Can legislation fix America’s science and technology gender gap?

A slew of recent studies show that the problem for women in math and science is related to something both larger and more nuanced: culture, Newsweek reports. In 1972, when Mae Jemison was just 16 years old, she arrived at Stanford University, where she intended to pursue a degree in engineering. But it wasn’t long after arriving in Palo Alto that she learned that the university’s science departments weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about her as she was about them. In one of her freshman science classes, she recalls, the professor looked at her like she was “bonkers.” “I would ask a question, and he would look at me like it was the dumbest question and then move on,” she says. “Then a white guy down the row asks the same question, and he says, ‘Astute observation.’ It makes you start to really question yourself.” In the nearly four decades since, Jemison has proved repeatedly that she deserves a place at the table. She graduated from Stanford with a double major in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies, got a medical degree, and eventually became the world’s first woman of color to go to space. She is, without a doubt, exceptional.

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Hulu launches $10 video subscription service

Online video site Hulu, under pressure from its media company parents to generate a bigger profit, launched a subscription service Tuesday with complete access to back episodes of popular television shows, the Associated Press reports. For $9.99 a month, subscribers can get the entire current season of “Glee,” “The Office,” “House” and other shows from broadcasters ABC, Fox and NBC, as well as all the past seasons of several series. The popular, ad-supported web site will continue to have a few recent episodes for free online. In a surprise move, however, paying subscribers will get the same number of ads as users of the free website. Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar said keeping ads was necessary to help keep the subscription price low.

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Stores see Google as ally in eBook market

Independent bookstores were battered first by discount chains like Barnes & Noble, then by super-efficient web retailers like Now the electronic book age is dawning. With this latest challenge, these stores will soon have a new ally: the search giant Google, The New York Times reports. Later this summer, Google plans to introduce its long-awaited push into electronic books, called Google Editions. The company has revealed little about the venture thus far, describing it generally as an effort to sell digital books that will be readable within a Web browser and accessible from any internet-connected computing device. Now one element of Google Editions is coming into sharper focus. Google is on the verge of completing a deal with the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent bookstores, to make Google Editions the primary source of e-books on the web sites of hundreds of independent booksellers around the country, according to representatives of Google and the association.

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Financial aid rising faster than tuition

An annual survey of independent colleges, released Tuesday, finds that students may pay a little less to attend college this fall, even as colleges charge more, The Washington Post reports. Student aid spending will rise by 7 percent in the coming academic year, according to a survey by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Published tuition and fees will rise 4.5 percent. Tuition inflation has slowed during the downturn: this is the second consecutive year of tuition increases in the 4-percent range. During the 10 years prior to the recession, sticker prices rose an average 6 percent a year. But the average student actually spends a bit less now than before the recession, because of unusually large bumps in student aid budgets. Institutional aid rose 9 percent in the 2009-10 academic year.

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Feds: Make eReaders accessible to all students

Colleges have agreed to abandon Kindle pilot programs because of accessibility issues.

Some colleges have agreed to abandon Kindle pilot programs because of accessibility issues.

The federal government will help schools and colleges using eReaders such as the Amazon Kindle to comply with laws giving students with disabilities equal access to emerging education technologies, officials announced.

The Departments of Education and Justice stressed the responsibility of colleges and universities to use accessible eReaders in a letter published June 29, after more than a year of complaints from low-sighted and blind students attending colleges that have piloted eReader programs.

Many eReaders have a text-to-speech function that reads words aloud, but the devices lack menus that people who are blind or have low vision can navigate.

Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department (ED), said ED officials would watch for eReader programs cropping up in K-12 schools and higher-education institutions. Technical assistance will be provided on a “case-by-case basis,” she said, and the government will be “responsive” to any IT decision makers bringing eReaders to their school or campus.

Most of the complaints have come from colleges and universities that have launched pilot programs using the Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX, including Pace University, Princeton University, Case Western University, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Ali said.

Ali said ED officials “were not in the business of endorsing any product,” and there are no plans to publish a list of acceptable eReaders because the technology is evolving so rapidly.

“I can imagine a list becoming obsolete very quickly,” said Ali, who added that federal officials have not received any complaints about the Apple iPad since its introduction in April. “While these devices are changing, the principles and the laws do not.”

Ali said, “It is our understanding [that Amazon] will be coming out with a fully accessible” eReader, although she wasn’t aware of a time frame. Amazon did not respond to an interview request by press time, but a March 2009 post on the company’s official blog declared the company is working on a more accessible Kindle and looks “forward to making it available in the future.”

Pace, Case Western, and Reed College in Portland, Ore., announced in January that they would not use the Kindle DX eReader under terms of an agreement reached early this year with the Justice Department.

Arizona State University ended its Kindle pilot this spring after the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind filed a discrimination lawsuit. The settlement did not involve payment, but ASU pledged that it would “strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind” in future eReader programs, according to a university statement.

“Technology can be a driving force in making equal educational opportunity a reality,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Given what technology now makes possible, no student should be the denied the opportunity to benefit from an enhanced educational experience based simply on a visual disability.”

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said the organization was pleased with the federal government’s focus on the accessibility issue, adding that NFB officials will keep close watch as eReaders become more common on college campuses.


