Back during your days in chemistry class, did you ever have to memorize the order of the elements in Mendeleev’s periodic table? Does your one lasting impression of some long ago biology class consist of your efforts to remember long lists of typological classifications or anatomical features? Does the mere thought of physics give you painful flashbacks of math anxiety, boredom, and confusion? If so, your experiences may mirror what’s wrong more generally with science education as practiced in the U.S.

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel, released under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel, released under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A brighter future for science and math education might be possible if schools deemphasize rote learning of abstract principles and do more to help students connect their own natural enthusiasms to the science all around them. And tools like 3D printers might represent a hands-on way to do it.

That was perhaps the major message running through a breakfast panel on improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education that I hosted on June 27 during the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Las Vegas. The panelists were Linda W. Braun, youth services manager of the Seattle Public Library, and Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop and author of the book The Maker Movement Manifesto. Read all about it in my post “Passion and 3D printers can reinvent STEM learning” for PLOS Blogs.

The STEM education panel, with me at left beside Linda W. Braun and Mark Hatch. (Photo: Steve Chapman)

The STEM education panel, with me at left beside Linda W. Braun and Mark Hatch. (Photo: Steve Chapman)



When educational leaders lament the troubled state of the public’s understanding of science, they typically cite the risk to the nation’s ability to hang onto technological jobs. But that’s only half the story. People from all walks of life need to fathom science and technology every time they wrestle with healthcare decisions for themselves and their loved ones, vote on environmental initiatives, weigh the benefits of “new and improved” products, and make countless other choices in the modern world. Better understanding of science, math, medicine, and technology can help them make wiser choices.

Librarians and school faculty help to foster success through their choice of offerings in what nowadays is commonly abbreviated as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). But what should they look for in science resources that will genuinely reach students, not just sit on the shelf?

That’s what I’ll be discussing on behalf of McGraw-Hill Professional’s AccessScience in an upcoming live webinar organized by CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries and the Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association. “The Everyday Importance of STEM” will be held on Tues., May 20, 2014 from 2-3 p.m. Eastern time. It’s free to participate—just register at

One crucial consideration, for instance, is anticipating how best to hook the interests of the diverse audiences that educators and librarians reach. Are younger and non-specialist audiences more responsive to inspirational “cabinet of wonders” approaches, to appeals to relevance, or to crisp narrative? Consider the qualities that set certain sources of science information above others, but also the tradeoffs they may entail: accuracy, clarity, and authority are musts, but does a source also anticipate a user’s needs or questions and work to guarantee a rewarding experience? Does a particular science work inspire the right serious study habits in students (such as a willingness to delve into the serious journal literature)? Does it help to shape logical and informed habits of thought?

Drawing on my own experiences and examples such as the new Cosmos TV series, I’ll explore how the right science education resources can build critical thinking skills and a bank of useful knowledge that will serve people for a lifetime.

Who among us with even a wisp of steampunk in our soul does not love the idea of an airship renaissance? Airships are beautiful and majestic, and modern hybrid airship designs are extraordinarily capable. They far transcend inappropriate fears of Hindenberg-like disaster. No wonder some enthusiasts foresee a coming day when airships will again fly in great numbers as replacements for some fixed-wing aircraft, as new vehicles for air cargo transport, and as floating luxury liners.

Unfortunately, for reasons I explored in a series of posts back in 2011, I’m skeptical of this glorious airship resurgence. Hybrid airships work but to triumph on those terms, they need to make practical, economic sense and be better than the transportation alternatives. I’m not convinced that’s true for most of the listed applications. (The important exception is for luxury cruising: any business that’s built on rich people’s willingness to pay top dollar for great experiences can defy some of the usual constraints.)

Start with my Txchnologist story “Lead Zeppelin: Can Airships Overcome Past Disasters and Rise Again?“, then continue with my Gleaming Retort posts “Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?” and “Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes.”

