STEM Works Remembers 9/11

It’s impossible to go throughout this day, September 11th, without acknowledging the extent of the impact that the terrorist attacks had on America and its citizens. In the wake of the 13th anniversary of the attacks, those of us at STEM Works wanted to show how STEM has been utilized throughout the aftermath processes of identifying victims, surveying the  damage and rebuilding Ground Zero.

Identifying Victims with Forensics 

After the initial attacks, at least 1,115 out of at least 2,753 victims remained unidentifiable, even after scientists analyzed DNA samples provided by the families of those with missing loved ones who never came home or were never identified. Despite painstaking work over the years from scientists in New York to match bone fragments to an actual identity, restraints in technology left many victims unidentified. However, recent technological advances in DNA testing and forensic identification have given both scientists and families a renewed sense of hope as these DNA tests yield results that would have been impossible 10 years ago. Scientists previously faced the challenge of identifying victims using bone slivers that contained DNA that had been damaged by fire, sunlight, bacteria, or jet fuel. Using the new technology, scientists are able to go back to the same bone fragment and attempt to extract the damaged DNA for testing. Read more here.

Engineering a Better World Trade Center

Considered a testament to the perseverance of the American spirit, the five-year re-construction projects of the new World Trade Center and National September 11 Memorial and Museum are shown in this behind-the-scenes documentary, made by PBS, in cooperation with NOVA, to demonstrate the many various challenges and high expectations that engineers and architects faced to build a stronger, taller, and safer World Trade Center. Watch Engineering Ground Zero

Engineers played a huge role in both clean up and re-building. PBS has also created a number of valuable resources to teach the public about how engineers assisted with rescuing victims, surveying the damage, and preventing unstable structures from falling and potentially injuring more people. Check out these resources here at Engineering the Clean-Up.

Other 9/11 Lesson Plan Resources

  • The National September 11 Memorial & Museum partnered up with New York City’s Department of Education and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to develop a different sets of K-12 lesson plans to teach about 9/11. Find them here.
  • Scholastic has created and collected a number of resources to teach 9/11 to the younger kids. Find these resources here.
  • Pearson has created guides and online modules for both elementary and middle school students, parents and teachers. Find them here.
  • McGraw Hill offers a number of activities and lesson plans to teach students about 9/11. Find them here.

Tell us, STEM lovers, how are you choosing to remember 9/11? Comment below.

CSI Boys Summer Camp – Day 4

Our gumshoes made significant strides on day 4. First, campers witnessed a compelling presentation by Special Agent David Marshall with the world-renowned FBI.

DSC_2463Special Agent Marshall gave campers the inside scoop about what FBI agents do on a daily basis,


and how they too could pursue a career with this high-profile organization.


Campers (and staff) had a lot of fun during this presentation, but you know what they say: All good things must come to an end.



After getting jazzed about a potential future with the FBI, campers got straight to work processing some more evidence that was found at Monday’s crime scene. Our investigators were able to further narrow their list of suspect based on a soil sample found at the crime scene and a note written by the perpetrator.

It was suspected that the soil sample found at the scene came from the bottom of the perpetrator’s shoe. To find out how this piece of evidence could help the investigation, campers compared this sample with samples of the soil found at the different places that each suspect had been that day.


After looking closely at each sample,




investigators were able to determine where the soil sample came from. Then, armed with this information, they were able to make a determination about who they could eliminate from the suspect list.
DSC_2572The next piece of evidence they processed was the note written by the perpetrator. How did they do this? Through a paper chromatography experiment. Since each suspect on the suspect list was found carrying a different type of marker, campers were able to determine which type of marker wrote the note found at the scene

DSC_2799by seeing how differently the pigments in each marker separate when exposed to a solvent. In this case, the solvent was water.



While the morning was all about processing evidence and narrowing the list of suspects, campers returned to the wonderful world of DNA in the afternoon. Campers were first greeted by an after-lunch presentation by Dr. Teresa Strecker with SMU’s biology department. Dr. Strecker took some of the mystery out of DNA


and discussed why DNA can be so helpful in crime scene investigation.


Then, campers got to try their hand at DNA eletrophoresis. DNA electrophoresis is a technique used by forensic scientists where they compare DNA samples found at a crime scene with the DNA of suspects in a case.



Only one more day until all is revealed and this case is solved. Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion to this year’s CSI Boys Summer Camp!





