Science & Education News Digest - April 2017

Welcome to Learning Science’s News Digest for April 2017.

There’s more change on the horizon in British politics as April saw Theresa May call a snap election for June. This could have implications for the Higher Education Bill – forcing it through or killing it off completely.

We consider how bots, drones and trackers could become an integral part of campus life, and how laptops in lectures, especially of the 9 am variety, could be hindering student learning.

New research announced this month include studying the smartness of squid, how viruses could purify water, and destroying the new polymer £5 note - in the name of science!

If you know of articles, case studies or events which may be of interest to us – send us the link via Twitter or email.


Higher Ed Policy / News

6 things to know about the Higher Education Bill (The Conversation)

On the 4th April, the Higher Education Bill went through its third reading in the House of Lords. It now awaits the “ping-pong” back and forth between the Lords and the Commons, resolving the (quite numerous!) suggested amendments by the Lords one way or another.

General Election announcement casts uncertainty on future of HE bill (Wonkhe)

But! A surprise general election, coming 8th June, might disrupt all that. Parliament must dissolve 25 working days before the election (3rd May), so there’s no longer time for ping-pong between the Houses.

Rather than slowly but surely settling terms, the Bill must either be passed through to Royal Assent before that time, or be scrapped entirely.

Towards implementation: An update on our review of graduate outcomes data (HESA)

The DLHE (Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education, pronounced “del-ee”) survey is used to account for the location of university graduates - how many go on to employment, how many continue education etc. This information is used in TEF as a core metric for the quality of teaching.

Enter NewDLHE: A review of the system with aims to make it more future-proof, efficient, fit-for-purpose and up to date with recent changes in legislation. NewDLHE closed its final consultation period mid-April, taking positive feedback as a mandate to moves towards implementation. A final version of the model will be available in June.


Education / Technology / Pedagogy

The automated university: bots and drones amid the dreaming spires (The Guardian)

How many ways could universities incorporate technology? Besides e-learning strategies, bots, drones and tracking could be a boon to university management.

Bots: The Georgia Institute of Technology created a bot called Jill to deal with administrative questions students had about their course. She did okay The students didn’t even realise!

Drones: Amazon famously started using delivery drones last year, but could Universities make use of them? Running a University is a complex logistical undertaking. From rooftop deliveries to internal mail, drones could make campus delivery smoother.

Tracking: we discussed learning activity trackers in last month’s News Digest, but trackers can also monitor the “heartbeat” of a whole campus. Looking at where and when people work could help design better buildings and learning experiences.


Using laptops in class harms academic performance, study warns (THE)

On the subject of the role of technology in Education, we should take care that tech is incorporated thoughtfully, rather than indiscriminately.

Many students choose to take laptops into lectures rather than pen and paper, perhaps believing that because a fast typing speed will lead to better notes and higher academic performance.

The reality may be somewhat different. Laptops with Wi-fi offer myriad distractions, and the author attributed “cyber-slacking” as a major reason why low-achieving students were most negatively affected by laptops.

This study was carried out in a private US liberal arts college, so its applicability to other institutions and fields of discipline such as scientific subjects requires further investigation.


Student Life

Ban 9am lectures for students, experts say (The Independent)

Remember the struggle of 9am lectures? Recent research suggests that for young adults, early starts could disrupt students' circadian rhythms, potentially impacting their learning.

Researchers from the Open University and the University of Nevada found students performed best between 11 am and 9:30 pm - at odds with the 9 am and 10 am lectures popular with faculty.

Teenagers have body clocks that are shifted relative to young children and older adults. The shift is greatest in nineteen year olds - a typical age for first and second year undergraduates. The researchers comment that earlier start times could deprive students of sleep and significantly impact their ability to learn during those hours.


Cool new science!

A genetic oddity may give octopuses and squids their smarts (NY Times)

Octopuses, squid and cuttlefish - the smartest of all invertebrates - make extensive use of a genetic trick called RNA editing. Especially in their neurons. After DNA is transcribed into RNA, many genes get extensively modified - either by trimming out whole sections, or tweaking specific bases.

Nautiluses, their less intelligent cephalopod relatives, showed far fewer RNA edits. In mammals, it’s very rare. By modifying some genes at the RNA rather than DNA level, these cephalopods have effectively slowed their rate of evolution.

However they might have gained a more immediate kind of flexibility, by being able to make a range of different proteins from the same gene at short notice. Concentrated as it is within nerve cells, RNA editing may even have helped them develop their extraordinary intelligence, the highest of all invertebrates.

Tiny virus batteries remove water pollutant (Chemistry World)

A combination of metal nanoparticles and viruses could one day clean up waterways from a toxic pollutant. Para-chloronitrobenzene is a carcinogen from dyes and pesticides which can persist for decades in the water supply.

Chemically reducing the toxin with metal nanoparticles makes it safer, but requires high temperatures, low pH and a lot of time.

Researchers from Tsinghua University in China used genetically modified viruses as a surprising solution. Coating the viral surface with two different metal nanoparticles created a mini-electrolysis system which could reduce para-chloronitrobenzene in just 10 minutes!


Scientifically destroying the new fiver (BBC)

The new UK polymer £5 note is in full circulation now. Besides enhanced security features, the new fivers are designed to be much more durable, allowing them to withstand life in the country’s wallets, back pockets and tills. But can it stand up to Chemistry?

Professor Martyn Poliakoff and colleagues from Nottingham University tested the new notes with liquid nitrogen fuming nitric acid on the popular YouTube channel Periodic Videos. Of course, the old paper version served as a control! 


Hope you enjoyed April's News Digest. If you know of articles, case studies or events which may be of interest to us – send us the link via Twitter or email.