Cramping Our Children’s Creativity

The other day, I was helping my girlfriend with her calculus homework and there was a true/false question about the chain rule:


TRUE/FALSE: To apply the chain rule to sin(x^2) we select f(x)=x^2 and




My initial reaction was “True! Obviously! g(f(x))=sin(x^2) where g(x)=sin(x) and f(x)=x^2”…..but, she quickly pointed out to me that it was false because her teacher had taught her that it was always f(g(x)), which would mean that the question implies sin^2(x) not sin(x^2). And therein lies the problem; we give homeworks with trick questions to check if students have memorized formulas rather than harboring creativity.


We focus so much on making tough subjects like math accessible to every student that we make them actually more difficult to understand. Why do we need to explain the chain rule in terms of d/dx[f(g(x))]= g’(x)(f’(g(x))) when we could much more simply explain it as the derivative of the inside multiplied by the derivative of the outside, e.g. f(x)= sin(x^2); f’(x)= 2xcos(x^2)? A formula list is far more difficult to understand than learning the concepts behind them. We need to make concepts relatable and engaging. A sequence of numbers and letters falls out of our heads as soon as the exam is finished, but remembering that velocity is the derivative of position is something we never forget.  Understanding how it works is far more important than just worrying about being able to solve it. 


It reminds me of when I was in middle school and was learning algebra. My teacher got mad at me for skipping steps when solving simple problems. She would remind me “the x stands alone!!” even though I knew how to solve the problem and was saving myself some work and writing. I am 100% for teaching people how to solve problems so that they have a template, especially if they are struggling with a concept. I struggled with integration by parts last fall and the quick formula int(vdu)=vu-int(udv) saved me on several quizzes.


However, when those helpful templates begin being taught in place of understanding, I have a problem.  We shouldn’t punish students for not following the pre-prescribed template, because this conditions them not to dare to try different methods for problem solving. What this could lead to is a country of calculators rather than innovators. I hope that, in a few decades, when I have children they will be taught to use formulas as a tool for quick problem solving, but not to ruin their ability to think creatively and effectively, because that is what STEM is all about! Thanks for reading!

The Importance of Academic Writing Skills



In my opinion, as well as my personal experience, nothing hurts one’s argument more than poor delivery. In any walk of life, people take you more seriously and treat you with more respect when you are well-spoken; academia is no different. People sometimes make the mistake of believing that wanting to be a scientist means that you don’t need to worry about mastering essay writing. That could not be farther from the truth.  We all need to develop good writing and speaking skills if we ever intend to share our research, and even if we are able to share our research without good delivery, it will most likely not be treated seriously.


My number one piece of advice I have for any student wanting to get involved in science fairs is to pay attention to your English teacher and work on your expository writing skills. Aside from being tremendously useful in everyday life, writing will captivate your reader and help to display your hard work in an intelligent, thoughtful manner. I have a few general pieces of advice for writing your first research paper:


1)     Keep a good lab journal; keeping a good journal will make writing your paper much simpler since everything is organized and ready to come together.

2)     Keep your writing formal, but never at the cost of your own voice. Don’t try to mimic what you think a judge wants to read.

3)     Similarly, be yourself when presenting to the judge. In this way, your writing and presentation will both be in your natural voice, therefore sounding more natural. Yes, by the way, judges can tell if you aren’t genuine.

4)     Explain everything as if the listener/reader has never encountered the topic before while avoiding condescension.  I’ve judged science fair projects that I had very little background knowledge on and always appreciated having the basics explained to me.

5)     Work on putting things into context and explain the “bigger picture,” also known by my former English teacher as “why should I care?” Even if your research was not successful in proving your hypothesis, it is very important that you finish with conviction and explain why your hypothesis being unsupported is significant.

6)     Revise, revise, revise. Some of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever had go through several drafts for each article they write, most believing that it’s the only way they ever really improve as writers.


