Categories
Science

13 STEM Gifts You'll Feel Good about Giving

Inspire a love of STEM with science kits and books! These 12 STEM ideas make great gifts for hours of STEM fun, learning, and discovery. What will the kids in your life explore, make, create, and innovate?

Images of bluebot robot, decorated crystal radio, and a series of Science Buddies STEM books, 3 of 10 gift ideas highlighted for STEM giving fun

Are you already thinking about holiday gift ideas for the young people on your gift list? Science and engineering kits and books make great gifts at any time of the year. With quality STEM kits and books, kids of all ages can explore, invent, experiment, and make discoveries! Plus, they will be learning and building important 21st-century skills at the same time.

Many of our STEM kits are great for school projects and science fairs and also perfect for fun, at-home, curiosity-driven learning and exploration. Whether you are buying for your children, family, or friends, a gift of STEM is one you can feel good about.

13 STEM Gifts You’ll Feel Good about Giving

The 13 STEM gift ideas highlighted below offer hours and hours of exciting science and engineering exploration, perfect for kids to do independently at home:

The BlueBot 4-in-1 Robotics Kit is one of our top picks for kids who like to build. The BlueBot robot has a good-sized chassis and rugged wheels, and there are four different robot models kids can assemble using guided directions at Science Buddies. Each robot has a different sensor-based behavior: Motion-Activated Guard Robot, Speedy Light-Tracking Robot, Zippy Line-following Robot, and Obstacle-Avoiding Robot. The BlueBot kit offers room to grow, too! For advanced students looking to integrate computer programming with their robots, these projects offer inspiration for next-level exploration using Arduino. (Learn more about the four BlueBot kit projects.)

With the Raspberry Pi Projects kit, kids build their own Raspberry Pi computer and then explore computer programming with a series of eight activities that blend coding and electronics. They’ll use Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding environment, to write programs for interactive games and toys, including a drum set, a musical keyboard, a carnival-style game, light-up art, and more! The kit works with Python, so after kids do the eight guided activities, they can continue to use their Raspberry Pi kit for new coding adventures. (Note: if you already own a Raspberry Pi, a Circuit Building Kit for Raspberry Pi is available.) For some extra inspiration, see how this student used the Raspberry Pi kit to create a light-up star.

With the Crystal Radio Kit, kids build their own AM radio and then experiment to see how many stations they can pick up. This radio doesn’t use a regular battery or plug, which makes the crystal radio a fascinating science project! After building the crystal radio, kids can decorate it to personalize it and make it their own. The crystal radio is something kids can continue to use for years!

Crystal radio made from the Crystal Radio kit and decorated to personalize it

The Electronics Sensors kit features electronics components and sensors that can be used with more than 10 different science and engineering projects at Science Buddies. Outside of school, this kit provides lots of open-ended fun for kids interested in electronics. After exploring how sensors work with projects like Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water, Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector, and Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce, students can use what they learn to design and build their own sensor-based solutions for real-world use. The reindeer tree ornament shown below is an example of the kind of creative project kids can do using the kit and their own ingenuity. This reindeer was designed as a light-up water sensor for a tree!

A reindeer ornament with a sensor-based circuit

The Bristlebot Robotics Kit is an introductory robotics kit that is perfect for kids ready to build their first robots. With this kit (and craft materials you provide), kids can build three different kinds of wiggling, wobbling robots. Step-by-step directions are available for the ArtBot, Brushbot, and Bristlebot robots. Or, kids can design and build their own unique Junkbot robots using recycled materials. (The kit contains electronics components to make four robots, two Bristlebots and two of the other robot styles.)

With the Electric Play Dough Kit, kids combine the fun of classic dough building with introductory circuits. Using homemade conductive and insulating dough, kids experiment to light up “squishy circuit” creations with colorful LEDs. Once kids master simple electric play dough circuits, they can move on to more challenging 3D structures like the frog shown below! Multiple resources at Science Buddies help students learn more about circuits using electric play dough. (See our winter-themed examples for extra inspiration!)

Butterfly, frog, and other light-up examples made with electric play dough kit

The Candy Chromatography Kit is excellent for a budding young chemist. With the materials needed to learn about and use paper chromatography, kids can experiment to see what color dyes or pigments make up the colors of hard-shell candies, markers, leaves, flowers, and more!

Beaker with two strips of chromatography paper showing colors in candies

With the Microbial Fuel Cell Kit, kids explore what it takes to turn mud into electricity. There are multiple alternative energy science projects kids can do using the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in this kit, but the Turn Mud into Energy With a Microbial Fuel Cell project can be a good first project. (Note: after setting up the two fuel cells, it will take a number of days for the power to build. Tracking this change each day and watching for the blinking LED is part of the fun!)

With the Spherification Kit, kids use molecular gastronomy to turn liquids into jiggly spheres that pop in the mouth. With this kit, kids can make their own custom-flavored juice balls, similar to popping boba, for fun treats and be learning about food science and chemistry at the same time! Along the way to mastering the spherification of juice balls, kids will probably make some wiggly, stringy, juicy worms, too! That’s part of the fun! (For a closer look at the steps involved in making juice balls with the Spherification Kit, see Boba Spherification: The Science of Juice-filled Caviar.)

Sperification solution being dropped from a syringe and then a hand holding a single juice ball

With the Gauss Rifle Kit, kids can experiment with magnets and magnetic fields as they use ball bearings and magnets to build a multi-stage Gauss rifle. (Note: this is not a weapon. The Gauss rifle is an experiment about magnetism and momentum.)

With the Bath Bomb Science Kit, kids can explore the science behind making fizzy bath bombs as they explore different recipe options to see how different ingredients and quantities change the fizz factor. The quest to make the fizziest bath bombs is on!

Bathbombs in a shell shape

The Advanced Bristlebots Kit is perfect for kids who have already built simple robots, or for older kids who love following a set of build directions from start to finish. The Advanced Bristlebots kit has specialty parts to create either a light-tracking bristlebot or a solar-powered bristlebot. (After building one of these robots, kids can recycle the parts to build the other.)

