Adventures in Science

Posts tagged ‘science blog for kids’

Dinofuzz in Amber-Golden Capsules of Deep Time

Polished sphere of amber with a beetle inclusion. (source)

Amber is fossilized tree resin from prehistoric conifer trees. The slow and sticky resin oozed out of a tree when it suffered damage and protected it like a gooey bandage. Eventually this resin would harden and shed off the tree where it would collect as part of the debris and sediment of the ancient forest floor. Over eons of time the resin matured chemically and fossilized into the hard plastic-like material that we know today as amber.

 
Fossilized tree resin from hundreds of millions of years ago is exciting, yes, but it’s what has been found in amber that is so much more riveting. Trapped within these organic stones you can often glimpse perfectly preserved organisms from the prehistoric past. Some of these unlucky deep time travelers include insects, spiders and their webs, seeds, pine needles, flowers, frogs, and even a lizard. These ensnared creatures and plant matter–known as inclusions–have been dated up to about 150 million years ago. Most of these organisms are now extinct but can be studied and classified by comparing them with current known species or known fossils.

Rock fossil of a feathered dinosaur (source)

Many of the most intriguing amber fossils are found in Canada and include a few types of feathers and protofeathers. Scientists collected and studied 11 samples of amber containing feathers and found that they were seeing a range of plumage that showed a development from primitive protofeathers to more complex feathers like those found on modern birds. They found that  some of these feathers are similar to the ones seen in rock fossil impressions of feathered dinosaurs. The more advanced feathers may have come from early birds. If you like reading about dinosaurs, amber, or prehistoric life, you will enjoy reading the original scientific paper by the scientists who are studying these fossil feathers in amber.

Possible dinosaur protofeathers.  (source)

Above are just two stages of the known stages of feather evolution. On the left are protofeathers which are very primitive and look like very fine hairs or filaments. Researchers have nicknamed these simple protofeathers “dinofuzz”. They are even studying the pigments–color-producing particles–on these feathers. Those pigments from feathers have been found in rock fossils as well, as seen in this video from researchers at Yale University.

If you have ever seen or heard about the movie or book “Jurassic Park” you may have heard that it might be possible to take DNA from an organism that has been preserved in amber. Unfortunately, at this time, that seems unlikely. DNA breaks apart quickly once an organism dies. However, amber is a fantastic preservative and if we are going to find ancient DNA somewhere it is most likely to come from just such an ideal source. Some scientists have had promising results in extracting bits of DNA from amber; however, it is a difficult and tricky process and other scientists have had trouble getting the same results. It could be possible to get a snippet or two of DNA but the DNA of a whole organism from many millions of years ago might be impossible at least for the foreseeable future.

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Amanda Palmer visits MIT’s Media Lab

Amanda Palmer picture from her Kickstarter page for her new album.

Rockstar/artist Amanda Palmer, well known for her vocals, piano, keyboard and ukelele performances and recordings, explored some experimental media arts with the help of MIT’s Media Lab on Memorial Day 2012. The jam session was webcast on Amanda Palmer’s Party on the Internet site and the whole event is archived at UStream here. The event is split over a few different video files. (There will be ads.)

This event was a video uzi of rapid-fire awesome. I’ve included some links and references for any of you who want more information on these innovative media projects or Amanda Palmer’s work. Amanda Palmer and MIT Media Lab will also have more and better links to the information up soon.

Joi Ito, welcomed Amanda Palmer and her viewers and gave us a brief description about what kind of people and projects you will find at Media Lab.

“The Media Lab was founded by, as kind of, the misfits of MIT, the people who couldn’t fit in at other places, and it still is, kind of, the ultimate place where all of the misfits end up, including myself. The criteria for faculty and students is–if you can do what you want to do anywhere else, don’t come to the Media Lab. You should only come to the Media Lab if you can’t fit in anywhere else and it’s the only place you can do it.

The criteria for the success of any project is: Uniqueness, Impact, & Magic. If it doesn’t have all three, it doesn’t work at the Media Lab.”