CSI Boys Camp – Day 3

The CSI saga continued on day 3, and the human body was the name of the game. First, were visited by Medical Examiner Amy Gruzeski, who gave campers a first-hand look at the role forensic pathologists play during investigations. What is a forensic pathologist? These are the people who conduct the examinations that determine the cause of a person’s death. This presentation did include some “gross pictures” according to camper Drake,


but campers also “liked learning about the medical examiner’s job.”


Then, campers took their understanding about the human body a step further in the forensic anthropology activity and gait recognition activity. During the forensic anthropology activity, campers learned that you can predict someone’s height based just on the length of his or her leg bone.


Campers also learned how investigators can differentiate between people based on the way they walk during the gait recognition activity.



From there, it was on to DNA, as campers learned how all living things, including fruits and vegetables, contain DNA. In this experiment, campers learned how to extract DNA from a strawberry by mashing it,


combining it with a solution,


and extracting the separated DNA using a highly scientific instrument—a paperclip.



Campers ended their day learning fact from fiction when it comes to the world of an NCIS agent. Special Agent Don Goates visited our investigators-in-training to dispel the myths about what it means to work for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.




Stay tuned for more tales from our CSI summer camp!


Another Investigation Begins at the 2014 CSI Boys Summer Camp

Another week, another crime. Yesterday we welcomed boys from around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to our second, and final, CSI summer camp. In order to provide a real-world look into the lives and professions of those who work in CSI-related fields, campers were treated to a presentation by Dallas Police Department’s Sean Kearney. Kearney introduced campers to the types of skills and tasks required of crime scene investigators.

After Kearney’s presentation, the campers walked in on a ghastly sight… a kidnapping had occurred at camp! Though this was bad news, it gave the investigators-in-training an immediate chance to test their CSI skills. Campers documented the scene,



collected evidence,


and took measurements


for a scaled sketch of the scene.


After the scene was thoroughly processed, campers learned about DNA evidence through a presentation from Forensic Biologist Amanda Webb.


Webb’s job as a forensic biologist requires her to process DNA evidence found at crime scenes. When asked what was the most unique object she’d ever had to test, she replied that “The craziest thing we had to test was a fried chicken leg with a big bite taken out after a crime was committed.” This goes to show that evidence can be everywhere!

Campers finished up their day learning all about change blindness, the phenomenon that explains why eyewitness testimony isn’t always the most reliable piece of evidence. And just so we don’t let the campers have all the fun, you can get in on the CSI action by watching the following videos. These videos will introduce you to the change blindness phenomenon and also allow you to test your observational skills.

This knowledge of change blindness came in handy when campers observed an interview with an eyewitness.



And lastly, did we mention that the campers had fun? These students were introduced to a number of new friends, a fact that is sure to make this coming week a memorable one. Stay tuned throughout the week to follow their investigation!




CSI Girls Camp – Day 3

Our CSI camps were still going strong yesterday as our gumshoes worked through a number of new CSI activities. And the name of the game for Day 3: the human body. First, campers were treated to a presentation by Medical Examiner Dr. Sheila Spotswood, who gave our girls a glimpse into a day in the life of a medical examiner.



After being acquainted with this new profession, campers learned how a person’s body, and even the way they move, can reveal a ton of information about them in the Forensic Anthropology and Gait Recognition activities.




Then, after grabbing a quick bit to eat, campers moved into an in-depth DNA exercise: the DNA Electrophoresis Lab. DNA electrophoresis is a technique used by forensic scientists where they compare DNA samples found at a crime scene with the DNA of suspects in a case. Scientists are able to use restriction enzymes (protein “scissors”) that cut a piece of DNA at specific points in the sequence. Because everyone’s DNA sequence is different (unless you have an identical twin), the pieces of DNA that are cut will be different lengths.






Lastly, the girls concluded their day by getting insight into the day in the life of an NCIS agent from Special Agent Don Goates.


After their third day of camp, these students have gained a number of CSI skills. Yet there’s still much more to come, so stay tuned to find out what Day 4 had in store for these investigators-in-training!

DNA Vending Machine

Those of you who have done the DNA extraction activity—either with our CSI camps or on your own—will love what that experiment has gone on to inspire. This DNA vending machine is a blend of art, science, education, and the crazy connections between the two. Take five minutes out of your day to give this a watch… it’s worth it.

Where Are They Now? Cool Jobs Alumna Shannon Johnson

johnson_shannon_lab2The last time we spoke to Shannon Johnson, Deep-Sea Research Technician with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), she explained that her job as “like watching the Discovery Channel in real-time.” Shannon applies her background in ecology and zoology to solve the mysteries that surround creatures of the deep sea. We recently caught word that Shannon spent an exciting summer collecting deep-sea samples in the South Pacific, so we sat down with Shannon to find out what her tropical endeavors entailed.

