you can feel good if you’re driving a hybrid. If you want to feel really good, then look at a ZEV. They come in at 60% more climate-friendly than even a hybrid. That’s a significant difference.

Pure electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are out there and they’re much more environmentally friendly than even the best hybrid on the road. The problem is, people are loathe to embrace this new technology and want to stick with what they know.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

There are concerns about electric vehicles and their range, but the network of public charging stations continues to grow as does the speed at which they can fully charge a vehicle’s battery. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are lagging behind on refueling options making them an even tougher sell. The infrastructure doesn’t exist in a way that makes most people comfortable.

It’s like that old line from Field of Dreams. If they build it, they will come. The next time you’re in the market for a new car, take a second look at ZEVs and consider not just the dollars in your pocket, but the pollution in the air and how much you can help by going zero emissions.

International Scratch Day: Saturday, May 17!

Do your kids Scratch? Nope, this isn’t a medical question.

Scratch is a free programming language developed for kids. From elementary school to college, kids use it to create interactive stories to building animations and games. In the meantime, they’re learning programming principles and collaboration skills—important stuff for the future. Scratch is available in over forty languages, and is in use in one hundred fifty countries.

This Saturday, May 17, is International Scratch Day—and events are popping up everywhere. See if there’s an event near you where you and your kids can learn more about programming!

The MIT Media Lab group Lifelong Kindergarten developed Scratch in 2003 and the project has received grants from the National Science Foundation as well as Intel Foundation, Microsoft, MacArthur Foundation, LEGO Foundation, Code-to-Learn Foundation, Google, Dell, and others.

Professors Win $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, Give It All Away

Image: Lemelson-MIT
Image: Lemelson-MIT

Rice University Professors Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden recently received the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation and then promptly gave it all away. They received the award in recognition of their efforts to develop life-saving technologies and provide low-cost options for improving health care in developing nations.

In 2006, the professors started the Beyond Traditional Borders engineering design initiative at Rice University with the goal of guiding students through the invention process and coming up with technologies that can actually be put into use. Since that time, over 3,000 students have participated in the program, inventing 58 technologies used in 24 countries.

The program doesn’t just work with students in a lab, but involves bringing them out to the areas where people most need their help through an eight-week internship program in Africa and Latin America. Continue reading Professors Win $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, Give It All Away

Playing in the Sandbox With Dale Dougherty

Last week I attended Sandbox Summit, a conference at MIT that gathers great thinkers in children’s media. This year’s theme was was about nurturing kids’ imagination in the digital age, which stood in sharp contrast to the events unfolding in Boston while we were there. Instead of gluing ourselves to the news, we pressed on with the conference. It was so reassuring to talk about inspiring kids and the good that we can do through media.

There are a ton of things that I’m still processing, but one thing I wanted to be sure to share with my fellow GeekMoms is the closing keynote from Dale Dougherty, Founding Editor and Publisher of Make Magazine (thanks to Scott Traylor of 360Kid for filming it). The way Dougherty talked about makers is the way we often talk about geeks here at GeekMom—people who are passionate about something and love to find a community to share that passion with. He also talked about the DIY movement, not as in “hey, you can make something” but as in “hey, you can make something.” Let’s all be makers. More importantly, let’s get our kids to be makers. Dougherty talks about the importance of maker spaces in schools, and I couldn’t be more in favor. Watch the video and learn more at the Maker Education Initiative.

The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam at Nashua North High School: Inventing The Future

Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam, Science
The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam at Nashua North High School, Image: Nicole Wakelin

Since 2002, the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam program has been challenging high school students to come up with creative, science-driven solutions to real-world problems. Once teams come up with an idea, they then submit their proposals, and a select few are awarded up to $10,000 to turn their ideas into realities. One of those teams happened to be at Nashua High School North, my local high school, and I talked with them about their experience so far.