With that said, Dazza the Media Lab Emcee and Amanda Palmer the Rockstar jumped right in to get their hands dirty on some magic by inviting graduate students to demonstrate their projects.

Daniel Novy from the object-based media department started things off by showing off a project called Pillow Talk. This is for people who want to record their dreams. He claims the device was inspired by Harvard medical study that found that “upon waking, if you move your position, you will forget your dream or be more likely to forget your dream.” So instead of reaching for a journal and pen and forgetting your dream, you simply squeeze the pillow and talk into it while it records. The recording of your dream is then transmitted to a mason jar full of what appear to be LED “fireflies” where it waits for you to retrieve it.

Remember the Tupac ‘hologram’ sensation at Coachella 2012? Be amazed…be very amazed. Dan Novy works on the technology responsible for that.  He says it’s an updated version the Pepper’s Ghost magic show illusion and not actually a hologram.

There is a brief description of both PillowTalk and Holographic TV projects here.

The next Media Lab magician was Mark from the Responsive Environments group. He brought an array of tiny musical toys.

Amanda Palmer said she wants to take him on tour.

The first toys were lightweight/low power sensors that detect vibration. Mark explained that if these were worn by dancers they would create a feedback loop in combination with the music. The dancers would help create the music as they moved. They could also be worn by members of the audience for fun audience participation possibilities. They make a noise that sounds like crickets chirping.

Mark then held up a tiny microphone that plugs into the headphone jack on your iPhone. He said they’d be great for recording Amanda Palmer concerts with good sound quality. He became tired of listening to bad audio on YouTube so he invented this microphone.

You will want one of these because Amanda Palmer gladly permits bootleg recordings of her live shows with good sound quality.

Amanda then tried out a prototype musical device, Mixtape Alpha, that Mark brought that looked a lot like an old-fashioned cassette tape. Mixtape Alpha made a variety of synthy tones. It looked compact, versatile, and loaded with features. Amanda Palmer compared it to the Stylophone that she has used on tour.

Rob Morris now talked to us about his project Know Your Exit , an audio project crowdsourced from all over the world as seen on his web site. If you visit the site you can watch the patterns of crowdsourced musical data display on a graphic of the Earth. When you are done exclaiming, “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small was singing!” (like I did), watch the nifty tweets containing search strings from the song lyrics.

Eric Rosenbaum , supergenius, of the Lifelong Kindergarten group (a.k.a. makers of Scratch) was up next to delight and astound us with MaKey MaKey . With the MaKey MaKey board you can turn any everyday objects into a keyboard or mouse input device by just little alligator clips. He took ordinary bananas and limes and turned them into a banana piano and drums. Then, Amanda Palmer and her friend, Casey, improvised with musical fruit and finally themselves.

Me likey likey.

Eric Rosenbaum is also the inventor of this lovely iPad app, MelodyMorph.

Later in the web cast Amanda Palmer debuted some new music and they took questions from Twitter. So check it out at her archive on UStream.

Amanda Palmer mentioned that she is looking for ways to work with Media Lab in the future. We will all benefit if they figure out a way to collaborate with these and future promising and fun new media devices. Heaps of gratitude to Amanda Palmer for webcasting her jam session at MIT Media Lab and giving us a peek into what’s coming in the future of music and more.

Rubik’s Cube

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Back in 1981, the big toy of the year was the Rubik’s cube. We –the kids of olden times of yore– went bananas over this thing. We fiddled with them constantly  and everywhere to the dismay of our parents, teachers, and that poor little old lady we accidentally knocked over because we weren’t paying attention to where we were going on the sidewalk. (Sorry again, Mrs. Theibault.)

As you can see from the picture above it was a simple cube made up  of what appeared to be 3x3x3 equal cubes with one cube always hidden in the middle. The exterior surfaces of each of the cubes had colored stickers on them. When the cube was fresh out of the box all of the squares on each side of the whole cube matched with different colors on each facet. The three layers of the cube could be turned independently in all directions. Within a few turns and flips of the cube you were able to mix up the blocks of colors until you had shuffled the colors randomly around the cube. Then it was time to solve the puzzle by twisting the cube until all of the colors matched on all sides.

