Striving for Improved Science Literacy

7 Oct
Science literacy is becoming increasingly important in this technologically-driven world.

Science literacy is becoming increasingly important in this technologically-driven world.

The United States has aimed to improve science literacy for years — decades, even.

It goes back at least to the days following the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. That event certainly propelled the United States into action. A dozen years later, of course, the U.S. became the first country to land a man on the Moon.

As Southern prepares for its Oct. 16 ribbon-cutting of a state-of-the-art science building — designed to bolster science education in Connecticut — this seemed like a good time to take a look at the importance of science literacy, why the United States has fallen behind other countries, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Today, we look back at a Sept. 16, 2013, post in Wise Words.

Susan Cusato, who was then chairwoman of the university’s Science Education and Environmental Studies Department, offers some insights in the post.

Dogs Can See Colors — But Not Reds & Greens

18 Sep
Dogs can see colors, but not reds and greens. This is due to the number of types of cones in their eyes.

Dogs can see colors, but not reds and greens. This is due to the number of types of cones in their eyes.

It may not be a coincidence that your dog is very good at finding and retrieving the little yellow tennis ball that you throw in your backyard lawn. If that ball were green, or even red, Snoopy might have a more difficult time seeing it (though he could eventually sniff it out.)

The reason is that dogs lack the ability to distinguish between red and green – much like humans who are color blind, according to Meghan Barboza, assistant professor of biology at Southern. And anything with red in it, such as orange or pink, are also off your best buddy’s color chart.

“Something that is red or green would likely appear to be a grayish color to a dog,” Barboza says. “But they can distinguish between light and dark, so they would see some type of difference between a maroon and a light green. But they would see them as light and dark grayish colors.”

In addition, she notes that dogs can’t see orange or purple, either, because red is a part of both of those colors.
And for cat lovers who may be chuckling and thinking this is further evidence that “cats rule and dogs drool”…not so fast. Miss Meowington has a very similar color spectrum to Snoopy.

While Barboza hasn’t conducted her own studies on this subject, she teaches a class on animal physiology and is well-versed on how animals see color.
She explains that the limit on the ability to see colors stems from the number of the types of cones in the eye. Dogs and cats have only two, while humans have three. Horses also have two, but instead of seeing blue and yellow, they see blue and green, but not yellow or red.

But there are animals that have a greater number of cone types in their eyes than people. Toward the high end is the mantis shrimp, which has 16 types of cones. “Experts believe they can see a greater number of shades of colors than we can,” Barboza said. “So, a block that appears as a light green color to us would be seen by a mantis shrimp as a variety of different light green colors. And they may even see colors that we can’t see at all.”

It’s hard to imagine what those colors would look like since human eyes have never seen them.

Barboza notes that birds have a varied number of types of cones, she says. Some have two, others three or four, or perhaps even more.

She says that in general, those animals, as well as insects and other forms of life that have depended upon color to live from an evolutionary standpoint, can see a greater spectrum of colors. Bees, for example, which pollenate colorful flowers, have four types of cones. Their sense of color is probably a bit better than ours. But insects that live underground are believed to have little or no ability to see colors since sight has not been needed for them to continue their existence.

The ability of dogs to see colors has been the subject of much misinformation. Some have said they can’t see colors, while others assume they can see the same colors as us. It’s actually somewhere in between where they can see yellows and blues, but not reds and greens.

So, the next time you plan to paint Snoopy’s doghouse, remember that he’ll only be able to appreciate the aesthetic value if you use yellow or blue paint.

More Tips to Start the School Year Right

2 Sep
Students wishing to improve their chances for a successful year should begin with a plan before the first day of classes.

Students wishing to improve their chances for a successful year should begin with a plan before the first day of classes.

School has begun for most students, but it’s still not too late to get out to a good start.

Last year, Wise Words outlined suggestions on how students can start the new school year on a positive note. The two-part series focused on suggestions by Kelly McNamara, who was then an assistant professor of counseling and school psychology at Southern, to make the new year a better one than last year. She recently left Southern to take an administrative position at a Connecticut school district. But her suggestions to students and parents remain valuable.

Because of its timeliness — and timelessness — we thought we would present these ideas to you again.

Check out Part II of this series.

Starting the New School Year Off Right

19 Aug
A new school year gives students a chance for a fresh start. Wise Words offers some tips on how to start the new school year off right.

A new school year gives students a chance for a fresh start. Wise Words offers some tips on starting the new school year off well.

With Labor Day fast approaching, students will soon be headed back to school. The start of the new year is often greeted with both excitement and anxiety — with opportunity and expectations.

Last year, Wise Words outlined suggestions on how students can start the new school year on a positive note. The two-part series focused on suggestions by Kelly McNamara, assistant professor of counseling and school psychology at Southern and a former school psychologist in Connecticut and Massachusetts, to make the new year a better one than last year.

Because of its timeliness — and timelessness — we thought we would present these ideas to you again. How can you improve the odds that this year will be successful? What steps should you take even before the first day of classes?

Check out Part I of the series.

We’ll offer Part II in an upcoming post.

Why Can’t We Remember Our Earliest Years?