Two advanced bristlebot robots, one that follows a beam of light and one that can use solar power

13. Science Buddies Hands-on STEM Books

You can’t go wrong with a collection of fun STEM books filled with projects for hours of fun at home. Each book in our series of STEM books contains directions for simple science and engineering activities kids can do in a short amount of time and with readily-available materials. (These STEM titles make great gifts for classroom libraries, too!)

For additional suggestions for giving books with STEM themes or storylines, see this list.

You Might Also Enjoy These Related Posts:

Categories
Science

Infant Brain Circuitry Shaped by Language Exposure

Infant Wears LENA Audio Recording Device

An infant wears the LENA audio recording device in a pocket on the front of a special vest. Credit: Dr. Kathryn L. Humphreys

Taking turns in “conversation” with caregivers relates to synchronized activation in language areas.

The type and quantity of an infant’s language exposure relates to their brain function, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

Babies learn their native language by interacting with their caregivers. Rather than simply overhearing adult words, taking turns in a “conversation” predicts an infant’s future language abilities. But it is unclear how language exposure shapes brain circuitry. The brain’s language networks may develop in two stages: a bottom-up auditory-processing network begins developing in gestation, and a top-down network for processing more complex syntax and semantics develops in early childhood.

King et al. documented the at-home language exposure of 5 to 8-month-old infants and used fMRI to measure their resting language network activity while they slept in the scanner. Regions in each of the two language subnetworks activated together, indicating coordinated activity. Participating in a greater number of conversational turns at home was associated with weaker connectivity in the bottom-up subnetwork.

Brain connections can both weaken and strengthen as they are refined throughout development; future research may reveal how weaker connectivity related to more conversations influences infant language development.

Regardless, the results highlight the importance of early life environments in shaping infant brain function and development, and the need to support caregivers in providing enriching environments.

Reference: “Naturalistic Language Input is Associated with Resting-State Functional Connectivity in Infancy” 30 November 2020, Journal of Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0779-20.2020

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Science

Janet Yellen, Biden’s Treasury Pick, Could Be Key To Confronting Climate

On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern. 

“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.

Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation's first female Treasury secretary.



If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation’s first female Treasury secretary.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who last January clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector, directed billions to struggling fossil fuel companies as the pandemic sent oil prices tumbling this year. Yellen could target that funding at industries and programs the U.S. needs to prop up to hit its climate goals, including clean energy sectors and grants to weatherize low-income homes. 

“There’s been tremendous job loss for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and they need targeted relief,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “We’ve seen in the Trump administration Mnuchin playing a central role in structuring a strategy for economic relief and recovery. We’d expect a similar role for a Secretary Yellen.” 

Yellen’s climate work could go far beyond green stimulus. She’s a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of economists, bipartisan politicians and corporations pushing for a carbon tax to gradually incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Last year, she publicly called for a carbon tax, and said in October that Biden could implement one with support from Republicans. 

“There really is a new kind of recognition that you’ve got a society where capitalism is beginning to run amok and needs to be readjusted in order to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and the benefits of growth are widely shared in ways they haven’t been,” Yellen told Reuters. “What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.”

Carbon pricing is widely favored by economists and businesspeople as the most straightforward and predictable way to reduce emissions in a market economy. But scientists say a market tweak alone cannot cut greenhouse gas output at the rate required to keep warming in a safe range. Increasing prices can also be a political quagmire. The French government sparked fiery protests in late 2018 against a slight increase in gas prices, meant to help fund climate efforts. In Canada, right-wing populist Doug Ford won the premiership of Ontario, the country’s largest province, by vowing to repeal the federal government’s carbon tax.

But a carbon price works best as part of a suite of climate policies such as clean-energy standards and direct investments, said Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“A lot of times, the carbon pricing conversation turns into this debate over other policy tools versus a carbon price by itself,” Kaufman said. “My sense is that someone like Janet Yellen isn’t suggesting anything like that. Like most economists, she probably sees pricing as a really important policy tool to reduce emissions cost effectively.”

In October, Yellen and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney backed a plan to set up central bank-like councils to manage decarbonization efforts without political interference from governments. 

What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.
Janet Yellen

A technocratic body insulated from politics may sound appealing after decades of meddling by the fossil fuel industry. But such an entity would also skirt communities who have borne the brunt of pollution.

“As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen was not responsive to grassroots organizers who know the needs of the people,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of the activist group Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “We are expecting Yellen as the Treasury Secretary to partner with us to center communities of color in fiscal policymaking, and continue keeping Wall Street’s money out of politics.”

Unlike in the past, the climate movement has ramped up its campaign over the past year to target financiers of fossil fuels, and score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup promised to start measuring firms by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment in October.

It’s not hard to see why. Fossil fuel investments often take decades to yield profits. To avert climate catastrophe, most of those fuels will need to stay in the ground, meaning the money still flowing to companies promising to turn a profit on oil and coal in the middle of the century is inflating a multi-trillion-dollar bubble. When the so-called carbon bubble bursts, the effects could be more calamitous to the financial system than the mortgage-backed securities collapse of 2007.

Yellen has defended the 2011 Dodd-Frank law that reformed financial markets in the Great Recession’s wake. She could soon use it to stave off a carbon contagion in the market. She could now use the Financial Stability Oversight Council the law established to coordinate other financial regulations and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash. She could also pressure the World Bank, of which the Treasury is the largest shareholder, to halt new investments in fossil fuels, a sector to which it contributed $12 billion since the 2015 Paris Agreement was struck, the German environmental group Urgewald estimated last month.

Yellen wasn’t the Treasury secretary climate advocates initially wanted. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran against Biden in the presidential primary on a sweeping Green New Deal plan that included new Wall Street regulations, was one top choice. The other was Sarah Bloom Raskin, an Obama-era deputy Treasury secretary who vowed to make climate a top priority as the nation’s chief financial regulator. 

“One of the reasons climate activists haven’t been singing Yellen’s praises is she’s said very little about climate change thus far, and the things she has said haven’t been nearly as ambitious as we know is needed for the scale of the crisis,” said Moira Birss, the climate and finance director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch. “But there’s also a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about from a Yellen in the Treasury Department.” 