If you haven’t played with a Rubik’s Cube before, give it a try. Beware! It can be a little addicting. Puzzle it over for a few weeks. Remember that if this toy was actually a 3x3x3 cube of cubes there is another imaginary cube in the center that you can’t see and imagine how that is spinning around in there too.

If you are lucky, one of the pieces will fall off and you will get a glimpse of how the mechanism inside makes it work. You’ll probably want to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole thing. If so, take a look at these amazing mods:

(via speedcubing.com)

Some people can solve the Rubik’s Cube without cheating. I never solved the Rubik’s Cube analytically. I solved it sort-of-by-accident two or three times. At best, I developed a sense that you had to get one layer solved to improve your chances.

If you have struggled with your Rubik’s Cube for a few weeks and it’s starting to pop its parts, I encourage you to cheat and watch one of the solution videos on YouTube. Why should you cheat? Because knowing how to solve it, helps you understand how to think and plan in 3-D.

Check out RuBot. It was programmed to solve the Rubik’s Cube:

(There is newer version of RuBot with a face and cheesy robot noises, but it creeps me out.)

If you enjoy the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, you will love Jaap’s Puzzle Page. It is a huge site devoted these kinds of spatial puzzle games that will continue to challenge you.

Now, I will blow your mind. A square is a 2-dimensional shape. A cube is a 3-dimensional shape. Imagine, if you can, a cube in four dimensions. This is what is known as a hypercube. Here is a pathetically inadequate two-dimensional animation that gives the impression of what a hypercube is sort of like, but not really:

We have a hard time imagining hypercubes because our brains evolved to live and survive in three dimensions. Fortunately, computers don’t trip over their own brains and can compute geometries in other dimensions for us.

Here is a YouTube video uploaded by drag0nfur of what the programmer calls “A 3D depiction of a 4D rubiks cube being solved by a computer.”

Did you catch the text at the end that said “There are actually 8 3x3x3 cubes, one is hidden in a non-visible dimension. Please don’t ask me why it’s hidden, brains will splode if you do.”

My brain already popped its parts at the mere thought of a Rubik’s Hypercube, but thanks for the warning.

08 May 2001 --- Exploding head --- Image by © John Lund/CORBIS

“Frequent travel may be required”

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“WANTED: Astronaut candidates”

*sigh*

The heading of the want ad of your dreams right? Many of us can’t think of a more prestigious job. Adventure! Exploration! Guts! Glory!

NASA recently posted just such a want ad for astronaut candidates as seen here. Even though you may not qualify (yet) and the open period to apply ended on midnight EST Friday January 27, 2012, do not despair. NASA will need to train another group of new astronauts every so often. You are bound to see a listing like this again in the future. Until that time, this is your golden opportunity to check out what NASA is looking for in an International Space Station crew member and tailor your study and career goals toward working in space.

WHO MAY BE CONSIDERED:

This announcement is open to all qualified U.S. citizens.

Okay, if you want to work for NASA in this job you have to be a U.S. citizen. However, many other countries have space programs and now there are increasing numbers of commercial space companies that will need astronauts and cosmonauts as well. Having many of the qualifications listed below for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program will help give you the skills necessary to become an astronaut for a country other than the U.S. or as a commercial astronaut.

This guy could be your astroboss. Vrooooom, Mr. Branson, sir. Vrooooom!

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JOB SUMMARY:

NASA, the world’s leader in space and aeronautics is always seeking outstanding scientists, engineers, and other talented professionals to carry forward the great discovery process that its mission demands. Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. And a probing mind. That’s what it takes to join NASA, one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a need for Astronaut Candidates to support the International Space Station (ISS) Program and future deep space exploration activities.