Their idea was to make a bacteria-powered battery that used the metabolic process found in soil, compost, and manure to create an inexpensive battery that could be invaluable to those in rural areas of less developed countries. I originally talked with the team on The GeekMoms Podcast in November, when the grant was first issued, and checked in with them this week to see how things are coming along.

Team member Craig Hammond is pretty pleased with their progress. “The biggest thing that’s happened is we’ve figured out, for the most part, how we can get a good voltage out of our system,” he said. Right now they’ve got about 150 microamps, which isn’t where they need to be, but shows progress. Their next goal is to get that number up to about 4 amps, just enough to power an LED.

The challenge also requires them to manage not just the development of their battery, but their budget as well, which so far they’ve done with great success. “We’re actually a little on the low side. We ended up, I think, budgeting for too much money, which is good, so we can make some mistakes and buy more things,” says team member Theresa Inzerillo.

Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam, Battery Prototype
Bacteria Powered Battery Prototype, Image: Nicole Wakelin

One of those “mistakes” is the prototype in the hands of Craig Hammond in the picture above. It was an early idea for managing the cells of dirt that didn’t pan out, despite the time and materials they invested in putting it together. They admit that it was a frustrating setback, but it ended up giving them new ideas, even possibly moving their original concept in a different direction.

They started with the idea of a battery that was more like a generator, something that could power a whole house; but their small, portable prototype has them rethinking that goal. Hammond says, “We think it would benefit people more if it was portable, plus it would be more accesible.” Every part of this process is a learning experience, even the parts that don’t work out as planned.

Bacteria Powered Battery, Science
Bacteria Powered Battery Prototype, Image: Nicole Wakelin

The team has been spending about six hours a week on their invention, and feels like they’re on track to complete it by the end of the school year. But their school vacation next week will be a working one. The current plan is to have at least part of the team meet every day to keep the project on track.

Considering the progress they’ve made since November and the team’s dedication, I’m sure they’ll accomplish their goals in the next four months.

The GeekMoms Podcast #35: Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam Program Inspires Kids to Invent

In this episode, GeekMom Nicole Wakelin gets to do a face-to-face interview with the kids on the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam from Nashua North High School in Nashua, New Hampshire. They started working on a bacteria-powered battery at the end of last year and have just received a grant to make it a reality. She talks with some of the kids on the team as well as their advisers about how they developed their idea, what they’re going to do next, and how other kids can foster their love of science and invention from grade school right through college.

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Music: Rebecca Angel

Google’s Erez Lieberman Aiden – How the Human Genome Folds

How the Human Genome Folds
Photo: Gina Clifford

What do Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules have in common? If you’re researcher Erez Lieberman Aiden, these are models for his groundbreaking research on 3-D mapping the human genome. At the end of the day, he shares advice and wisdom with aspiring young scientists. His connections to TED and Google lend a “cool” factor to mathematics, too.

Erez isn’t exactly your everyday researcher. Erez is a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Visiting Faculty at Google. His research has won numerous awards, including a $2.5 million National Institute of Health New Innovator Award, the GE and Science Prize for Young Life Scientists, the Lemelson-MIT prize for best student inventor at MIT, and the American Physical Society’s Award for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Biological Physics. His research is recognized as one of the top 20 “Biotech Breakthroughs that will Change Medicine” by Popular Mechanics. Technology Review’s 2009 TR35 recognizes Erez as one of the top 35 innovators under 35. If that isn’t enough, his last three research articles all appeared on the cover of Nature and Science magazines.

Erez Lieberman Aiden, Center, with Univ. of S. Fl. Math professors Milé Krajčevski (left) and Nataša Jonoska
Erez Lieberman Aiden, Center, with Univ. of S. Florida. Math professors Milé Krajčevski (left) and Nataša Jonoska Photo: Gina Clifford

Many Google fans might be familiar with Erez’s research on how the English language changes over time. Google’s Ngram tool is based on his research. In fact, his talk on the subject is a TED Talk.  Lately, though, Erez’s research involves how to locate specific bits of the human genome within a cell. The genome is an organism’s instruction set for how to build a new organism from scratch.

