Interactive web feature helps students learn about scientific inquiry

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has launched ASK IT!, a moderated forum and free online resource designed to model the scientific process. Students are invited to identify and formulate a scientific question, expand upon an existing question, or pose possible answers to questions posted on the forum. Students also can vote for the questions they would like to see answered by an expert in the field, and scientists from around the country will post responses to selected student inquiries. ASK IT! creates an online community that encourages logical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and inquiry-based learning, NAS said. It is the newest interactive feature on the organization’s web site, a project developed to encourage young people—especially girls—to pursue an interest in science.


Lawmaker crafting bill to set penalty for teens’ ‘sexting’

As ever-more-aggressive high school flirting clashes with evolving technology, Ohio lawmakers are searching for the appropriate way to deal with the growing trend of teenagers transmitting nude pictures of themselves via electronic devices, reports the Columbus Dispatch. One in five teens has sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves, known as "sexting," according to a recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Pictures are often transmitted via cell phones, eMail messages, or web postings, and they can spread quickly. The issue has caught the attention of at least one Ohio lawmaker who is worried that teens could run into harsh criminal penalties for sending or receiving such pictures. State Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon, said he will soon introduce a bill making the creation, exchange, and possession of nude materials between minors a first-degree misdemeanor. "Local prosecutors have brought to my attention that under current Ohio law these teens could be charged with a felony and classified as sex offenders," Maag said. "There is concern that this may not be appropriate for these minors."

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Amazon, Microsoft reject ‘Open Cloud Manifesto’

A group of web services providers, reportedly including IBM, is set to unveil a "manifesto" next week that lays out a number of principles for open cloud computing. Two of the biggest names in the field, though, say they aren’t signing on, CNET reports. Microsoft posted a blog message to that effect on March 25, while on March 27 said it, too, is not among the companies signing the document. "Like other ideas on standards and practices, we’ll review this one," Amazon said in a statement. "… But what we’ve heard from customers thus far … is that the best way to illustrate openness and customer flexibility is by what you actually provide and deliver for them." Amazon noted that over the past three years, it has made its web services available on different operating systems and programming languages. Microsoft, for its part, said there were some things it agreed with in the manifesto, but others that were either too vague or did not reflect its interests. The company also objected to the fact that it was shown the document just last weekend, not allowed to make changes, and given just 48 hours to decide whether to sign. "We were admittedly disappointed by the lack of openness in the development of the (Open) Cloud Manifesto," Microsoft’s Steven Martin wrote in the blog post…

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North Carolina students use online classes to save money

Developed by former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley in 2007 and funded by the General Assembly, a program called Learn and Earn Online enables high school students across the state to register for online college courses free of charge through the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System, reports the Salisbury Post. More than 300 courses in language, music, politics, sociology, and other subjects are available. In most cases, students earn high school and free college credit by taking one online course. Classes are offered during school and after-school hours, and students do not need a home computer to enroll in a course. Dustin Johnson, a senior, is enrolled in a "Masterpieces of Cinema" course. "I took the online course to get out of a regular classroom setting," Dustin said, "but because we do not have that much time to complete each assignment, I have developed time management skills, study skills, and self-discipline that will help me in college." Parents and educators see value in Learn and Earn Online program as well. Bill Harrison, State Board of Education chairman, wants more people to take advantage of the opportunity. "These courses save families money and help students jump-start their college education and future careers," he said…

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Class of 2009: Computer science majors still in demand

The nation’s leading computer-science programs say graduating seniors are still sought after by technology vendors and corporate shops, despite the global economic slowdown and high-profile layoffs across the tech industry, NetworkWorld reports. Professor Peter Lee, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, says demand for the program’s 130 graduating seniors has not wavered during the last few months. "Our graduates continue even in this downturn to have near 100-percent employment," Lee says. "It is still the case that companies are coming to recruit new computer science graduates, and very often they go away happy with the recruits they find here." Professor Cary Laxer, head of computer science and software engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, added: "I have more recruiters here than I have seniors…"

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Evolution theory takes a round in Texas

Texas will no longer require educators to teach weaknesses of all scientific theories, including those of evolution.

The change was approved March 27 by the State Board of Education in a 13-2 vote, adopting new state science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade.

But in a compromise plan, teachers will be required to have students scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theories, a move criticized by evolution activists.

The vote capped a week of impassioned debate that had scientists, teachers, and textbook publishers from around the country focused on Texas.

The board tentatively adopted the new curriculum standards on March 26.

The March 26 vote narrowly avoided efforts of state social conservatives to require that "weaknesses" in scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, be taught in science classrooms.  After that vote, regarding whether to restore the long-standing curriculum rule, stalled at 7-7, the tie vote upheld a January board vote to eliminate that rule from new science curriculum standards.  (See "Texas grapples with evolution in new science standards.")

Supporters of evolution theory hailed the initial vote, but were critical of amendments adopted by the board that they said could create new paths to teaching creationism and the similar theory of intelligent design in public schools.

The new standards drop a 20-year-old rule that required both "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories to be taught. Critics say the requirement is used to undermine the theory of evolution in favor of religious teachings.

The new standards govern what appears on standardized tests and material published in textbooks.

As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, Texas has significant influence over the content of books marketed across the country.

"Publishers are waiting to hear what to put in their textbooks," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

In approving a handful of amendments on March 26, the board "slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way," Quinn said that day. "We hope the vote tomorrow will reverse a lot of that."