Active duty military personnel are eligible to apply for this position. In addition to applying through USAJobs, active duty military personnel must also submit their application through their respective military service. Military points of contacts can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

NASA says they are looking for talented professional people like engineers and scientists. You will need to study science, engineering, and mathematics in school and consider specializing in something in those fields that will be useful as an astronaut. Astrophysics, space medicine, exobiology/astrobiology, and engineering with a specialty in manned space flight are all good suggestions of careers that will make you a desirable astronaut candidate.

Military a plus, but not required. There has been a long tradition of astronauts coming from the military especially the Air Force. Military astronauts have already undergone training to endure and perform under extreme conditions like the ones they will experience as astronauts. Many have flown as high-performance aviators and have worked with cutting-edge technology during their time in the military.

DUTIES:

Astronauts are involved in all aspects of assembly and on-orbit operations of the ISS. This includes extravehicular activities (EVA), robotics operations using the remote manipulator system, experiment operations, and onboard maintenance tasks. Astronauts are required to have a detailed knowledge of the ISS systems, as well as detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on their assigned missions.

In brief, you will be using special equipment to perform experiments and gather scientific data. You need to know how to operate and keep that equipment in good working order. You will know how to maintain *everything* inside and outside the space station that keeps it running normally. (or die)

Long-duration missions aboard the ISS generally last from 3 to 6 months. Training for long duration missions is very arduous and takes approximately 2 to 3 years. This training requires extensive travel, including long periods away in other countries training with our international partners. Travel to and from the ISS will be aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Consequently, astronauts must meet the Soyuz size requirements, as indicated below. Additional information about the position can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

Frequent travel may be required. Astronauts are away from home a lot. It can be a drag.

Home

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The book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach relates the many reasons that being in space is stressful physically, mentally, and socially on astronauts. It’s an eye-opening book that convinced me that I would have made a terrible astronaut. (Let’s just say that I’m easily annoyed.)

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You have to be in good health and in top physical shape to be an astronaut. Our bodies did not evolve to live for months in weightlessness. All of your muscles, including your heart, will atrophy in zero gravity. It’s important to blast off in peak condition. Be prepared to have to work out all of the time for your job.

QUALIFICATIONS REQUIRED:

Applicants must meet the following minimum requirements before submitting an application.

1. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Quality of academic preparation is important.

Notes on Academic Requirements:
Applicants for the Astronaut Candidate Program must meet the basic education requirements for NASA engineering and scientific positions, specifically: successful completion of standard professional curriculum in an accredited college or university leading to at least a bachelor’s degree with major study in an appropriate field of engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

The following degree fields are not considered qualifying:
–Degrees in Technology (Engineering Technology, Aviation Technology, Medical Technology, etc.)
–Degrees in Psychology (except for Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology, which are qualifying)
–Degrees in Nursing
–Degrees in Exercise Physiology or similar fields
–Degrees in Social Sciences (Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.)
–Degrees in Aviation, Aviation Management, or similar fields”

It is great that they included a list of degree fields that they DON’T want. Don’t waste your time with these if your goal is to be a NASA astronaut.

DENIED

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“2. Degree followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master’s degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience. Teaching experience, including experience at the K – 12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the Astronaut Candidate position; therefore, educators are encouraged to apply.

Over and above the 4-year bachelor degree in the right kind of science, engineering, or mathematics from #1 you must have an additional 3 years of solid professional work in your scientific, engineering, or mathematics field OR have over 1,000 hours experience in piloting jets. In other words, it would be a good plan to get a degree from a good university and then join the air force and fly advanced aircraft. Do you think you can swing that?

You can also continue your education by getting a master’s degree or PhD. However, you are only given credit for 1 year’s worth of experience for a master’s degree. Most people do their masters degree in about 2 years. If after your masters degree you go on to get a doctorate you only get 3 years in experience points. NASA appears to value practical professional success and 1,000 hours of piloting jets over advanced academic degrees.

It looks like if you are a teacher with at least 3 years of teaching kids or teenagers you qualify. However, I’d make sure that you rate in some of the other areas, as well.