In faulty-computer suit, window to Dell decline

After the math department at the University of Texas noticed some of its Dell computers failing, Dell examined the machines. The company came up with an unusual reason for the computers’ demise: the school had overtaxed the machines by making them perform difficult math calculations, reports the New York Times. Dell, however, had actually sent the university, in Austin, desktop PCs riddled with faulty electrical components that were leaking chemicals and causing the malfunctions. Dell sold millions of these computers from 2003 to 2005 to major companies like Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo, institutions like the Mayo Clinic and small businesses…

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Google changes China access after Beijing objects

Google Inc. said Tuesday it will stop automatically routing users in China to its Hong Kong site after Beijing threatened the company with the loss of its Internet license in their latest skirmish over censorship, reports the Associated Press. Google shut down its China-based search engine March 22 to avoid cooperating with the communist government’s Internet censorship and has rerouted users to Hong Kong. But Google said regulators told the company its Internet license, which allows it to operate a music download service and other features in China, would not be renewed after it expires Wednesday if that tactic continues…

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‘.xxx’ porn domain arrives

At long last and after heavy debate on both sides, the “.xxx” top-level domain has been formally and officially approved, reports Yahoo News. The idea is that the .xxx would replace the .com suffix for sites that register these domains–so you’d visit instead of majorpornoperation . com. Existing .com domains would remain in place. Any adult reader of this column should understand what it is that .xxx is designed for: pornography. And while the Internet is positively crawling with porn–one statistic holds that a quarter of all Internet searches are for adult terms–the creation of a so-called online ghetto for pornography has been controversial…

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Ed-tech grant program aims to boost college readiness

The Educause-backed program will fund ed-tech projects designed to make high school graduates college ready.

The Educause-backed program will fund ed-tech projects designed to make high school graduates college ready.

Six months after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped $3.6 million into a national certification program for teachers of remedial college courses, a new initiative will dole out grants to education-technology projects aimed at improving college readiness, especially among low-income students.

The Next Gen Learning Challenges program, launched in late June and headed by nonprofit education technology supporter Educause, will aim to raise America’s high school graduation rate – which hovers around 50 percent among Hispanic, African American, and low-income students – and ensure that college freshmen are ready for higher education without having to take non-credit-bearing remedial classes.

Only half of Americans who enroll in a postsecondary school will earn a degree, according to national statistics, with as few as 25 percent of low-income students completing a degree program.

The program’s first set of goals includes combining online courses with traditional classroom curriculum, devising ways to measure students’ learning progress using algorithms in real time, and expanding access to free online educational tools, according to the Next Gen web site.

Next Gen’s first grants, which will focus on postsecondary education, will be announced this fall and will range from tens of thousands to more than $1 million per grant, according to the site. The second wave of grants will be directed toward high schools.

As of press time, Educause said it was still forming guidelines for the application process and would announce the details shortly.

The group said its Next Gen Learning Challenge would include partnerships with organizations representing two-year and four-year colleges, including the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Next Gen web site includes a section that allows educators and stakeholders to comment on discussion topics asking what direction that program should take.

A question posted to the site June 22 asked, “What are the biggest opportunities for overcoming Next Gen learning challenges in grades 9–12?” A teacher at an online school responded to the question with an emphasis on creating individualized curriculum for today’s high school students.

“If we can break away from the stovepipe curriculum of today and develop modular, granular curriculum, we can then tailor a personalized learning program that matches the students’ interests, learning needs and learning goals,” the teacher wrote. “We must reinvent education as a schoolhouse of [one] student. Then, we can acquire the technology needed, and the learning content bits needed, and the infrastructure needed, and the human resources needed to allow the student to succeed at meeting their learning goals and society’s learning requirements.”

The teacher continued: “Online learning is, in my opinion, the only way we will ever be able to afford to build small, granular bits of learning, and then cobble them together dynamically to suit the specific needs of each student.”

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced in December that it would donate $12.9 million in new education technology funding for community colleges, including the creation of a national certification for teachers of remedial college courses.


Oceanographer touts deep sea web surfing

Researchers and students can see what Ballard sees through the new Nautilus Live web site.

Students can see what Ballard sees through the new Nautilus Live web site.

Bob Ballard, the explorer best known for the discovery of the Titanic and other wrecks, has not only made deep-sea exploration more accessible for K-12 and college students, but he’ll feed them updates through two of their favorite web sites: Facebook and Twitter.

Ballard visited the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Connecticut June 23 to introduce his new Nautilus Live Theater, along with a new web site where people can watch his expeditions live.

“The idea is to have millions of people follow these expeditions,” said Peter Glankoff, the aquarium’s senior vice president of marketing and public affairs.

Visitors to the aquarium will be able to attend four daily presentations in which they will not only learn about Ballard’s latest expedition but will be able to watch it live on a huge high-definition screen as well.

They will also be able to talk to the scientists and engineers aboard the Okeanos Explorer and Nautilus, the two ships Ballard will be using in the Black and Aegean seas and the Pacific Ocean this summer to explore, among other things, ancient wrecks that could contain the mummified remains of 2,000-year-old sailors and a massive underwater volcano where marine life lives in boiling water.

At some point, aquarium visitors will also be able to help pilot remotely operated underwater vehicles the ships use to explore — even though they will be thousands of miles away.

The initiative has an even greater reach: Ballard has launched Nautilus Live, a web site that allows people to not only learn about the expeditions but watch them live and listen to the scientists in the control rooms as the discoveries are made.