What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

Student project on ‘The Future is Now,’ a sneaky lesson plan

This semester too I have my students work on a 4-page report on the future by having  them address technologies that they believe is impacting them right now. While my present concerns include Blockchain, bio-metrics and Cube-sats, theirs includes contact lenses that  monitor health, stratospheric balloons, the ‘cyber truck,’ drones, and AI. Speaking of which, smart speakers and robots become huge topics of discussion.

So many sidebars, so many diversions, but there is no shortage of passion about these utopian/dystopian technologies. [This week I showed them a story about how Tik-Tok, an app that most teens could not seem to be able to live without, is suspected of being a ‘parasitic’ data-harvesting operation.]

Earlier this week we discussed logos, and I showed them how to create their own logo, and  insert it in the report. The goal is to treat this as a  professional report, as if they were working for a consulting company.  Our 2-week project that’s due before Spring Break, teaches them:

  • How to research five topics, beginning with Google’s Moonshot factory
  • Formatting a report using features in the ribbon of Google docs & Microsoft Word.
  • Citation of sources .

The Lesson Plan Evolves. Over the past few years I have discovered that a report like this, intimidating at first, helps students gain a broader vocabulary about technologies they are being exposed to. They also learn how to develop critical thinking about  hardware and software, which is part of the scope of this class.  I’ve revised this lesson plan many times, and changed the pace to deepen the research, and get students comfortable with long-form content.

Not reading, not writing well is becoming a default mode, sadly. As I continue to teach ‘computers’ and have students sit in front of screens, I am determined to make sure that they leave my class with much more than technical skills.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

Future engineers name the new Mars Rover

Sometime in July this year NASA will launch the 2020 Mission to Mars.

While the countdown has begun, the naming of the rover has been in the hands of students from K-12 in the US. Hundreds of names were submitted, and among them the finalists are “Endurance,” “Promise.” “Tenacity,” “Perseverance,” “Clarity,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” “Vision” and “Fortitude.” Many reflect the previous Rovers, Opportunity, Spirit, and “Curiosity.” Students were asked to support their  name with an essay. I loved some of the rationale  presented. For instance,  this:

Fortitude: “Defined as: courage in difficulties or misfortune, this reflects how space travel is challenging for our planet. “

Nunnehi: This rover needs a name I see! Well here is my proposal: Nunnehi ; this word is in the Cherokee language it means traveler. The Cherokee were some of the first settlers in North America. The Cherokee were travelers. They would be amazed at the fact that we are going to mars!  

(Unfortunately, Nunnehi is not one of the semi-finalists.)

My vote goes for this one:

Perseverance. Curiosity. Insight. Spirit. Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We are always curious, and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the moon, mars, and beyond. But, if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing. Perseverance. We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. 

The 2020 rover will collect rock samples and send it back to Earth via a robotics system and an ascent rocket. Quite an ambitious mission! Perfect back-story for anyone teaching or following robotics, space science or rocketry, or STEAM.

Might robots might fix satellites (and not replace us?)

Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?

One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.

I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.

In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s Thrive Magazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

This is the topic, this week that I brought up at my robotics club meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School