IDK...piloting a jet maybe?

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From the above list of criteria it sounds like the impossibly perfect candidate would be a successful engineering entrepreneur with college diploma who sold her company to fly jet fighters for the military for a while, and now teaches high school mathematics.

3. Ability to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which includes the following specific requirements:

Distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye

The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are allowed, providing at least 1 year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects. For those applicants under final consideration, an operative report on the surgical procedure will be requested.

Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position

Standing height between 62 and 75 inches.

Notes on Space Flight Physical Requirements:
Since all crew members will be expected to fly aboard the Soyuz vehicle and perform Extravehicular Activities (space walks), applicants must meet the anthropometric requirements for both the Soyuz vehicle and the extravehicular activity mobility unit (space suit). Applicants brought in for interview will be evaluated to ensure they meet the anthropometric requirements.

In addition to being an accomplished scientifically-minded professional who is also a jet pilot, you need to be healthy and have good vision. You can’t be shorter than five feet and two inches or taller than six feet and three inches. The Soyuz spacecraft will take someone as short 4’11” per the table  at spaceref.com, so I’m assuming that the minimum of five feet and two inches requirement is necessary to wear a space suit.

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Other criteria from the USAJobs listing are:

  • You will have to pass a swimming test during the first month of training.
  • You must pass periodic drug tests.
  • You must pass a background check.
  • Evaluation and training will take about 2 years before you are an astronaut.
  • If you are male, make sure you register for the draft.

If you still want to be an astronaut after reading NASA’s job listing, I strongly recommend again that you read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. The book cuts through the glamor and glory of space exploration to give the reader the day-to-day challenges of the astronaut experience. It’s not all moonwalks and zero gravity hijinks. If you are one of the lucky astronauts ever chosen for a space mission, a good day will be exhausting, dirty, smelly, cramped, dangerous, and sickening. But…you, YOU will be exploring space and it will all be worth it.

Don’t harsh my placebo, man!

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Hooray! Science hasn’t figured everything out yet. There is more to discover and explore about the world. The funny thing is, though, that when we don’t have an explanation for something it can seem pretty spooky. For example, our minds and bodies can do something very mysterious. Sometimes our bodies can be fooled into getting better when we are sick or in pain without proven treatment or even real surgery. A fake remedy for a physical or mental complaint is known as a placebo and placebo effect is what happens when the fake remedy actually works to make someone feel better.

For example, imagine that someone who suffers from headaches is given a prescription for sugar pills (sugar isn’t a medicine (you knew that)). She takes the sugar pill like an aspirin for a headache and the headache goes away.

Placebo researchers aren’t sure why placebos work. It could be because the medical problem was almost over anyway or that people are used to having medical problems relieved by pills, so the very act of taking a pill or getting a shot causes it to go away. Other researchers say that it is the belief or expectation that the treatment is going to help that causes our bodies to trigger a cascade of processes related to being treated and cured. Others suggest that going through the motions of seeking a remedy to a complaint is responsible for some relief. The coolest thing about the placebo effect is that even though it is unexplained and mysterious at this time, it is real and well-documented.

This video shows a dramatic example of the placebo effect:

This is like getting scientific proof of the benefits of witch doctoring. The act of going through the motion of invasive knee surgery was enough to relieve this man’s agonizing knee pain.

Don’t worry, surgeons in most countries are not allowed to pretend to operate on you unless you give them permission.

The placebo effect works enough under certain conditions to make it a very intriguing field of study. Perhaps someday soon the placebo effect can be used to relieve a percentage of minor health complaints. Maybe it could save people money, minimize side effects and drug interactions.

I already use a placebo a few times a week. My personal pet placebo has NEVER, EVER* been trashed by science for it is the one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time. There is lots of evidence to support that my one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time contributes to optimal health. I exercise. Over and above the scientifically verified benefits of exercise, I might be AM DEFINITELY enjoying an extra placebo kick of well being. Yes. Plus, it gives me a youthful glow, don’t you think?