Conservatives see her the same way. John Hart, the co-founder of the Republican climate group C3 Solutions, said Yellen’s past statements of concern over federal debt make him “hopeful” she will “challenge President Biden and members of Congress to set smart priorities in what will be a perilous post-COVID recovery period.” 

“The federal budget contains vast amounts of waste in every area that can be recycled to invest in things like R&D while reducing spending overall,” he said. “If the Biden administration really believes climate change is an existential crisis they can prove it by making hard fiscal choices.”

Wall Street had been vying for Lael Brainard, a governor on the Federal Reserve board, to get the nomination. In Yellen, climate progressives see “a candidate who has shown pretty consistently that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street, that she believes in full employment, and that she … understands there are clear links between the financial sector and the climate crisis,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Green New Deal campaign group Sunrise Movement. 

“We didn’t get one of our dream candidates, necessarily,” he said. “But she’s shown she responds to pressure and she’s willing to move on climate issues. So we can consider this a win.”

Categories
Science

13 STEM Gifts You'll Feel Good about Giving

Inspire a love of STEM with science kits and books! These 12 STEM ideas make great gifts for hours of STEM fun, learning, and discovery. What will the kids in your life explore, make, create, and innovate?

Images of bluebot robot, decorated crystal radio, and a series of Science Buddies STEM books, 3 of 10 gift ideas highlighted for STEM giving fun

Are you already thinking about holiday gift ideas for the young people on your gift list? Science and engineering kits and books make great gifts at any time of the year. With quality STEM kits and books, kids of all ages can explore, invent, experiment, and make discoveries! Plus, they will be learning and building important 21st-century skills at the same time.

Many of our STEM kits are great for school projects and science fairs and also perfect for fun, at-home, curiosity-driven learning and exploration. Whether you are buying for your children, family, or friends, a gift of STEM is one you can feel good about.

13 STEM Gifts You’ll Feel Good about Giving

The 13 STEM gift ideas highlighted below offer hours and hours of exciting science and engineering exploration, perfect for kids to do independently at home:

The BlueBot 4-in-1 Robotics Kit is one of our top picks for kids who like to build. The BlueBot robot has a good-sized chassis and rugged wheels, and there are four different robot models kids can assemble using guided directions at Science Buddies. Each robot has a different sensor-based behavior: Motion-Activated Guard Robot, Speedy Light-Tracking Robot, Zippy Line-following Robot, and Obstacle-Avoiding Robot. The BlueBot kit offers room to grow, too! For advanced students looking to integrate computer programming with their robots, these projects offer inspiration for next-level exploration using Arduino. (Learn more about the four BlueBot kit projects.)

With the Raspberry Pi Projects kit, kids build their own Raspberry Pi computer and then explore computer programming with a series of eight activities that blend coding and electronics. They’ll use Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding environment, to write programs for interactive games and toys, including a drum set, a musical keyboard, a carnival-style game, light-up art, and more! The kit works with Python, so after kids do the eight guided activities, they can continue to use their Raspberry Pi kit for new coding adventures. (Note: if you already own a Raspberry Pi, a Circuit Building Kit for Raspberry Pi is available.) For some extra inspiration, see how this student used the Raspberry Pi kit to create a light-up star.

With the Crystal Radio Kit, kids build their own AM radio and then experiment to see how many stations they can pick up. This radio doesn’t use a regular battery or plug, which makes the crystal radio a fascinating science project! After building the crystal radio, kids can decorate it to personalize it and make it their own. The crystal radio is something kids can continue to use for years!

Crystal radio made from the Crystal Radio kit and decorated to personalize it

The Electronics Sensors kit features electronics components and sensors that can be used with more than 10 different science and engineering projects at Science Buddies. Outside of school, this kit provides lots of open-ended fun for kids interested in electronics. After exploring how sensors work with projects like Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water, Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector, and Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce, students can use what they learn to design and build their own sensor-based solutions for real-world use. The reindeer tree ornament shown below is an example of the kind of creative project kids can do using the kit and their own ingenuity. This reindeer was designed as a light-up water sensor for a tree!

A reindeer ornament with a sensor-based circuit

The Bristlebot Robotics Kit is an introductory robotics kit that is perfect for kids ready to build their first robots. With this kit (and craft materials you provide), kids can build three different kinds of wiggling, wobbling robots. Step-by-step directions are available for the ArtBot, Brushbot, and Bristlebot robots. Or, kids can design and build their own unique Junkbot robots using recycled materials. (The kit contains electronics components to make four robots, two Bristlebots and two of the other robot styles.)

With the Electric Play Dough Kit, kids combine the fun of classic dough building with introductory circuits. Using homemade conductive and insulating dough, kids experiment to light up “squishy circuit” creations with colorful LEDs. Once kids master simple electric play dough circuits, they can move on to more challenging 3D structures like the frog shown below! Multiple resources at Science Buddies help students learn more about circuits using electric play dough. (See our winter-themed examples for extra inspiration!)

Butterfly, frog, and other light-up examples made with electric play dough kit

The Candy Chromatography Kit is excellent for a budding young chemist. With the materials needed to learn about and use paper chromatography, kids can experiment to see what color dyes or pigments make up the colors of hard-shell candies, markers, leaves, flowers, and more!

Beaker with two strips of chromatography paper showing colors in candies

With the Microbial Fuel Cell Kit, kids explore what it takes to turn mud into electricity. There are multiple alternative energy science projects kids can do using the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in this kit, but the Turn Mud into Energy With a Microbial Fuel Cell project can be a good first project. (Note: after setting up the two fuel cells, it will take a number of days for the power to build. Tracking this change each day and watching for the blinking LED is part of the fun!)

