How Sustainable is Science in Practice? Labs go Green.

They may do good science, but research labs produce lots of garbage. By some estimate, the plastic waste generated by biology labs in one year weighs the same as 67-cruise ships.

Laboratory waste may not be the biggest contributor to the global garbage mountain, but many scientists are reevaluating common research practices because of climate change. As a result, a growing “green labs” movement has emerged that works to improve sustainability in research laboratories.

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Eden Hall: An Immersion in Sustainability

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

Dr. Peter Walker pointed to a grassy hillside, where he plans to keep the goats with a protective llama. “It acts as kind of a guard dog against the coyotes,” he explains. The backdrop of the grassy hillside is woodlands, where oyster mushrooms are cultivated. A neat garden sits alongside, with crops such as perennials, hops, even rye for Wigle Whiskey.

“We’ve had many students interested in the Wigle project,” comments Dr. Walker.

In addition to the goats and llama, the property will one day be capable of hosting 1,500 students, with 64 residents in the first dorm. The campus is Eden Hall, home to the Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability, of which Dr. Walker is Dean. Located just 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, Eden Hall is a fully sustainable, almost off-the-grid campus, where students spend more time experimenting in the nearby woodlands and meadows than in the classroom. “I really don’t want people in classrooms too much,” says Dr. Walker. “You learn by doing. You learn by experiments.”

For future students that dream to learn about sustainability by “doing,” Eden Hall is a rare campus that is built from the bottom up with sustainability in mind. A simple walk through the campus demonstrates that full sustainability takes more than the occasional solar panel and heat-efficient windows. Eden Hall incorporates a remarkable array of technologies that unite to make a self-sufficient campus. What went into consideration when designing a campus completely around sustainability?
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When Do I Start Knowing What I’m Doing?

xkcd #451: Imposter

Nah, we’re all too busy worrying about whether we’re experts in our field. (Source: xkcd)

When my advisor informed her assembled advisees that I was the group’s “machine learning expert,” I nearly choked. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what expertise looked like. An expert possesses a deep, intuitive understanding of his or her subject. An expert exudes confidence in his or her abilities and reputation. An expert fields detailed questions without batting an eyelid. What an expert most certainly does not look like, I thought, is a clueless amateur of a Ph.D. student.

My lofty image of expertise was not my own invention – our society has an unhealthy tendency to fetishize experts. We see the degree of knowledge possessed by professors and analysts and TED speakers as almost mystical. We speak in awed whispers of their brilliance and intuition. And of course, the praise is often well-deserved; I don’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as expertise. But the way we idolize experts does great damage to experts and novices alike. Continue reading

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Science

Or Why Effective Theories are so … Effective

Solids, liquids, gases.  What do these words really mean?  How about cell, organ, or human?  At a fundamental level, these things are complex assemblages of interacting subatomic particles.  But you probably have an easy time recognizing a human without knowing about their electron configurations; you might instead identify key characteristics like physical appearance or behavior.  These various abstractions help us understand the macro-world, but a seemingly naive philosophical question is “why can we do that?Continue reading

MOOCs: An Online Education Revolution

Two years ago, Sebastian Thrun, a computer science researcher at Stanford, claimed that in fifty years there would be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education.1 That’s a pretty ambitious statement, given that there are over 9000 universities across the globe today! Thrun’s confidence in his claim stemmed from his recent work in morphing traditional college lectures into Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs. Instead of restricting knowledge to the privileged few, these courses aimed to bring the highest levels of teaching and scholarship to students everywhere. In a way, Thrun succeeded: instead of his course on artificial intelligence reaching around 200 university students, he was able to digitally distribute lectures and assignments to 160,000 students across hundreds of countries.

Recently, however, MOOCs have begun falling out of favor. Critics have raised questions about the quality of online classes, and several universities which had originally jumped on the bandwagon have quietly cancelled their plans to move courses online. Thrun now states that “we were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”2 What caused this abrupt change of opinion? Various academics and teachers have placed blame on a variety of issues, such as high dropout rates and a lack of diversity in student populations, but we can look for answers ourselves by examining the online education of the past.

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