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Here is Ben Goldacre discussing the current findings of research into the placebo effect, as well as the ethics surrounding the use of placebos:

He also did a two-part radio program on placebos that you can find here.

I also recommend Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It has a whole chapter on the placebo effect. This book is also a very good easy-to-read primer on using the scientific method to weed out bad solutions to health problems.

*If it has, be nice and don’t tell me.

Bad Astronomer is BADA55 or…

…How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Near Earth Objects

On November 8, 2011, you probably heard or read the news that an asteroid, 2005 YU55, flew between the Earth and the Moon. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a little animation of images of the asteroid from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These pictures were taken when the object was getting close to the Earth on November 7, 2011. 2005 YU55 is about the size of an aircraft carrier.

Asteroids and other near Earth objects or NEOs are a concern because when they hit the Earth they do a lot of damage. Sometimes they cause catastrophic damage. For example, a giant asteroid is theorized to have hit the Earth causing so much devastation that it caused many of the life forms on Earth at the time, including the dinosaurs, to become extinct as a result. 2005 YU55 is just one of thousands of known near earth objects or NEOs that NASA’s Near Earth Object Program and other groups are watching closely.

Did I just scare you? Sorry.

But never fear, young Earthlings, for Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer is here!

Drawing by Josh Armstrong. Color & design by Tom McKay Price

Dr. Phil Plait is an astronomer and author of Death from the Skies!: These Are The Ways The World Will End. In this book he pretty much lists many of the ways that the universe in which we live can kill us and the odds of these events happening. Fortunately, the odds of these things happening in our lifetime are fairly low. (phew) Unfortunately, there is still a chance. So it’s a good idea for us to find things like near Earth objects that might some day hit the Earth and figure out a way to prevent them from turning our planet into a lifeless, molten ball of fiery lava. (whimper)

Phil Plait comes to the rescue by outlining a plan for preventing asteroid impacts in his awesome Ted Talk here.

Thanks, Bad Astronomer! You’ve saved the day!

Phil Plait writes the Bad Astronomy blog here. Almost every day, he points out new wonders of astronomy including gorgeous images of the universe and planetary aspects of the Earth.

By the way, ted.com is a site that is full of great, cutting-edge ideas in science and many other topics from the most brilliant people in a variety of fields. I encourage everyone to browse TED and enjoy the videos for their progressive and inspiring messages.

Robot party tonight…all right!

Dean Kamen Will.i.am

Photo of Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, robot, and Will.i.am, FIRST enthusiast, via ABC

If you are an American middle or high school student YOU can build a real robot by joining your high school’s FIRST robotics team. If your school doesn’t have one, you need to pester the science and technology teachers to start one. Send them to www.usfirst.org.

FIRST, also i.am.FIRST, is a national annual robot build and design competition for high school students. Students start with a robot kit with no instruction manual and a task their robot needs to perform. With the help of a team mentor, the teams use their combined skills to rise to the challenge of assembling and programming their robot. Through innovation, cooperation, and problem solving the kids work to make the best performing robot they can. The teams compete on a local level and then winners move up to nationals for the super robot smackdown and killer party as seen in the following video about i.am.FIRST and the 2011 finalists.

Robot partay!

You and your team will gain experience in engineering, design, electronics, programming, problem solving, communication, team building and fashion.

Robot Team Spirit Wear

Above photo courtesy of BurningQuestion

Well, maybe not fashion.

In the video, I heard one of the team mentors say that the kids needed to use their language skills to apply for grants (donations of money) as well. I can’t think of a better way to acquire and use such a wide variety of valuable life skills while having a blast with friends.

Kids in the FIRST program have an awesome cheerleader, the super talented Will.i.am, of the pop group Black Eyed Peas. Will.i.am is a passionate promoter of science and technology education. He paid for and produced the i.am.FIRST program televised on ABC in the United States. He understands that the valuable the hands-on science and technical experience gained from building a robot can give kids a leg up on a better future. He rocks and rules.