Blinding us with science

Nanophysicists, as their name suggests, spend their days looking at really tiny stuff — atoms, electrons and other particles whose smallness can hardly be imagined by most of us non-nanos. Now IBM scientists have given us a glimpse of their microworld in what is billed as the World’s Smallest Movie. The plot may leave a lot to be desired, but that’s not why the one and a half minute film has been downloaded more than three million times in just the last week.  The film, “A boy and his atom,” is a stop action portrayal of a boy playing that was made by moving individual atoms one at a time and magnifying the image by a factor of 100 million. See for yourself.

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[An interesting sidenote: Ray Harryhausen — one of the great pioneers of stop action film technique — died yesterday at the age of 92]

Making atom movies is not really an item in the IBM team’s job description. The scientists are actually working on vastly increasing data storage capacity in smaller devices. Last year, they found a way to reduce the number of atoms required to store one bit of digital information from one million to 12. That’s not a typo. But as their website says, “even nanophysicists need to have a little fun.”  That wasn’t the only motivation for producing this film. Looking ahead to a future workforce, IBM hopes that it will get more students excited in science.

That’s certainly one of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards, the final draft of which was released in mid-April.  The Next Gen standards are intended as a companion to the common core state standards.  The initiative was led by Achieve, Inc., which was also a key player in drafting the common core and directs the PARCC consortia developing aligned assessments.  It further involved twenty-six so-called lead states and was privately funded.

The final standards have been endorsed by the business community, science teachers and others.  Some earlier critics like the Fordham Institute have been more muted in their comments and are withholding judgment until the integration with the common core is completed. Nonetheless, many agree that they improve on current science standards in most states by defining a coherent K-12 program, emphasizing science practice alongside content, and not shying away from sensitive topics like evolution and climate change.

I was privileged to have a small part in an earlier science standards-setting effort called Project 2061 that was led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Then and now, my number one criterion for reviewing standards is: do they make me wish I could be a student again? Project 2061 definitely did that. To the degree that the Next Gen standards will demand more science, particularly at the elementary level, and encourage children’s curiosity about exploring the world, they are a definite move in the right direction. However, like Fordham, I am waiting to see more before making a final call.

The next gen standards can be downloaded for free. Be aware the format requires some perseverance on the part of the reader.

And talking about being excited about  science … below is a photo of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson who wowed 5,000 attendees at NSBA’s annual conference in April. Dr. Tyson showed us that in relation to the cosmos, we are as tiny as the “boy and his atom” are to us. A great advocate for science research and education, he inspired everyone to make sure their students are encouraged to explore and imagine. And not just because our nation needs scientifically literate workers and citizens. But also because our students need a little fun, too.

 

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