In celebration of the Mars rover Curiosity’s fantastic first year of operations, here’s a look back at a series of posts I did on the unusual, risky, but successful sky crane technology used to deliver the robot to the surface of the Red Planet. In “NASA’s sky crane over Mars” for SmartPlanet, I discussed how the sky crane maneuver would work and why such an unorthodox way of landing was necessary. “Satisfying Curiosity: preparing for the Mars landing” was a primer on that same subject I wrote for PLOS BLOGS just before the descent, including a review of where Curiosity would go and what exactly it would be doing to explore the planet. And in “Why the sky crane isn’t the future for Mars landings,” I offer an opinion about why we’re not likely to see many repeat performances by that technology even though it performed beautifully. (Nothing I’ve heard since publishing that piece has given me reason to reconsider.)

The tangled knot of politics, culture, and perceptions of the science behind climate change has been the topic of a series of my recent posts at The Gleaming Retort. A thoughtful but in my opinion wrong post by one of my fellow PLOS BLOGgers pushed me over into writing something I’d been thinking about for some time, and the result was “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 1)” and “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 2),” in which I tried to make the case that however much some scientists might like to try to stay out of the ugly politics around this issue when discussion climate science, there was no hope of doing so and little point in trying.

A misstatement in the first of those pieces then led me to set the record straight in a followup post, “A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation,” in which I noted that Bjorn Lomborg didn’t… you know, maybe you should just read it.

Commentary on those stories then led me to summarize several other things that have been on my mind in “The cultural challenge to climate science writing,” which concerns the powerful filter that our cultural loyalties exerts on our understanding of this subject, and the unsatisfying choices involved in trying to overcome them.

Read them for more.

Part of what made mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) such an insidious health problem was its slow creep. Some epidemiologists are growing concerned about another epidemic caused by prions that has been gathering steam for decades: chronic wasting disease (CWD), an illness like mad cow disease but found primarily in wild populations of elk and deer. The differences between it and mad cow disease are important but so, too, are the parallels.

I spoke about this with my science communications pal Jay Ingram, who wrote about the spread of CWD in his most recent book is Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way We Look at the Brain (HarperCollins 2012). Read more about it in my column for SmartPlanet “The slow march of chronic wasting disease.”

Everyone who has thought about industrially driven climate change has at some point, however briefly, wondered why we can’t solve the problem by pulling the unwanted carbon dioxide back out of the air. Surely, if burning fossil fuels can blast so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some other act of chemistry on an equally gargantuan scale ought to be able to recapture the gas.

That’s the possibility I explore in a pair of columns for SmartPlanet. “Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?” reviews several ideas for using innovative materials to recapture carbon dioxide released by industrial processes and then safely cache it where it can’t contribute to climate change—in theory. “Throwing rocks at CO2” looks at the related concept of using naturally occurring minerals to accelerate the removal of CO2 from the air.

Back in 2009, I patted our dog Newman on the head for what I later calculated was about the 15,000th time. That time proved different from every other, however. My fingers found an unexpected depression half the size of a ping-pong ball above and behind his right eye.

That was how my wife and I discovered that our dear pet had a brain tumor, and it marked the beginning of a nearly two year adventure in learning how dogs are treated for cancer—and how, for better or worse, their treatment differs from what humans receive. Read more about it in my Txchnologist story “Cancer and Dogs: One Pet’s Tale.”

Anahad O’Connor was nice enough to take note of my piece in a “Well Pets” column that she wrote for The New York Times, entitled “Chemotherapy for Dogs.”

This memorial to Newman also wouldn’t be complete without the beautiful video that my wife put together for him:

3D printing might seem poised to realize the replicator economy of Star Trek: at virtually the touch of a button, people could have printers whip up anything they might desire. But even if the technology of 3D printing continues to evolve rapidly, there are important limitations on how thoroughly it will replace good old fashioned manufacturing.

Read more about it in my story for Txchnologist, “3D Printing and the Replicator Economy.”