Since it has been over a year since we last spoke, why don’t you update us on how you’ve been staying busy as a deep-sea researcher.

SJ: Well, I’ve been working on a number of things. Right now I am working on publishing a paper that describes five new species of deep-sea snails using only their DNA. It’s not totally ground-breaking science, but it’s definitely a new technique. In the past, people have often described animals using their traits—some birds are described using their song, for example—but we are now using DNA for identification.

Can you talk a little bit about what that process looks like?

Since all of the animals I work with are deep-sea animals, collecting them and sequencing their DNA can be a pretty involved process. It isn’t the easiest thing to collect animals from the deep-sea, as many times they are located miles off shore and in specific areas like hydrothermal vents or whalefalls. Another challenging thing about working in the deep-sea is that there is a ton of crypticism, which means that many animals look the same even though they are, in fact, different species with distinct evolutionary lineages.

Since we are working with a number of different types of animals, there isn’t just one way we go about identifying them. Once we have the DNA extracted, there is a number of genes that we can use to tell them apart. My boss has an awesome analogy to describe genetics: all of the different genes we use is like a set of golf clubs. In golf, sometimes you need a putter to make the shot, and sometimes you need a driver. Similarly, we use a number of different genes to identify different species based on the circumstances.

The hard part about DNA sequencing is knowing that the genes mean once it is sequenced. People say that sequencing DNA is hard, but it’s really not difficult. The difficult part comes in knowing what the DNA means once it is sequenced.

So how do you go about matching the DNA to different species once it is sequenced?

Once we get the DNA information for a species, we run it through a database to see if it matches anything. This process is very similar to what happens when someone’s fingerprint is collected and run through a database to find a match. Identifying these deep-sea snails that we have been working with can be particularly difficult because they are so different: they do different things and live in different types of environments. That’s one thing that makes this paper I’ve been working on so important. We need conventional ways of identifying these species.

So if someone were to ask you why the study of deep-sea creatures like these snails is important, what would you say?

That’s an interesting question. I personally like studying these things because I find them really interesting and really cool. But one of the most interesting things about these snails is the unique way that they speciated. Typically animals will speciate—or evolve from being one species to being different species—because of some some long-term major separation that causes a disruption in gene flow. These separations are often caused by physical things like the presence of a mountain range or a large current. These snail species are different because there are three species that actually live together, and yet they are the most distinct species in the genus. That’s a really rare event, especially in the deep-sea, and it presents a really cool opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses. So in terms of science, these snails are really interesting.

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

It’s true that these snails will probably never be seen by people except through the photos we take with our underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). I’m trying to grow awareness of what I’m calling the “punk rock” snails—they live in hot acid, they’re covered in spikes and they have purple blood. They’re a pretty charismatic group, they look cool, and I’m naming one of them after the drummer from The Clash. These snails are also interesting in terms of climate change research because they live in hot acid. Oceans are becoming more acidic with the increase of carbon dioxide in the ocean, so in a climate change perspective, these guys might actually be ok.

Something that you said reminds me of something one of our Cool Jobs meteorologists expressed when he stated that scientists are the modern-day explorers. It seems that your field is very similar to that.

Absolutely. I was not at all interested in marine science as a young person because I thought that scientists had the oceans all figured out. But now I get to discover new species all the time. We literally discover new species every time we go to sea, and we’re not always going to exotic locations. Even when we go out in the Monterey Bay we find not only new species, but new genera and new families even.

Shannon will be traveling the oceans again at the end of this month, so be sure to check back to read all about her experiences at sea.

This month’s exciting STEM news – August, 2013

You asked, we listened. We got quite a bit of feedback expressing a deeply felt, passionate, and undying love for our last “This month’s exciting STEM news” feature. Since we could not allow such love to go unrequited, we bring you exciting STEM news from the month of August, 2013.

Ok, we’re being totally dramatic. But really, we think quite a few of you enjoyed this feature last month, so here is some cool news pertaining to the other 8 subjects featured on our STEM Works and Kids Ahead websites: 

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom

The discovery of a new mammal is an incredibly rare event in the 21st century. In 2013, however, scientists discovered a new mammal species called the olinguito,which lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Read article.