With the Spherification Kit, kids use molecular gastronomy to turn liquids into jiggly spheres that pop in the mouth. With this kit, kids can make their own custom-flavored juice balls, similar to popping boba, for fun treats and be learning about food science and chemistry at the same time! Along the way to mastering the spherification of juice balls, kids will probably make some wiggly, stringy, juicy worms, too! That’s part of the fun! (For a closer look at the steps involved in making juice balls with the Spherification Kit, see Boba Spherification: The Science of Juice-filled Caviar.)

Sperification solution being dropped from a syringe and then a hand holding a single juice ball

With the Gauss Rifle Kit, kids can experiment with magnets and magnetic fields as they use ball bearings and magnets to build a multi-stage Gauss rifle. (Note: this is not a weapon. The Gauss rifle is an experiment about magnetism and momentum.)

With the Bath Bomb Science Kit, kids can explore the science behind making fizzy bath bombs as they explore different recipe options to see how different ingredients and quantities change the fizz factor. The quest to make the fizziest bath bombs is on!

Bathbombs in a shell shape

The Advanced Bristlebots Kit is perfect for kids who have already built simple robots, or for older kids who love following a set of build directions from start to finish. The Advanced Bristlebots kit has specialty parts to create either a light-tracking bristlebot or a solar-powered bristlebot. (After building one of these robots, kids can recycle the parts to build the other.)

Two advanced bristlebot robots, one that follows a beam of light and one that can use solar power

13. Science Buddies Hands-on STEM Books

You can’t go wrong with a collection of fun STEM books filled with projects for hours of fun at home. Each book in our series of STEM books contains directions for simple science and engineering activities kids can do in a short amount of time and with readily-available materials. (These STEM titles make great gifts for classroom libraries, too!)

For additional suggestions for giving books with STEM themes or storylines, see this list.

You Might Also Enjoy These Related Posts:

Categories
Science

DeepMind AI Solution to a 50-Year-Old Science Challenge Could “Revolutionize Medical Research”

By

AI Biotech Concept

Inside every cell, thousands of different proteins form the machinery that keeps all living things — from humans and plants to microscopic bacteria — alive and well. Almost all diseases, including cancer, dementia and even infectious diseases such as COVID-19, are related to the way these proteins function. Because each protein’s function is directly related to its three-dimensional shape, scientists around the world have strived for half a century to find an accurate and fast method to enable them to discover the shape of any protein.

Today (Monday) researchers at the 14th Community Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP14) will announce that an artificial intelligence (AI) solution to the challenge has been found.

Building on the work of hundreds of researchers across the globe, an AI program called AlphaFold, created by London-based AI lab DeepMind, has proved capable of determining the shape of many proteins. It has done so to a level of accuracy comparable to that achieved with expensive and time-consuming lab experiments.

CASP14 is organized by Dr. John Moult (chair), University of Maryland, USA; Dr. Krzysztof Fidelis, UC Davis, USA; Dr. Andriy Kryshtafovych, UC Davis, USA; Dr Torsten Schwede, University of Basel and SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Switzerland; and Dr. Maya Topf, Birkbeck, University of London, UK and CSSB (HPI and UKE) Hamburg, Germany.

Dr. Moult said: “Proteins are extremely complicated molecules, and their precise three-dimensional structure is key to the many roles they perform, for example the insulin that regulates sugar levels in our blood and the antibodies that help us fight infections. Even tiny rearrangements of these vital molecules can have catastrophic effects on our health, so one of the most efficient ways to understand disease and find new treatments is to study the proteins involved.

“There are tens of thousands of human proteins and many billions in other species, including bacteria and viruses, but working out the shape of just one requires expensive equipment and can take years.

“Nearly 50 years ago, Christian Anfinsen was awarded a Nobel Prize for showing that it should be possible to determine the shape of proteins based on their sequence of amino acids — the individual building blocks that make up proteins. That’s why our community of scientists have been working on the biennial CASP challenge.”

Teams taking part in the CASP challenge are given the amino acid sequences for a set of around 100 proteins. While scientists study the proteins in the lab to determine their shape experimentally, about 100 participating CASP teams from more than 20 countries will try to do the same thing using computers. The results are assessed by independent scientists.

Dr. Fidelis said: “The CASP approach has created intense collaboration between researchers working in this field of science and we have seen how it has accelerated scientific developments.

“Since we first ran the challenge back in 1994, we have seen a succession of discoveries, each solving an aspect of this problem, so that computed models of protein structures have become progressively more useful in medical research.”

During the latest round of the challenge, DeepMind’s AlphaFold program has determined the shape of around two thirds of the proteins with accuracy comparable to laboratory experiments*. AlphaFold’s accuracy with most of the other proteins was also high, though not quite at that level.

The CASP organizers say that this success builds on achievements made in previous CASP rounds, both by the DeepMind team and other participants, and that other teams taking part in CASP14 have also produced some highly accurate structures during this round.

Dr. Kryshtafovych said: “What AlphaFold has achieved is truly remarkable and today’s announcement is a win for DeepMind, but it’s also a triumph for team science. The unique and intense way we collaborate with researchers around the world through CASP, and the contributions from many teams of scientists over the years, have brought us to this breakthrough.”

He adds: “Being able to investigate the shape of proteins quickly and accurately has the potential to revolutionize life sciences. Now that the problem has been largely solved for single proteins, the way is open for development of new methods for determining the shape of protein complexes — collections of proteins that work together to form much of the machinery of life, and for other applications.”

Professor Dame Janet Thornton, Director Emeritus of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), who is not affiliated with CASP or DeepMind, said: “One of biology’s biggest mysteries is how proteins fold to create exquisitely unique three-dimensional structures. Every living thing — from the smallest bacteria to plants, animals and humans — is defined and powered by the proteins that help it function at the molecular level.

“So far, this mystery remained unsolved, and determining a single protein structure often required years of experimental effort. It’s tremendous to see the triumph of human curiosity, endeavor and intelligence in solving this problem. A better understanding of protein structures and the ability to predict them using a computer means a better understanding of life, evolution and, of course, human health and disease.”

