STEMming the Gender Gap

How should we try and encourage girls to study and work in Science? In 2012 the European Commission thought that a video associating science with fashion, lipstick and pink would be the way forward.

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Needless to say the video caused outrage and a group of female scientists at Bristol University even produced a spoof version of the original.

The controversy threw the spotlight on a very real issue: that the number of women working and studying in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) remains very low. Data from the Million Women Mentors show that women only make up 26% of STEM workers in the US. What’s more, a report published this year by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that women working in STEM are 45% more likely than men to leave their profession. This may be because women take time out to have children; however it has also been suggested that this could be due to a bias against women in the industry. CTI’s research found that a third of senior leaders within STEM felt that women would not be able to reach top jobs at their companies.

Why might STEM subjects appeal less to women? In a recent article in The Guardian, Sarah Chitson comments that she was dissuaded from studying physics partly because there were no female physics teachers at her school. Jocelyn Goldfein, Facebook’s Director of Engineering, also agreed that the lack of female role models in the industry could play a part in dissuading girls from considering a career in STEM.

In order to combat this, the Million Women Mentors scheme was recently launched. The programme aims to work with STEM professionals and over 35 national organisations in order to provide STEM mentoring to over 18 million girls. Million Women Mentors hopes to expose girls to positive female role models in order to break down negative stereotypes about females’ ability to be successful within STEM.

Recently there have been a variety of initiatives – some good, some awful – to encourage girls and women to get into the STEM industry. There is a long way to go in order to boost girls’ interest in science; maybe we can get a bit of inspiration from LEGO when thinking of way to get girls into STEM! :

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Would You Use Digital Currency?

Digital money is surrounded by controversy- the recent introduction of “Coinye”, a digital currency based on Kanye West, being just one side of this.

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More importantly, this summer a hacker managed to steal $84,000 worth of bitcoin by hijacking a bitcoin mining pool. For many, this will have added another point to the list of reasons why investing in digital currency, dubbed the “Wild West of Currency” by the Director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is just too risky.

Although bitcoin has stabilized in the last six months, it still remains more volatile than many traditional currencies. Digital money is not backed by a central bank or government, meaning that users’ funds are regulated solely by the laws of supply and demand.

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www.bitcoincharts.com

However, can this lack of government control be a good thing? Lack of ties to a government body means that bitcoins have a low risk of collapse and government bodies cannot seize them.

From a commercial perspective dealing it bitcoin further opens the possibility of trading with foreign and emerging markets, China in particular. International money transfers are expensive and time consuming; bitcoin cuts out the middleman when transferring internationally.

At the minute dealing in bitcoin still runs more risks than dealing in traditional currency. However, California has recently lifted the ban on digital currencies and the UK Treasury has just announced that it will publish a report this autumn regarding the opportunities that bitcoin could provide for business in the UK.

Digital currency has a long way to go but it is developing quickly. Give it a couple of years and maybe we will all be ready to jump on the Bitcoin Bandwagon.

What is Citizen Science and is it good for the scientific community?

Citizen science is the collection or analysis of scientific data that is carried out by members of the public who do not necessarily have a scientific background.

Citizen science benefits scientists by providing them with a more economical way to collect large amounts of data, from a wide range of places, and in a short period of time. For example, eBird, allows bird-watchers to record their observations online; scientists are then able to access this data and get a better insight into the migratory patterns and behaviours of birds.

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Live Submissions of Bird Sightings Worldwide

In recent years, the citizen science movement has snowballed. There have been citizen science projects in ecology, astronomy, medicine, psychology, linguistics, genetics, engineering and medicine.Sites such as SciStarter give the public access to a range of projects they can participate in, either via informal activities or more formal data collection. Discover Magazine and SciStarter have just launched the Citizen Science Salon, an initiative that will include relevant citizen science projects at the end of scientific news articles, making it even easier for the public to find out about projects they can participate in.

However, can someone with no formal scientific knowledge really do the job as well as a trained scientist? It could be that certain research methods are too complex or time consuming to delegate to the public and therefore citizen science would not be appropriate. There is also the risk that the data collected through citizen science are more likely to contain inaccuracies, as members of the public may not be sufficiently rigorous when taking measurements. Collecting data from a wider range of locations and people could also potentially make combining the results more difficult, and the resulting findings may be misleading.

Nevertheless, by allowing members of the public to participate in scientific data collection, citizen science has made the realm of scientific research and experimentation more accessible to non-scientists. However, is it only epidemiological studies that will benefit from citizen science? What do you think?

MiniArt: Slinkachu

Slinkachu, a street-artist/photographer from London, knows how to make the most of Mini. He started the “Little People Project” in 2006 and has gone on to create mini street-art installations around the world.