To learn how the genome folds up so tightly within a cell, Erez processes genome material into bits and then places it into a solvent. In the solvent, the genome folds up into a round 3-D globule whose bits are miniature replicas of the whole. Thus, a better name for these globules is a fractal globule. Erez’s goal is to figure out which parts of the globule touch other parts in order to map the precise location of every bit of the globule.

To explain his thinking, Erez compares the behavior of the folded up genome within the cell to Ramen noodles folded up within a cellophane package. Using a polymer physics model and work done by  Joseph Peano and David Hilbert, Erez explains how Ramen noodles model his genome globule. Who knew?

Did you know that when cooked and unfolded, Ramen noodles stretch 170 feet? If they are not stirred excessively, the noodles unfold completely unknotted. Amazingly, these noodles model the genome globules behavior. Apparently, remaining unknotted is key to folding and unfolding the genome.

Erez’s advice to budding scientists and mathematicians:

Don’t be afraid to fail, but strive to do well in whatever you pursue. He also encourages young people to fail often until they find something that gives them great confidence and satisfaction.

Erez admits that, as a child, he wasn’t a standout student. In fact, he didn’t find his passion for mathematics and physics until he entered graduate school. He attributes his early success in publishing scientific papers as a graduate student as his biggest motivator. With the help of Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules, Erez Lieberman Aiden is quietly changing the world and the perception of mathematics and science—he’s making them both cool!

 

Ingenious Use of Soda Bottles Lights up the Darkness

 

Much of what we write about here at GeekMom is high tech gadgetry, so when I say ‘solar’ you might think of any number of modern solar powered electrical systems. What you probably didn’t think about is the super low tech but incredibly brilliant solar bottle bulb developed by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In the Philippines, poor residents often live in dim, windowless homes that are dark inside even in the daytime – three million homes outside of metro Manila do not have electricity. Enter Isang Litrong Liwanag. Meaning a liter of light, the organization recycles plastic soda bottles to bring light to developing communities. Filled with water and a bit of bleach, these “light kits” are installed on roofs, catching the sunlight and refracting it through the water into the home below.

Such a simple solution. And yet one that’s a testament to creative problem solving.

Via Ann Zeise of A to Z Home’s Cool.

Moms, Get Your Game Face On!

I played over thirty video games while I was at PAX East last weekend. As I predicted in my previous post, most of them were disappointing clones of other games. Also as predicted, there were a few great new games on offer at the convention. It would be exhausting to review everything I played, but what follows may be taken as an introduction to some of the most (and least) GeekMom-friendly video games coming out in 2011.

Snapshot, by Retro Affect, handily claims my “Best Game Overall” award. Its unique photography-inspired game mechanic is interesting enough to set the game apart, but Snapshot manages to be challenging and family friendly, too. Because this puzzle-platformer is gentler and more creative than most video games, I strongly recommend Snapshot for ALL AGES.

Bastion, by Supergiant Games, easily wins “Best Art”. This game is gorgeous! Bastion also has exceptional adaptive narration and between that and the art, it’s very easy to get engrossed in the story. Apart from those high points, it’s a standard – but highly enjoyable – fantasy RPG. Some mild cartoon violence prompts me to recommend this game for players AGES 5+.

Warp, by Trapdoor, is my “Favorite Underdog Story” because players help an alien escape from captivity. This game has that ‘cute-but-deadly’ combination I’m such a sucker for, but the cartoon violence in it is just a little too bloody for all players. My recommendation: AGES 12+.

Swarm, by Hothead Games, is the hands-down winner of my “Catharsis” award. You get points for directing empty-headed little minions to their doom – what’s not to love? This side-scrolling sci-fi adventure is a bit gross, and definitely not for everyone, but I think it’s harmless for players AGES 12+.