*AlphaFold produced models for about two-thirds of the CASP14 target proteins with global distance test scores above 90 out of 100. Above the 90-score threshold, remaining differences between the models and the experimental structures are small and of the size expected for experimental artifacts and errors, and alternative low energy local conformations. Note that these CASP targets are single proteins or domains, not protein complexes, which are a next frontier. The global distance test is a measure of how closely the shape of the protein model matches the shape from lab experiments: Zemla A, Venclovas, Moult J, Fidelis K. Processing and evaluation of predictions in CASP4. Proteins 2001;Suppl 5:13-21; Zemla A. LGA: A method for finding 3D similarities in protein structures. Nucleic Acids Res 2003;31(13):3370-3374).

Meeting: 14th Community Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction.

Funding: CASP operations are partially supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, NIH R01GM100482.

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Science

Researchers Discover How SARS-CoV-2 Reaches the Brain of COVID-19 Patients

Ciliated Cell in Olfactory Mucosa With SARS-CoV-2

An electron microscope image (ultrathin section, artificially colored) shows a section of a ciliated cell in the olfactory mucosa. Large numbers of intact SARS-CoV-2 particles (red) are found both inside the cell and on cellular processes. Yellow: kinocilia. Credit: Michael Laue/RKI & Carsten Dittmayer/Charité

Using post-mortem tissue samples, a team of researchers from CharitéUniversitätsmedizin Berlin have studied the mechanisms by which the novel coronavirus can reach the brains of patients with COVID-19, and how the immune system responds to the virus once it does. The results, which show that SARS-CoV-2 enters the brain via nerve cells in the olfactory mucosa, have been published in Nature Neuroscience. For the first time, researchers have been able to produce electron microscope images of intact coronavirus particles inside the olfactory mucosa.

It is now recognized that COVID-19 is not a purely respiratory disease. In addition to affecting the lungs, SARS-CoV-2 can impact the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. More than one in three people with COVID-19 report neurological symptoms such as loss of, or change in, their sense of smell or taste, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. In some patients, the disease can even result in stroke or other serious conditions. Until now, researchers had suspected that these manifestations must be caused by the virus entering and infecting specific cells in the brain. But how does SARS-CoV-2 get there? Under the joint leadership of Dr. Helena Radbruch of Charité’s Department of Neuropathology and the Department’s Director, Prof. Dr. Frank Heppner, a multidisciplinary team of researchers has now traced how the virus enters the central nervous system and subsequently invades the brain.

Nerve Cell Inside Olfactory Mucosa Infected With SARS-CoV-2

Immunofluorescence staining shows a nerve cell (pink) inside the olfactory mucosa which has been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (yellow). Supporting (epithelial) cells appear blue. Credit: Jonas Franz/Universitätsmedizin Göttingen

As part of this research, experts from the fields of neuropathology, pathology, forensic medicine, virology and clinical care studied tissue samples from 33 patients (average age 72) who had died at either Charité or the University Medical Center Göttingen after contracting COVID-19. Using the latest technology, the researchers analyzed samples taken from the deceased patients’ olfactory mucosa and from four different brain regions. Both the tissue samples and distinct cells were tested for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and a ‘spike protein’ which is found on the surface of the virus. The team provided evidence of the virus in different neuroanatomical structures which connect the eyes, mouth and nose with the brain stem. The olfactory mucosa revealed the highest viral load. Using special tissue stains, the researchers were able to produce the first-ever electron microscopy images of intact coronavirus particles within the olfactory mucosa. These were found both inside nerve cells and in the processes extending from nearby supporting (epithelial) cells. All samples used in this type of image-based analysis must be of the highest possible quality. To guarantee this was the case, the researchers ensured that all clinical and pathological processes were closely aligned and supported by a sophisticated infrastructure.

“These data support the notion that SARS-CoV-2 is able to use the olfactory mucosa as a port of entry into the brain,” says Prof. Heppner. This is also supported by the close anatomical proximity of mucosal cells, blood vessels and nerve cells in the area. “Once inside the olfactory mucosa, the virus appears to use neuroanatomical connections, such as the olfactory nerve, in order to reach the brain,” adds the neuropathologist. “It is important to emphasize, however, that the COVID-19 patients involved in this study had what would be defined as severe disease, belonging to that small group of patients in whom the disease proves fatal. It is not necessarily possible, therefore, to transfer the results of our study to cases with mild or moderate disease.”

The manner in which the virus moves on from the nerve cells remains to be fully elucidated. “Our data suggest that the virus moves from nerve cell to nerve cell in order to reach the brain,” explains Dr. Radbruch. She adds: “It is likely, however, that the virus is also transported via the blood vessels, as evidence of the virus was also found in the walls of blood vessels in the brain.” SARS-CoV-2 is far from the only virus capable of reaching the brain via certain routes. “Other examples include the herpes simplex virus and the rabies virus,” explains Dr. Radbruch.

The researchers also studied the manner in which the immune system responds to infection with SARS-CoV-2. In addition to finding evidence of activated immune cells in the brain and in the olfactory mucosa, they detected the immune signatures of these cells in the cerebral fluid. In some of the cases studied, the researchers also found tissue damage caused by stroke as a result of thromboembolism (i.e. the obstruction of a blood vessel by a blood clot). “In our eyes, the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in nerve cells of the olfactory mucosa provides good explanation for the neurologic symptoms found in COVID-19 patients, such as a loss of the sense of smell or taste,” explains Prof. Heppner. “We also found SARS-CoV-2 in areas of the brain which control vital functions, such as breathing. It cannot be ruled out that, in patients with severe COVID-19, presence of the virus in these areas of the brain will have an exacerbating impact on respiratory function, adding to breathing problems due to SARS-CoV-2 infection of the lungs. Similar problems might arise in relation to cardiovascular function.”