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To make his installations, Slinkachu remodels and paints mini model train set characters and then photographs them around the city. These miniature people are often found in dramatic situations such as hanging off a credit card at a cashpoint, skateboarding inside an orange peel or menacingly shooting at a bumblebee. Slinkachu uses his mini installations to reflect upon how city dwellers experience their surroundings and to show that these everyday urban experiences can be very similar worldwide.

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After creating his installations, Slinkachu leaves them in the street to see whether people find them or not. So next time you’re out and about – be careful you don’t tread on one!

Follow Slinkachu on twitter: @slinkachu

The Mooc Debate: Yay or Nay to Online Learning?

Mooooooooooooc? No, its not a noise a cow makes. Rather, Mooc stands for ‘Massive Open Online Course.’ Moocs provide pupils with video lectures, texts, sets of problems as well as interactive forums that aim to promote discussions between students and teachers.

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These free online courses cater to thousands of students at any given time and have been endorsed by Harvard, Princeton and ore recently by institutions such as King’s College London, Bristol and Birmingham University in the UK. The launch of Moocs has sparked debate over what the online courses should be used for, how they should be valued and whether they provide an inferior alternative to traditional learning. We’re here to sum up the pros and cons of this oddly-acronymed development in learning.

Nay!

Can it be said that Moocs furnish a direct path to a fair     and accessible education for all? Do they really promote   collaboration and open access? Many sceptics seem to  think not.

Gideon Rosen from Princeton University has voiced his concerns over the possible mass introduction of online learning at university, especially as Moocs provide a much cheaper alternative to traditional learning. It is argued that the cost effectiveness of Moocs could risk the majority of courses being taught online thus causing teacher-pupil interaction to be a thing of the past. According to Rosen, Moocs risk the scholar becoming “a genuinely rare bird.”

What’s more, professors at San Jose State University have voiced their fear that online learning will create two classes of higher education: on one hand “well-funded colleges and universities where privileged students get their own professor” and on the other “financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video taped lectures and the professor is a glorified teaching assistant.” Maybe then it can be argued that the rapid introduction of Moocs only risks making traditional higher education even more elitist.

There is no doubt that individual support is limited when taking a Mooc. Thousands of students can study the course at the same time, thereby making personal support impossible. This serves to explain why Mooc completion rates can be as low as 7%, as shown in a study by Katy Jordan, a PhD student at the Open University. Online study requires a fairly advanced set of learning skills as well as a huge amount of self-discipline; this makes it more challenging for many students to get the most from the courses.

Moreover, although Moocs were originally introduced as a simple way of learning online, companies such Coursera and Udacity have made Moocs into a for-profit enterprise. Jonathon Rees, Professor of History at Colorado State University argues that Mooc providers, Coursera in particular, focus more on the quantity of courses provided to students, rather than the quality of the courses themselves. This has led to low quality courses, some that have actually disappeared whilst live on the platform, or whose Professors were actually trying to collect data from students rather than teach them.

Yay!

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On the other hand, if Moocs are considered as a form of supplementary education, to be engaged with alongside university or work, the Mooc vs. Traditional University debate is made redundant. It seems that a course that does not provide direct teacher to pupil contact cannot replace the benefits of traditional learning. If Moocs are considered, not as a replacement for university, but rather as an addition to, or reinforcement of education, there is no questioning that they are a positive development.

David McDonald, a Mathematics Graduate at UCL comments: “after taking two courses on Udacity, I am now working as a web developer at a start-up, it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It seems that many of the online courses are made with employability taken into account and some have links with businesses; this is something that students may not get from their degree course.”

Some argue that employers give little value to Moocs at the moment. Nevertheless, it is early days. As Moocs become increasingly used, they will come to be more widely recognised by employers. The world is becoming more and more digital everyday; digital education is only the next step in this inevitable process.

Given that the world is also becoming increasingly global, Moocs serve as a way to export education on a global scale. As Mike Sharples, chair of Educational Technology, has explained to The Guardian that the UK and the US need to consider ways in which they can keep up with universities in China, India and South America where some of the world’s best courses are being offered online.

Digital learning still requires substantial development and improvement. It is necessary to monitor the quality of online courses just as closely as those that are offline. However, Moocs cannot be rejected all out: within them there lies a significant opportunity to promote an accessible and collaborative addition to traditional education.

By Hermione Pagni, UCL Graduate and Mini Marketeer in the Making

Is short and sweet the way of the future?

There is no doubt that technology has changed the way we communicate. With mobile phones came the text talk that we now use daily. Twitter has forced us to squash our comments down to 140 characters. The “YO App”, that recently went viral, allows us to communicate with a simple “YO” plus an accompanying sound. pps such as Clippet let us listen to snippets of news stories with the main points summed up in 5 minutes max.