I hope my list is of some use as you work on effectively relaying information about your project. (I also hope that I effectively relayed my opinion to you.) Here is a link to one of my papers, “The Effects of Self-Esteem on Exercise Frequency,” which I was fortunate enough to win first place with at the Massachusetts State Science Fair my sophomore year and got to present at the MJAS Fall Symposium my junior year:


In my (clearly-biased) opinion, it is a good example of effective academic writing for a science fair project. Feel free to use it as a point of reference. Good luck in your writing!  Thanks for reading!

Welcome to the Galactic Neighborhood

I’ve been watching a lot of The Twilight Zone lately, and it has gotten me thinking about how much different and more exciting the idea of extraterrestrial life must have been in the 1950s when mankind had never explored outward. In many episodes, aliens are shown speaking English and looking completely human (with the addition of an extra arm and a third eye perhaps). Astronauts travel millions of miles in an afternoon and arrive on asteroids with Earth-like atmospheres. How wonderfully fantastic it must have been to live in an age of science fiction and unrealistic possibilities. At first, I felt that reality must have been a let down.


But that couldn’t be farther from the truth! Knowing the truth is always more incredible than fantasizing, and it makes our accomplishments that much greater when we understand how difficult they were. To understand that we have never been able to send human astronauts to Mars because it would be incredibly expensive and would have very serious health risks keeping the astronauts in zero G for months at a time (the shortest ever proposed Mars mission was 245 days, while a typical proposal is 500) will give us that much more respect for our species’ ingenuity when we make it to Mars. If aliens were so easy to find and so similar to us, would it feel like a special moment when we finally make contact?


Mankind has wondered if we are alone for thousands of years, but there are more planets out there than there are grains of sand on Earth; we statistically cannot be alone. But when will we make the greatest leap in human history? Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute believes that we will have evidence of life within the next 25 years ( But assuming Dr. Shostak is correct, we may be in for a huge surprise. When we find extraterrestrial life, we will need to reassess what it means to be alive. We won’t see three armed humanoids, Daleks, or Spock. What we find will be far more exciting; we will have evidence that lighting could strike twice so to speak. Even if it is “just” a single-celled organism on an Earth-like planet 6.5 light years away, the fact it exists will be stranger and more exhilarating than anything from science fiction. It is extremely likely that we will be at a different stage of evolution and technological development than our first contact. Are we prepared to potentially feel outwitted?


As amazing as it must have been to live in Rod Serling’s time of exploration and possibility, *WE* are in the time where we have the chance to bridge the gap between fact and fancy, and that is the beauty of STEM, each generation can do what the previous could only dream of.



As midterms approach I’ve found myself incredibly restless and yawning every so often, probably as do all of my peers and classmates. Sometimes I’d even yawn to the sight of others yawning, but is yawning really contagious? I’d like to believe so because even when I’m caffeinated I yawn when my friends do! But first, where does it even come from? As humans, scientists have proved that we started yawning since we were a fetus in our second trimester. Although not exactly sure where this phenomenon came about, it’s believed to be connected with proper brain development.


Yawning has been thought of as a subconscious act to make us feel less tired by drawing large amounts of oxygen to increase blood pressure and heart rates thus improving our alertness and motor function. This has been proven not to make us feel less tired but rather it is a way of physiologically cooling our brains. Our brains induces more heat as we grow more exhausted, which explains why we yawn when we are so tired. Researchers have tested this theory by experimenting with warm and cold packs and placing it on the participants’ forehead. Results show that those with the warm packs are more likely to yawn compared to those with the cold packs.


So how does that explain contagious yawning? Well some scientists like to refer to it as “social yawning”. Social yawning is a sign of mimicry and empathy and begins around the age of 4-5 years old. Just like how many laugh and cry along with others, the same holds true for yawning. Mirror neurons are also another reason as to why we yawn when others do – these neurons are activated when we perform, view, or hear about an action. We are also more likely to mimic the yawns of those that are socially or genetically closer to us.




The Brain Initiative: Restoring our soldiers’ memory

With all the advances in technology today, scientists still struggle in fully understanding the potential and capabilities of the human brain. About seven months ago, President Obama announced a plan for the further investigation and exploration of the brain. This movement, also known as the Brain Initiative, will allow scientists to develop tools to help them study individual brain circuits and to map the nervous system. The main goal however, and a crucial part of this movement is the restoration of lost memory in war veterans.