Extreme Weather IconExtreme Weather

Wildfires have been a hot topic this month (no pun intended), as much of the country has been up in flames. Though fire in and of itself is not necessarily a weather phenomenon, oftentimes wildfires are caused by weather-related phenomena such as lighting. But enough talk, check out this slideshow of some of the weather the world experienced this month. Read article.

Medical Innovations IconMedical Innovations

It’s about time we all put aside our differences, especially since scientists have determined that all humans are 99.9% the same. Genetically speaking, that is. Read article.

Robotics IconRobotics

Robots are proving to be a source of inspiration for Ford as the company seeks to find better ways to help create safer vehicles. And not just any robots… space robots. Oh yeah. Read article.

Space IconSpace

Our skies treated us to a Perseid meteor shower this month. In case you missed this Perseid shower— so named due to the fact that its point of origin lies in the constellation Perseus,— here is a time lapse video of the show for your viewing pleasure . Read article.

Under the Sea IconUnder the Sea

Shark Week! Shark Week! Shark Week! Just kidding. It would totally be cheating to list Shark Week two months in a row… though this really was the month that brought us this year’s Shark Week. Instead, this month’s under the sea news brings the ocean to you. Literally. Due to the fact that many people have reported health benefits associated with the smell of salty sea air, a sea breeze generator is being developed for public consumption. Dibs! Read article.

Video Games IconVideo Games

A Stanford mathematician argued that video games are the perfect platform for teaching mathematics. No seriously. Read article.

Wind Energy IconWind Energy

Cleveland played host to the “Power Up for Offshore Wind” event this month. The event was intended to demonstrate to power companies that the demand for wind power in the area is strong. As a result, over 4,500 have pledged to buy offshore wind energy from turbines in Lake Erie. Read article.

So there, various STEM subject lovers. We’ve got you covered!

This month’s exciting STEM news

Ok, so we know that lately we’ve been bombarding you with post after post about our CSI camp programs. And while we love these programs and could talk about them all day, everyday, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on some cool news pertaining to the other 8 subjects featured on our STEM Works and Kids Ahead websites. Here’s some cool things we did not get around to addressing during the month of July:

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom

A zonkey was born in Italy. You read that right, a zonkey. Part zebra, part donkey, Ippo was born in Florence, Italy last week, and the best part… he’s not the only one of his kind. Read article.

Extreme Weather IconExtreme Weather

NOAA’s National Weather Service more than doubled its computing capacity with newly upgraded supercomputers this month. These supercomputers will provide forecasters with more accurate information as the hurricane season ramps up. Read article.

Medical Innovations IconMedical Innovations

The race is on to produce a $100 genome test. As interest in DNA sequencing gains traction, entrepreneurs and scientists are trying to reduce the price of sequencing an entire human genome from $4,000 to $100. Read article.

Robotics IconRobotics

Robotics was declared as the next big growth industry in the US. Robotics Business Review estimates that consumer robot sales will reach $15 billion by 2015. Read article.

Space IconSpace

NASA turned 55 years old this month. We’ve come a long way since launching a chimpanzee into space, so check out this review of some of the most iconic moments in NASA’s history. Read article.

Under the Sea IconUnder the Sea

Shark Week! Shark Week! Shark Week! Ok, Shark Week didn’t exactly occur in July, but many of us spent the entire month gearing up! If, like us, you live for the gratuitous teeth shots, jump shots, and time-lapse shots, here are some fun shark facts to keep you occupied until Shark Week begins on August 4th. Read article.

Video Games IconVideo Games

STEM educators will love this one. The winners of the third annual STEM Video Game Challenge were announced this month. Learn all about the winners and applicants here.

Wind Energy IconWind Energy

According to National Geographic, scientists are exploring the possibility of storing excess wind energy in volcanic rock reservoirs. Didn’t know there was such a thing as excess wind energy? Neither did we! Read article.

So there, various STEM subject lovers. We’ve got you covered!

CSI Day 4

Although we were remiss in posting about the conclusion to yesterday’s camp, we are making up for it now!

After working through the morning’s biometrics activities, our campers spent the afternoon thinking about three little letters: D-N-A! After a wonderful presentation about DNA by SMU’s Dr. Rick Jones, our campers spent the rest of camp in our DNA extraction lab. This lab allowed our investigators-in-training to experience DNA in a hands-on way, as our girls extracted the DNA from a strawberry!



While the day’s activities did not rule out either of our suspects or reveal our perpetrator, campers learned many ways that people’s physical traits can be examined during crime scene investigations.