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Is this onslaught of brief communication negatively affecting the way we communicate and digest information? The increasing use of the acronym “TL;DR” ( Too Long; Didn’t Read) seems to be a direct effect of users growing accustomed to taking in short snippets of information rather than more in-depth pieces.

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Since the early noughties, critics have been asking if the Internet is negatively affecting the way we communicate. In the article “Is Google making us stupid?” Nicholas Carr argues that briefer communication is changing the way we read and interact.He comments: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”It is even suggested that briefer communication is altering the way we THINK. According to Carr, the World Wide Web is ruining our attention spans and ability to engage with complex content.

However, does brevity also bring benefits? Due to the reams of information that are now available at a click, getting our work read has become increasingly competitive. Getting to the point and cutting the fat from our writing is therefore essential. This is not to say that longer pieces of writing have been made redundant, but waffling will no longer be engaged with.

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The amount of ever-updating information is so great that it would be impossible to read about all the topics that are accessible to us in detail. Nevertheless once we have grasped the main points of a topic we can then decide whether we wish to delve any further.

At MiniManuscript – concision is King. We might not be as brief as the “YO” app, but we like summaries that get straight to the point. That way people in our community can easily decide what is relevant and what they need to read in detail.

By: Hermione Pagni, UCL Graduate and Mini Marketeer in the Making

Gravity the Film vs. Real Space Travel: an Analysis

This week, Dr. Michael Foale, a retired NASA astronaut, Michelle Ham, a NASA Astronaut trainer and Dr. David Green, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre of Human & Physiological Sciences attended a question and answer session at King’s College London. Members of the public were invited to ask them about their experiences of space travel in relation to the film Gravity. Here are my Mini highlights of the talk…

Dr. Michael Foale, who has travelled to space six times, was first asked if he had ever experienced an emergency similar to that in Gravity. Dr. Foale explained that the most memorable emergency he experienced occurred during his fourth visit to space in May 1997; as America was doing an exchange programme with Russia, Dr. Foale travelled to Mir, a Russian space station.

His team was trying to dock an unmanned cargo ship, Progress, to the space station. However, they did not have the correct automatic guidance equipment. Trying to dock a 7-ton cargo ship using only a camera placed on top of the cargo ship was a somewhat impossible task. The cargo ship crashed into a module and made a hole in the side of the ship. Dr. Foale described how his ears popped as the cabin became depressurised and alarms began to sound. The team needed to stop the leak, but closing that hatch became difficult due to new cables that had been recently installed and that obstructed the closure. The astronauts had to remove the cables in order to close the leak. According to Dr. Foale, removing the wires would normally have taken about an hour, however they managed to do it in about 6 minutes!

Fortunately the team stopped the leak, but the removal of the cables meant that the ship was left without enough electricity. What’s more, the impact with the cargo ship had caused the space station to spin, meaning that Mir’s solar panels no longer pointed to the sun and were thus unable provide power. In order to get the solar panels back facing the sun it was necessary to stop the ship spinning.

How did they achieve this? By placing his thumb on the window of the space station and roughly gaging how fast the stars spun past, Dr. Foale managed to approximately guess the speed at which the station was spinning.   He would then shout instructions to Vasily Tsibliyev, who was controlling the station’s thrusters. After a couple of nerve-wracking hours, the astronauts we able to slow the ship’s spinning and remain in a relatively stable position with regard to the sun. Although they weren’t completely safe, they were able to access enough electricity to reboot the station, make radio contact with the ground and finally get some sleep!

Dr. Foale was then asked to describe what his first journey in to space was like. He explained that travelling to space was the realisation of a dream. He remembers being shaken around a lot during the take off and when he finally looked at the Earth he was shocked by how bright it was – something that he doesn’t feel was emphasised in the film. He described the brightness of the blue light that shines from the Earth as being as bright as the midday sun on a tropical island. The Earth creates so much light that it isn’t actually possible to see the stars during daylight – in the film the director takes some artistic licence by making the stars visible.

With regard to other differences between the film and a real space experience, Michelle Ham explained that Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock’s) actions in the emergency at the start of the film are fairly unrealistic. Stone mentions that she has only had six months training before going into space. However, in reality astronauts should have about two years of basic training and then another ten months of training if they are selected to be astronauts. They are trained to such an extent that their reactions in an emergency should be almost instinctive, similar to the way in which we always know exactly what to do when we hear a fire alarm.