Brain Initiative Better

The Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) is the agency that is helping to put this plan into action. They plan on finding treatments for brain disorders affecting soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These brain disorders will include PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. DARPA seeks to help restore any memory loss soldiers have had related to PTSD. DARPA hopes to achieve this goal by using implanted devices that take over and control functions of the region of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus. Tests of this device have already been done on rodents and the plan is to move to humans in due time.

The National Institutes of Health plans to invest $40 million in the Brain Initiative in the next year. Although finding treatments for brain disorders is definitely a goal of the Brain Initiative, Dr. Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, wants everyone to remember that the immediate goal of this movement is to understand the inner workings of the most complex system in the universe, the human brain.

By Amanda Okpoebo

Source: project-aims-to-restore-soldiers-memory

Hey how’s the weather…on SATURN!?

Thought that Earth was the only planet that can experience weather patterns? Well guess again! This year, scientists from NASA discovered what appeared to be a massive hurricane taking place on the planet Saturn. Using the spacecraft known as Cassini, scientists acquired a close-up view of the storm that took place around Saturn’s north pole. The eye of this hurricane was about 1,250 miles wide which is 20 times larger than the average hurricane on Earth!

Imagine if a hurricane of this magnitude occurred on Earth? A hurricane of this size would cause destruction of epic proportions.Saturn Hurrican






Pictured above to the right is the actual hurricane scientists witnessed on Saturn.

Scientists were able to conclude that this hurricane traveled at 330 miles per hour. Scientists were also very appalled at how such a massive storm could survive on such small amounts of water vapor in Saturn’s hydrogen atmosphere. Scientists at NASA have been studying this hurricane, even long after it ended. They hope to use this hurricane to gain insight into hurricanes on Earth, which feed off warm ocean water. Figuring out how storms on Saturn could use water vapor may help scientists to understand more about how terrestrial hurricanes are created and sustained.

By Amanda Okpoebo


Staying Dry Under Water!

Ever seen Pirates of the Carribean? Captain Jack Sparrow and William Turner manage to sink a boat under the water, maintaining the air bubble inside, and breathing! piratesunderwater

But is this really possible??

Technically, it is possible! Here is a very easy, very quick experiment to do in your own kitchen or bathroom that shows why they can breathe the air trapped in the boat:
1) Fill a bucket or your bath tub with water about one foot deep. (Or as deep as your tallest cup)

2) Take a cup, preferably a clear glass, and tape a little piece of paper inside the cup, at the very bottom. (see the picture below)

3) Turn your cup upside-down, make sure no paper is sticking out of the opening (keep it all inside the cup, as in the picture below)

4) Make sure you keep the cup completely upside-down! Do not tilt it at all, especially in the water. (Just like the picture below)


5) Keeping the cup perfectly upside-down, slowly lower it into the bucket or your bath tub. Put the cup under the water’s surface, you should feel the cup trying to push back up a little bit…slowly bring the cup STRAIGHT up out of the water, keeping it upside-down still! (Remember, no tilting the cup…)

6) Dry the cup off, then flip it over and look inside…the paper taped in the bottom should still be dry!!

7) For fun, try putting them cup upside-down into the water, then tilting the cup to the side slowly (just a little bit), water will rush in this time since you tilted it, and the paper will get wet.

Why does this happen? When you tip the cup upside down and insert it into the water, the pressure is evenly distributed inside the cup, and water cannot rush in, keeping the paper dry. If you tilt the cup, water rushes in and gets the paper wet. In Pirates of the Carribean, the boat is much too heavy to bring down to the bottom…think about how the cup exerts a buoyant force on your hand even when you push it down a few inches. The weight required to get a boat to sink while upside-down would be far greater than just the weight of Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, but in theory it could be done if you used weights, or a lot of people. Since the air is in the boat there would be a limited supply of oxygen, so you could breathe, but not for long.

-Steve Yu

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