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See Inside October 2011

Back to School




Scientific American

Around the time you read this, the popular Introduction to Arti­ficial Intel­ligence course at Stan­ford University, taught by Sebastian Thrun, director of the AI lab there, and by Peter Norvig, director of research for Google, will be under way. As usual, a couple of hundred Stanford students will be sitting in the room. This year classmates sitting at computers around the world will join them. The pupils who attend virtually won’t pay tuition (or get Stanford credit), but they will all watch the same lectures, read the same textbook, get the same homework and take the same tests. Software will help analyze their submitted questions, so that the professors can address the main themes each week.

I spoke to Norvig while attending the recent Sci Foo—an invitation-only “unconference” hosted by Google, the O’Reilly Media Group and Nature Publishing Group (Scientific American’s parent company). Just two weeks after he and Thrun announced the AI course, more than 57,000 students had enrolled (70,000-plus at press time). “We hope our automated systems hold up,” he joked.

Sci Foo hosts scientists and technologists from many fields, who create the session schedule during the conference rather than beforehand. This year finding exciting new approaches to improve education was a frequent theme—and those sessions were packed. (Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, and I ran one, on how to inspire kids about science.)

On the topic of education, here are three updates on Scientific American’s efforts to inspire by expanding the reach of science (for more, click on the “Education” tab on the www.­Scientific­American.com home page):

Bring Science Home. Following our successful weekday series of science activities for parents and kids ages six to 12, which ran through May, we will post more fun projects, starting in October.

1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days. In May we invited scientists, engi­neers, mathematicians, doctors and others to volunteer to visit classrooms as part of our three-year (that’s the 1,000 days) Change the Equation program. More than 1,100 have stepped forward—in fewer than 100 days—and they are in a variety of disciplines and located all around the country. This fall we plan to offer a service that connects these scientists with educators.

Citizen Science. One of the best ways to appreciate science, of course, is to participate in it yourself. Working with Zooniverse and a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we are launching a project that lets students and adults alike help study whale songs.

How else can we engage kids in science? As always, we welcome your thoughts.

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