Reference: “Olfactory transmucosal SARS-CoV-2 invasion as a port of central nervous system entry in individuals with COVID-19” by Jenny Meinhardt, Josefine Radke, Carsten Dittmayer, Jonas Franz, Carolina Thomas, Ronja Mothes, Michael Laue, Julia Schneider, Sebastian Brünink, Selina Greuel, Malte Lehmann, Olga Hassan, Tom Aschman, Elisa Schumann, Robert Lorenz Chua, Christian Conrad, Roland Eils, Werner Stenzel, Marc Windgassen, Larissa Rößler, Hans-Hilmar Goebel, Hans R. Gelderblom, Hubert Martin, Andreas Nitsche, Walter J. Schulz-Schaeffer, Samy Hakroush, Martin S. Winkler, Björn Tampe, Franziska Scheibe, Péter Körtvélyessy, Dirk Reinhold, Britta Siegmund, Anja A. Kühl, Sefer Elezkurtaj, David Horst, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Tsokos, Barbara Ingold-Heppner, Christine Stadelmann, Christian Drosten, Victor Max Corman, Helena Radbruch and Frank L. Heppner, 30 November 2020, Nature Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41593-020-00758-5

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Science

Janet Yellen, Biden’s Treasury Pick, Could Be Key To Confronting Climate

On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern. 

“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.

Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation's first female Treasury secretary.



If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation’s first female Treasury secretary.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who last January clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector, directed billions to struggling fossil fuel companies as the pandemic sent oil prices tumbling this year. Yellen could target that funding at industries and programs the U.S. needs to prop up to hit its climate goals, including clean energy sectors and grants to weatherize low-income homes. 

“There’s been tremendous job loss for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and they need targeted relief,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “We’ve seen in the Trump administration Mnuchin playing a central role in structuring a strategy for economic relief and recovery. We’d expect a similar role for a Secretary Yellen.” 

Yellen’s climate work could go far beyond green stimulus. She’s a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of economists, bipartisan politicians and corporations pushing for a carbon tax to gradually incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Last year, she publicly called for a carbon tax, and said in October that Biden could implement one with support from Republicans. 

“There really is a new kind of recognition that you’ve got a society where capitalism is beginning to run amok and needs to be readjusted in order to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and the benefits of growth are widely shared in ways they haven’t been,” Yellen told Reuters. “What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.”

Carbon pricing is widely favored by economists and businesspeople as the most straightforward and predictable way to reduce emissions in a market economy. But scientists say a market tweak alone cannot cut greenhouse gas output at the rate required to keep warming in a safe range. Increasing prices can also be a political quagmire. The French government sparked fiery protests in late 2018 against a slight increase in gas prices, meant to help fund climate efforts. In Canada, right-wing populist Doug Ford won the premiership of Ontario, the country’s largest province, by vowing to repeal the federal government’s carbon tax.

But a carbon price works best as part of a suite of climate policies such as clean-energy standards and direct investments, said Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“A lot of times, the carbon pricing conversation turns into this debate over other policy tools versus a carbon price by itself,” Kaufman said. “My sense is that someone like Janet Yellen isn’t suggesting anything like that. Like most economists, she probably sees pricing as a really important policy tool to reduce emissions cost effectively.”

In October, Yellen and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney backed a plan to set up central bank-like councils to manage decarbonization efforts without political interference from governments. 

What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.
Janet Yellen

A technocratic body insulated from politics may sound appealing after decades of meddling by the fossil fuel industry. But such an entity would also skirt communities who have borne the brunt of pollution.

“As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen was not responsive to grassroots organizers who know the needs of the people,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of the activist group Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “We are expecting Yellen as the Treasury Secretary to partner with us to center communities of color in fiscal policymaking, and continue keeping Wall Street’s money out of politics.”

Unlike in the past, the climate movement has ramped up its campaign over the past year to target financiers of fossil fuels, and score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup promised to start measuring firms by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment in October.

It’s not hard to see why. Fossil fuel investments often take decades to yield profits. To avert climate catastrophe, most of those fuels will need to stay in the ground, meaning the money still flowing to companies promising to turn a profit on oil and coal in the middle of the century is inflating a multi-trillion-dollar bubble. When the so-called carbon bubble bursts, the effects could be more calamitous to the financial system than the mortgage-backed securities collapse of 2007.

Yellen has defended the 2011 Dodd-Frank law that reformed financial markets in the Great Recession’s wake. She could soon use it to stave off a carbon contagion in the market. She could now use the Financial Stability Oversight Council the law established to coordinate other financial regulations and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash. She could also pressure the World Bank, of which the Treasury is the largest shareholder, to halt new investments in fossil fuels, a sector to which it contributed $12 billion since the 2015 Paris Agreement was struck, the German environmental group Urgewald estimated last month.

Yellen wasn’t the Treasury secretary climate advocates initially wanted. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran against Biden in the presidential primary on a sweeping Green New Deal plan that included new Wall Street regulations, was one top choice. The other was Sarah Bloom Raskin, an Obama-era deputy Treasury secretary who vowed to make climate a top priority as the nation’s chief financial regulator. 

“One of the reasons climate activists haven’t been singing Yellen’s praises is she’s said very little about climate change thus far, and the things she has said haven’t been nearly as ambitious as we know is needed for the scale of the crisis,” said Moira Birss, the climate and finance director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch. “But there’s also a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about from a Yellen in the Treasury Department.” 

Conservatives see her the same way. John Hart, the co-founder of the Republican climate group C3 Solutions, said Yellen’s past statements of concern over federal debt make him “hopeful” she will “challenge President Biden and members of Congress to set smart priorities in what will be a perilous post-COVID recovery period.” 

“The federal budget contains vast amounts of waste in every area that can be recycled to invest in things like R&D while reducing spending overall,” he said. “If the Biden administration really believes climate change is an existential crisis they can prove it by making hard fiscal choices.”

Wall Street had been vying for Lael Brainard, a governor on the Federal Reserve board, to get the nomination. In Yellen, climate progressives see “a candidate who has shown pretty consistently that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street, that she believes in full employment, and that she … understands there are clear links between the financial sector and the climate crisis,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Green New Deal campaign group Sunrise Movement. 

“We didn’t get one of our dream candidates, necessarily,” he said. “But she’s shown she responds to pressure and she’s willing to move on climate issues. So we can consider this a win.”