5 Aug

Many experts say the rapid generation of brain cells during early childhood may be at least partially responsible for our inability to remember much from the first few years of life. This phenomenon of not remembering is referred to as 'childhood amnesia,' or 'infantile amnesia.'

Many experts say the rapid generation of brain cells during early childhood may be at least partially responsible for our inability to remember much from the first few years of life. This phenomenon of not remembering is referred to as ‘childhood amnesia,’ or ‘infantile amnesia.’

You probably remember many things from your childhood – family, friends, school. And if you are like most people, you have a slew of recollections from the time you are about 7 years of age and older.

But what about people, places, things and events at ages 5 and 6? Are those memories a little fuzzier?

Go back to age 4 and your preschool days, and your memory probably gets hazier. It’s even tougher, if not impossible, when pondering your life at age 3. And if you are able to remember anything as a toddler, you are indeed the exception to the rule.

But why are people generally unable to recall anything in those first few years of childhood?

This question has perplexed psychologists, scientists and other experts. Various theories have been discussed over the years, but a clear answer seems to have been lacking.

But today, many experts believe the answer – at least in part — is connected to the rapid generation of brain cells in those first few years of life, according to Rachel Jeffrey, an assistant professor of biology and a neurobiologist at Southern. This process is technically known as “neurogenesis.”

She points out that the brain isn’t quite equipped for long-term memories in the first months of life. But the “childhood amnesia,” also called “infantile amnesia,” generally continues beyond the first months of life, extending to a few years in most cases.

“Until about age 4, there are so many new neurons being created in the brain that they are probably interfering with the long-term storage of memory,” Jeffrey says.

She points out that short-term memory is stored in the hippocampus part of the brain, and eventually released to the cortex. But the hippocampus is a part of the brain in which neurons continue to generate at a fairly rapid clip during early childhood.

“Actually, there is evidence today that some degree of neurogenesis continues into and through adulthood,” she says. “But the pace is much slower, and does not impair memory to the same extent as in infants and children. And in adulthood, we believe neurogenesis helps us deal with cognitive problems, stress and other functions.”

She also noted that emotional episodes – regulated by the amygdala portion of the brain – are often easier to recall. That’s why if a person remembers incidents from the ages of 3 and 4, they are more likely to involve crying, fear or joy.

Interestingly, Jeffrey also notes that studies have children generally have recollections of ages 2 and 3, sometimes even earlier, up until around age 10. At that point, memories seem to fade.

What is the earliest age at which you can remember?

Distant Relatives? Earth and Newly Discovered Planet Appear to Have Much in Common

27 Jul
NASA's Kepler Mission may have found Earth's 'older cousin' some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Kepler Mission may have found Earth’s ‘older cousin’ some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life.
Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle

In one of our first posts in Wise Words, we examined the Kepler Mission — a NASA project to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy outside of our solar system. At the time — two and a half years ago — an estimated 105 planets had been confirmed as orbiting their sun in the “habitable zone,” a distance considered to be neither too close, nor too far, to sustain life.

Today, the Kepler Mission has identified about 1,030 such planets. And the most recent development is the discovery of a planet named Kepler-452b, located some 1,400 light years away, which astronomers say is likely to harbor some forms of life.

The planet has been dubbed as Earth’s cousin because of many similarities, including the apparent ability to host life. Scientists estimate that it is composed of about 60-percent water, comparable to Earth’s 71 percent. It orbits its sun in 385 days, compared with our 365 days. Kepler-452b is about 60-percent larger, but it is far from a massive planet like the outer planets of our own solar system. And it is an “older cousin” to Earth, having existed for about 6 billion years vs. Earth’s 4.5 billion years.

Another similarity is that it orbits only one star, according to Elliott Horch, an astronomer and associate professor of physics at Southern. He has assisted on some of Kepler’s projects.

“We just observed this exoplanet’s host star last week at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii,” Horch says. “My colleagues and I were trying to see if there is a close stellar companion in addition to the planet. But like our own solar system, it would appear from our observations that this system has just the one star at the center.”

The observation was made with a telescope that includes a DSSI (Differential Speckle Survey Instrument), a device developed by Horch that sharpens cosmic images many times over. He built it for the National Science Foundation in 2008.

Horch will participate in a panel discussion as part of an astronomy forum planned at Southern on Monday, Nov. 16. The program will examine Kepler, as well as the possibility and challenges associated with a manned mission to Mars. Guest speakers will include Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist, and Jennifer Stern, a space scientist and Martian expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More information about the forum will be forthcoming.

Additional information about the recent discovery can be found in a recent NASA press release.

Fact vs. Fiction on America’s Birth

8 Jul
While America celebrates its independence on July 4, historians often point to July 2, 1776, as the date when the nation was actually founded.

While America celebrates its independence on July 4, historians often point to July 2, 1776, as the date when the nation was actually founded.

Two years ago, Wise Words dispelled some of the myths and shared a few surprising facts about Independence Day.

Marie McDaniel, assistant professor and Southern’s resident expert on colonial and early American history, addressed some of these misunderstandings in a blog post about our nation’s founding.

Now that the fireworks, parties and other celebrations are over, you might want to check out that piece.

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