In one amendment, the board agreed to require high school biology students to "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell."

Board member Don McLeroy said his amendment was intended "to account for that amazing complexity. I think it’s a standard that makes it honest with our children."

Federal courts have ruled against public schools teaching creationism and intelligent design, which holds that life is so complex that it must have come from an intelligent higher power.


Texas Education Agency


Giant internet worm set to attack April 1

The fast-moving Conficker computer worm, a scourge of the internet that has infected at least 3 million PCs, is set to spring to life in a new way on April Fools’ Day, security experts say.

That’s when many of the poisoned machines reportedly will get more aggressive about "phoning home" to the worm’s creators over the internet. When that happens, the creators of the worm could begin to trigger the program to send spam, spread more infections, clog networks with traffic, or try and bring down web sites.

Technically, this could cause havoc, from massive network outages to the creation of a cyber-weapon of mass destruction that attacks government computers. But researchers who have been tracking Conficker say the date will probably come and go quietly.

More likely, these researchers say, the programming change that goes into effect April 1 is partly symbolic–an April Fools’ Day tweaking of Conficker’s pursuers, who for now have been able to prevent the worm from doing significant damage.

"I don’t think there will be a cataclysmic network event," said Richard Wang, manager of the U.S. research division of security firm Sophos PLC. "It doesn’t make sense for the guys behind Conficker to cause a major network problem, because if they’re breaking parts of the internet they can’t make any money."

Still, security experts are advising PC users to have their machines scanned to ensure they aren’t infected by the worm. Someone whose machine is infected might have to reinstall the operating system.

The Conficker outbreak illustrates the importance of keeping current with internet security updates. Conficker moves from PC to PC by exploiting a vulnerability in Windows that Microsoft Corp. fixed in October. But many people haven’t applied the patch or are running pirated copies of Windows that don’t get the updates.

Previous internet threats were designed to cause haphazard destruction. In 2003, a worm known as Slammer saturated the internet’s data pipelines with so much traffic it crippled corporate and government systems, including ATM networks and 911 centers.

Far more often now, internet threats are designed to ring up profits. Control of infected PCs is valuable on the black market, because the machines can be rented out from one group of cyber criminals to another and act as a kind of illicit supercomputer, sending spam, scanning web sites for security holes, or participating in network attacks.

The army of Conficker-infected machines, known as a "botnet," could be one of the greatest cyber-crime tools ever assembled. Conficker’s authors just need to figure out a way to reliably communicate with it.

Infected PCs need commands to come alive. They get those commands by connecting to web sites controlled by the bad guys. Even legitimate sites can be co-opted for this purpose, if hackers break in and use the sites’ servers to send out malicious commands.

So far, Conficker-infected machines have been trying to connect each day to 250 internet domains–the spots on the internet where web sites are parked. The bad guys need to get just one of those sites under their control to send their commands to the botnet. (The name Conficker comes from rearranging letters in the name of one of the original sites the worm was connecting to.)

Conficker has been a victim of its success, however, because its rapid spread across the internet drew the notice of computer security companies. They have been able to work with domain name registrars, which administer web site addresses, to block the botnet from dialing in.

Now, those efforts will get much harder. On April 1, many Conficker-infected machines will generate a list of 50,000 new domains a day that they could try. Of that group, the botnet will randomly select 500 for the machines to actually query.

The bad guys still need to get only one of those up and running to connect to their botnet. And the bigger list of possibilities increases the odds they’ll slip something by the security community.

Researchers already know which domains the infected machines will check, but pre-emptively registering them all, or persuading the registrars to neutralize all of them, is a bigger hurdle.

"We expect something will happen, but we don’t quite know what it will look like," said Jose Nazario, manager of security research for Arbor Networks, a member of the "Conficker Cabal," an alliance trying to hunt down the worm’s authors.

"With every move that they make, there’s the potential to identify who they are, where they’re located, and what we can do about them," he added. "The real challenge right now is doing all that work around the world. That’s not a technical challenge, but it is a logistical challenge."

Conficker’s authors also have updated the worm so infected machines have new ways to talk to each other. They can share malicious commands rather than having to contact a hacked web site for instructions.

That variation is important, because it shows that even as security researchers have neutralized much of what the botnet might do, the worm’s authors "didn’t lose control of their botnet," said Michael La Pilla, manager of the malicious code operations team at VeriSign Inc.’s iDefense division.

Unlike other internet threats that trick people into downloading a malicious program, Conficker is so good at spreading because it finds vulnerable PCs on its own and doesn’t need human involvement to infect a machine.

Once inside, it does nasty things. The worm tries to crack administrators’ passwords, disables security software, blocks access to antivirus vendors’ web sites to prevent updating, and opens the machines to further infections by Conficker’s authors.


Sophos PLC

Arbor Networks

VeriSign’s iDefense division


‘Virtual reality’ learning to debut in Baltimore Co.

"Virtual instruction" is set to become a regular part of learning this fall in a Baltimore County school, reports The Baltimore Sun. The school district has teamed up with universities, defense contractors and a video game developer for help with a high-tech program designed to breathe life into textbook lessons and challenge students with the kind of problem-solving that employers might expect.
The initiative, for which nearly $1 million is requested in the next fiscal year, is part of the school system’s effort to equip students with 21st-century skills. Teachers can use simulations of real-life situations and problems to help students apply what they learn. The planned classroom of computer work stations and a wall of large screens for group lessons is believed to be a first in the area…

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