Announcing Flame Challenge 2
Nov07

Announcing Flame Challenge 2

Today’s post is by Emily Bones, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN. Although Election Day got top billing, it’s not the only vote-centric event of the week. As of Monday, the Center for Communicating Science (CCS), a division of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, opened the polls for choosing the next Flame Challenge question. When he was 11 years old, Alan Alda, an actor and the founder of CCS, asked the burning question, “What is a flame?” He never received an answer he thought was satisfactory, so last year he challenged scientists across the world to submit answers in a way that an 11-year-old could understand. The winner, Ben Ames, created an animated video that defines flame-related terms and then brings all the concepts together in the form of a song. This year, the newly established tradition will continue: Another question will be posed to scientists around the globe. From June to October of this year, more than 300 potential questions were submitted online to CCS by inquisitive 11-year-olds. The pool of questions has now been narrowed down to five possibilities, “which  might look simple at first glance, but would offer good scientific complexity, like the question from last year,” explains Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, workshop coordinator at CCS. And the five contenders are: 1.) Does the universe have a known end? 2.) How does the brain store all of that information? 3.) What is time? 4.) How do you hear your thoughts in your head? 5.) What is color? Polls are open until November 16, at 5 PM EST. The catch? Only 10- to 12-year-olds can vote. They can do so by clicking here. Votes can be submitted by individuals or as a class. The final question will be announced on Dec. 11, which will mark the start of the second challenge. So scientists, get ready to answer one of these questions—submissions are due by March 1, 2013. And if you have or know a 10- to 12-year-old, now’s the time to get them...

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Catalyzing Friendships at the International Chemistry Olympiad
Jul24

Catalyzing Friendships at the International Chemistry Olympiad

One of the coolest and most unique experiences of the International Chemistry Olympiad is getting to meet the top high school chemistry students from around the world. This year, 72 countries are represented in the competition, which is being hosted in the U.S. for the first time in two decades. This past Saturday, nearly 300 students arrived at the University of Maryland, College Park, where they are staying this week, and C&EN was there to greet them and find out why they love chemistry: We also put together a short video to share the excitement of the first day, when students met each other for the first time, united with their local guides, and checked into their dorm rooms: The students have a challenging and exciting week ahead. Today, they're taking a five-hour lab practical exam, and on Thursday they'll be taking a five-hour theoretical exam. They'll also attend a Baltimore Orioles vs. Oakland Athletics baseball game, tour the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center, and take a boat cruise in Annapolis, Md., just to name a few of the activities in store. We'll be checking in on the students from time to time this week. And we'll be cheering them on during the closing ceremony on Sunday, when the medals are awarded. Good luck to...

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How To Make A Concrete Canoe
Jul13

How To Make A Concrete Canoe

What you’ve just watched is a video overview of the National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC), hosted this year by the University of Nevada, Reno, in mid-June. In this week’s print Newscripts column, I wrote about NCCC, a contest established in 1989 to give civil engineering students experience in real-world problem solving. Concrete’s used in infrastructure all over the world, including airport runways, buildings, and bridges. The heavy building material, however, is not typically used in boats. And floating is not its specialty. But it is possible to give concrete buoyancy. And that’s the challenge at the heart of NCCC. People are always asking how concrete can possibly float, says Erik Bjornstrom, a fourth-year civil engineering student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The answer, he says, lies in the aggregates that get added, and to a lesser extent, the admixtures. As I mention in this week’s column, concrete is a stew of cement (which is limestone-based), aggregates like crushed stone, and chemicals (the admixtures) that impart various properties to the material. Adding lightweight aggregates such as glass beads instead of heavier ones like gravel helps make concrete float. Air-entraining admixtures (which include surfactants) create air bubbles in concrete, making it lighter. Bjornstrom, who’s also the project manager of this year’s winning NCCC team, says building a concrete canoe is a long, arduous process. A few teammates are responsible for coming up with the mixture for the canoe. This year, Bjornstrom told me, those folks tested some 160 concrete formulations before settling on a winner. The final material has to be “strong enough, light enough, and workable for volunteers” to be able to mold the seafaring vessel. The actual molding gets carried out on Casting Day, when volunteers pour the concrete over a canoe-shaped mold and carefully smooth it down. At Cal Poly, some 50 students help out over a 4- to 5-hour period to get the concrete in place, Bjornstrom says. This year, the team’s canoe was made of three concrete layers and two reinforcement layers (made of fiberglass mesh and carbon fiber mesh, respectively). NCCC rules state that no more than 50% of your canoe’s thickness can be made of reinforcement materials, Cal Poly’s project manager adds. To see some footage of students casting a concrete canoe, check out this excellent video from the University of Illinois. It also tells a little about the history of NCCC. And if you’re wondering: Yes, concrete canoes are harder to steer than regular ones. Bjornstrom says it’s almost like driving a car without power steering. The heft of the vessel makes it difficult to change directions, especially when paddling on one...

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