Dyad, a beautiful abstract tunnel-shooter, wins my award for “Fastest Game.” Dyad is a ‘tunnel-shooter’ in format alone because there is no actual violence in the game; there are no antagonists or weapons, just obstacles and tentacles. Because of the skill and speed involved, I recommend Dyad for players AGES 7+.

Afterland, from the experimental game designers at MIT, gets my “Thinker” award. This game takes all the trappings of conventional video games – from health meters to inventories to ‘enemies’ – and turns them upside down. The gameplay is non-intuitive, but figuring it out is half the fun. After all, Afterland was designed to make players think. Recommended for ALL AGES.

Firefall, by Red 5 Studios, is the only MMORPG to get an award from me: The “Ooh, Shiny” award for being the most interesting new or updated MMORPG at PAX East 2011. This game is light on story and heavy on team-based shoot-em-ups, but at least the art style is out of the ordinary. Unlike other games of its type, the art of Firefall has strong comic book appeal instead of all the creepy realism and chibi-adorableness we’ve grown inured to. Because if its anti-environmental militarism, violence, and the standard risks associated with playing MMORPGS, I recommend Firefall for fans of the genre AGES 14+.

It wasn’t all fun at the gaming convention. Plenty of games bored and annoyed me and most were just not worth commenting on. However, there were a couple of games bothersome enough to deserve remark: Brink, by Splash Damage and Shoot Many Robots by Demiurge.

Brink has art in its character customization, but it’s otherwise like every other first-person shooter around. Maybe worse. Just think about the setting for a minute: How can a near-future sustainable society ever occur without women? And at the rate the men kill each other in Brink, the place would be a ghost town overnight. I suppose that’s great if mayhem is all you want in a game, but if you like a little substance in your playtime, you can easily find better developed games than Brink. Not surprisingly, I rate this game FOR ADULTS ONLY, but I don’t recommend it to anyone.

Shoot Many Robots wins my “Worst Game at PAX East 2011” award for having no redeeming qualities. The concept is vapid to start; there isn’t even gratifying catharsis to be had from destroying mindless automatons until you develop a weird aversion to nuts and bolts. Speaking of weak euphemisms for male anatomy, this game is best described by paraphrasing its trailer thusly: “Grab some nuts and learn absolutely nothing!” I really wanted to have a sense of humor about that, but it’s just too lame. Rating: FORGET IT.

After three days of searching PAX East, I came to three conclusions:

The most interesting games tend to have genderless Player Characters. This is true of most of the games described above, and many beloved classics (Centipede, Frogger, Q*Bert, etc.). Ask me why this is so, and I could go for hours. Instead, I leave you to examine the games we play – with and without our children – and question how and why they make use of gender, and whether and how that affects us and our kids.

Games with the best character customization tend to be the least interesting to play. This seems counterintuitive, but I’m having a hard time finding an exception to the rule. I enjoy MMORPGS like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and so on, but eventually the quests all blur together and the grind becomes… Well, a grind. And yet every time I spot a new MMORPG on the horizon, I start to drool. Why? I love character customizers. I’m sure not all gamers feel the same way, but I think it’s worth figuring out why we like what we like, and whether that bait is really worth the hook it leaves in our wallet.

Finally, non-violent video games are rare and generally bland and violent video games are far too common and usually disappointing. This means that I don’t buy many games, but that’s probably for the best. In a way, I’m glad there are so many lousy video games made; they give me no excuse to play indoors if I don’t have to.

Pi at MIT: Bitter…or Sweet?

 

Two years ago our family recognized Pi Day for the very first time. At exactly 1:59 p.m on March 14th my son received the decision on his application for admission to the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  His response when he logged on to read the letter: “I GOT IN!” It was a sweet moment to savor. My son is now a sophomore, and MIT has lived up to its reputation as an incredibly challenging school, as well as an exciting, innovative place. Best of luck today to all the kids who applied to MIT.