On the other hand, Dr. David Green added that Gravity does mention some of the ways in which space travel affects the body physically. At the start of the film, Dr. Stone mentions how tired she feels – on average, astronauts receive 1 ½ hours less sleep when in space. It is also mentioned that her eyes are very bloodshot. This can be due to the lack of gravity in space, which alters the distribution of fluids within the body. Typically this will cause faces to be puffy and legs to look like chicken legs. Often eye pressure will rise, possibly up to an increase of 100%.

Michelle Ham and Dr. Michael Foale are currently working with Mission Discovery, a programme that invites high school students to work directly with astronauts to help design an experiment that will be launched into space.

By Hermione Pagni, French and Spanish Graduate and Mini Marketeer in the making.

Is your smartphone making you sleepy?

More and more of us are using are smartphones while in bed; is this having negative impact on our sleeping patterns?

It’s 3am and I’ve just stirred from sleeping. I should turn around and go back to sleep. What do I do instead? I quickly check my smartphone. This leads to checking my email. Email leads to Whatsapp, Whatsapp leads to Facebook and that leads to half an hour wasted on my phone and difficulty getting back to sleep.

Yes, maybe I’m a slightly extreme case. However, a study by the Universities of Michigan, Washington and Florida (Lanaj, Johnson & Barnes, 2014) has shown that late night smartphone use directly affects sleep quality. Firstly, these effects are physiological. It has been suggested that the light of the screen keeps up awake, as humans are better adapted to being active during daylight rather than during darkness (Siegal, 2005).

When you wake up in the middle of the night and check something on your phone:

Secondly, using your phone at night can affect what is known as “sleep hygiene.” If good sleep hygiene is having a bath, camomile tea and winding down before bed, bad sleep hygiene consists of coffee after dinner, sleeping with your phone by your head and checking your laptop at 1am (guilty of all three unfortunately!). Smartphone use at night stops us from mentally disconnecting from work and may cause us to worry about things like deadlines. All of which leads to disturbed sleep.

Lanaj and colleagues suggest that bad sleep hygiene can affect one’s performance at work, at university or in the general day to day: “The benefit of smartphone use may be offset by the inability of employees to fully recover from work activities while away from the office.”Sleep is necessary in order to replenish the needed resources for self-control, which in turn aids our ability to concentrate and ignore distractions. The study shows that without this, employees and students are depleted in the morning and thus significantly less engaged in daily activities.

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However, is it only smartphones that cause a lack of sleep? Or does this also apply to televisions, laptops and tablets? The Lanaj et al. study suggests that the negative effects of smartphone use are independent of other technologies. They are handy and easy to pick up. They are always on. Many places of work provide them to employees and thus they constitute a way for work to enter the home. They are also nearly always used for work, whereas a television, for example, is not. Smartphones are harder to ignore than computers, as they send us messages and alerts when we have received an update. And finally, they serve as a gateway to other technology: receiving an email on your smartphone may well prompt you to open your laptop.

In a recent interview, Arianna Huffington, Editor and Founder of the Huffington Post (and presumably a very busy woman!), shared some tips for achieving a good work-life balance and efficiency in the workplace. What was it that she shared first and foremost? Don’t sleep with your smartphone in your bedroom. Well, if she can manage to do that, I’m sure we can all manage to disconnect from our smartphone for a couple of hours a day, at least while we are asleep.

Hermione Pagni, French and Spanish Graduate and Mini Marketeer in the making.

Johnson R., Barnes C., Lanaj, K. “Beginning the workday yet already depleted? Consequences of late-night smartphone use and sleep” in. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 124:1 p. 11-23< http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597814000089> [accessed July 1 2014]

Is Technology Always the Answer?

In a recent Guardian article, academic and writer Jon Turney argued compellingly in support of using technology to help ease the burden placed on health services around the world. Of course, introducing modern technology into healthcare has not always been a straightforward task, something illustrated by the recent troubles facing the ‘111’ service offered by NHS direct. Nonetheless, it is clear that the role of technology in healthcare will only be augmented in the coming years, and will save many lives.

Is it therefore possible to simply treat the introduction of technology into any field as a sign of progress, or is it not always that clear-cut?

Arne Duncan, the US secretary of education, recently pledged that the $56 billion spent on education technology as part of the ‘Digital Promise’ initiative would ensure “equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools“. This, however, seems merely to be adding another resource to a failing system rather than attempting to remedy the inherent faults within it. The misattribution of technology as a solution rather than a tool that can be used to expedite a particular goal is a danger that all fields face as they undergo their own technological revolution.

These examples illustrate where technology can succeed, and where it can fail; where it is a useful addition to a system, and an assumed cure-all that leads the core inadequacies to be neglected. When then is technology the answer, and what will tell us how and when to use it? Are there universal warning signs? Should we really be relying on technology to remedy complex, systemic issues? We’d like to know what you think.