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Science

A new measurement puts the Sun 2,000 light-years closer to the center of the Milky Way

Where are we? Cosmically, we’re in our home galaxy, typically known as the Milky Way. The center of our galaxy is marked by a supermassive black hole, which the Sun orbits at a distance of about 30,000 light-years. The official distance, set by the International Astronomical Union in 1985, is 27,700 light-years. But a new study as confirmed we are actually a bit closer to the black hole.

It’s difficult to figure out where we are in the galaxy. For one thing, we’re in the middle of it all, and a good chunk of our view is blocked by a region of gas and dust known as the zone of avoidance. We can’t simply step outside our galaxy and pinpoint our location on a map. The task is so difficult that it was only a century ago that Harlow Shapley first determined the Sun isn’t near the center of the Milky Way.

You are here, give or take. Credit: Caltech

The best way to determine our location is to measure the position and motion of lots of stars. That’s easier said than done because motion is relative. While nearby stars orbit the Milky Way, so does the Sun, and we can only measure a star’s motion relative to us. Additionally, stars don’t follow the same general orbit. Some have more circular orbits, and others less circular. You need to measure enough to determine an aggregate motion of the Sun relative to the galaxy as a whole. But it is this type of measurement that has given us the official IAU distance.

Location of the VERA antennas. Credit: VERA

To get a better measure of our location, the team used a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). This is where an array of widely separated radio antennas work together to observe an object. Since light takes time to travel, the signal from an object reaches each antenna at slightly different times. By timing the signals, the team can pinpoint the location of the object. In this case, the team used the VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry (VERA), which has antennas scattered across the Japanese archipelago. VERA can pinpoint the location of a star to within 10 micro-arcseconds, which is roughly equivalent to the width of a penny on the lunar surface.

By measuring stellar motions we can determine our location. Credit: NAOJ

VERA has measured the position and motion of nearly a hundred stars in our galactic neighborhood. From this, the team determined that the Sun is 25,800 light-years from the galactic center. They also found that it orbits through the galaxy at a speed of 227 km/s, which is a bit faster than the official value of 220 km/s. This is just the team’s first data release, so we can expect their measure to get more precise over time. VERA will also be collaborating with the East Asian VLBI Network (EAVN), which has antennas in South Korea and China. From this, the team will be able to pin down stars to within 0.5 micro-arcseconds. So in the near future, we will be a bit closer to knowing exactly where we are.

Reference: VERA collaboration, et al. “The First VERA Astrometry Catalog.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan 72.4 (2020): 50.

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Science

13 STEM Gifts You'll Feel Good about Giving

Inspire a love of STEM with science kits and books! These 12 STEM ideas make great gifts for hours of STEM fun, learning, and discovery. What will the kids in your life explore, make, create, and innovate?

Images of bluebot robot, decorated crystal radio, and a series of Science Buddies STEM books, 3 of 10 gift ideas highlighted for STEM giving fun

Are you already thinking about holiday gift ideas for the young people on your gift list? Science and engineering kits and books make great gifts at any time of the year. With quality STEM kits and books, kids of all ages can explore, invent, experiment, and make discoveries! Plus, they will be learning and building important 21st-century skills at the same time.

Many of our STEM kits are great for school projects and science fairs and also perfect for fun, at-home, curiosity-driven learning and exploration. Whether you are buying for your children, family, or friends, a gift of STEM is one you can feel good about.

13 STEM Gifts You’ll Feel Good about Giving

The 13 STEM gift ideas highlighted below offer hours and hours of exciting science and engineering exploration, perfect for kids to do independently at home:

The BlueBot 4-in-1 Robotics Kit is one of our top picks for kids who like to build. The BlueBot robot has a good-sized chassis and rugged wheels, and there are four different robot models kids can assemble using guided directions at Science Buddies. Each robot has a different sensor-based behavior: Motion-Activated Guard Robot, Speedy Light-Tracking Robot, Zippy Line-following Robot, and Obstacle-Avoiding Robot. The BlueBot kit offers room to grow, too! For advanced students looking to integrate computer programming with their robots, these projects offer inspiration for next-level exploration using Arduino. (Learn more about the four BlueBot kit projects.)

With the Raspberry Pi Projects kit, kids build their own Raspberry Pi computer and then explore computer programming with a series of eight activities that blend coding and electronics. They’ll use Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding environment, to write programs for interactive games and toys, including a drum set, a musical keyboard, a carnival-style game, light-up art, and more! The kit works with Python, so after kids do the eight guided activities, they can continue to use their Raspberry Pi kit for new coding adventures. (Note: if you already own a Raspberry Pi, a Circuit Building Kit for Raspberry Pi is available.) For some extra inspiration, see how this student used the Raspberry Pi kit to create a light-up star.

With the Crystal Radio Kit, kids build their own AM radio and then experiment to see how many stations they can pick up. This radio doesn’t use a regular battery or plug, which makes the crystal radio a fascinating science project! After building the crystal radio, kids can decorate it to personalize it and make it their own. The crystal radio is something kids can continue to use for years!

Crystal radio made from the Crystal Radio kit and decorated to personalize it

The Electronics Sensors kit features electronics components and sensors that can be used with more than 10 different science and engineering projects at Science Buddies. Outside of school, this kit provides lots of open-ended fun for kids interested in electronics. After exploring how sensors work with projects like Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water, Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector, and Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce, students can use what they learn to design and build their own sensor-based solutions for real-world use. The reindeer tree ornament shown below is an example of the kind of creative project kids can do using the kit and their own ingenuity. This reindeer was designed as a light-up water sensor for a tree!

A reindeer ornament with a sensor-based circuit

The Bristlebot Robotics Kit is an introductory robotics kit that is perfect for kids ready to build their first robots. With this kit (and craft materials you provide), kids can build three different kinds of wiggling, wobbling robots. Step-by-step directions are available for the ArtBot, Brushbot, and Bristlebot robots. Or, kids can design and build their own unique Junkbot robots using recycled materials. (The kit contains electronics components to make four robots, two Bristlebots and two of the other robot styles.)

With the Electric Play Dough Kit, kids combine the fun of classic dough building with introductory circuits. Using homemade conductive and insulating dough, kids experiment to light up “squishy circuit” creations with colorful LEDs. Once kids master simple electric play dough circuits, they can move on to more challenging 3D structures like the frog shown below! Multiple resources at Science Buddies help students learn more about circuits using electric play dough. (See our winter-themed examples for extra inspiration!)

Butterfly, frog, and other light-up examples made with electric play dough kit

The Candy Chromatography Kit is excellent for a budding young chemist. With the materials needed to learn about and use paper chromatography, kids can experiment to see what color dyes or pigments make up the colors of hard-shell candies, markers, leaves, flowers, and more!

Beaker with two strips of chromatography paper showing colors in candies

With the Microbial Fuel Cell Kit, kids explore what it takes to turn mud into electricity. There are multiple alternative energy science projects kids can do using the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in this kit, but the Turn Mud into Energy With a Microbial Fuel Cell project can be a good first project. (Note: after setting up the two fuel cells, it will take a number of days for the power to build. Tracking this change each day and watching for the blinking LED is part of the fun!)

With the Spherification Kit, kids use molecular gastronomy to turn liquids into jiggly spheres that pop in the mouth. With this kit, kids can make their own custom-flavored juice balls, similar to popping boba, for fun treats and be learning about food science and chemistry at the same time! Along the way to mastering the spherification of juice balls, kids will probably make some wiggly, stringy, juicy worms, too! That’s part of the fun! (For a closer look at the steps involved in making juice balls with the Spherification Kit, see Boba Spherification: The Science of Juice-filled Caviar.)

Sperification solution being dropped from a syringe and then a hand holding a single juice ball

With the Gauss Rifle Kit, kids can experiment with magnets and magnetic fields as they use ball bearings and magnets to build a multi-stage Gauss rifle. (Note: this is not a weapon. The Gauss rifle is an experiment about magnetism and momentum.)

With the Bath Bomb Science Kit, kids can explore the science behind making fizzy bath bombs as they explore different recipe options to see how different ingredients and quantities change the fizz factor. The quest to make the fizziest bath bombs is on!

Bathbombs in a shell shape

The Advanced Bristlebots Kit is perfect for kids who have already built simple robots, or for older kids who love following a set of build directions from start to finish. The Advanced Bristlebots kit has specialty parts to create either a light-tracking bristlebot or a solar-powered bristlebot. (After building one of these robots, kids can recycle the parts to build the other.)

Two advanced bristlebot robots, one that follows a beam of light and one that can use solar power

13. Science Buddies Hands-on STEM Books

You can’t go wrong with a collection of fun STEM books filled with projects for hours of fun at home. Each book in our series of STEM books contains directions for simple science and engineering activities kids can do in a short amount of time and with readily-available materials. (These STEM titles make great gifts for classroom libraries, too!)

For additional suggestions for giving books with STEM themes or storylines, see this list.

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Science

Rare & Magical Pulsating Aurora Lights: Killer Electrons in Strumming Sky Lights

Killer Electrons

Low-energy (blue) and high-energy (yellow) electrons form during the process that generates the pulsating aurora. The high-energy ‘relativistic’ electrons could cause localized destruction of the ozone. Credit: PsA project

Wisps of pulsating aurora lights are a rare, yet magical sight. Now, scientists suggest they could be associated with destruction of part of the ozone.

Computer simulations explain how electrons with wide-ranging energies rain into Earth’s upper and middle atmosphere during a phenomenon known as the pulsating aurora. The findings, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that the higher-energy electrons resulting from this process could cause destruction of the part of the ozone in the mesosphere, about 60 kilometers above Earth’s surface. The study was a collaboration between scientists in Japan, including at Nagoya University, and colleagues in the US, including from NASA.

The northern and southern lights that people are typically aware of, called the aurora borealis and australis, look like colored curtains of reds, greens, and purples spreading across the night skies. But there is another kind of aurora that is less frequently seen. The pulsating aurora looks more like indistinct wisps of cloud strumming across the sky.

Scientists have only recently developed the technologies enabling them to understand how the pulsating aurora forms. Now, an international research team, led by Yoshizumi Miyoshi of Nagoya University’s Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research, has developed a theory to explain the wide-energy electron precipitations of pulsating auroras and conducted computer simulations that validate their theory.

Their findings suggest that both low- and high-energy electrons originate simultaneously from interactions between chorus waves and electrons in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Chorus waves are plasma waves generated near the magnetic equator. Once formed, they travel northwards and southwards, interacting with electrons in Earth’s magnetosphere. This interaction energizes the electrons, scattering them down into the upper atmosphere, where they release the light energy that appears as a pulsating aurora.

The electrons that result from these interactions range from lower-energy ones, of only a few hundred kiloelectron volts, to very high-energy ones, of several thousand kiloelectron volts, or ‘megaelectron’ volts.

Miyoshi and his team suggest that the high-energy electrons of pulsating auroras are ‘relativistic’ electrons, otherwise known as killer electrons, because of the damage they can cause when they penetrate satellites.

“Our theory indicates that so-called killer electrons that precipitate into the middle atmosphere are associated with the pulsating aurora, and could be involved in ozone destruction,” says Miyoshi.

The team next plans to test their theory by studying measurements taken during a space rocket mission called ‘loss through auroral microburst pulsations’ (LAMP), which is due to launch in December 2021. LAMP is a collaboration between NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Nagoya University, and other institutions. LAMP experiments will be able to observe the killer electrons associated with the pulsating aurora.

Reference: “Relativistic Electron Microbursts as High‐Energy Tail of Pulsating Aurora Electrons” by Y. Miyoshi, S. Saito, S. Kurita, K. Asamura, K. Hosokawa, T. Sakanoi, T. Mitani, Y. Ogawa, S. Oyama, F. Tsuchiya, S. L. Jones, A. N. Jaynes and J. B. Blake, 13 October 2020, Geophysical Research Letters.
DOI: 10.1029/2020GL090360

was published online in Geophysical Research Letters on October 13, 2020, and is available at DOI: 10.1029/2020GL090360.